(Sightings) Matthew Creighton on Robertson Crusoe

. Even its conventional classification as a “novel”—arguably the first of its kind in the English language—belies the fact that the work is structurally indebted to the classical genres of confession and spiritual autobiography. Defoe’s own theological convictions, of some ironic distance to those held by his narrator, are beside the point here. What is of interest is the way in which events are at one and the same assimilated by Crusoe the storyteller into a distinctly religious framework and are informed by a distinctively Christian paradigm.

Apart from the book’s religious substratum, it constitutes an apposite subject for a publication devoted to communicating “sightings” of modern religious life because its main character specially embodies the metaphor of the publication’s title. As much as Crusoe may demonstrate the virtues of diligence and industriousness, and may manipulate his man Friday to promote his own drive for sovereignty, he is at bottom a discerner, one who “sights” inside and out, and who continually tries to make sense of the one on the basis of the other. For example, the animating impulse in response to his shipwreck on an uninhabited island near the Orinoco river is not lament or self-pity, but an effort to grasp his situation. Is his punishment due to a state of unresolved sin? Has it been caused by the dereliction of his divine calling? Or is it rather a result of violating the demands of filial piety and obedience by deciding to pursue the seafaring life? The answer, of course, is neither crucial nor susceptible of discovery. What is significant is that his misfortune is never taken at face value but is understood to have supernatural causation and design. Events, in other words, are always “symbolic” insofar as they point to a divine intention, and Crusoe’s narration is a sustained attempt to descry their purpose for him.

Furthermore, it is Crusoe’s dissatisfaction with the visible—his insistence that meaning lies beyond the given—that enables him to translate misfortune into blessing, to shape and re-shape events auspiciously even as they oppressively shape him. The “discovery” that his fate is by no means a sign of God’s abandonment but is instead proof of His benevolence, is what first allows him to reclaim the sense of himself as an actor who can fashion outcomes in his favor. It is this perceptual and attitudinal transformation that necessitates the first-person narration, for the reader must be taken into Crusoe’s mind in order to observe the counterintuitive logic of his thinking. On the other hand, the first-person account creates a situation in which a providential governor never appears but is only invoked. The immediacy of an intervening God as depicted in Scripture is replaced by a teller who orders and relates the story of his life once he understands its full meaning.

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