Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources

Instructor's Notes from

Ian Watt

“’Robinson Crusoe,’ Individualism, and the Novel”

from Ian Watt, “’Robinson Crusoe,’ Individualism, and the Novel,” in The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Berkeley: U of California P, 1957. 60-92.

(Robinson Crusoe)

[The following notes are not continuous with each other. Paragraph numbers are only for convenience on this page]

[1] The novel’s serious concern with the daily lives of ordinary people seems to depend upon two important general conditions: the society must value every individual highly enough to consider him the proper subject of its serious literature: and there must be enough variety of belief and action among ordinary people for a detailed account of them to be of interest to other ordinary people, the readers of novels. It is probable that neither of these conditions for the existence of the novel obtained very widely until fairly recently, because they both depend on the rise of a society characterized by that vast complex of interdependent factors denoted by the term ‘individualism’.

[2] Even the word is recent, dating only from the middle of the nineteenth century. In all ages, no doubt, and in all societies, some people have been ‘individualists’ in the sense that they were egocentric, unique or conspicuously independent of current opinions and habits; but the concept of individualism involves much more than this. It posits a whole society mainly governed by the idea of every individual’s intrinsic independence both from other individuals and from that multifarious allegiance to past modes of thought and action denoted by the word ‘ tradition’a force that is always social, not individual. The existence of such a society, in turn, obviously depends on a special type of economic and political organization and on an appropriate ideology; more specifically, on an economic and political organization which allows its members a very wide range of choices in their actions, and on an ideology primarily based, not on the tradition of the past, but on the autonomy of the individual, irrespective of his particular social status or personal capacity. It is generally agreed that modern society is uniquely individualist in these respects, and that of the many historical causes for its industrial capitalism and the spread of Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist of Puritan forms.

[3] Capitalism brought a great increase of economic specialization; and this, combined with a less rigid and homogeneous social structure, and a less absolutist and more democratic political system, enormously increased the individual’s freedom of choice. For those fully exposed to the new economic order, the effective entity on which social arrangements were now based was on longer the family, nor the church, nor the guild, nor the township, nor any other collective unit, but the individual: he alone was primarily responsible for determining his own economic, social, political and religious roles.

[4] The new orientation was equally evident in the philosophical domain. The great English empiricists of the seventeenth century were as vigorously individualist in their political and ethical thought as in their epistemology. Bacon hoped to make a really new start in social theory by applying his inductive method to an accumulation of factual data about a great number of particular individuals; Hobbes, also feeling that he was dealing with a subject that had not been properly approached before, based his political and ethical theory on the fundamentally egocentric psychological constitution of the individual; while in his Two Treatises of Government (1690) Locke constructed the class system of political thought based on the indefeasibility of indefeasible—not capable of being annulled or voided or undone—individual rights, as against the more traditional ones of Church, Family or King. That these thinkers should have been the political and psychological vanguard of nascent individualism, as well as the pioneers of its theory of knowledge, suggests how closely linked their reorientations were both in themselves and in relation to the innovations of the novel. For, just as there is a basic congruity between the non-realist nature of the literary forms of the Greeks, their intensely social, or civic, moral outlook, and their philosophical preference for the universal, so the modern novel is closely allied on the one hand to the realist epistemology of the modern period, and on the other to the individualism of its social structure. In the literary, the philosophical and the social spheres alike the classical focus on the ideal, the universal and the corporate has shifted completely, and the modern field of vision is mainly occupied by the discrete particular, the directly apprehended sensum*, and the autonomous individual. [*sensum = sense-datum]

[5] Robinson Crusoe has been very appropriately used by many economic theorists as their illustration of homo economicus. Just as ‘the body politic’ was symbol of the communal way of thought typical of previous societies, so ‘economic man’ symbolized the new outlook of individualism in its economic aspect. Adam Smith [author of Wealth of Nations (1776), "father of capitalism"] has been charged with the invention; actually, the concept is much older, but it is natural that it should have come to the fore as an abstraction expressing the individualism of the economic system as a whole only when the individualism of that system itself had reached an advanced stage of development.

[6] That Robinson Crusoe, like Defoe’s other main characters, Moll Flanders, Roxana, Colonel Jacque and Captain Singleton, is an embodiment of economic individualism hardly needs demonstration. All Defoe’s heroes pursue money, which he characteristically called ‘the general denominating article in the world’” and they pursue it very methodically according to the profit and loss book-keeping which Max Weber considered to be the distinctive technical feature of modern capitalism. Defoe’s heroes, we observe, have no need to learn this technique; whatever the circumstances of their birth and education, they have it in their blood, and keep us more fully informed of their present stocks of money and commodities than any other characters in fiction. . . .

[7] Our civilization as a whole is based on individual contractual relationships, as opposed to the unwritten, traditional and collective relationships of previous societies; and the idea of contract played an important part in the theoretical development of political individualism. It had featured prominently in the fight against the Stuarts, and it was enshrined in Locke’s political system. Locke, indeed, thought that contractual relationships were binding even in the state of nature; Crusoe, we notice, acts like a good Lockean—when others arrive on the island he forces them to accept his dominion with written contracts acknowledging his absolute power (even though we have previously been told that he has run out of ink).

[8] For the most part, Defoe’s heroes either have no family, like Moll Flanders, Colonel Jacque and Captain Singleton, or leave it at an early age never to return, like Roxana and Robinson Crusoe. Not too much importance can be attached to this fact, since adventure stories demand the absence of conventional social ties. Still, in Robinson Crusoe at least, the hero has a home and family, and leaves them for the classic reason of homo economicusthat it is necessary to better his economic condition. ‘Something fatal in that propension of nature’ calls him to the sea and adventure, and against ‘settling to business’ in the station to which he is born-‘the upper station of low life’; and this despite the panegyric which his father makes of that condition. Later he sees this lack of ‘confined desire’, this dissatisfaction with ‘the state wherein God and Nature has placed’ him, as his ’original sin’. At the time, however, the argument between his parents and himself is a debate, not about filial duty or religion, but about whether going or staying is likely to be the most advantageous course materially: both sides accept the economic argument as primary. And, of course, Crusoe actually gains by his ‘original sin’, and becomes richer than his father was.

[9] Crusoe’s ‘original sin’ is really the dynamic tendency of capitalism itself, whose aim is never merely to maintain the status quo, but to transform it incessantly.

[10] When eventually Crusoe returns to civilisation, sex is still strictly subordinated to business. Only when his financial position has been fully secured by a further voyage does he marry; and all he tells us of this supreme human adventure is that it was ‘not either to my disadvantage or dissatisfaction’. This, the birth of three children, and his wife’s death, however, comprise only the early part of a sentence, which ends with plans for a further voyage.

[11] Women have only one important role to play, and that is economic. When Crusoe’s colonists draw lots for five women, we are gleefully informed that:"He that drew to choose first . . . took her that was reckoned the homeliest and eldest of the five, which made mirth enough among the rest . . . but the fellow considered better than any of them, that it was application and business that they were to expect assistance in as much as anything else; and she proved the best wife of all the parcel."

[12] ‘The best wife of all the parcel.’ The language of commerce here reminds us that Dickens once decided on the basis of Defoe’s treatment of women that he must have been ‘a precious dry and disagreeable article himself.’

[13] The same devaluation of non-economic factors can be seen in Crusoe’s other personal relationships. He treats them all in terms of their commodity value. The clearest case is that of Xury, the Moorish boy who helped him to escape from slavery and on another occasion offered to prove his devotion by sacrificing his own life. Crusoe very properly resolves ‘to love him ever after’ and promises ‘to make him a great man’. But when chance leads them to the Portuguese Captain, who offers Crusoe sixty pieces of eight—twice Judas’s figure—he cannot resist the bargain, and sells Xury into slavery. He has momentary scruples, it is true, but they are cheaply satisfied by securing a promise from the new owner to ‘set him free in ten years if he turn Christian’. Remorse later supervenes, but only when the tasks of his island life make manpower more valuable to him than money.

[14] Crusoe’s relations with Man Friday are similarly egocentric. He does not ask him his name, but gives him one. Even in language—the medium whereby human beings may achieve something more than animal relationships with each other, as Crusoe himself wrote in his Serious Reflections—Crusoe is a strict utilitarian. ‘I likewise taught him to say Yes and No’, he tells.

[15] In his blindness to aesthetic experience Crusoe is Defoe’s peer. We can say of him as Marx said of his archetypal capitalist: “enjoyment is subordinated to capital, and the individual who enjoys to the individual who capitalises’. Some of the French versions of Robinson Crusoe make him address hymns of praise to nature, beginning ‘Oh Nature!’ Defoe did not. The natural scene on the island appeals not for adoration, but for exploitation; wherever Crusoe looks his acres cry out so loud for improvement that he has no leisure to observe that they also compose a landscape.

[16] Of course, in a wintry way, Crusoe has his pleasures. If he does not, like Selkirk, dance with his goats, he at least plays with them, and with his parrot and his cats; but his deepest satisfactions come from surveying his stock of goods: ‘I had everything so ready at my hand,’ he says, ‘that it was a great pleasure to me to see all my goods in such order, and especially to find my stock of all necessaries so great."

[17] Robinson Crusoe, of course, does not deal with the actual economic life of Defoe’s own time and place. It would be somewhat contrary to the facts of economic life under the division of labour to show the average individual’s manual labour as interesting or inspiring; to take Adam Smith’s famous example of the division of labour in The Wealth of Nations, the man who performs one of the many separate operations in the manufacture of a pin is unlikely to find his task as absorbing and interesting as Crusoe does. So Defoe sets back the economic clock, and takes his hero to a primitive environment, where labour can be presented as varied and inspiring, and where it has the further significant difference from the pin-maker’s at home that there is an absolute equivalence between individual effort and individual reward. This was the final change from contemporary economic condition which was necessary to enable Defoe to give narrative expression to the ideological counterpart of the Division of Labour, the Dignity of Labour.

[18] Economic individualism explains much of Crusoe’s character; economic specialization and its associated ideology help to account for the appeal of his adventures; but it is Puritan individualism which controls his spiritual being.

[19] Troeltsch has claimed that ‘the really permanent attainment of individualism was due to a religious, and not a secular movement, to the Reformation and not the Renaissance’. It is neither feasible nor profitable to attempt to establish priorities in such matters, but it is certainly true that if there is one element which all forms of Protestantism have in common it is the replacement of the rule of the Church as the mediator between man and God by another view of religion in which it is the individual who is entrusted with the primary responsibility for his own spiritual direction. This new  ’internalisation of conscience’ is everywhere manifested in Calvinism. [cf. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)]

[20] Defoe himself, of course, was born and bred a Puritan. His father was a Dissenter, perhaps a Baptist, more probably a Presbyterian, in any case a Calvinist; and he sent his son to a dissenting academy, probably intending him for the ministry. Defoe’s own religious beliefs changed a good deal, and he expressed in his writings the whole gamut of doctrines, from intransigent predestinarianism to rational deism, which Puritanism held during its varied course of development; never the less, there is no doubt that Defoe remained and was generally considered to be a Dissenter, and that much of the outlook revealed in his novels is distinctively Puritan.

[21] There is nothing to suggest that Robinson Crusoe was intended to be a Dissenter. On the other hand, the note of his religious reflections is often Puritan in character—their tenor. The gospel narratives treated the doings of humble people with the utmost seriousness and on occasion, indeed, with sublimity; later, this tradition was continued in many of the mediaeval literary forms, from the lives of the saints to the miracle plays; and it eventually found its greatest expression in Dante’s Divina Commedia.  [cf. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946)]    

[22] Attitude are found in the works of Puritan writers. In Adam, Milton created the first epic hero who is essentially a ‘universal representative’; Bunyan [Pilgrim's Progress, 1678], seeing all souls as equal before God, accorded the humble and their lives a much more serious and sympathetic attention than they received in the other literature of his period; while the works of Defoe are the supreme illustration in the novel of the connection between the democratic individualism of Puritanism and the objective representation of the world of everyday reality and all those who inhabit it.

[23] There is a great difference, however, between Bunyan and Defoe, a difference which suggests why it is Defoe, rather than Bunyan, who is often considered to be our first novelist. In the earlier fiction of the Puritan movement—in such works as Arthur Dent’s Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven, or the stories of Bunyan and his Baptist confrere Benjamin Keach—we have many elements of the novel: simple language, realistic descriptions of persons and places, and a serious presentation of the moral problems of ordinary individuals. But the significance of the characters and their actions largely depends upon a transcendental scheme of things: to say that the persons are allegorical is to say that their earthly reality is not the main object of the writer, but rather that he hopes to make us see through them a larger and unseen reality beyond time and place.

[24] In Defoe’s novels, on the other hand, although religious concerns are present they have no such priority of status: indeed the heritage of Puritanism is demonstrably too weak to supply a continuous and controlling pattern for the hero’s experience. If, for example, we turn to the actual effect of Crusoe’s religion on his behavior, we find that it has curiously little. Defoe often suggest that an incident is an act of Divine providence or retribution, but this interpretation is rarely supported by the facts of the story. To take the crucial instance: if Crusoe’s original sin was filial disobedience—leaving home in the first place—it is certain that no real retribution follows, since he does very well out of it; and later he often sets out for further journeys without any fear that he may be flouting Providence.

[25] The causes of secularisation in the period are many, but one of the most important, especially as far as Puritanism is concerned, was economic and social progress. In New England, for instance, the Pilgrim Fathers soon forgot that they had originally founded ‘a plantation of religion, not a plantation of Trades’’ ;

[26] It would seem, then, that Defoe’s importance in the history of the novel is directly connected with the way his narrative structure embodied the struggle between Puritanism and the tendency to secularisation which was rooted in material progress. At the same time it is also apparent that the secular and economic viewpoint is the dominant partner, and that it is this which explains why it is Defoe, rather than Bunyan, who is usually considered to be the first key figure in the rise of the novel.

[27] This, of course, is not to say that the novelist himself or his novel cannot be religious, but only that whatever the ends of the novelist may be, his means should be rigidly restricted to terrestrial characters and actions: the realm of the spirit should be presented only through the subjective experiences of the characters.

[28] To sum up, we can say that the novel requires a world view which is centred on the social relationships between individual persons; and this involves secularisation as well as individualism, because until the end of the seventeenth century the individual was not conceived as wholly autonomous, but as an element in a picture which depended on divine persons for its meaning, as well as on traditional institutions such as Church and Kingship for its secular pattern.

[29] The basis for Robinson Crusoe’s prosperity, of course, is the original stock of tools which he loots from the shipwreck; the original stock of tools which he loots from the shipwreck; they comprise, we are told, ‘the biggest magazine of all kinds . . . that was ever laid up for one man.' So Defoe’s hero is not really a primitive nor a proletarian but a capitalist.

[30] The psychological objection to Robinson Crusoe as a pattern of action is also obvious. Just as society has made every individual what he is, so the prolonged lack of society actually tends to make the individual relapse into a straightened primitivism of thought and feeling. In Defoe’s sources for Robinson Crusoe what actually happened to the castaways was at best uninspiring. At worst, harassed by fear and dogged by ecological degradation, they sank more and more to the level of animals, lost the use of speech, went mad, or died of inanition. One book which Defoe had almost certainly read, The Voyages and Travels of J. Albert de Mandelslo, tells of two such cases; of a Frenchman who, after only two years of solitude on Mauritius, tore his clothing to pieces in a fit of madness brought on by a diet of raw tortoise; and of a Dutch seaman on St. Helena who disinterred the body of a buried comrade and set out to sea in the coffin.

[31] These realities of absolute solitude were in keeping with the traditional view of its effects, as expressed by Dr. Johnson: the ‘solitary mortal’, he averred, was ‘certainly luxurious, probably superstitious, and possibly mad: the mind stagnates for want of employment; grows morbid, and is extinguished like a candle in foul air.’

[32] In the story just the opposite happens: Crusoe turns his forsaken estate into a triumph. Defoe departs from psychological probability in order to redeem his picture of man’s inexorable solitariness, and it is for this reason that he appeals very strongly to all who feel isolated—and who at times does not? An inner voice continually suggests to us that the human isolation which individualism has fostered is painful and tends ultimately to a life of apathetic animality and mental derangement; Defoe answers confidently that it can be made the arduous prelude to the fuller realization of every individual’s potentialities; and the solitary readers of two centuries of individualism cannot but applaud so convincing an example of making a virtue out of a necessity, so cheering a colouring to that universal image of individualist experience, solitude.

[33] That it is universal—the word that is always to be found inscribed on the other side of the coin of individualism—can hardly be doubted. We have already seen how, although Defoe himself was an optimistic spokesman of the new economic and social order, the unreflecting veracity of his vision as a novelist led him to report many of the less inspiring phenomena associated with economic individualism which tended to is isolate man from his family and his country. Modern sociologists have attributed very similar consequences to the other two major trends which are reflected in Robinson Crusoe. Max Weber, for example, has shown how the religious individualism of Calvin created among its adherents a historically unprecedented ‘inner isolation’; while Emile Durkheim derived from the division of labour and its associated changes many of the endless conflicts and complexities of the norms of modern society, the anomie which sets the individual on his own and, incidentally, provides the novelists with a rich mine of individual and social problems when he portrays the life of his time.