Capitalism and Individualism in Robinson Crusoe Essay


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In popular imagination Daniel Defoe’s . Robinson Crusoe . has become an adventure story for children, for which the original novel is not responsible, but the abridged and bowdlerized versions must be blamed. A close reading of the original text reveals a novel of enormous significance. In many ways the novel can be said to be defining the modern citizen of capitalistic society. It is also widely regarded as being the first modern novel. In fact this latter claim is not unrelated to the previous proposition. The modern novel is not only a mirror to the modern psyche, but also bears an organic relationship to it.


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In one guarded moment, while ambling through a scenic valley, he rejoices in his sense of possession: “I was king and lord of all this country indefensibly, and had a right of possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of a manor in England” (Defoe 92) This is indeed a novel conception of right, and one that was overtaking the feudal and aristocratic rights of old, rooted in primogeniture. Only through his pious diligence has Crusoe come to possess this piece of land. The example of Crusoe is a microcosm of capitalism staking its right over the commodity products of capitalistic diligence. This sense of mastery and possession eventually extends to people too. He saves a prisoner of the cannibals, who occasionally visit the island to ritually consume their captives. He enslaves him in turn, calls him Friday, converts him to Christianity, and more importantly, teaches him awe towards European civilization, and thereby establishes between them the colonial master-slave relationship. Most modern commentators find this aspect of the novel hard to stomach. James Joyce said of Robinson Crusoe, “He is the true prototype of the British colonist… The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity” (qtd. in Phillips 33).


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New York: Penguin Classics, 2002. . Introductory Lectures on Political Economy . ; London, 1855. . Zaleski, Philip. “The Strange Shipwreck of . Robinson Crusoe . First Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life . 53 (May 1995): 38-44. .


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