Robinson Crusoe is regarded as one of the finest allegories. Defoe must have been inspired by the allegories, which existed before he wrote his own allegory. Allegories were popular in England from the sixteenth century onward. Defoe must have read Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, an allegory in which there are wheels within wheels. Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is also an allegory, must have influenced him. Milton sees in the war between Satan and God his own war waged against Charles II. That is why Satan is the dominant hero in the first two books of the epic. There can be no doubt that Defoe understood this allegorical significance. But the allegory, which just preceded him, is Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, not a complex allegory like that of The Faerie Queene but a pure allegory. The Pilgrim’s Progress is an influence and inspiration behind Robinson Crusoe.
In both the novels, The Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe life has been treated as a voyage of the human soul. Life in both these novels is probation and earth no goal but the starting point of man. Robinson makes his
voyage on the sea, the Bhav Sagar, which must lead him towards his destination – the spiritual salvation. Naturally, therefore, the allegorical novels are the autobiographical novels. Dickens in David Copperfield and
Great Expectations writes about his own miserable life, especially of his childhood. Defoe writes his own life in Robinson Crusoe. This does not mean that we should try to explore every small detail between the life of the hero and that of the writer. We have to count not the circumstance but the essence. We have to explore the heart of the matter, we should not search parallels everywhere between the life and career of the author and those of the hero. All the details of the novel cannot be reduced to allegory. We have to explore the autobiographical element in the novel only in broad outlines.
G. H. Mair, while praising Robinson Crusoe and exalting it above The Pilgrim’s Progress writes :
“The Pilgrim’s Progress is begun as an allegory, and so continues for a little space till the story takes hold of the author…But the autobiographical form of fiction in its highest art is the creation of Defoe.”
Personal Life in the Novel
We can seek many personal experiences of Defoe in the novel. Defoe had led a miserable struggling life. In the course of his political activities, he was imprisoned and was even pilloried. And while he was in jail his wife and children starved. We can read his imprisonment in Robinson’s imprisonment on the solitary island. We can read his being pilloried in the punishments inflicted on Robinson on the island, the punishment of fear and danger. The starvation of his family is expressed in the following lines :
“I had a dreadful deliverance. For I was wet, had no clothes to shift me, nor anything either to eat or drink to comfort me, neither did I see any prospect before me but that of perishing with hunger.”
Life as a Voyage
Life has been treated as a voyage. That is why Robinson must suffer from wander-thirst. Defoe sees in the life of Robinson his spiritual development and salvation. He had often, like Francis Bacon, played false, sometimes acting for both the Whigs and the Tories simultaneously. He must have repented for his dishonesty and wickedness to be forgiven. This we can read in the life of Robinson Crusoe. Robinson commits the sin of disobedience to his father and God. He also commits the sin of pride, sin of rising faster in life than the nature of things allows, and the sin of running away from the island of imprisonment. Defoe had suffered punishment, tortures, and humiliation. This we can read in the life of Robinson. Robinson is punished with slavery, with imprisonment and fear on the island. He is made to fear the footprint, the dream in which a man descends from the cloud to kill him with a spear and the Cannibals who feast on human flesh. Above all, he is tormented by loneliness on the desolate island. He longs for the company of a human being. When he sees a shipwreck he is dejected not to find a single man alive: “O that there had been one or two, or but one soul saved out of this ship.
He finds only a drowned dead boy. The spiritual salvation of Defoe has been imagined in that of Robinson. Robinson repents for his wicked sin he committed against his father and God. He prays to God to allow him to repent. He prays that his penitential tears, he sheds for Him, may be accepted. When he finds God magnanimously and mercifully spreading his table in the wilderness he feels that his tears have been accepted. He is now a restored penitent. He thanks God so making him an instrument for saving the soul of a cannibal, Friday. Crusoe thanks God to send him to the desolate island which becomes the place of his redemption. He, who had pined to be cast on the island of despair, rejoices that he was brought to this place. The place of dreadful afflictions becomes the place of ecstasy. He feels that God has dealt with him bountifully, and He has still mercy in store for him. He can no longer feel indignant because he feels that his punishment is less in comparison to his sin. Crusoe enjoys mercies which he had not deserved and expected. He feels that only the providential wonders have brought him his daily bread. He now reconciles himself to the afflictions bestowed on him and thanks to God for showering blessings on him. Robinson, like the Bishop of Canterbury in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, mixes his will in the will of God. He gets reconciled to God. His soul is saved and he has received the spiritual salvation he sought for. Thus Robinson Crusoe can be called the spiritual allegory.
Isolation and Alienation
This is the philosophical interpretation of the novel. Man has come to this world alone and he will depart one day from here alone. He comes empty-handed and goes empty-handed. Life is only an illusion. No one has any belonging to others. This belonging to the relationship is only an illusion. Life is Maya, a mirage. It slips from under our hands like sand. Ecstasy eludes here like the horizon. True ecstasy can be sought only in the union with the Almighty. The island, the solitary desolate island symbolizes this loneliness and our constant effort to seek salvation.
This island also is an allegory of alienation. Apart from isolation man feels alienated. A person feels himself to be lone even amidst the crowd. We feel alienated because we find no one to share our ideas and feelings. Moreover, we feel lonely when we fall upon the thorns of life and bleed. Rarely does then anyone come to comfort us, to balm our sorrows. We feel that when we laugh the world laughs with us, but when we weep, we weep alone. The weeping of Robinson, the lonely weeping on the lonely, desolate island cannot be sard by anyone.
An Allegory of Material Advancement
Defoe was a materialist. He was, like Bacon, practical and, like Locke, empiric. He indulged in fraud and dishonesty. Dafoe believed in amassing wealth. Robinson is another Defoe. Ian Watt calls him an economic individualist and Karl Marx in his Das Kapital regards him as a capitalist. Robinson embarks on voyages not only for adventure but also for trade. He earns a lot of money on his first voyage to Guinea. He possesses, like Marlowe, an infinite immoderate passion for rising fast in life. On the island, he brings from the stranded ship a lot of money that cannot buy even a pair of shoes. He bides his time for the deliverance from almost the life imprisonment on the desolate island only for collecting his material things. He goes mad and dizzy and feels almost like dying when he finds his wealth all around him. The novel, as a matter of fact, displays the art of amassing wealth. It can be read on this level of material advancement.
Allegory of Colonialized
The Britishers founded colonies in almost half the world, including India. Robinson regards himself as the king of the island. Later when he revisits his island he claims half of the island as his personal property. Robinson Crusoe can be read on this line.
An allegory is a work of art in which two implications run on parallel lines. One thing stands for another thing. It can be read-only on two levels, the one as it is and the other it stands for. But a symbol is a different matter. It is just like the innumerable waves formed when a stone is thrown into the water. A symbolic work of art can be read on innumerable levels. Every reader can read into it his own meaning. Robinson Crusoe can be read on many levels. It can be read as an autobiographical story, as an adventurous story, as a religious pilgrimage, as a parable of the Prodigal Son, as a moral treatise, as a conquest over Nature, as material advancement, as colonial expansion, and as so many other things. Therefore it is better to call it a symbol rather than an allegory.