Three Metaphors Using “Robinson Crusoe”


Three Metaphors Using “Robinson Crusoe”

Let us consider the old deserted island question about which book to bring along, and let us further consider: has anyone ever answered Robinson Crusoe? Yes, Dr. Johnson praised the book and thought it not long enough, but in regard to the immediate circumstances the question addresses, might he or we want a book that offered a greater suspension of disbelief than Crusoe allows? Imagine Johnson stranded on the not-so-deserted Isle of Skye! (Is every book a potential treasure island?)

Among other things, Robinson Crusoe (1719) prophesizes the self-reliance of Emerson, Thoreau’s hikes through the wilderness, Frederick Jackson Turner’s (1861–1932) long goodbye to the frontier, and the American experience of enslavement of natives. Of the personal life of Professor Turner I know nothing, but I know Defoe went to the pillory on charges of publishing controversial religious-political pamphlets, and I know Thoreau went to local jail for protesting the payment of a tax. Emerson, meanwhile, never skirted the fringes of law, but in 1826 he did visit St Augustine, which exposed him to a geography and climate remarkably similar to Crusoe’s island.

But all of the above are based on literal interpretations of Defoe and his book––what about analogical interpretations? How has Crusoe been used as a metaphor? Here follow some examples, beginning with a general observation from British jurist Frederic Harrison (1831–1923):

Nay, Robinson Crusoe contains (not for boys but for men) more religion, more philosophy, more psychology, more political economy, more anthropology, than are found in many elaborate treatises on these special subjects. And yet, I imagine, grown men do not often read Robinson Crusoe, as the article has it, “for instruction of life and ensample of manners.” The great books of the world we have once read; we take them as read; we believe that we read them; at least, we believe that we know them.[1]


Sooner or later any discussion of Crusoe turns to slavery. Yes, before his shipwreck, the character Crusoe, who was already a plantation owner, had intended to enter the slave-trade. But soon enough Crusoe the castaway was captured by a Moor and made a slave.[2] Then enters, much later in the book, the character of Friday, who binds himself to Master Crusoe in voluntary servitude:

I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever. [3]

Now compare ex-slave William Wells Brown (1814–1884) and his metaphor for Friday:

I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters. And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of “Friday,” and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name.[4]

And consider how much stock Robinson Crusoe puts into his own name:

My father being a foreigner of Bremen … lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.[5]

Crusoe embraces a name corrupted by his peers, a nickname that disguises his cultural origins, while Brown refused to accept the name his master gave him. Brown would not be enslaved by an ill-fit name, because, as fellow ex-slave Frederick Douglass put it, slavery “saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth.” [6] Brown’s defiance and Douglass’s passion complement Thoreau’s observation:

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. [7]


Several times in my random readings have I come across someone so impressed by Crusoe’s usage of technology and its adaptation amid isolation that they couldn’t resist making a metaphor of either the character or his situation. Take again Frederic Harrison:

Where in this terrible world was man? Scanty in umber, confined to a few favourable spots, dispersed, and alone, man sustained a precarious existence, not yet the lord of creation, inferior to many quadrupeds in strength, only just superior to them in mind—nothing but the first of the brutes. As are the lowest of all savages now, no doubt even lower, man once was. Conceive what Robinson Crusoe would have been had his island been a dense jungle overrun with savage beasts without his gun, or his knife, or his knowledge, with nothing but his human hand and his human brain.[8]

From literary critic George Saintsbury (1845–1933):

The poets are always in a Robinson Crusoe condition, and worse: for Robinson had at least seen the tools and utensils he needed, if he did not know how to make them. The scops and scalds were groping for the very pattern of the tools themselves.[9]

And from poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945):

Aren’t you the Robinson Crusoe of the mind? Cast away within himself, remaking in his island of the will his own truths along with the tolls that are required…. Other points to be made. I am owed nothing. I don’t expect anything from other people. This leads to a kind of Crusoeism. I live on a desert island where I manufacture my own tools. And what comes to me from other people is simply jetsam, debris washed up on the shore. [10]


Kafka admired Crusoe for his ability to survey the situation. Crusoe acted and did not theorize. He explored and exploited his position on the island. He made no excuses and became self-reliant:

Had Robinson Crusoe never left the highest, or more correctly the most visible point of his island, from desire for comfort, or timidity, or fear, or ignorance, or longing, he would soon have perished; but since without paying any attention to passing ships and their feeble telescopes he started to explore the whole island and take pleasure in it, he managed to keep himself alive and finally was found after all, by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable.[11]

In other words, when Crusoe surveyed his position on the island, he didn’t get caught in any analysis-paralysis, and Kafka admires Crusoe’s method of improvisation, this muddling through. For those who are self-reliant suffer no anxiety of influence.



[1] Harrison, Frederic. The Choice of Books. Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co. 1891.pp. 106–07.

[2] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. II.

[3] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. XIV.

[4] Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown: An American Slave. Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Office. 1847. p. 98.

[5] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. I.

[6] Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, July 5, 1852?”

[7] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods. 1854.“Ch. I – On Economy.”

[8] Harrison, The Meaning of History. 1894. NY: Macmillan. 1911. pp. 27–28.

[9] Saintsbury, George. The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory. London: Blackwood & Sons. 1897. p. 269.

[10] Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1931. AP, XV, 161–63.) pp. 78, 161. The sentiment is not reserved only to Valéry. Consider Eliot on Blake:

We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy (and perhaps for that of Samuel Butler) that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house. England has produced a fair number of these resourceful Robinson Crusoes; but we are not really so remote from the Continent, or from our own past, as to be deprived of the advantages of culture if we wish them. (“Blake,” The Sacred Wood. NY: Knopf. 1921)

And take Frye on all of the above:

T. S. Eliot in an essay on Blake … speaking of Blake’s resourceful Robinson Crusoe method of scrambling together a system of thought out of the odds and ends of his reading. (The Great Code: the Bible and Literature. 1981. NY: Mariner Books. 2008. p. xxi)

[11] Kafka, Franz. Parables and Paradoxes. NY: Schocken. 1961. p. 185.

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