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Alexander Selkirk, Crusoe’s Rebirth, and Cultural Relativism

After the text of Robinson Crusoe, my edition contains excerpts of contemporary stories of real castaways.  In particular, the story of Alexander Selkirk seems a likely inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, as there are several similarities between the two stories and the timing of them seems right.

In 1708, Alexander Selkirk of Scotland was rescued from Juan Fernandez Island by Captain Cooke. Accounts of his rescue were first published in 1712.  Selkirk had spent four years stranded on the island.  He dealt with depression, illness, religious concerns, and lack of supplies, just as Robinson Crusoe.  What struck me the most was a quote by Woodes Rogers that related that “he said he was a better Christian while in this Solitude than ever he was before, or then, he was afraid, he should ever be again.”  Since Defoe was a religious man, I could see this sentence stirring his imagination and inspiring the story of Robinson Crusoe. 

Interestingly, wild goats were a central part of Selkirk’s survival on the island.  Just like Crusoe, he shot them until his powder ran out, and then tamed several.  He tamed and bred cats to take care of a rat infestation, until he had to deal with a cat infestation, instead.  He made clothes of goat skin and found several varieties of fruit on his island which, like Crusoe’s, was tropical.  Crusoe is also similar to Selkirk in that both of them spent much time reading the Bible, which improved their religious devotion and understanding.

Rogers concludes that “[b]y this we may see that Solitude and Retirement from the World is not such an unsufferable State of Life as most Men imagine…  It may likewise instruct us, how much a plain and temperate way of living conduces to the Health of the Body and the Vigour of the Mind.”

I think that Defoe concentrated on the moral aspect of Selkirk’s story, building it into a larger and more detailed fictional story.  I think it’s very interesting that Crusoe arrived at the island on his birthday.  I think this signifies that the island was the mechanism of his rebirth as a Christian.  My impression is that the moral of both stories is that man is often tempted by all the inventions of society.  When taken away from society and made to rely only on God’s providence, man may more easily see his place and come to know God.

To our modern perspective, there are many things that detract from this message.  For instance, I was surprised that Crusoe promises the Spaniards that he will deliver them, but immediately abandons this promise when he gets a better opportunity from the English.  Besides betraying the Spanish (without a single thought about saving them with his new ship), he is also forever separating Friday from his father, after giving the two of them every expectation that they would remain together.  There is also the racism and Crusoe’s repeated sense that he is a king over his subjects.  But I think that if we look at this from a perspective of cultural relativism, we might see less conflict.  I don’t know much about 18th century  perspective, but I’m guessing that Crusoe was acting fairly normally for his time.  When he repeatedly falls away from his faith and then comes back to it, I think Defoe might be showing that people are fallible and that, even after redemption, Christians must strive to keep their faith.

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