For a discussion of Robinson Crusoe’s place in the tradition of utopian narrative, see Maximillian Novak’s “Edenic Desires: Robinson Crusoe, the Robinsonade, and Utopias,” in Historical Boundaries, Narrative Forms: Essays on British Literature in the Long Eighteenth Century in Honor of Everett Zimmerman, ed. Lorna Clymer and Robert Mayer (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2007), 19–36.
Defoe, Novels, 2:3, 174, 217. Compare also the comment Defoe makes at the end of Robinson Crusoe, when he boasts that Crusoe’s life has been “of a Variety which the world will seldom be able to show the like of (RC, 283).
Daniel Defoe, preface to Robinson Crusoe, in The Novels of Daniel Defoe, 10 vol., ed. W. R. Owens and P. N. Furbank (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008–9), 1:55. Hereafter abbreviated RC and cited parenthetically by page number.
In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe dares to imitate God’s infinitely various creation and providence. He recognizes the sublime as a compositional mode that can liquefy the outlines that hold things apart, that can shake up the hierarchy of species and causes and open up being beyond what we know. In Robinson Crusoe, the sublime gives infinite variety wide fictional sway. The physical, the particular, the individual, the circumstantial: these hallmarks of realist representation and of the early novel have been misinterpreted for too long as the ends of Defoe’s fiction. It is time to adjust our perspective. I have tried to show that these hallmarks are not just ends, but means. As such, they reveal the infinity of variety, the thinness of difference, and the plasticity of being. In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe wants to bring his reader closer [End Page 122] to what he saw as the unique promise of his historical moment: the realization that nothing has to be the way it is; that names, distinctions, and hierarchies are mere human things without true power; and that the metaphysics of infinite variety can make anything possible—even the survival of a single man on a desert island for 28 years, even the prosperity of the man whose faith is always doubtful and whose actions are often sinful.
In his fiction, Defoe’s instinct is to gather what lies scattered, to reconcile the infinite variety of creation and human history. Crusoe is not irreligious or religious, brutal or humane, sovereign or dependent. Just like the crowd of things and names that swirl around him, Crusoe is not a certain kind of person. Instead, he displays the possibilities of being human beyond the narrow confines of a particular individual. More than anything else, Robinson Crusoe is driven by the desire to show the plasticity of being, figuratively and narratively. The cave that blossoms into six different rooms, the conjunctive oscillation between kinds and names, the constant refiguration of Crusoe’s surroundings, the transformations and shifts of Crusoe himself: all of these aspects of Defoe’s novel indicate the narrator’s interest in opening up being to the full extent of its transformative potential. The point is not to settle. The point is to make the movement between kinds and states so robust that structures and identities loose their hold on being.
Seen from this perspective, the island’s unknown species and kinds, their utter strangeness, or their half-resemblance to familiar things is not threatening, despite Crusoe’s initial fear of being devoured by wild beasts. What the island flora and fauna reveal about species variety is part of the lesson that Crusoe learns in making things and that Defoe impresses on us with his conjunctive and figurative habits. What we think we know about things—about their shapes, their names, their identity, and their relationships to each other—is an arbitrary imposition on the variety of being. Opening the order of things, restoring a more fluid sense of identity, interrelation, and possibility is the work of Robinson Crusoe. This work is restorative because it loosens the congealed categories of human imposition and opens up being to a fuller sense of possibility. The encounter with new species, therefore, has to be understood not only as a threat, but also as a promise.
I contend that Robinson Crusoe contains significant evidence that points to a mode of thinking about empire that is allied with both Defoe’s metaphysics and his anti-Aristotelian stance. In what follows, I argue that Defoe’s colonial fantasy aspires to transcend the ideational structures that support the actions of comprehension, reduction, and domination. The promise of colonial increase and gain is for Defoe most completely fulfilled when we move beyond human ideation and heed the providence of infinite variety. Defoe does not describe the imposition of European standards and perceptions on Crusoe’s island world in a simple way. He grasps the island scenario as an opportunity to unsettle established assumptions, to display the narrowness of our conceptions, to undermine our belief in the fixity and finitude of the world, and to open up being toward limitless variety. This way of thinking about empire as the transcendence of limits and the multiplication of the forms of life aligns with the anti-Aristotelian aesthetic of infinite variety. For this reason and others, I believe that it is closer to Defoe’s heart than the idea of empire as comprehension, reduction, and domination and its allied fictional form, the realist novel.
To my ear, this reading no longer rings true. It is too suspicious of infinite variety, too unwilling to register the seriousness with which Defoe embraces this concept. Reduction and comprehension, I wish to argue, do not dominate the linguistic and physical action of Robinson Crusoe. On both levels, Defoe’s novel moves in the opposite direction, toward making multiplicity irreducible, blurring distinctions of kind, and unsettling identities, without much regard for luring the reader toward comprehension. Even Defoe’s smallest unit for the cultivation of variety, his use of the conjunction “or,” reveals this.
Before we get on our way, I would like to return to the theme of empire, which I sounded earlier and which has informed many recent approaches to Defoe’s novel. My attempt to trouble such criteria as unity, coherence, and development via the metaphysical might suggest that the imperial context of Crusoe’s narrative will drop out of view. These criteria, after all, harmonize rather well with the content of the Crusoe story, which describes the unification and development of an island and so its rescue from a supposedly incoherent state of nature. Surely, an essay dedicated to the proposition of a metaphysical Robinson Crusoe that associates Defoe’s novel with a sublime striving for infinity at the expense of coherence and its partners will not be able to address the worldly theme of empire. Yet the imperial context [End Page 105] remains indispensable to the metaphysical Robinson Crusoe. While there is textual evidence to support the argument that the novel expresses its colonizing desires by seeking to comprehend, reduce, and dominate alien territory, infinite variety disturbs this program. It suggests a different alliance of form and content and a different idea of empire.
the novel is inaugurated in Englnad by Robinson Crusoe, a work whose protagonist is the founder of a new world, which he rules and reclaims for Christianity and England. True…Crusoe is explicitly enabled by an ideology of overseas expansion–directly connected in style and form to the narratives of sixteenth and seventeenth-century exploration voyages that laid the foundations of the great colonial empires (83; cf. Fieldhouse 55 ff.).
Two literary works of roughly the same age written by Daniel Defoe and William Shakespeare use the concept of slavery, race, and class in their works The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe.