Does Robinson Crusoe Improve as a Person in the Course of the Novel?
Does Crusoe change throughout the course of the novel? I believe so. The stay on the island affects Crusoe's behaviour and causes him to become a devout Puritan, something that was barely there before his arrival on the island. His attitude towards the black communities and his 'colonial master' personality remain the same, however, as he shows equal amounts of respect towards the 'lesser' people both before he is shipwrecked upon the island (when he finds Xury) and when he is on the island (Friday). Daniel Defoe himself spent quite a bit of time travelling the seas as a merchant. He was also a ship-owner and quite successful in free trade. He supported the establishment of English colonies overseas and he supported slavery. At the time of writing the book (1719), Britain's overseas colonies were really beginning to grow, and in the late 1670s, the English took over the slave trade; goods were traded for slaves overseas. Slavery was abolished in 1807; however between 1662 and 1807, around three and a half million slaves had been traded.
Crusoe's 'colonial master' attitude does not change. He has experienced slavery. When, on p.18, the boat that he was travelling on was attacked, he was taken prisoner and subsequently taken into slavery. Unlike all his shipmates who, on p.19, were "carried up the County to the Emperor's Court". He finds slavery harsh and arduous: "I meditated nothing but my escape" and having to "do the Common Drudgery of Slaves about his master's house". This shows that Crusoe's view of slavery is not entirely one-sided. There are worse consequences of his slavery near the end of p.19: "I had no Body to communicate it his escape to, … no Fellow-Slave, no Englishman, Irishman or Scotsman there but my self; so that for two Years, tho' I often pleased my self with the Imagination". This also suggests that he had a strange form of 'practise' for his later staying on the island alone for twenty-six years. However, this adverse experience of slavery does not seem to abhor him greatly from selling Xury on p.33 to p.34 for "60. Pieces of Eight". One aspect that puts Crusoe a cut above the rest is that he asks Xury at the beginning of p.34: "Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the Captain have him." During the latter part of his stay on the island, he treats Friday well, just as he treated Xury, and even carries a good opinion of Friday, on p.205 to 206: "He was a comely handsome Fellow, perfectly well made; with straight strong Limbs … tall and well shap'd … a very good Countenance … something very manly in his Face … Sweetness and Softness of a European … Hair was long and black, not curl'd like wool; his Forehead high and large … colour of his skin was not quite black, but very tawny; yet not of an ugly yellow nauseous tawny, as … other Natives of America are. … Nose small, not flat like the Negros … Teeth well set, and as white as Ivory." The way in which Crusoe describes his 'sweetness and softness' emphasises it through alliteration on the 's'. He states that Friday's forehead was "high and large". During Crusoe's time, physiognomy was rather popular. Physiognomy was the study of the shape of the face in order to 'read' the person's personality. In this case, having a "high and large" forehead would be deciphered as being intelligent. He compares Friday to what was then thought of as 'a typical black', and states that he is better. Declaring that his teeth were "as white as Ivory" is quite the compliment, as not only was ivory a much sought-for item, it is also a very white attractive material. He clothes Friday on p.206 in an attempt to civilise him: "I would give him some Cloaths, at which he seem'd very glad, for he was stark naked" and makes other several seemingly successful attempts at 'civilising' Friday, not only by clothing him, but by 'removing his cannibalistic nature' on p.209: "Friday was still a Cannibal in his Nature … I had my some means let him know, that I would kill him if he offer'd it attempted to eat another human."
Even after his departure from the island, Crusoe keeps Friday (p.279): "With this View I took Shipping for Lisbon, where I arriv'd in April following; my Man Friday accompanying me very honestly in all these Ramblings, and proving a most faithful Servant upon all Occasions." Here, Friday is called a "servant", not a slave, which shows a small amount of respect for Friday.
Crusoe improves spiritually. When he leaves his parents, it is not surprising that God is angry with him, as he leaves his house on p.7 without even the thought of consulting God or his parents: "I consulted neither Father or Mother any more, nor so much as sent them Word of it; ... without asking God's Blessing, or my Father's". He is not left completely untouched by this; he experiences repentance on p.8 for leaving his home: "how justly I was overtaken by the Judgment of Heaven for my wicked leaving my Father's House, … good Counsel of my Parents … Breach of my Duty to God and my Father." This repentance shows thought of God and self-scrutiny. But it is something that only seems to remain with him until p.9: "the Punch was made, and I was made drunk with it, and in that one Night's Wickedness I drowned all my Repentance". On the boat, p.10, he makes several vows, such as: "if ever I got once my foot upon dry Land again, I would go directly home to my Father, and never set it into a Ship again while I liv'd". Yet not long after he makes these vows, he drowns his repentance with alcohol: "applying my self to Drink and Company, I soon master'd the return of these Fits, for so I call'd them, and I had in five or six Days got as compleat a Victory over Conscience". Crusoe appears to be very uncertain about where he stands spiritually before he is shipwrecked upon the island, and as a result, often changes his mind, with the help of alcohol and without.
It took quite a bit of encouragement on God's part to convert Crusoe fully to Christianity during his stay on the island. It begins with the mere, and quite subtle, point where on p.78, barley grows very unexpectedly in a crop of land: "but I was supriz'd and perfectly astonish'd when, after a little longer Time, I was about ten or twelve Ears out, which were perfect green Barley of the same Kind as our European, nay, as our English Barley." He appears to be very proud of this "English Barley", however, he does not take this rather unexpected occurrence as a sign from God: "I had hitherto acted upon no religious Foundation at all; indeed I had very few Notions of Religion in my Head." Not too soon afterwards, on p,80, God sends down an earthquake: "All this while I had not the least Serious religious Thought, nothing but the common Lord ha' Mercy upon me; and when it was over; that went away too." His constant 'refusal' to see that these are signs from God signifies his 'hardening himself against God'. However God's persistence appears to work, after the terrible "Winds and Rain" on p.81, Crusoe is stricken with a fever. This is quite the turning point as here (p.96), Crusoe is converted: "Had I done my part? God had deliver'd me, and I had not glorify'd him; I kneel'd down and gave God Thanks aloud, for Recovery from my Sickness." On July the fourth, he has the true conversion in the midst of his illness: "I took the Bible, … I began seriously to read it, … I was earnestly begging of God to give me Repentance, … I came to these words, He is exalted a Prince and a Saviour, to give Repentance and to give Remission: I threw down the Book, and with my Heart as well as my Hands lifted up to Heaven, in a Kind of Exasty of Joy, I cry'd out aloud, Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance! This was the first time … that I pray'd in all my Life." After this major conversion, Crusoe becomes a devout Puritan, and he even educates Friday about it on p.217 to 222.
His long stay on the island has mostly improved him. On the good side, he appears to have improved spiritually, and also in his practical and survival skills. The need to fetch food, kill animals and build habitations to survive have been a part of his new, reformed self. After many misfortunes on the island, Crusoe is spiritually reformed and carries a strong belief in God. On the other hand, he does not change his opinion of the 'lesser' black community and nor does he treat them any differently before, during and after his stay on the island. This is probably not surprising, given the general attitudes towards slavery at this time. Although both points show what has improved and what has remained the same about Crusoe during the course of the novel, there is nothing to show that Crusoe has deteriorated. Overall, my opinion is that Crusoe has improved spiritually during the course of the novel.