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Historical Context

Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, at the beginning of a century that witnessed great changes in the economic order. The rise of capitalism throughout the period exposed individuals to a system of evaluation that differed quite a bit from aristocratic tradition. Instead of an individual's place in society being determined at birth, and being wholly related to their family name and rank, people entered professions and new social arrangements based not on family or church, but on their work. A relevant example of this is the fact that we don't learn much at all about Robinson's family -- he abandons them in England within the first few pages of the book -- which indicates precisely the degree to which family and other collective relations were taking a back seat to the elaboration of the individual.

The shift from an aristocratic order to a capitalist system was a complicated one, and it would be difficult -- not to mention futile -- to attempt to pinpoint the precise moment of transition. But nonetheless, the century witnessed great changes, such as the rise of print culture, the first copyright legislation, increased industrialization, and a shift from focus on community to an emphasis on autonomous individualism. Defoe is said to be one of the first writers to represent this kind of economic individualism, and Robinson Crusoe -- his first novel -- is one of the best places to see this at work.

Homo Economicus ("economic man") was the symbol used to discuss the new individualism of the eighteenth century -- one which depended explicitly one an individual's participation in a newly competitive, credit-based marketplace. Robinson, Defoe's protagonist, spends the opening sections of the novel in heavy pursuit of money. He readily admits to the reader his reasons for travel: it is more profitable to trade with indigenous peoples of non-Western cultures, since they value goods differently than Europeans do. It is possible, then, to trade trinkets that Westerners place little stock in -- like buttons and baubles -- for gold and precious stones. Getting more for one's money than it is "worth" is one of the prime directives of a capitalist economy, and Robinson is hooked on it from the moment he makes his first trade. With the money he makes from trading, he's able to buy a plantation in Brazil and begin reaping great profit.

Even romantic love is secondary to economic gain. Living alone on the island, of course, Robinson doesn't have opportunity for romance. But he doesn't worry about it much, either. While long passages are devoted to his reflections on how being away from Europe has changed his ideas of what's valuable -- he has no need for money, for example, but finds an old burlap sack a much more useful item -- there is not a single moment of reflection on or longing for love. Critics have suggested that Defoe saw romantic love as an obstacle to economic advancement, since it is commonly held that romance does not follow logical dictates, while market practices are assumed to hold to some sort of logic or calculation.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Preface
Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9
Section 10
Section 11
Section 12
Section 13
Section 14
Section 15
Section 16
Section 17



 






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