Robinson Crusoe as Polly Flint's Standard

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

When she meets the young poet Paul Treece, Polly Flint explains in the course of a long discussion that for her Crusoe is "a separate, real person Defoe struck upon by accident, A sort of divine accident. I think that is how most characters who are going to survive get born." Treece, who tries to argue that Defoe was just a journalist, correctly perceives that "You've glorified this book into a gospel" [133]. Fittingly, when she reads his poems after his death in World War I, Polly realizes that "some of the poems were strong and witty and there was a lovely fortitude in them which reminded me of Robinson Crusoe and I began to see that under the mud of France there was dust that might have become of real account" [156].

Earlier, when Mr. Thwaite asked her, "These books you read . . . Which of them would you say are of the greatest -- use to you?" she answered, "Robinson Crusoe. I read it all the time. I'm a bit peculiar about it. Especially, I think, in troubled times" [70], and as she tells the strange artist she met at Thwaite's estate, she identifies with Defoe's hero: "I'm a sort of Robinson Crusoe. I'm all washed up at present" [117]. Similarly, in recounting her life, she follows her hero until he becomes an archetype, even quoting his words to describe her own life: "'For the next two years,' like Crusoe, 'I cannot say that any extraordinary things happened to me; but I live don in the same course, in the same posture and places, just as before'" [159]. She thinks of him even in the minor occurrences of life. For example, when Polly, who later creates a family for herself from rescued Jewish children fleeing the Holocaust, first sees some Jews with Mr. Thwaite she "felt like poor Robinson Crusoe when he first saw the cannibal boats, staring and staring as hard as he could but making out nothing because he'd come out without his expanding glass" [94]. Even when, following the death of Paul and the desertion of Theo, Polly has become a drunk, she finds a place for her hero in her weird, queer world and when she abandons drink at Alice's insistence, she draws on his example [183].

The novel shows that for many years she makes Defoe's work and his protagonist a standard by which to judge real people and events as well as herself. In the letter she write but never sends to Frances, who was on the way to India, she remarks that she knows "you have the Bible with you, like Robinson Crusoe," and she also writes her aunt that she sees her "with all your old life forgotten, dim, as was the old life of Robinson Crusoe in Hull" [76]. Now that Aunt Frances has left, Polly wonders if she should ever have come to live with her at "Oversands -- where perhaps I have become fragmented and incomplete. I don't believe that I shall fit in anywhere, although you and Aunt Mary have given me what Robinson Crusoe was told by his father was the greatest blessing. A home in 'the middle estate or what might be called the upper station of low life which he had found by long experience was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness'" [77].

Not surprisingly, when Polly meets new people or has new experiences she compares them first to her hero. Upon meeting the mad artist at Thwaite, "I could not help comparing the snapping painter to Robinson Crusoe. If I had stepped out of the bushes upon Robinson Crusoe in his loneliness, he would, even after years of solitude, have behaved with greater decorum and manners" [78]. She pays the Zeits a rare compliment when she declares that "they had the wonderful freedom of not believing in God, the freedom denied even to Robinson Crusoe, otherwise the steadiest man in the world though very likely not Confirmed" [119-120]. Similarly, when Alice speaks well of the Germans during the Great War, Polly comically observes, "Robinson Crusoe spoke well of the Spanish, even though the war with Spain was scarcely over" [172].

All this infatuation with Robinson Crusoe and dependence upon him ends abruptly when she becomes a teacher at the school Alice's husband runs in the Zeit's old house and then takes in Theo's daughters. Shortly before his letter from Nazi Germany arrives, Polly remembers, "I was thinking of my strange madness of long ago, my obsession with my paradigm, Robinson Crusoe, now quite gone, fled like the end of a love-affair, the bird flown from the shoulder. The fever over --" [197]. Passing the churchyard and its graves on the way home from school, she thanks God "that from my purgatory with the works of old Defoe I had emerged with a sense of God and resurrection" [198].

Given Polly's original modern skepticism and her devotion to Robinson Crusoe as her hero and model, what are we supposed to make of her abandonment of him until her final hours? [220-224] Does Gardam's novel present Polly as turning Robinson Crusoe into a false Bible, a Testament of loneliness that keeps her lonely? Or does it have more positive effect? Does she, incidentally, achieve religious belief? If so, what are we to make of the novel's closing section, wittily entitled "The End" ?

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