Crusoe's Daughter, Robinson Crusoe, and the Tradition of the Imperilled Mariner

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

In a passage that occurs in the last fifth of so of Crusoe's Daughter, Polly Flint explains that she began to understand the nature of sin when she tried to understand portions of her family history, particularly the relation of Celia, Thwaite, and Frances, "though I was, of course, taking a very good instruction in the subject still, in the great book, Robinson Crusoe .

For Robinson Crusoe is a study of the reality of sin. All his misfortunes spring from it. It is sin which occasioned his first disaster in the Yarmouth Roads to his last shipwreck on the imprisoning island. He sinned from childhood against his father, leaving the good, quiet middle station of life in which it had pleased God to place him. He had sinned in his yearning for the sea which was always his enemy. . . .

And because Crusoe acted against God's decree, venturing on a mission contrary to his duty, like Balaam, like Jonah, like Job, like Ishmael of Moby Dick, like St. Augustine, he foundered. Until his repentance at last.

But why was it a sin for Robinson Crusoe to yearn for freedom, adventure and traveller's joy? Why was it wrong for him to reject his boring Yorkshire home, the middle-class sensible day-to-day life of Hull? Obey his instinctive longing for the sea?

Because God had said so. . . .

Oh, I envied him. Oh, I envied Robinson Crusoe not his suffering and his repentance, but his having the powers to put up a fight, and his powers of analysis, his seamanship, for knowing exactly where he was. And his being tempted, proving that he was, at least in God's eye, God thought he was worth testing.

Yet here was I, totally unregarded by God, sitting out my life at the yellow house.

Oh, I envied.

I envied Crusoe his sin, his courage, his ruthlessness in leaving all he had been brought up to respect; his resilience, his wonderful survival after disaster.

I envied him his conversion, his penitence, his beautiful self-assurance won through solitude and despair.

I envied him his unselfconsciousness, his powers of decision, his self-reliance -- he never dreamed after any specific creature -- I envied him his sensible sexlessness which he seemed so easily to have achieved. But most of all I envied his being in God's eye. [173-174]

This passage, which provides a scholarly survey of the meanings of the castaway image (and situation), also shows Gardam's contemporary intonation of it. Traditionally, the shipwrecked or castaway mariner found himself (and it was always himself) within his dangerous situation for one of three reasons: (a) God was punishing him, (b) God was testing him, or (c) God was educating him. Robinson Crusoe in fact rather unusually employs all three meanings of the situation. By the final decades of the eighteenth century, however, the traditional commonplace image, which had many biblical associations, had begun to have a new, diametrically opposed meaning: rather than indicating that God was punishing a human being, it now came to embody a sense of political, metaphysical, or religious isolation -- a sense in fact that God was dead or had disappeared.

Therefore, throughout the nineteenth century, the situation of the shipwrecked or castaway mariner has either the traditional Christian or the more recent a-religious meaning. By the twentieth century, it almost always has the irreligious one.

How has Gardam employed this commonplace in a new way, and what do her many self-conscious uses of image as a secondary form of narrative imply?

[For more on this subject, including modern uses of the Robinson Crusoe figure, see my html version of George P. Landow, Images of Crisis: Literary Iconology, 1750 to the Present (Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan, 1982) -- particularly the section on versions and variations of Robinson Crusoe].

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