Robinson Crusoe: Character Profiles

Robinson Crusoe:  is the titular protagonist, the narrator, and the main character-indeed, for the bulk of the book, the only character-of Defoes novel. Crusoe styles himself as a rebellious and disobedient youth who, against the advice of several caring adults, including his father, pursued the seafaring, adventurous life over the comfort of the middle class. Although his voyages early in life led to his prosperity as a Brazilian planter (and, as customary in the eighteenth century, slave-owner), his pride, as he sees it, ultimately leads to his more than two-decade long exile on an island. During these years of isolation, Crusoe proves himself to be industrial, ingenious and resourceful as he forges his new life, often by sheer force of will. He also, however, reveals that he has not completely abandoned the pride of his former life when he repeatedly thinks of himself as “King” and “Sovereign” over his island-and over those who eventually join him in it: “his man Friday,” the savage, and the Spaniard sailor and his crew. Readers are left wondering whether Crusoes experience has, in the end, fundamentally changed him-after all, after some years back in civilized lands, Crusoe again sets forth to sea, concluding his first narrative by suggesting that he will write a second, full of “very surprising Incidents.” Crusoe has become a powerful and iconic character in the English literary tradition; in fact, his very name has been given to a genre dubbed the “robinsonade”: “romances of solitary survival in such inimical terrains as desert islands. [T]he fundamental thrust of the robinsonade-its convincing celebration of the power of pragmatic Reason, and its depiction of the triumph, over great odds, of the entrepreneur who commands that rational Faculty-continues to drive most of its offspring,” even as it animates the character of Crusoe in the genres taproot text (John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction [New York: St. Martins Griffin, 1995], p. 1017).
Friday:  is the “savage” inhabitant of the mainland opposite Crusoes island who arrives there as a prisoner of his fellow “savages,” brought to be slaughtered in a cannibalistic ritual. Crusoe delivers Friday from this fate, and Friday professes undying gratitude and loyalty. Crusoe comes to regard the man and to depend upon him as “my man Friday.” Like Crusoe, Friday has become an iconic character, whose very name is a byword for a “right hand man” (or woman, as in the title of the 1940 film His Girl Friday). He typifies the Western intellectual traditions conceit of the “noble savage”-who, despite his “uncivilized” and “barbarous” ways, is a good, lofty spirit (seen, for example, in Fridays affection for his father), lacking only direction from a more “civilized” and advanced instructor. One of the startling effects to modern readers, however, of Crusoes “civilization” of Friday is the fact that Friday begins to demonstrate some of the same less-than-desirable attitudes and actions of Crusoe. This process reaches its fullest development in Fridays taunting treatment of the bear in the novels final pages, laughing at the animal and even making it dance before he dispatches it with a gunshot. Fridays character and the way in which Crusoe shapes it thus raise questions about the true nature of “savagery” and “civilization” for the readers of Robinson Crusoe.
Although other, supporting characters also populate this novels pages-Crusoes father, the ship captain under whom Crusoe first sails, the Spaniard ship captain and his mutinous crew, Crusoes widowed sisters, Fridays father-they remain two-dimensional at best. The only other compelling and ambiguous character in the novel is, in fact, Providence-that is to say, God. The novel is, as its preface announces, an extended meditation upon the workings of Providence, which Crusoe at times (and in the final analysis) regards as benevolent; but which at other times-for example, in moments of despair such as the loss of his canoe-he regards as anything but. Enough dissonance reverberates through the text that readers are left to conclude for themselves whether God as a character in Robinson Crusoe is beneficent or not.