It's easy to miss the real meaning of Daniel Defoe's masterpiece, touted as it often is as the greatest adventure story of all time, the first modern novel, and possibly the first nonfiction novel. While the first two are true (the third is just wishful thinking), Defoe's novel of a castaway Englishman who learns to survive in the wild is one of the finest depictions of Christian redemption in all of literature.
First published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe was written when the novel was still in its infancy. It introduced many of the devices that came to dominate fictional narrative structures, including straightforward narration and fictional realism. In its first year, it went through four editions because it was so popular, and writers ever since have spoken of being influenced by the novel.
While all of those are admirable accomplishments, the real worth of Defoe's novel is spiritual. Crusoe begins in rebellion against his parents and God, but through faithful Bible reading and prayer in his solitude on the island, he becomes a Christian, thus illustrating the need for personal conviction (especially in a land where citizenship involved church membership).
But Crusoe soon realizes the need for Christian companionship and community, and it's not until he converts the island native Friday that he's truly satisfied and happy. The idea John Donne so succinctly expressed in his famous line, No man is an island, entire of itself, is beautifully expressed in the spiritual development of the novel's protagonist.
Defoe made no mistake, then, in landing his character on an island. It becomes a metaphor for the spiritual solitude each of us experiences before accepting the truth of Christ's Gospel. At the same time, it illustrates the conditions in which the Holy Spirit works—coming to us not in the craze and busy-ness of everyday life, but in the calm of reflection and through His Word.
Of course, this is also a fantastic adventure story, complete with shipwreck, survival, and battles. Yet, to ignore the Christian elements of this story is not to benefit from it the way Defoe intended. A devout Presbyterian Puritan, he wasn't just writing a fun story to thrill bored readers; he was honoring his God through one of the most well-respected works of art in the history of literature.
Also available for free download: Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (from Project Gutenberg)