It's easy to miss the real meaning of Defoe's masterpiece, which has been called the great adventure story, the first modern novel, and the first nonfiction novel. Whether or not these claims are true, the story of a castaway Englishman who survives in the wild is one of the finest depictions of Christian redemption in literature.
Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe was written when the novel was still, well, novel. It introduced many devices that came to dominate fiction, including straightforward narration and realism. In its first year, it went through four editions because it was so popular, and writers ever since have been influenced by it.
While these 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 island solitude he becomes a Christian, illustrating the need for personal conviction in a land where citizenship involved church membership.
But Crusoe soon realizes the need for Christian community, and it's not until the native Friday is converted that he's truly satisfied and happy. The idea John Donne so succinctly expressed, No man is an island, entire of itself, is beautifully expressed in Crusoe's spiritual development.
Defoe's island is a metaphor for the spiritual solitude we experience before accepting the truth of Christ's Gospel. It also illustrates the conditions in which the Holy Spirit works—coming to us in the calm of reflection and through His Word.
This is a great adventure story, with shipwreck, survival, and battles. But to ignore the Christian elements is to miss Defoe's point. A devout Presbyterian, he wasn't writing a fun story to thrill bored readers; he was honoring God by creating a great work of art.
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