Robinson Crusoe: A Man's Discovery of Himself, Civilization, and God.
Just about everyone can recite the highlights of Robinson's adventures: A man is shipwrecked without resources on a desert island, survives for years by his own wits, undergoes immeasurable anguish as a result of his isolation, discovers a footprint in the sand that belongs to Friday, and is finally rescued from his exile. Unfortunately, all of this is wrong. But more significant than any of these details is that our overall perception of Robinson Crusoe is wrong. The single most important fact about this boy's adventure book is that it is not a boy's adventure book at all. It is, rather, a grown-up tale of a man's discovery of himself, civilization, and God.
As Defoe's book begins, Robinson Crusoe of York commits what he calls his "Original Sin”—he spurns his father's advice to join the family business and instead heads out to sea. Robinson is self-willed, arrogant, and hungry for exploits. Catastrophes ensue—storms, shipwrecks, and slavery—but the lad continues in his follies. "I was," he confesses, "to be the willful Agent of all my own Miseries."
Then providence gives him a second chance, shipwrecking him on an Atlantic island, whose features roughly match those of the Juan Fernandez group in the Pacific Ocean where Robinson's real-life prototype, Alexander Selkirk, passed seven years in solitude. Robinson's island is a pristine land of surpassing beauty. To its forlorn first inhabitant, it seems nothing short of Eden: "the Country appear'd so fresh, so green, so flourishing, every thing being in a constant Verdure, or Flourish of Spring, that it looked like a planted Garden."
In this paradise Robinson builds a new home—without Eve, alas; such is his penance. He also builds a new self, in the Pauline sense: "Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." Robinson no longer follows his own will, but bows before the will of God. He learns to see in his calamities "the Work of Providence," and to discern the hand of God at every moment of his life. He opens his Bible and repents, calling out, "Lord, be my help!"
This conversion does not go unrequited; as Robinson surrenders to God, the island surrenders to him. Step by step, he recapitulates in miniature the rise of civilization. He handles a tool for the first time and builds himself a chair and table. He needs a shovel, so he makes one, although "never was a shovel . . . so long a-making." He hammers a wall, plants a field, keeps a herd of goats. As his conversion deepens, so does his fortune. He builds a second establishment deep inland, and admits that "I fancy'd now I had my Country-House, and my Sea-Coast House." He declares himself "Lord of all this country . . . as compleatly as any Lord...