Metamorphoses of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in the Twenty-First Century

A Postcolonial Reading of Terry Pratchett’s Nation (2008)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents


2.1 Robinson Crusoe - A 'True Symbol of British Conquest'
2.2 Friday and the 'Savages' - Race, Religion and Slavery in Robinson Crusoe

3.1 'Ghost Girl' and 'Noble Savage' - Searching for Robinson and Friday
3.2 Representing the Past: The British Empire and colonialist discourse in Pratchett's Nation


5.1 Primary Sources
5.2 Secondary Sources

1. Robinson Crusoe Meets the Discworld: Pratchett vs. Defoe

There scarce exists a work so popular as Robinson Crusoe. It is read eagerly by young people; and there is hardly an elf so devoid of imagination as not to have supposed for himself a solitary island in which he could act Robinson Crusoe, were it but in the corner of the nursery. (Ballantyne 7)

With these words, John Ballantyne reinstates Robinson Crusoe (1719) as a novel appealing to younger readers in his essay about Daniel De Foe [sic], published in 1810. And indeed: Although the implicit reader of the first novel in English literature was not specifically mentioned to be of young age, “children have been its principal readers throughout the [last 300] years” (Lundin 199). Thus, it is not surprising that novels also popular with a younger audience - such as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson - resemble the famous castaway narrative by repeating its main topics and motifs like the solitary island and the shipwreck (Green 143). One of the more recent adaptations of Robinson Crusoe is Terry Pratchett’s Nation, published in 2008: Taking place “on a South Sea island in a skewed version of the 19th century” (Boyce), the story centers around the cultural encounter of the shipwrecked, adolescent daughter of a British colonial governor, called Daphne, with an indigenous boy named Mau, whose whole nation was obliterated by a tsunami.

Whereas Robinson Crusoe can be clearly considered to be an imperialist and racist novel, with its protagonist becoming the “true symbol of the British conquest” - as James Joyce puts it in his essay about Daniel Defoe in 1912 (Joyce 10) - Pratchett’s book has been appraised by critics as a “novel of ideas, a ferocious questioning of vested cultural attitudes and beliefs” (Dirda), and said to reveal “the stupidity of “ignorance and prejudices [i.e. concerning race]” (Tucker). But, taking Claire Bradford’s warning into account that contemporary children’s literature dealing with cultural difference is “not necessarily free of the ideological freight of those earlier times [i.e. colonialist discourse]” (Bradford 48), my research paper will look at Terry Pratchett’s Nation in detail: With a theoretical approach based on Postcolonial Theory and Critical Whiteness Studies, this postmodern version of Daniel Defoe’s novel will be analyzed with special regard to its concepts of race, gender, and culture.

By choosing this particular robinsonade, I want to draw attention to a decisive lack of academic research concerning Terry Pratchett’s work. Sadly, this famous British fantasy author - a “satirist every bit as incisive and erudite and wide-ranging as Swift” - has been greatly undervalued by most scholars, solely because of his commercial success (Hunt 87). While the brilliant essay “All I Can Be Is Who I Am: Representing Subjectivity in Terry Pratchett’s Nation” (2010) by Blanka Grzegorczyk is already a tremendous step in the right direction, this paper tries to further advance the academic discussion on the British author by looking at the same object of analysis from a different perspective influenced by Said, Bhabha, and Spivak, and by comparing Nation to its famous “original”, i.e. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

2. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) in the Light of Postcolonial Theory

2.1 Robinson Crusoe - A ‘True Symbol of British Conquest’

Besides this, I shar’d the Island into Parts with ’em, reserv’d to myself the Property of the whole, but gave them such Parts respectively as they agreed on; and having settled all things with them, and engaged them not to leave the Place, I left them there. (Defoe 220)

Thus, Daniel Defoe ends the famous fictional autography of the Western, civilized castaway, shipwrecked for 28 years on a tropical island in the West Indies - a tale probably influenced by the account of the ‘real’ Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, living in involuntary isolation on a Pacific Island for four years (Lindner 95). Whereas the ongoing popularity of the ‘first English novel’ certainly can be explained by its moments of suspense - not only once is Crusoe in mortal danger, because of pirate attacks, storms at sea or cannibals (Defoe 9-15, 131-133) - as well as by its allure as a myth of a self-made man, “designed as a blue­print for the construction of an individualized, adult self” (Sill 61); Robinson Crusoe is drenched with the logic and rhetoric of British imperialism - a fact evident especially in the behavior and opinions of the protagonist himself.

Crusoe’s description the solitary island as his “Collony” and “Property” in the last chapter of the novel (Defoe, 219-220.) is only one of many occasions, in which Crusoe appears to be “the prototype of the British colonialist” (Joyce 10). Following the imperialist stereotype of islands as places “meant to be discovered by [colonial] intruders” (Hamm 116), the way in which the Englishman takes possession of his destination - carefully planning the mastery of the land “through those shrewd, middle-class, unimaginative eyes” (Woolf 12) - bespeaks of an attitude typical for colonialism. Nature and animals alike are reduced to objects of exploitation (Baines 121) and only valued if they prove to be useful for the white intruder.1 Robinson Crusoe’s utilitarian thinking intent on domination and a capitalist accumulation of riches is equally reflected in the language of the novel: Its first-person-narrator describes his first years on the island - learning farming, bakery and carpentry (Defoe 52-63, 97-101) - in unimaginative, demure prose (Baines 96) and excruciating detail, scribbling everything down from observations regarding the “Seasons of the Year” on the island to the “Planting [of] [...] the Rows of Stakes or Piles” (Defoe 77-79). And if the lack of sexual interest within the protagonist can be partly explained by the restrictive Puritan morality inherent in the novel, nature itself becomes a replacement for the “lusting for the flesh” - a “metaphoric virgin”, a “symbolic body awaiting his needs, adapting to his pleasures” (Wiegman 69).

Moreover, this motive of the colonial land as a woman - quite often used in colonial discourse (Loomba 151) - points out to another, interesting feature regarding the main character. With his adventure-seeking, travel-hungry spirit, which leads him to disregard the “Prophetick” warnings of his parents (Defoe 6-7), Robinson Crusoe does not - by any means fit into the category of the “ordinary” British colonial official or administrator. Instead, he is presented as some kind of “prototype of the hero of adventure fiction”, led by an imperialist drive to expand the British empire - an expansion in which Daniel Defoe himself saw the solution to the stagnating British economy around 1700 (Downie 90-93).

Whereas literary scholar John Hammond argues in his Defoe Companion (1993) that “to a reader in the late twentieth century, one of the most ambiguous aspects of Crusoe’s personality is his constant appeals to a divine power” (Hammond 74), the transformation of the formerly nearly irreligious, catholic Robinson into an active Christian and Puritan moralist in reaction to his experiences on the island is equally important when regarding the novel in terms of its connections to colonialist discourse (Wheeler 70; Defoe 83-4, 207, 218.) Standing in the literary tradition of the protestant , spiritual autobiography’ of the 17th century (Hammond 73), Crusoe’s adventures and his conversion, his religious redemption for his “past Life with such Horrors and Sins” and his plea to God for “Deliverance from the Load of Guilt” (Defoe 71.) are intertwined with intertextual references to the biblical story of Job (Defoe 203.) - an element that equally justifies Robinson’s claim of the island as his rightful property. By drawing parallels between Crusoe’s status as a wealthy man after his endurances and “the latter end of Job” (Defoe 203.), in which the righteous man, who lost his possessions, children and wealth, was rewarded by God for his unwavering faith, the novel portrays Robinson’s possession of the island as some kind of divine reward for his former struggles: Like Prospero’s conquest of territory in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1623), Crusoe’s domination of the tropical island in the West Indies is part of his “secular salvation”, a central part in the “process of the reassessment of the master’s identity” (Hamm 118). The religious undertones of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe are equally important for the depiction of the ‘other’ in the novel - a topic that will be discussed in length in the next subchapter of this paper.

2.2 Friday and the ‘Savages’ - Race, Religion and Slavery in Robinson Crusoe

“[...] I began to see that the land was inhabited, and in two or three Places we sailed by, we saw People stand upon the Shoar to look at us, we could also perceive they were quite Black and Stark-naked.” (Defoe 23.)

With these words, Robinson Crusoe describes his encounter with various “Negroes” on the African coast, on a journey prior to his famous adventures as a castaway (Defoe 23.) Interestingly, this description of the ‘other’, the emphasis on the lack of clothes and skin-color as important “Categories of difference” (Wheeler) is equally important in the portrayal of the ‘wild men’ in the Caribbean context, thus stressing the importance of the concept of ‘race’ in the novel (Wheeler 66). The Caribs Robinson encounters on his solitary island are described as naked and of dark color, too: But beside these observations, the “Savages” arriving on Crusoe’s tropical island remain “blank space[s]” (Lindner 130) concerning their outward appearances - something which becomes apparent in the remark by Crusoe that he “could not distinguish” “whether they were Men or Women” (Defoe 132). Whereas the nakedness serves to visualize the acclaimed inferiority, the impossibility to recognize the gender of these humans can be seen in the tradition of portraying “savagery” as a “state in which there is little distinction between the sexes in physical appearance, labor, or dress” (Wheeler S.72) - a depiction of people of color that tends to take away their individuality, reducing them to wild animals, operating in herds. That ‘whiteness’ automatically increases the value of human beings in the novel gets quite clear when Robinson Crusoe discovers that a “European” has become a captive of the Caribs, causing the usually calm, rational protagonist to be “fill’d with Horror” and “enrag’d to the highest Degree” (Defoe 168-169) - a state of “Passion” that would be unthinkable, if the prisoner was one of the ‘blacks’ (Wheeler 74).

While these clashes between the white male Western individual - Robinson Crusoe - and a large number of de-individualized “Wretches” (Defoe 146-7) usually serve to underline European superiority and strength in the novel (Lindner 108), the ‘otherness’ and ‘inferiority’ of the Caribbean people is equally intensified by their cannibalistic behavior: Referring to the European myth of man-eating tribes in the Caribbean, African and South-American context - popular in travel accounts such as Hans Staden’s Veritable History (1557) - the need for the ‘civilizing’ influence of the British Empire in these parts of the world is claimed by portraying cannibalism as a regular praxis of the ‘savages’. (Lindner 101-105)

Interestingly, the “barbarous Customs” of the Caribs are referred to “as a Token of God’s having left them, with the other Nations of that Part of the World, to such Stupidity” (Defoe 168) within Robinson Crusoe - pointing out to ‘religion’ as another, important category of difference in the novel. Being heathens because of “God’s inexplicable will” (Wheeler 70), non-Christianity is not only connected with inhumanity or inferiority, but also with the justification of slavery in the novel. Whereas the involvement of Robinson in the slave trade of “Negroes” (Defoe 31) is never seen as a contradiction with his Christian faith, - literary scholar Patrick J. Keane rightfully remarks that “[d]espite the fact that he is shipwrecked while engaged in slave trading, Crusoe, in his long years of religious introspection on the island, never devotes so much as a passing thought to the possibility that commerce in human flesh might have been part of the sin for which he was being punished” (Keane 97-8) - the example of the Moor Xury shows the interconnectedness between religion and the reduction of humans into objects within colonialist discourse. Forced into slavery himself, Crusoe sells his Islamic companion after their successful escape with the promise of the buyer “to set him free in ten years, if he turn’d Christian” (Defoe 26). As Moors are depicted as civilized in reaction to “centuries of maritime and financial power”, the enslavement of them exemplifies that justification of European dominance and violence in the 18th century did not only rely on race, but on religion as a significant category of difference as well: But the fact that Xury’s status as a slave is only temporary, whereas the ‘Negroes’ apparently cannot escape their fate, equally underlines the different degree of dehumanization regarding ‘savages’ from an African and Caribbean context (Wheeler 57-61) - a process of devaluation also apparent in the depiction of Friday, Robinson Crusoe’s faithful “Servant” (Defoe 144).

Whereas Roxann Wheeler rightfully argues that Friday - the only ‘savage’ described in detail - is portrayed as different from the Caribs or Africans in the novel (Wheeler 66), the characterization and depiction of Robinson’s obedient “labor power” nevertheless fits seamlessly into the colonial logic (Wheeler 66). Without a doubt influenced by the European ‘noble savage‘ tradition of the 17th and 18th century (Wheeler 69), Friday’s in-between status as Crusoe’s companion and slave is underlined by his hybrid outward appearance, an “exotic mixture” of Caribbean and Western features (Lindner 110). Yet, the positive description of Friday’s “Sweetness and Softness of an European” in face and countenance and the remark that the “Color of his Skin was not [...] of an ugly yellow nauseous tawny [...] as the [...] Natives of America are“, nor his nose “flat like the Negroes” shows that the beauty of the “handsome Fellow[‘s]” (Defoe 148-9) in the novel is evaluated according to standards which assume the aesthetic superiority of the European body. And, despite Friday’s overall hybridity, the racism deeply rooted in the novel never allows Friday to become an equal to Robinson: Friday remains Crusoe’s “trusty savage” - even if “his servitude, European clothing, English-language-acquisition and conversion and adherence to Christianity” has made him ‘civilized’ according to European standards (Wheeler 71)


1 The “Pleasantness of the Situation”, for instance, is only derived out of the “Fruitfulness of that Valley” (Defoe 74).


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University of Bayreuth
Defoe Robinson Crusoe Robinsonade Postcolonial Theory Pratchett Postmodernism



Title: Metamorphoses of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in the Twenty-First Century