Water, Water Everywhere: the Ocean in Robinson Crusoe

The_Great_Wave_off_KanagawaThroughout Defoe’s novel, the protagonist Robinson Crusoe’s fate is linked to that of the sea. At the beginning of the novel, it calls to him like a siren song, promising a life of adventure and glory, and leading him to stray from a stable career in law. To illustrate the temptation the sea poses to Crusoe, Defoe employs metaphors associated with the ocean in Crusoe’s narration. The protagonists describes father, as a member of the middle class, as a man who “never had been exposed to tempests at sea or troubles on shore,” thus resolving, “like a true repenting prodigal,” to heed his father’s wishes and return home. However, he eventually “drowned” all his repentance and returned to “the current” of his former desires. Through his consistent use of powerful aquatic imagery, Defoe enacts the sensation of rough waters, foreshadowing the disasters that Crusoe encounters at sea. Defoe’s employment of this figurative language to illustrate Crusoe’s decision-making process illustrates a parallel between the protagonist and the ocean. Like the sea, Crusoe’s character changes throughout the novel; and like the element of water, which changes form to suit its container, Crusoe adapts to survive any situation, no matter how dire.

In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe often uses aquatic imagery in conjunction with religious symbolism, as evidenced in Crusoe’s likening himself to the prodigal son. This motif is repeated during the shipwreck scene that leaves Crusoe stranded on the island:

“…we all knew that when the boat came near the shore she would be dashed in a thousand pieces by the breach of the sea. However, we committed our souls to God in the most earnest manner…”

Through the trope of Crusoe’s deliverance after facing trials in the ocean, Defoe alludes to the sacrament of Baptism. The author’s Presbyterian roots may explain this association between water and providence.

By means of Crusoe’s vivid descriptions of his travails at sea and his overcoming of this force of nature, Defoe demonstrates the aspirational nature of the humans. Any reader of Crusoe’s account almost can’t help but hold their breath for air as Defoe leaves them floundering through air in the following passages:

“…the sea ran mountains high, and broke upon us every three or four minutes…”

“…a raging wave, mountain-like, came rolling astern of us, and plainly bade us expect the coup de grace.”

“the sea came after me as high as a great hill, and as furious as an enemy…”

On a personal note, Defoe’s description of Crusoe’s battles with the ocean brought back memories of surfing, which frequently involves getting pummeled by the sea. This line was especially graphic:

“The wave that came upon me again buried me at twenty or thirty feet deep in its own body, and I could feel myself carried with a mighty force and swiftness toward the shore- a very great way; but I held my breath, and assisted myself to swim still forward with all my might.”

Just as Crusoe continued his journeys despite his initial shipwreck into the vast unknown dangers of the ocean, surfers continue to paddle out hoping to tame and ride an epic wave. This uniquely human trait of testing our limits is epitomized in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

(Disclaimer: I have not, nor will I probably ever, surf a wave like that. Hah. I wish.)

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