Robinson Crusoe

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Themes and Colors
Christianity and Divine Providence Theme Icon
Society, Individuality, and Isolation Theme Icon
Advice, Mistakes, and Hindsight Theme Icon
Contentment vs. Desire and Ambition Theme Icon
Strangers, Savages, and the Unknown Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Robinson Crusoe, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Contentment vs. Desire and Ambition Theme Icon

Robinson leaves home at the beginning of the novel because he is not content with a comfortable, middle-class existence. In England, his father can provide for him and help him establish a life. He tells Robinson that their middle station in life is the most comfortable: it is free from the anxieties of power or privilege and from the suffering of poverty. But Robinson cannot stay content with mere comfort. He has ambition and desire for a greater, more interesting life, which leads him to the sea. In fact, this rejection of comfort is a repeated pattern. The entire plot of the novel can be seen as an alternation between Robinson's contentment with what he has and his desire for something more. Not content at home, he goes to sea. Then, while happy in Brazil, he becomes overly ambitious and voyages to get slaves from Africa. Just when he is finally learning to enjoy life on his island by himself, he rescues Friday. He leads a rather comfortable life with Friday on the island, but then desires to escape. And, finally, when Robinson is at last re-established in England, he is once more not content to stay still, and joins another voyage.

While on the island, Robinson himself recognizes his inability to remain content with what he has and calls the inability to be pleased with one's station in life "the general plague of mankind." Looking past on his story as he tells it as narrator, Robinson often laments his overly ambitious desires and wishes that he would have simply stayed content and comfortable either at home in England or on his wealthy Brazil plantation. One can thus read Robinson Crusoe as showing the consequences of unrestrained ambition or desire. But, at the same time, Robinson's ambitions caused him to have a marvelous, adventure-filled life—one worth writing a novel about. Contentment might have led to a safer, quieter life in England, but would it have led to a better one?

Contentment vs. Desire and Ambition ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Contentment vs. Desire and Ambition appears in each chapter of Robinson Crusoe. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Contentment vs. Desire and Ambition Quotes in Robinson Crusoe

Below you will find the important quotes in Robinson Crusoe related to the theme of Contentment vs. Desire and Ambition.
Chapter 1 Quotes

My father, who was very ancient, had given me a competent share of learning, as far as house-education and a country free school generally go, and designed me for the law; but I would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea; and my inclination to this led me so strongly against the will, nay, the commands of my father, and against all the entreaties and persuasions of my mother and other friends, that there seemed to be something fatal in that propensity of nature, tending directly to the life of misery which was to befall me.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker), Crusoe's Parents
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Robinson Crusoe is narrating the story of his own life with the privileged view of hindsight. In this passage, as throughout the book, he compares his past self to what he knows now, and laments how ignorant and naïve he once was. With the benefit of having lived long enough, he only now recognizes that his great hunger for life on the sea, for experiences more exciting and stimulating than those involved in the law, was almost certain to lead to his "misery." 

However, at the same time, Robinson seems to acknowledge that there was little he could have done about this fatal flaw. His desire to go to sea, like his refusal to content himself with what he already saw and had, is in his very nature. Even his father's commands, of course, could do nothing to prevent him, and so even as he expresses regret for the decisions of his stubborn younger self, he accepts that he probably couldn't have done anything differently. Later in the book, this sense of inevitability will come to make sense to Robinson through the frame of divine Providence. Here, however, he still seems to be puzzling out what it means for his life to have seemed so inevitable.


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He asked me what reasons, more than a mere wandering inclination, I had for leaving father's house and my native country, where I might be well introduced, and had a prospect of raising my fortune by application and industry, with a life of ease and pleasure. He told me... that mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker), Crusoe's Parents
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Robinson's father finds it difficult to understand why Robinson should want to leave everything he has - everything his father has worked so hard to achieve for his family - and seek a life of uncertain adventure on the sea. This novel was published around the time of the expansion of capitalism, when what we now call the "middle class" was exploding in England: a group of people lacking the luxuries of the royal family or of nobles but also living much more comfortable lives than the peasants of centuries past. The uncertain definition of this group is evident in the way Robinson's father talks about his station, using various terms like the "middle state" or "upper station of low life."

Middle-class stability is a relatively new good at this moment, and to Robinson's father it is something to be content with, something to embrace, rather than something to run away from. Robinson pays little heed to his father's house. Only with the passage of time will the advantages of his father's position grow clear to him; nonetheless, even at this point in the book, Robinson's desire to run away to gain his own fortune does have some things in common with his father's emphasis on the importance of attaining financial stability.

Chapter 2 Quotes

That evil influence which carried me first away from my father's house—which hurried me into the wild and indigested notion of raising my fortune, and that impressed those conceits so forcibly upon me as to make me deaf to all good advice, and to the entreaties and even the commands of my father—I say, the same influence, whatever it was, presented the most unfortunate of all enterprises to my view; and I went on board a vessel bound to the coast of Africa; or, as our sailors vulgarly called it, a voyage to Guinea.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker), Crusoe's Parents
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Robinson has finally made it back to England, and yet scarcely is he back on his home soil than he boards yet another ship, this time to the coast of Africa. The way Robinson describes his actions seems to take away any sense of agency, of responsibility for his actions. It is as if Robinson was picked up and thrown onto the ship against his will rather than walking onto it of his own accord. Nonetheless, this is really the way that Robinson finds he can best describe his state of mind. He believes that his father and even God would prefer he stay at home and accept his duty, but he is somehow unable to heed those desires. 

Of course, one of the book's main paradoxes is that its very existence is only made possible by the fact that Robinson did flout his father's wishes, that he did act sinfully and against divine will. His mistakes, then - his burning desire to see and experience more - are to be judged by readers even as we accept that we are now enjoying the fruit of these very mistakes.

Chapter 4 Quotes

In this manner I used to look upon my condition with the utmost regret. I had nobody to converse with, but now and then this neighbour; no work to be done, but by the labour of my hands; and I used to say, I lived just like a man cast away upon some desolate island, that had nobody there but himself. But how just has it been—and how should all men reflect, that when they compare their present conditions with others that are worse, Heaven may oblige them to make the exchange, and be convinced of their former felicity by their experience—I say, how just has it been, that the truly solitary life I reflected on, in an island of mere desolation, should be my lot, who had so often unjustly compared it with the life which I then led, in which, had I continued, I had in all probability been exceeding prosperous and rich.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker)
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Robinson has settled into the life of a middle-class sugar farmer in Brazil, and while he is relatively successful, he begins to become lonely. Robinson had never feared being alone before - indeed, he had left England largely with the express desire of being alone in the world. However, now that he is no longer on the sea, he finds himself in a place where society exists around him - but it is a society that is foreign to him, in which he doesn't truly belong.

At the time, Robinson compares his life to that on a "desolate island." Robinson the narrator, looking back on this moment, takes the opportunity - with the wisdom gained from the passage of time - to emphasize to the reader how dangerous it is to constantly be comparing one's experience to other, worse conditions. Looking back on his time in Brazil, Robinson recognizes that it was a good life, and could easily have made him rich: he should have been content with his time rather than constantly remaining unsatisfied with what he had. This dissatisfaction, indeed, would almost ensure that his feelings would be equated by reality later on.

Chapter 7 Quotes

"Now," said I, aloud, "my dear father's words are come to pass; God's justice has overtaken me, and I have none to help or hear me. I rejected the voice of Providence, which had mercifully put me in a posture or station of life wherein I might have been happy and easy; but I would neither see it myself nor learn to know the blessing of it from my parents. ...Lord, be my help, for I am in great distress." This was the first prayer, if I may call it so, that I had made for many years.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker), Crusoe's Parents
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

Robinson has grown seriously ill as a result of eating turtle meat, and he finds himself in both physical and spiritual torment. He begins to think about the fact that it has been many years since he's prayed - a lapse of time that, for him, signifies just how much he has discounted the will of God in favor of his own individual desires and ambitions. Our narrator - Robinson at a later stage in his life - has been reminding us all along the story how Providence has played a role in his life, but the Robinson of the past was still largely unconscious of this role. 

This passage is this first moment in the book where Robinson finds himself not only in danger but truly at a crossroads between life and death. It is this acute peril that gives him the opportunity for an epiphany about the way he should live his life. Asking God for help requires the humility of knowing that one is not entirely isolated and self-sufficient, and may not be able to overcome struggles alone.

Chapter 8 Quotes

I could not tell what part of the world this might be, otherwise than that I knew it must be part of America, and, as I concluded by all my observations, must be near the Spanish dominions, and perhaps was all inhabited by savages, where, if I had landed, I had been in a worse condition than I was now; and therefore I acquiesced in the dispositions of Providence, which I began now to own and to believe ordered everything for the best; I say I quieted my mind with this, and left off afflicting myself with fruitless wishes of being there.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker)
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Robinson actually does manage to spot some land from the hilltop of the island, so he realizes that he is not in complete isolation. However, now he has the humility to recognize that there is much that he does not know about the place he is inhabiting. Earlier, Robinson might have fought against fate and sought to change his situation based on his own merits. Now, though, he shows himself to be much more willing to accept the "dispositions of Providence" and recognize that his desires to be elsewhere or to find his way out of his situation will not help him accept the reality of his isolation on the island.

At the same time, Robinson also has a more practical reason for deciding not to venture out to the other lands. Throughout the novel, Robinson is deeply suspicious of what he calls "savages." Here he uses the word to mean any native peoples of the Americas (as he used it before to refer to Africans), but, of course, the term also implies that these groups are barbaric, uncivilized, and frighteningly different than Europeans. At least for now, this assumption - unlike many others in Robinson's life - remains unchallenged.

Chapter 9 Quotes

I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover to me that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition than I should have been in the liberty of society, and in all the pleasures of the world; that He could fully make up to me the deficiencies of my solitary state, and the want of human society, by His presence and the communications of His grace to my soul; supporting, comforting, and encouraging me to depend upon His providence here, and hope for His eternal presence hereafter.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker)
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:

Robinson is reading the Bible and comes across a passage that speaks of God's promise not to forsake his people. He is greatly cheered by this passage, as he has come to accept that he will have to live in total isolation from society on the island. Robinson has continued to hold an ambivalent attitude towards this fact. On the one hand, he misses the excitement of society and recognizes that his notions of individuality make sense largely within the context of other people around him. At the same time, his streak of independence makes him more open to the idea that isolation can be positive rather than negative.

Now, Robinson finds what he believes to be divine justification for the more positive elements of isolation from society. Other people may not be around Robinson, he argues, but he is in the presence of God, and this presence can be even better felt when no one else is around to distract him. Robinson takes comfort in the fact that he has come to believe in God's plan for mankind, so that he no longer needs to worry about his own plan for his survival--or about ever being totally alone.

Chapter 11 Quotes

In the first place, I was removed from all the wickedness of the world here; I had neither the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eye, nor the pride of life. I had nothing to covet, for I had all that I was now capable of enjoying; I was lord of the whole manor; or, if I pleased, I might call myself king or emperor over the whole country which I had possession of.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker)
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

As the fourth anniversary of Robinson's stay on the island arrives, he takes the time to reflect on what he has learned and how he has changed since the shipwreck. He realizes that he has ceased to feel the driving desire and ambition that had been behind his motivations in England and eventually in Brazil. Indeed, Robinson recognizes that a large part of those desires came from the existence of a powerful social hierarchy that made it easy for one to constantly wish to climb up onto the next rung. Now, without anyone else to compete against, he can finally learn to be content with what he has.

Of course, part of that contentment stems from the fact that in terms of possession or use, Robinson is much wealthier than he's ever been - he has the entire island at his disposal. Still, he makes the broader point that being surrounded by other people makes it easy to be jealous and over-ambitious, in the sphere of love and material possessions as well as life and social rank. It is easier for him to attempt to be a good, fully Christian person on the island than it was in society.