Robinson Crusoe

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Strangers, Savages, and the Unknown Theme Analysis

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.
Strangers, Savages, and the Unknown Theme Icon

Throughout his wandering journeys, Robinson continually encounters the unknown in a variety of forms. He visits unknown lands, sees strange plants and animals, and encounters foreign peoples. His first response to such experiences with various "others" is usually fear. He is especially frightened by the strange beasts he sees in Africa and on his island, as well as by the African natives he sees and the Caribbean "savages," who come to his island. Stemming in part from this fear, Robinson continually shows a prejudice against non-European peoples, whom he automatically refers to as "savages." Over time, Robinson at least becomes fond of Friday, but his relationship with Friday is still unequal. Friday acts as his servant, and Robinson is constantly condescending toward him. Although at times Robinson respects the cultural difference between him and the Caribbean people he sees (as when he decides not to involve himself in their cannibal rituals), he does not hesitate to teach Friday Christianity, not considering what beliefs of his own Friday might have. Moreover, Robinson does not allow Friday to try to translate or share his own name but instead decides on his name. It is telling that one of the first words Robinson teaches Friday is "master": despite any friendship between Friday and Robinson, their relationship is, at its core, one between a master and his servant. Beyond Friday, Robinson also has no qualms participating in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as he leaves Brazil to gather slaves from Africa. While he is not as cruel as the Spanish colonists whom he criticizes for murdering natives, Robinson repeatedly establishes an unequal hierarchy between Europeans and natives of other lands. Such an attitude can even be seen in how Robinson approaches foreign lands: he buys land for a plantation in Brazil, regardless of any indigenous peoples, and claims ownership over "his" island. Robinson sees wild nature as something to be owned or tamed, much as he sees indigenous or foreign people as inferiors to be used or employed.

Nonetheless, while Robinson Crusoe cannot be taken out of its colonialist context (it is, after all, set in the 17th century), it is possible to find a reading of Defoe's text more amenable to the colonized, enslaved, and oppressed people it depicts. Most of the time, Robinson's fears about the unknown are later revealed to be unfounded. The natives he sees while sailing along the coast of Africa and fears turn out to be generous, kind, and helpful. The island whose wilderness he fears supplies him with goats, grapes, turtles, and other things he needs to survive. And Friday, supposedly a "savage," is a loyal friend and companion. Indeed, the English mutineers who land on Robinson's island are just as dangerous to him as any cannibal (if not more dangerous). Thus, while there are real differences between Robinson and those he encounters during his journeys, one can read the novel as showing that prejudices against an "other" are often the result of irrational, false fears.

Strangers, Savages, and the Unknown ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Robinson Crusoe related to the theme of Strangers, Savages, and the Unknown.
Chapter 3 Quotes

For who would have supposed we were sailed on to the southward, to the truly Barbarian coast, where whole nations of negroes were sure to surround us with their canoes and destroy us; where we could not go on shore but we should be devoured by savage beasts, or more merciless savages of human kind?

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker), Xury
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

After managing to swim away with Xury and escape the pirate ship, Robinson knows that his struggles are not yet over. He remains on edge as, even more than before, he realizes that he is in an unknown place with no one to protect him, and must remain on alert for any other sources of danger. Still, Robinson shows himself to be naturally suspicious of certain kinds of danger in particular.

Robinson had known theoretically that joining a merchant ship could be dangerous, but that was the kind of danger that didn't bother him. What does fill him with fright are the thoughts of strange, different peoples - in particular Africans. Robinson equates "savage beasts" with "savage" men, espousing a crude, colonialist-inflected understanding of other peoples, especially dark-skinned peoples, as less than human. At the same time, the history of colonialism in Africa is such that it probably is probable, at this historical moment, that a white man would be (justifiably) looked upon with equal suspicion and fear by those peoples themselves. 


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Chapter 4 Quotes

He offered me also sixty pieces of eight more for my boy Xury, which I was loth to take; not that I was unwilling to let the captain have him, but I was very loth to sell the poor boy's liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own. However, when I let him know my reason, he owned it to be just, and offered me this medium, that he would give the boy an obligation to set him free in ten years, if he turned Christian; upon this, and Xury saying he was willing to go to him, I let the captain have him.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker), Xury, The Portuguese Captain
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

If there's anything we've learned about Robinson through the first few chapters of the book, it's that he prizes his freedom and individuality above nearly all else. This is what has motivated him to go to sea and what has propelled him to escape - of course, with the help of Xury. Robinson seems to grant, at least implicitly, that there is a massive contradiction between wanting freedom for himself and agreeing to sell off someone else into slavery: this is why he makes clear that he was so reluctant to take away the boy's "liberty." 

Still, Robinson cannot be that reluctant, since he soon agrees to the captain's terms. He seems to justify these terms to himself based on the captain's agreement to set Xury free if he converts to Christianity (though only in ten years) - which for him is significant enough to counteract any other questions. Although Robinson has spent a great deal of time with Xury, and though he seems to really enjoy his company, he fails to consider the boy, who is not from England, as a person with the same hopes, fears, and human dignity as himself.

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 15 Quotes

And therefore it could not be just for me to fall upon them; that this would justify the conduct of the Spaniards in all their barbarities practiced in America, where they destroyed millions of these people; who, however they were idolators and barbarians, and had several bloody and barbarous rites in their customs, such as sacrificing human bodies to their idols, were yet, as to the Spaniards, very innocent people; and that the rooting them out of the country is spoken of with the utmost abhorrence and detestation by even the Spaniards themselves at this time, and by all other Christian nations of Europe, as a mere butchery, a bloody and unnatural piece of cruelty, unjustifiable either to God or man.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker)
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

Having spent several years developing a fortress and strategies of defense, Robinson has begun to plan how he might spring upon the "savages" and kill them by surprise. However, he soon begins to think better of this plan. Although the English had plenty of colonies themselves around this time, many Englishmen tended to view the process of Spanish colonization with disapproval, claiming that the Spaniards had treated natives with great brutality and cruelty, without any justification for such actions. If Robinson too were to kill the natives for no reason, he would be no better than the Spanish.

Robinson also begins to wonder if certain practices, such as those of human sacrifice, are as undeniably evil as they seem to him. He recognizes that he does not have the knowledge or capacity to fully judge other peoples whose customs are so different than his own. While Robinson maintains that his own Christian religion is superior, then, he does at least begin to express some openness regarding the potential legitimacy of unknown peoples' customs and cultures.

Chapter 21 Quotes

But it occurred to my thoughts, what call, what occasion, much less what necessity I was in to go and dip my hands in blood, to attack people who had neither done or intended me any wrong? who, as to me, were innocent, and whose barbarous customs were their own disaster, being in them a token, indeed, of God's having left them, with the other nations of that part of the world, to such stupidity, and to such inhuman courses, but did not call me to take upon me to be a judge of their actions, much less an executioner of His justice - that whenever He thought fit He would take the cause into His own hands, and by national vengeance punish them as a people for national crimes, but that, in the meantime, it was none of my business.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker)
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

Robinson and Friday have observed the cannibalistic rituals of people from Friday's tribe who come to the island with their prisoners of war. Robinson, disgusted and shocked by this practice, decides to lie in wait and kill them. Soon, however, he once again begins to question his confidence about what is right and wrong. Attempting to apply questions of morality to their behavior, he concludes that these people have not hurt him, and that it is not his place to judge or condemn their behavior. 

Of course, here Robinson shows little doubt that the strangers' actions are evil in the eyes of God, and that God (according to Robinson's understanding of Christian truth) will surely punish these peoples himself. However, this sense of cultural and religious superiority actually makes Robinson more reluctant to intercede against those he terms the "savages," since he considers it God's place, not his, to punish them.

Chapter 22 Quotes

My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looked. First of all, the whole country was my own property, so that I had an undoubted right of dominion. Secondly, my people were perfectly subjected - I was absolutely lord and lawgiver - they all owed their lives to me, and were ready to lay down their lives, if there had been occasion for it, for me. It was remarkable, too, I had but three subjects, and they were of three different religions - my man Friday was a Protestant, his father was a Pagan and a cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist. However, I allowed liberty of conscience throughout my dominions.

Related Characters: Robinson Crusoe (speaker), Friday, Friday's Father, The Spanish Prisoner
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

After having begun his time on the island entirely alone, Robinson now has a relatively thriving community around him. The irony is that he has spent much of the book learning to embrace his isolated existence on the island, even claiming its superiority to the temptations of society. But rather than attempt to create another kind of society once he has assembled a group of people around him, Robinson seems to recreate a social hierarchy, making himself the king and the others his subjects.

Robinson does consider himself relatively more enlightened than European monarchs, since he allows freedom of religion in his "kingdom" - not something that was historically common at the time. He thus shows more openness towards different peoples and customs than might be expected for an Englishman of his time and place. At the same time, however, Robinson has hardly let go of the cultural and social assumptions with which he began his stay on the island.