Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and the Protestant Work Ethic

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Robinson Crusoe and the Protestant Work Ethic

The story of Robinson Crusoe is, in a very obvious sense, a morality story about a wayward but typical youth of no particular talent whose life turned out all right in the end because he discovered the importance of the values that really matter. The values that he discovers are those associated with the Protestant Work Ethic, those virtues which arise out of the Puritan’s sense of the religious life as a total commitment to a calling, unremitting service in what generally appears as a very restricted but often challenging commitment.

The central concern of Robinson Crusoe’s experiences on the island is work. The great majority of the text is taken up with
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Having done that, having accepted that as his calling, no challenge can be too great to achieve it. And his success at making bread and all the other minor victories are a tribute to his resolution, to his surviving the test of the island. Agriculture is the perfect calling, of course, because it’s so time consuming and thus a daily proof of one’s perseverance. Fishing or hunting, by contrast, demand far less time in mundane activities. Of course, he didn’t rely much on fishing, as he might have, because it’s too easy, too sedentary, too meditative an occupation.

That’s why some things matter, while others don’t. The really important things in Robinson Crusoe are those that help him in his calling, especially the most valuable things he removes from the boat, the tools and the guns. Of course, he takes out some Bibles and clothes and liquor and materials. But these are far less important that the machines necessary for him to impose his will on nature. He makes no experiments with different forms of living or even with very different forms of food. He is not interested, because his task, as he sees it, is to impose his will on the island. And the book is a tribute to the unremitting effort one man makes to achieve that end.

In this endeavor, it’s really important to keep the accounts—especially to keep track of
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