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Reading as Ideology: Robinson Crusoe, Spiritual Autobiography and the Bible

La lecture comme idéologie : Robinson Crusoe, l'autobiographie spirituelle et la Bible

Stuart Sim


La lecture comme idéologie: Robinson Crusoe, l'autobiographie spirituelle et la Bible La lecture est au coeur même de la pratique nonconformiste en Angleterre aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. C'est par la lecture individuelle de la Bible et la tradition de l'autobiographie spirituelle qui nourrit les œuvres d'auteurs tels que John Bunyan que le nonconformiste apprend à organiser sa vie. En termes modernes, un écrivain tel que John Bunyan devient un rôle-modèle que les autres peuvent espérer égaler, sa propre autobiographie, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, servant de méthode aux prétendus élus issus d'un milieu nonconformiste. Robinson Crusoe ne fait aucune allusion à ses lectures dans ce domaine, mais le récit de sa vie sous forme typique d'autobiographie spirituelle révèle un personnage imprégné de ce genre de discours culturel, discours qu'à ce stade on peut sans erreur qualifier de nonconformiste. Dans ce cas, la lecture devient un acte de négociation avec son propre système de croyance qui permet aux nonconformistes de juger de sa valeur. Étant donné que ce système de croyance est en opposition avec l'idéologie dominante de cette époque, la lecture devient apparentée à la subversion et l'« enthousiasme » de Crusoe d'être parvenu au passage des Écritures qui révèle sa conversion en montre bien les éventuelles conséquences

Texte intégral

1 Introduction

1Reading lies at the very heart of the nonconformist experience in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century England. It is through individual reading of the Bible and the tradition of spiritual autobiography that feeds through the works of writers such as John Bunyan, that the nonconformist individual learns how to structure his or her life. Such texts are read very closely indeed by individuals searching for signs as to how to make sense of their own experience, and to determine what their likely soteriological fate will be. And we always need to remember that salvation and damnation are ideological no less than soteriological categories in this period; salvation is a mediated process for the established church, but not for the nonconformist community. Robinson Crusoe is backdating a pattern on to his own life that is derived from spiritual autobiography, although he never reveals any particular reading of his own in this area. The archetypal pattern does suggest that he is well versed in the nonconformist literature, however, and able to apply it to his own life. When it comes to the Bible, it is clear that his reading of this text is crucial to his survival and his psychological well-being, since it is through the act of reading itself that he is brought to the conversion experience and given proof of its validity. Reading practices have ideological consequences, therefore, in that they intensify Crusoe's sense of self and individual destiny, and these cut against the contemporary politico-religious settlement with its investment in conformity at all levels of society. Crusoe is in fact the product of nonconformist reading practices. What those practices are, and how they function in Robinson Crusoe, constitutes the subject of what follows.

2I will look briefly at spiritual autobiography and then Robinson Crusoe in terms of how the form enables both authors and readers to conceive of “life as a narrative;” then I will consider the conversion scene in Robinson Crusoe in more detail, to draw out the relationship between Bible-reading and conversion; finally summing up about the ideology of reading in the nonconformist tradition.

2 Life as Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography

  • 1 For detailed treatment of the genre and its history, see P. Delany, British Autobiography in the S (...)

3Spiritual autobiography plays a critical role in the development of the nonconformist ethic: it is at once therapy for the writer, and source of inspiration to the reader. It is an essentially didactic genre designed not just for the edification of the faithful, but for their practical use.1 Spiritual autobiography provides a pattern which the prospective electee can apply to his/her own life to see if it too contains any signs of likely salvation. In modern terms of reference, someone like John Bunyan becomes a role model that others can hope to emulate, with his own autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners as a training manual for would-be electees from a nonconformist background. You are invited to measure yourself against the author, with reading as your method of measurement.

  • 2 John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, ed. Roger Sharrock, Oxford, Clarendon Press, (...)
  • 3 Ibid., p. 8.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 65.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 17.

4Reading is at the centre of the conversion process in Grace Abounding, with the author attempting to read off his fate from the Bible. In the characteristic manic-depressive mode of this genre, the Bible sends out conflicting messages over the course of the character's arduous progress to a state of grace, and Grace Abounding soon turns into a dialogue with the Bible. Bunyan eases himself into this dialogue by means of reading popular pious works of the time, such as Lewis Bayly's The Practice of Piety and Arthur Dent's The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven, the books that his wife brings to their marriage as her meagre “dowry.” One of his earliest sins is failing to recognise the need for such reading, Bunyan describing how “when I have but seen some read in those books that concerned Christian piety, it would be as it were a prison to me.”2 His wife's dowry effects a change in his character, however: “In these two Books I should sometimes read with her, wherein I also found some things that were somewhat pleasing to me.”3 Soon, the long tortuous dialogue with the Bible has begun, with Bunyan's reading leaving him alternately elated and deeply depressed. He notes at one point that, “my soul did hang as in a pair of Scales'depending on what his reading was revealing to him at any one instant.”4 From the moment that the author states that, “I began to look into the Bible with new eyes, and read as I never did before,” we are off on a roller-coaster ride through Bunyan's psyche, where reading is an exciting, emotionallycharged activity dealing in matters of life and death significance.5

  • 6 Ibid., p. 76.

5Ultimately, the Bible begins to yield evidence of election to the author: “The Scriptures now also were wonderful things unto me; I saw that the truth and verity of them were the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; those that the Scriptures favour they must inherit bliss; but those that they oppose and condemn, must perish for ever more.”6 It is the act of reading Scripture, therefore, that makes that crucial soteriological division evident. By reading the Scriptures individuals discover what their fate is to be, bliss or condemnation, transforming reading into the key activity in the conversion process. And it is an isolating and individuating activity, with all the subversive ideological implications that it carries in the period. The nonconformist deciphers his/her fate by individual reading, not by the mediating efforts of the established clergy (who are, of course, entrenched again in power by the time that Grace Abounding is published in 1666). Reading becomes politics, a means of circumventing institutional power structures.

3 Life as Narrative: Robinson Crusoe

  • 7 See, for example, G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography, Princeton, NJ, Princeton Univers (...)

6Robinson Crusoe's debt to spiritual autobiography has been well documented in the critical literature from the work of G. A. Starr onwards, but it seems worthwhile to run through its implications briefly here to bring out the importance of reading in the overall process.7 Spiritual autobiography enables the hero to give his life a narrative shape, from sinful youth through to redeemed maturity (or at least assumed redemption, Crusoe can be a slippery character in this regard). The characteristic cycles of sin and redemption structure his career, leading to a life-affirming conversion experience, which confirms elect status. All the details of the character's life now have significance in a larger overall pattern: the pattern of the progress to grace. Whereas before there was only a collection of disparate adventures, with Crusoe's destiny seemingly lying outside his control, now there is order, structure, and meaning. Life is a narrative with a particular direction, and a narrative constructed in collusion between the individual and his God. Spiritual autobiography both promotes and demands individualism, and Crusoe, as a host of critics have noted, is one of the great heroes of the individualist ethic.

7Crusoe, as noted earlier, gives no particular hint as to his reading in this area, but his presentation of his life in the characteristic form of spiritual autobiography suggests someone steeped in that cultural discourse: a discourse heavily identified with nonconformism by this stage. He casts himself as the nonconformist protagonist struggling against the odds to achieve spiritual success, someone for whom the inner world is of far greater significance than the outer world of society. In Bunyan's case we have very little sense of that outside world, whereas we learn a great deal indeed about the author's psychological states and thought processes. Crusoe is similarly inner-directed, his enforced lone existence on the island constituting a potent metaphor for the cultural isolation of nonconformists (even more so when we consider that Crusoe's time there spans much of the Restoration period, when nonconformists were technically enemies of the state and thus subject to persecution by the authorities; as Bunyan, for example, was). The hero is engaged on a personal quest, where he can rely on no-one but himself, and the sense of self-importance this promotes in the individual resonates politically in a culture concerned to impose conformity on a recently rebellious populace.

4 Reading Your Fate: The Bible And the Conversion Experience in Robinson Crusoe

  • 8 Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. J. Donald Crowley (...)

8The physical act of reading plays its most crucial role in Robinson Crusoe in the episode of the conversion experience. Indeed, we could say that the several acts of reading in this episode form the crux of Crusoe's narrative; they certainly signal the moral and didactic centre of the novel. Ill, alone, and seemingly abandoned, Crusoe turns to the Bible for sustenance, poring over it intently for guidance as to how to act in the unfortunate situation in which he finds himself. He had described earlier how, ransacking the wreck of his ship for items to carry on to his island, “I found three very good Bibles which came to me in my Cargo from England”, “so he is well provided for in this respect.”8 Bible-reading is, significantly enough, introduced into his home-made medical treatment for his fever, the rather fearsome-sounding tobacco cure he undertakes; Crusoe recording how,

  • 9 Ibid., p. 94.

In the interval of this Operation, I took up the Bible and began to read, but my Head was too much disturb'd with the Tobacco to bear reading, at least that Time; only having opened the Book casually, the first Words that occur’d to me were these, Call on me in the Day of Trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me. The Words were very apt to my Case, and made some Impression upon my Thoughts at the Time of reading them, tho'not so much as they did afterwards.9

9There is a sense here of God speaking to the character, but not quite managing to penetrate through his lack of understanding. Crusoe has not learnt to read correctly yet, and it will only be when he is reading the Bible with proper attention to detail, “with new eyes” as it were, that the process of conversion can begin in earnest.

10The combination of tobacco and biblical hints seems to work, and as Crusoe recovers he comes to realise that it is reading that holds the key to his hopes of salvation:

  • 10 Ibid., p. 94.

In the morning I took the Bible, and beginning at the New Testament, I began seriously to read it, and impos'd upon my self to read a while every Morning and every Night, not tying my self to the Number of Chapters, but as long as my Thoughts shou'd engage me.10

11In between such readings he falls back into despondency, reflecting on his past wickedness and inability to feel true repentance, Again, it proves to be reading that saves him:

  • 11 Ibid.

I was earnestly begging of God to give me Repentance, when it happen'd providentially the very Day that reading the Scripture, I came to these Words, He is exalted a Prince and a Saviour, to give Repentance, and to give Remission: I threw down the Book, and with my Heart as well as my Hands lifted up to Heaven, in a Kind of Extasy of Joy, I cry'd out aloud, Jesus, thou son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance!11

  • 12 Ibid.

12We tend to read words like “providentially” nowadays as meaning “fortunate” or even “lucky,” but to Crusoe it really does mean that divine providence has intervened in his life. To read the Bible is not just to read the word of God, it is to enter into communication with God. Crusoe has been led to precisely the right piece of Scripture to resolve his spiritual status: it is no accident that the words “repentance” and “remission” have come into his field of vision to confirm the promise of deliverance made earlier. Reading the Bible is a channel to God; as the character notes, “I began to have Hope that God would hear me.”12

13As in Bunyan's case, this is reading as action rather than mere passive consumption; reading designed to provoke radical change within the reader. Crusoe's joy at finding apparent confirmation of his elect status expresses itself physically in bodily action and shouting, exhibiting the “enthusiasm” that the authorities of the time, memories of the civil war not yet eradicated from the public consciousness, so feared from the nonconformist community. This is religion as personal drama, and that is precisely what the political establishment frowns upon and wants to excise from English culture. From this point on, as Crusoe thankfully notes,

  • 13 Ibid., p. 97.

My Condition began now to be, tho’ not less miserable as to my Way of living, yet much easier to my Mind; and my thoughts being directed by a constant reading the Scripture, and praying to God, to things of a higher Nature: I had a great deal of Comfort within, which till now I knew nothing of.13

14Crusoe's conversion may be considerably more compressed than Bunyan's, but it does, as I have suggested, communicate a similar sense of acute personal drama; a drama generated by reading, which, as the character observes, now becomes a standard part of his life. “Constant reading” is what will keep Crusoe aware of his elect status; of the special relationship he feels he has established with God, significantly enough without any benefit of clergy. Isolated as he is in his island domain, Crusoe is the perfect nonconformist subject, completely free of all clerical interference, needing nothing but the Bible to confirm his internal conviction of divine justification.

  • 14 Ibid.

15The moral for others is clear: “I add this Part here, to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true Sense of things, they will find Deliverance from Sin a much greater Blessing, than Deliverance from Affliction.”14 “To whoever shall read it:” so Robinson Crusoe claims its place in the library of approved reading material for nonconformists.

5 Conclusion: The Ideology of Reading

16As Crusoe's episode with the Bible reveals, reading is an intensely individualistic activity with the capacity to develop a much stronger sense of self and personal destiny. Reading is effectively an act of negotiation with one's belief system, by which nonconformists can test its validity. Given that this belief system clashes with the dominant ideology of the time, that turns reading into something bordering on subversion; Crusoe's “enthusiasm” on being led to the conversion-revealing passage of Scripture indicating where this can lead. Right reading of the Bible requires that one is able to match Scripture to one's own experience and current situation, and that is a learning process that heightens one's sense of self. Adopting current educational jargon, we could say that the Bible provides specifiable learning outcomes for prospective nonconformist electees, but they do have to work hard to achieve these. It is not just the Bible that does this, of course, but the tradition of spiritual autobiography that the nonconformist individual can draw upon to structure his/her life as narrative. It is a discourse designed to encourage nonconformists to “read as they never did before,” in order to make sense of their lives. Robinson Crusoe extends that discourse into the eighteenth century, helping to demonstrate how reading has become a politically-charged act for the nonconformist community; a key element of their ideological programme.


1 For detailed treatment of the genre and its history, see P. Delany, British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969; D. Ebner, Autobiography in Seventeenth-Century England, The Hague, Mouton, 1971; and P. Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

2 John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, ed. Roger Sharrock, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962, p. 7.

3 Ibid., p. 8.

4 Ibid., p. 65.

5 Ibid., p. 17.

6 Ibid., p. 76.

7 See, for example, G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Presss, 1965; J. Paul Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974; and my own Negotiations with Paradox: Narrative Practice and Narrative Form in Bunyan and Defoe, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

8 Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, ed. J. Donald Crowley, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 64.

9 Ibid., p. 94.

10 Ibid., p. 94.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., p. 97.

14 Ibid.


Professeur de « Théorie critique » au Département d’Anglais de l’université de Sunderland. Ses nombreuses publications portent sur la fiction en prose aux dix-septième et dix-huitième siècles et sur la théorie critique moderne. Publications récentes : Bunyan and Authority (with David Walker ; Ashgate, 2000), Irony & Crisis : A Critical History of Postmodern Culture (Icon, 2002), The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (2002, 22005) and The Discourse of Sovereignty from Hobbes to Fielding (with David Walker ; Ashgate, 2003)

© Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2007

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