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Robinson Crusoe, Home School Hero

Margaret Eustace France

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe more overtly promotes Focus on the Family's educational agenda; Crusoe's successful attempt to educate Friday can be read as an idealized depiction of the home school environment, complete with Crusoe's rescue of Friday from cannibals only slightly more ferocious than a child's classmates in American public schools. Crusoe and Friday's isolation both models the possibility of productive intimacy between student and instructor in a home school setting and parallels the estrangement of Focus on the Family's evangelical Christian constituency from mainstream America. Series editor Joe Wheeler encourages these parallels in his introduction to Robinson Crusoe. In describing the difficulties Defoe faced as a Nonconformist, Wheeler calls the impact of Defoe's religion on his education "an unexpected blessing" (xxi), taking several pages to explain, correctly, the historical advantages enjoyed by the students of Nonconformist Academies over those attending Oxford, Cambridge, and the public schools.8 Wheeler clearly delineates how Defoe's devotion to a religion with its own leaders, intellectuals, and, most importantly, institutions of learning, contributed to his literary success.

While Wheeler notes the biographical details that might make Defoe seem like a product of a culture marginalized in the same way as American evangelical Christians, Wheeler does not highlight Crusoe's education of Friday in the way one might expect. The results of Friday's makeshift schooling would seem to be of primary importance in an edition designed to appeal to non-institutional educators and students, yet Wheeler gives it no more space in the discussion guide than Crusoe and Friday's escape from the wolves, an episode squarely in what Rousseau would consider the "rigmarole" category. As I will detail below, Wheeler's approach comes through in the content of the discussion questions, but just the allotment of discussion questions reveals certain editorial priorities. Treating the two sections as equally relevant would be an idiosyncratic choice in any classroom, but it seems particularly odd in a Christian homeschool setting. Crusoe teaches Friday English, ethics, and cosmology with the Bible as their only text — should not this be of greater interest than the various wounds and attacks catalogued in the encounter with the wolves? Instead, the violent interlude becomes part of Friday's pedagogical journey. As Christopher Loar notes, when Friday defends Crusoe and the rest of their party from the wolves we see exactly how educated Friday has become as he demonstrates his mastery of European weaponry (18-19). Wheeler's allocation of discussion questions gives equal importance to Friday's martial and spiritual development. This tendency to underline, even privilege, violent scenes comes to define Wheeler's approach to the two novels.

The content of the discussion questions serves much the same purpose. The chapter titled "Footprint in the Sand" records Crusoe's spiritual struggles. Crusoe first interprets the footprint he discovers in the sand as the work of the devil, then attributes it to man and finds his faith in God no match for his paralyzing anxiety at the prospect of confronting the savages. After several days of reflection, Crusoe's faith returns, only to be rewarded with evidence of cannibalistic rituals. Rather than focus on Crusoe's spiritual journey here, Wheeler provides the following question as the catalyst for discussion: "Cannibalism — we recoil in horror at the very word. What are the lessons about life and death we can learn here?" (289). Though the openness of the question allows Wheeler's readers to bring in their interpretation of Crusoe's shifting notion of Providence, Wheeler invites explicit discussion of cannibalism while making no reference to the internal struggle that actually constitutes most of the chapter. Likewise, to Robinson Crusoe's final chapter, "Wolves," Wheeler appends this prompt: "Wolves are an integral part of our folklore and even our daily language. Like any other animal — human beings included — a wolf is one creature during ordinary times and quite another when it is starving. This differentiation needs to be taken into consideration when discussing this chapter" (290). Crusoe and Friday confront wolves several times in their journey over the Pyrenees, but as this is the conclusion to the novel, concentrating on the wolves makes violence and its causes the focal point for understanding not just the chapter, but the novel as a whole. In the prompt, Wheeler directs his readers to empathize with animals, a problematic suggestion in the context of the chapter. Despite the near-constant threat of attack, Crusoe's party mostly escapes injury, but animals suffer greatly. Friday shoots a wolf in the head to defend their guide. He subsequently downs a bear by the same method, but with a difference: the bear presents no threat to the group until Friday teases it for Crusoe's entertainment. In the course of the journey, Crusoe's party kills over sixty animals, which seems justifiable, if bloody. With guidance from Wheeler's prompt, this incident takes on a depressing air of inevitability: animals behave in their own best interest, whatever the cost. Violence is part of a natural world that forces humans, like wolves, to spill the blood of others. Wheeler not only chooses to emphasize violence here, but violence that is free of moral ambiguity. He does not mention Friday's bizarre dance with and subsequent slaughter of a bear, arguably the most memorable incident after Crusoe leaves the island, instead choosing to discuss the least ambiguous acts of violence — those involving the wolves.

Even on the most superficial level, Wheeler presents the novel as a series of violent conflicts, using chapter titles and subheadings that play up the goriest parts of the novel, occasionally dressing even placid moments blood-red. Eighty percent of Wheeler's titles and subheadings are identical to those running along the top of the odd-numbered pages in the Victorian copy text. When Crusoe discovers the human bones left behind by the cannibals, the incident occurs under the subheading "A Cannibal Orgy" (157), which Wheeler recycles, with modernized spelling, from the copy text. Crusoe's preparation for a confrontation that never occurs takes up a chapter called "A State of Siege" (160), a title that Wheeler picks up from the copy text and uses twice, as a title and a subheading (170). In both examples, Wheeler's preservation and repetition of the Victorian copy text's evocative headings prepares the reader for far more gore than he or she will actually find. Wheeler prefaces the text, structures the body, and asks discussion questions to keep the reader's focus on violence in Robinson Crusoe, an editorial approach that continues through Farther Adventures.

Nothing undermines the potential impact of the Christian education of Crusoe and Friday in the first book so completely as Wheeler's insistence that it is only part of the story. In his introduction to Robinson Crusoe, Wheeler includes Siberia, a setting from Farther Adventures, in his discussion of the way Defoe uses Crusoe to give readers an omnibus of early eighteenth-century travel literature (xi). More pointedly, Wheeler announces the projected release of Farther Adventures twice: once in the introduction and once in the main body of the text (xii, 282). Wheeler closes his edition of Robinson Crusoe with the portentous "End of Part One," while concluding the sequel Farther Adventures with a definitive "The End." Why does Focus on the Family dilute Robinson Crusoe's overt pedagogical message by using its edition of Robinson Crusoe to point toward Farther Adventures?

I would argue that Crusoe's evolving comfort with violence from the first book to the second might offer an explanation. In Robinson Crusoe, when Crusoe realizes that his island is the site of cannibal sacrifices, he vacillates between urges to annihilate or merely observe them. After first viewing the human remains left behind on the beach, Crusoe dreams of killing cannibals in large numbers swiftly and efficiently with his superior weapons but draws back, engaging them only to free Friday. When the cannibals return months later, Crusoe, after arming himself and Friday, finds his rage subsiding as he considers the situation: "It occur'd to my Thoughts, What Call? What Occasion? Much less, What Necessity was I 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" (232). Crusoe realizes that he has no spiritual or legal mandate for his aggression. He allows that Friday does have cause to attack, as he has not only been abducted by the cannibals but his people are "in a State of War with those very particular People" (275). Though this does not prevent Crusoe from engaging the cannibals when he sees that they intend to sacrifice a European (the Spaniard), he gives Friday credit for most of the body count in the skirmish. In his careful tally of the eighteen or nineteen cannibals killed, Crusoe identifies five as definitely killed by Friday, three as the Spaniard's kills, and the rest as injured or killed by "our shot" or "found dropp'd here and there of their Wounds or kill'd by Friday in his Chase of them" (281). After thinking through his proper relationship to the cannibals as a civilized man and a Christian, Crusoe avoids implicating himself solely or specifically with their extinction. Instead of ending with this Crusoe, Focus on the Family draws its readers toward the second book, where Crusoe becomes less capable of relying on his own judgment in matters of violence, and is at the same time more eager to engage in violent acts. Focus on the Family yokes the books together in order to leaven Crusoe's individual success with the revelation that Crusoe needs other Christians to help him direct his violent impulses, a revelation that only comes in the second book.
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