Common Ideas in Robinson Crusoe and the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

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No Such Thing as Nothing

Nothing is defined as the absence of anything and nothingness is the state of being nothing or having nothing. By isolating the protagonists in a world where they are forced to find their own way, Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Franklin attempt to present their characters as coming from a state of nothingness. The realization that nothing, being a wide ocean or desert island, is merely an opportunity for something shapes the outlook that both Benjamin Franklin and Robinson Crusoe have in life. Rather than give up and succumb to nature’s forces, both characters maintain their humanity by establishing that they are in control of their own fate. Through two different representations of the ‘self-made man’, the concepts of pure subjectivity and nothingness are presented as parallels to the opportunities and hope found within the wide ocean and barren island in the story of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

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Pure subjectivity is the foundation of these two novels, which both build upon the idea that man is not a subject of his environment, but rather of his determination and hard work. To start, in Robinson Crusoe, when Crusoe takes over the island and turns it into a house, he displays his control over the island, and over his own fate, which depicts that he is in control of his own subjectivity. He repeatedly acknowledges that even when his environment does not favor his well-being, he “would provide for the accidents that might happen, and for the time that was to come” (Defoe 52). By acknowledging his hard-work and resilience, Crusoe overcomes many hardships that would assumingly set someone back to the point of giving up, such as losing all of ones mates in a shipwreck or being forced to find a new life on a desert island. Rather than allowing his environment to drive his life to the bottom of the ocean with the rest of his crew, he “gets over these things in some measure, and settles his household-stuff and habitation, and makes [himself] a table and a chair” (56). These examples of Crusoe changing his fate by not falling victim to his circumstances are merely a few of the situations in which Crusoe displays his resilience in response to his surroundings. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin, although displeasing his family by doing so, rejects the life that has been set up for him. He quickly becomes frustrated by the boundaries that he was born into, which attempt to confine him to an unfair life, so he “took upon [himself] to assert [his] Freedom” (Franklin 21). Like Crusoe, Franklin outwits his environment’s effort to control his fate by trying to get out of his brother’s company. However, his brother still challenges him by convincing other printing company owners not to hire him, which begins the most obvious of Franklin’s endeavors to control his own life. He decides that, rather than allowing his brother to triumph, he “thinks of going to New York” (22) to find work in a printing company that has not been tainted by his brother, which then takes him to Philadelphia, where he establishes a name for himself and finally becomes evidence that through hard work, ones status in life does not dictate ones life.

Other than the idea of pure subjectivity, another concept that these two novels share is that of nothingness, pertaining to both the physical setting of the stories and the backgrounds of both men. When Crusoe lands on a barren island and turns the ‘nothing’ into his home for the next few decades, a parallel is drawn between the island and the idea of pure nothingness. Both Franklin and Crusoe believe themselves to have come from nothing. If this self-identification as a rags-to-riches success story is true, they can be viewed as the human version of the barren island that Crusoe landed on, whose ‘nothingness’ gave way to opportunity. In particular in Robinson Crusoe’s story, landing on the vacant island is not the end for Crusoe; to him, it signifies a new start, even though he struggles to accept his loneliness for years. Unlike his shipmates, who dies in the storm, Crusoe “thanks God that [his] life was sav’d in a case wherein there was some minutes before scarce any room to hope” (Defoe 38). The deserted island marks the presence of God in Crusoe’s life because Crusoe believes that without God saving him from the storm, he never would have found the island. Furthermore, the empty island contrasts the idea of absolute nothingness because thanks to the ‘nothing’ on the island, Crusoe is able to make a life for himself out of the opportunity that was present on the island when nothing else was. Equivalenty to Crusoe’s fresh starts on the ship and then on the empty island, Benjamin Franklin’s setting out on the journey that eventually directs him to Philadelphia is a brave act due to the fact that he left everything behind. Franklin’s decision to start over and find a new life for himself, one that he would have to work hard to build, is the epitome of the so often clichéd American dream. Before Franklin even decides to leave Boston for New York, he employs the use of giving up what he has to achieve or earn what he does not. For example, when he “contrives to disguise [his] hand, and write an anonymous paper and put it in at Night under the door of the Printing House” (Franklin 20), he forfeits his name so that he can combat his brother’s bias against publishing his work. Furthermore, when Franklin eventually decides to take off toward New York, he looks out confidently at the wide void that is the ocean and sees it not as nothing, but as the opportunity for something, again proving that the absense of anything is merely the presence of opportunity.

Building upon this idea that opportunity contrasts the concept of nothing is the idea that hope can always be present if people recognize it. As previously mentioned, both Crusoe and Franklin find themselves in circumstances in which they could have easily given up. Nevertheless, each man displays his resilience in ways that emphasize that hope is the foundation of all earned success. Although both men would have had comfortable lives even if they did not restart, both men demonstrate that a comfortable life can turn into an earned, successful life with fortitude. To start, Crusoe outwardly asserts that he wants out of the life that his parents set up for him because he desires for more than just getting by. He acknowledges that his family’s life “was the middle state…which [his dad] had found by long experience was the best state in the world” (Defoe 6) because the happiness in life is not diluted by failure and hardships or embellished with pride and excess goods. The hope that motivates Crusoe to leave his comfortable life to find a better one extends to when he is on the island, when his status really demands hope. He acknowlegdes that with the lack of material things that will help him survive, all he has are “three encouragements, 1. A smooth calm sea, 2. The tide rising and setting in to the shore, 3. What little wind there was blew me towards the land” (42). By recognizing that hope is all he has, he promises to maintain the positive outlook that he has in life, which he does by listing the sufferings he is experiencing, but then countering them with the positive aspects of each. For example, he records that, “[he is] cast upon a horrible desolate island void of all hope of recovery. But [he is] alive, and not drown’d as all [his] ship’s company was” (54). This promise to turn everything into hope for a better life is also very present in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin believes the guild system to be restrictive and thinks it unfair that, despite his skills, he is forced to work as an apprentice under his brother who “demean’d from [him] too much in some he requir’d of [him], who from a brother expected more indulgence” (Franklin 20). Thus, his hope and desperation for a fair system open his eyes to the opportunity that is available to him if he is determined enough to start over. Very evident is the fact that both men are as successful as they are due to their abundancy of hope and scarcity of doubt.

American history has established that Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the epitome of the self-made man, however, the argument can be made that neither Crusoe nor Franklin are self-made men, that they do not in fact come from pure nothingness. Both men do come from a concrete nothingness; they leave their families, money, jobs, and lives behind to start over. However, neither man comes from absolute worthlessness because they choose to leave their lives behind in hopes of finding the more successful life that they so desire. If nothing else, this choosing to start over exhibits that they have hope in finding life from the opportunities lying in the ocean and on the desolate island. As rational beings, both Franklin and Crusoe often find themselves justifying deeds that they have done; Franklin justifies his name and self worth by submitting anonymous pieces and Crusoe justifies his actions regarding slave ownership by convincing himself that Friday owes him. For example, Crusoe reasons that because he saves Friday, the signals that Friday show him are “all the signs of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginabe, to let [Crusoe] know how, [Friday] would serve [him] as long as he liv’d” (Defoe 163). Throughout both books, the protagonists become so used to justifying their actions that they do it naturally, which can be to blame for their self-identification as self-made men who come from nothing to justify their actions and life as a whole.

Contrary to what both authors attempt to convey, it can be argued that neither story depicts a tale of absolute nothing. Undoubtedly, both protagonists start over at one point in their lives and give up all material items, but neither ‘self-made man’ ever exists in a state of pure nothingness. As depicted in many ways throughout both stories, Crusoe and Franklin view their life not as a life with nothing, but as a life with so much room for something, which gives them both hope. Rather than being stories of nothing to something, these two stories are tales of opportunity to success, accomplished via hope. If human nature has taught humanity anything, it is that hope and determination are perhaps the two most valuable things that a human can possess.

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