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October 19, 2010

Penitentiary Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe

Filed under: Uncategorized — E. A. @ 2:46 am

Penitentiary (Adjective)

1.      Of penance

Relating to penance.

2.      Concerning punishment or reform

Involving or used for the punishment or reform of offenders

3.      Punishable by imprisonment in penitentiary

Criminal law punishable by a term of imprisonment in a penitentiary



Penal Colony

Labor Camp


In reference to the above definition the “new penitentiary” can be viewed as a new reform idea. A new method enacted under the reign of Elizabeth I and followed through under the reign of James I; the act of saving a life by sending a person to a rough and “uncivilized” country where they would have to fight for their own sustenance. This act would not only force them to have to learn how to want to live and find sources of nourishment, this would in effect force the punished to develop a civil society of their own. This is what Robinson Crusoe is forced to do. Crusoe is a man who rejects the comforts of life offered to him by his parents. Instead, he seeks the adventured offered to him by the sea. Though his first voyage is a failure he does not disparage the missteps in his new life, he quickly falls further into the abyss of a newer and more dangerous world.

The manner in which he ends up on his solitary island is, of course, purely accidental; however, his being stranded forces him to make a home from nothing. Having to make things from scratch and teaches Crusoe the value of working from the bottom up and does make him pine for the comforts of life that were once offered to him by his parents.  As Bender mentions, Crusoe is forced to start a regiment and a system in order to maintain his sustenance. He farms and picks fruit and takes care of his live stock. He is thus enabled to live a comfortable life now that he has accepted a mandatory structure and orderliness in his life.  This is much different than how his life as a gentleman might have been if he heeded the counsel of his father.

Crusoe, through his constant desire for adventure, is stifled at the height of his personal productivity; after having established a growing and prosperous tobacco plantation from his own hard work Crusoe slips into the mentality of the colonizer and seeks the advantages of slave holding. It is not completely lost on the reader that Crusoe’s subsequent shipwreck is another dashing of his plans to conquer a people when he has not even managed to conquer himself.  Imprisoned on the unnamed island having all the freedom that he was so desirous of while simultaneously having said desires crushed out by this revelation. He obtains his goal and realizes his constant dissatisfaction, leading to a life time of self enforced labor for the basics of sustenance.

Defoe develops a matrix of the novel and of the city in Robinson Crusoe. The words Bender uses that signify society “(justification, investigation, compilation, adjudication, letters, lists, receipts, journals, records, evidentiary details)” are all represented in the novel. Crusoe implements all of these elements of “civil” society into his structuring of the island: journal making of his first two years on the island, letters left to the Spanish crew who were to be expected, a mental list of all his goods and their non-monetary value to his sustenance. He narrates all of his years abroad by writing a full account of the trials he faced while in an unconquered land, which he proceeds to conquer when he established order and as Bender states, when Crusoe presents himself as the Governor of the island.  At his rescue from the island and his years following, Crusoe seems to have grown from a decidedly unaware self-saboteur to a man who seeks only what was already his and nothing that is new.

Works Cited

Robinson Crusoe. Defoe, Daniel. Ed. Shinagel, Michael. 2nd Edition. Norton Critical Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1994. 1-120.

“The Novel and the Rise of Penitentiary: Robinson Crusoe.” Bender, John. Robinson Crusoe. Defoe, Daniel. Ed. Shinagel, Michael. 2nd Edition. Norton Critical Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1994. 373-390.

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