He’s a Man, Man: Hegemonic Masculinity in “Robinson Crusoe”
Daniel Defoe’s bestseller, Robinson Crusoe, marked the beginning of stories obsessed with the “survival of the fittest.” However, going beyond the concept of survival, Robinson Crusoe became influential by defining its title character, Robinson Crusoe, as the “fittest” and serving as an interactive model for reinforcing the foundations of hegemonic masculinity through a white male hero who exemplifies and perpetuates masculine standards.
A primary concern in hegemonic masculinity is how it copes with the feminine and male recognition of effeminacy, and it does so through “the dread of and the flight from women,” which Crusoe does in a very physical sense (Donaldson, 646). Within the novel women only exist in Europe, so the audience is exposed to them for a few brief moments at the beginning and end of the story. The first appearance is through Crusoe’s mother, whom he asks to have permission to venture off on a ship to see the world after “a few days wore…off” the emotional and negative response of his father during which he “saw tears run[ning] down his [father’s] face;” this put his mother “into a great passion,” and she adamantly “refused to move [the idea] to [his] father” (Defoe, 7-8). Being ultimately unresponsive to these portrayals of emotion, rather the effeminacy in his father and femininity in his mother, the continuation of these pleas for “almost a year” (Defoe, 8), and Crusoe’s spontaneous decision to board a ship without consulting either parental figure shape Crusoe’s character as being immune to these emotions, as needing to escape them, and by physically dismissing them as being a masculine figure. This performance repeats itself when Crusoe introduces his marriage once he returns to England. Audiences can only imagine that Crusoe’s “dying” wife made the same pleas as his parents when his nephew comes home and Crusoe’s “inclination to go abroad” is sparked, leading him to go onto voyages once again (Defoe, 253). Because the emotions that come into play during the impending death of a spouse would contradict Crusoe’s masculinity, he must flee from the risk of expressing effeminacy, which Defoe allows him to do. These two scenes become interactive by serving as reinforcement of the flight from women. By mirroring the beginning scene with Crusoe’s parents, both in subject and placement in the text, an audience is introduced to an emotional female character, is reminded of the mother and Crusoe’s masculine response to her, and they can accurately guess that Crusoe will flee.
Another tenant of hegemonic masculinity, related to a less literal flight from the feminine, is that of bodily control in regards to self, connected to the “misogynist trope of the insatiable woman.” The control manifests itself in Crusoe’s regulation of food and drink, always in the form of fasting, “the ultimate in bodily self-denial” (Rowland, Liggins, & Uskalis, 46). On the anniversary of his arrival on the island, Crusoe “kept [that] day as a solemn fast,” and though he states that the purpose is one of “religious exercise,” it also perpetuates control of appetite as being masculine because it is performed by a character whose beginning flight from the feminine marked him as such (Defoe, 88-89). A similar response is given to Crusoe’s supply of rum, of which he “had a great deal left” after more than two decades spent on the island because he “had been so good a husband” to it (Defoe, 192). The control of intake and the control of his sobriety (or, alternately, the lack of indulging in food and drink) represents Crusoe’s control of his own body, his satiability, and thus his masculinity. How he deals with the rum is what makes his bodily control interactive. Audiences are exposed to Crusoe’s fasting and his masculinity, so when they consider his use of the rum, it is unsurprising to find it still present on the island so long after he first arrived.
Emerging from bodily control of the self is the “generat[ion] of dominance” in hegemonic masculinity, expressed through the control of other bodies (Donaldson, 655). The first instance domination is set is Crusoe’s induction into slavery, which he must (and does) escape; this arranges the possibility of one person being superior and the other(s) inferior. Putting the novel’s hero into the position of inferiority and allowing him escape demands that the audience recognize this positioning as bad and un-masculine. As such the most interactive parts of the story come from ensuring Crusoe takes advantage of every opportunity to assert his control over other bodies. Crusoe leaves his plantation in South America to find slaves, which would put other bodies in the inferior position he escaped from himself. His “serv[ing crows] as [they] serve notorious thieves in England” and his inclination to “call [him]self king or emperor over the whole country” represent, first, a British colonialist mindset, but more specifically, a masculine British colonialist mindset as he declares his dominance over the island and its animals while he is interrupted from finding slaves to work his plantation (Defoe, 99, 109). When Friday first meets Crusoe, he “[lays] his head upon the ground, and…set[s Crusoe’s] foot upon [it],” perhaps the most subordinate of positions, and Defoe uses this act to say that Crusoe is the absolute superior in this relationship, that the masculine white figure is unquestionably in control of the non-white savage (Defoe, 170). Even when Europeans land on the island, Crusoe demands superiority, which is easily given to him. The reason Crusoe obtains it lies in the fact that this masculine dominance must be absolute, specifically the British masculinity, and Crusoe as the culmination of masculine characteristics and his adventures on the island as interactive work to erase any thought that the hero would be able to fall into subordinate positions again—the masculine is in control as it must be.
Although the story is based on the experiences of Alexander Selkirk, it is still widely exaggerated, including the character of Robinson Crusoe, who becomes the “fantasy figure and model” for masculinity, the epitome of masculine standards for men (Donaldson, 647). This, in addition to the interactive aspects of the story where Crusoe was placed into situations with which he previously dealt that allowed the audience to anticipate his actions, employs Crusoe as the figurehead and demonstrator of the ideals of hegemonic masculinity.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.
Donaldson, Mike. “What Is Hegemonic Masculinity?” Theory and Society 22.5 (1993): 643-57. Print.
Rowland, Antony, Emma Liggins, and Eriks Uskalis. Signs of Masculinity: Men in Literature 1700 to the Present. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998. Print.
Wyeth, N. C. Robinson Crusoe Atop His Raft. Digital image. Barnes & Noble, n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. <http://img2.imagesbn.com/p/9781593083601_p0_v1_s260x420.JPG>.