A Culture of Contempt

Written in the early 18th century, Robinson Crusoe was published about one hundred years after The Tempest, yet despite this great gap of time, the two still share many common values and themes. In both, the main characters exhibit a great deal of patience in confronting their situation, and are excellent examples of the human will to survive, of hope. Yet both novels also carry an unconscious sense of superiority for “civilized” – European – culture, and a disregard or disdain for the “savage” indigenous.

In The Tempest, Caliban, considered a native of the isle (though indeed he was not), was looked down upon as uncouth and wanting in a proper education. Though Prospero did teach him, he thought little of enslaving Caliban when he attempts to rape his daughter, an extreme he probably would not have taken had Caliban been European, because to him, Caliban was never really equal in the first place.

In Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe also maintains this sense of condescension towards the “barbaric” natives. Crusoe always looked upon Friday as his subordinate, not his equal. This is even evident in the name he gives him: Friday, not a more usual “Christian name”, but simply the day of the week that he rescued him. He also teaches Friday to call him “Master”, assuming such a role before he is even sure of the man’s undying loyalty toward him. Crusoe’s prejudice towards Friday’s people is perhaps most evident in his discussions on religion with Friday: he is convinced of the “rightness” of his beliefs, and so decides to “instruct him in the knowledge of the true God” (Defoe 158). In doing so, he does not acknowledge any possibility of a validity of other belief systems, and instead persuades Friday that what he believes is wrong – terming it “fraud”, “pretense” and “cheat” (Defoe 159) – and that Christianity is the Truth, “opening his eyes”. Here during this discussion, he also refers to Friday’s people as “the most blinded ignorant pagans” and seems somewhat incredulous that there is even a priest system amoung them, that they could possibly be so advanced.

Both novels demonstrate the attitudes of the time, attitudes that took far more than a single century to change. For readers of today, these attitudes are generally regarded as wrong, yet they are reflective of the society that produced them, and so should always be regarded in that light.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A Culture of Contempt

  1. One important thing to mention about Caliban is his slightly ambivalent character- is he man or is he monster? Prospero assures the audience that he was only ever unjust to Caliban after he tried to rape his daughter but Caliban says Prospero began to be unjust before that happened and that he only tried to rape Miranda out of spite. The audience is not sure whether to take pity or not on Caliban’s plight. The relationship with Ariel however, is much different and presents a relationship more like the master-slave relationship seen in Robinson Crusoe between Crusoe and Friday. This is a case where innocent human beings are being subjected to slavery.

  2. ashleighbarraca

    I completely agree with this post. In regards to Caliban, I get the feeling that Prospero did not really care all the much that Caliban attempted to rape Miranda. Any “uncivilized” act would have done, so long as Prospero could rationalize why he was taking Caliban into slavery. In fact, Prospero doesn’t seem to care that much about Miranda at all – except in regards to himself. I think it must also be noted that Caliban is portrayed as dumb and powerless against Prospero. One would think that being a witch’s son, he would have inherited some of her power and talent; but of course, in the time of Shakespeare, native peoples were nothing more than animals and of course could not fight back at all. Friday, too, completely accepts his fate – once again demonstrating the “willing black slave” stereotype.

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