Slavery & Social Class in Robinson Crusoe & The Tempest

Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe share many themes, notably the ideas of slavery and social class. In Robinson Crusoe, one of the first instances of slavery occurs during Crusoe’s second sea voyage in which he was captured by Moorish pirates, and then enslaved in the town of Sallee. Ironically, after having previously experienced being a slave himself, Crusoe becomes eager for slave labor and sets up an expedition to West Africa. I find this very troubling that a former slave could want to make another human being their slave. Slavery is also rampant throughout The Tempest, with the obvious slaves and other characters seemingly enslaved by Prospero.

Another account of slavery occurs when Crusoe saves a man, and in return he then vows total submission to him. Crusoe choose his name, Friday, and takes him as his personal servant. The separation in social class is made apparent between the two as Crusoe states, “I likewise taught him to say Master; and then let him know that was to be my name”. (Defoe 23) Crusoe never considers Friday as an equal or as a friend. The idea of social class is also apparent on the island of  The Tempest as there exists a division between royalty and the others who are either servants, counselor, or slaves. In each of the texts, at some point a character thinks of themselves as a ruler or “king” of the island. This is seen with the arrival of the English ship and Crusoe believing, “My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection, which I frequently made, how like a king I looks” (Defoe 25). This theme of who is in charge goes hand in hand, with the ideas of enslavement and social class.

 

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3 responses to “Slavery & Social Class in Robinson Crusoe & The Tempest

  1. Sophie

    I like how you mentioned that Crusoe himself was once a slave and knows of the hardships that comes with being one, yet he actually wants to look for someone to be his slave. That’s very ironic.

    What you said about the relationship that Crusoe and Friday share made me think about what makes Crusoe and Friday different. What could it be about Friday that makes him less resistant than Crusoe to being someone else’s servant? Perhaps it can be a difference in lifestyle; where Friday used to live, maybe daily life was much more difficult than what was asked of him by Crusoe on the island. Maybe Friday’s god influenced him to act this way.

    I wonder, though, if Crusoe really never considered Friday as somewhat of a companion. From what I understood in some parts of the story, Crusoe really enjoyed Friday’s company as an individual who helped him exercise his renewed faith and brought a more positive energy to the island. Granted, maybe Crusoe would have been happy with anyone else on the island as long as he was no longer alone, but I feel like Crusoe and Friday may have shared something a little more intimate than what you described.

    Overall, I agree with the connection that you make between slavery and social class – how they go hand-in-hand with a superiority complex that Crusoe and Prospero both experience.

  2. gpwestland

    In addition to the post, I would like to say that, though I initially agreed on the remarkableness of Crusoe enslaving others while having experienced this himself, we must consider the time that this is written in. During this day and age slavery was socially very much accepted. So in a way it is very well put of Defoe to construct a plot in which a formerly enslaved man enslaves other people himself and in doing so both highlights that is was acceptable and unacceptable at the same time. I think that Defoe uses the right subtlety here to draw attention to the issue.

  3. …although slavery has frequently been critiqued from a moral standpoint. So even though slavery may have been accepted, there was dissent about it, too.

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