Characterization and the Understatement of Slavery

The two texts, The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe, each feature the trope of slavery, which is then understated in accordance with the time.  Yet, the two texts differ with how they treat the characters who have been enslaved and the depth of the characters that are revealed.  For instance, Caliban in the Tempest is a native, enslaved by the other emigrants of the island, and is a stereotype with no redeemable qualities.  Furthermore, Caliban does not personally bond with any of the other characters, epitomized by Stephano only ever referring to Caliban as “monster” (2.2.194).  This level of distance and lack of character depth of Caliban is contrasted with Robinson Crusoe where the characters that have been enslaved are more detailed.  The most obvious instance of this would be that the protagonist himself becomes enslaved and personally interacts with the other slaves.  Yet, Crusoe still understates slavery with how Crusoe leaves the life of slavery behind him and does not reflect upon that life as he becomes a plantation owner.  He even goes so far as to use his experiences as an escaped slave bargaining with the natives to help the other plantation owners get slaves of their own.  This disregard of his experiences is then epitomized by his treatment of Xury, the fellow slave who helped him escape and bonded with him through the trials that they faced.  After Crusoe is saved by the Portuguese captain, Crusoe sells the boy to him and while he “was very loth to sell the poor boy’s liberty” (24), this is only for a moment and later regrets this act purely because he needed more manual labor for his plantation.  While The Tempest understated slavery it did so by making the slave unlikable thus seeming to justify it to the audience while Robinson Crusoe allowed the audience to see the depth of the slave characters and sympathize with them, only to have the protagonist treat them callously thus giving the text a more negative reaction from the audience.




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2 responses to “Characterization and the Understatement of Slavery

  1. Sophie

    I completely agree with your view on how the two stories differ. In The Tempest, it seemed that Caliban was just a bitter native. Yes, just about everyone on the island treated him like the slave the story portrayed him to be, but without a sense of human characteristic or depth, it was hard for me to understand how he must be suffering.

    I also agree with your interpretation of Robinson Crusoe and how getting to know the characters in their struggle THROUGH slavery affects the way the reader reacts when something happens like it did to Xury. To even imagine a situation where your “friend” escapes a horrible life, but then kicks you into it even further is such a depressing thought.

    It may also depend on the kind of personality the character has. We learn all about Crusoe’s thought processes (he’s the one character we know the most about), yet I don’t feel as bad for him getting stranded on the island as much as I do for Xury for having such bad luck in choosing a Crusoe as a friend. Nonetheless, knowing the characters (good or bad) makes a huge difference.

  2. autumncassidy

    I enjoyed the comparison you drew between the variances in the view of slavery in either work. Although I agree that it appears that Crusoe felt a slightly more profound degree of regret and distaste towards the idea of selling his acquaintances as slaves, I still believe that the overall compassion was lacking. Were he to really and deeply feel as though this person was his friend, I truly think that he would face more opposition in his thought process when contemplating whether or not to sell this particular person into slavery than he did. Instead, he was clearly focused on only how the situation could benefit himself, even if that meant placing a price on the life of another human being.

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