The Divine Comedy and Robinson Crusoe - Dr. Christine Schintgen




2007 Summer-Fall - A peer-reviewed article from an Issue of the Academic Journal "Fedelitas" of The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars



The Divine Comedy and Robinson Crusoe: an Exploration of Two Journeys of Conversion in the works of Dante and Daniel Defoe

(A talk delivered to Madonna House, 24 January 2007—St. Francis de Sales)

Dr Christine Schintgen



What do Dante and Defoe have in common? There is a connection, apart from the fact that their names both start with “D.” Both Dante, writing in the early 1300s, and Defoe, writing in the early 1700s, created stories that involved a journey—a literal journey. In Dante’s case, the descent is through hell, where he sees the torments that the damned have brought upon themselves through their choice for something other than God; then up Mount Purgatory, where he witnesses the purification of souls from the seven deadly sins, and then up through the ten spheres of heaven, culminating in the beatific vision—a glimpse of the Divinity who is “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” In Defoe’s case, the journey is across the world, from England to a desert island off the coast of South America, where he resides for 28 years, before being rescued by pirates.

So far, nothing surprising. But the further connection is that both works were intended as allegories: that is, the literal journey stands for a metaphorical journey—a spiritual journey. For Dante, the spiritual journey is very close to the

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literal one. It’s the story of the soul’s conversion from sin— represented by the “dark wood” in which Dante is lost at thebeginning of the poem—to beatitude—represented by the mystical rose in the highest heaven, in which the souls of the blessed blissfully contemplate God for all eternity. Dante wrote explicitly in a letter to his patron Can Grande della Scala about how his poem was meant to be read as a spiritual allegory of the Christian soul’s voyage from captivity to sin, to liberation through redemption.

Now, for Daniel Defoe, too, the physical journey is meant to represent a spiritual one. That’s perhaps surprising to somemodern readers, because we tend to think of Robinson Crusoe as simply an adventure story—a great adventure story, but nothing more than that. In the Preface to Robinson Crusoe, however, the author has the fictional editor of the supposedly “historical” work say: “The story is told with modesty, with seriousness, and with a religious application of events to the uses to which wise men always apply them, viz. to the instruction of others by this example, and to justify and honour the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstances, let them happen how they will.” In other words, the tale is written to show how God works everything to the best, even in seemingly desperate situations. Robinson Crusoe’s journey from England to the desert island and back, is really the story of a man’s journey from wicked neglect of God to dependence on Providence and faith in the salvation achieved for us by Christ.

The allegorical level of Robinson Crusoe is not so hard to find, after all, if we go back to the original text (there are somany abridged and popularized versions that it’s never safe to assume that that is what we have read or not), we find

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passages such as the following, which occurs about a third of the way into the novel, after Crusoe has happened upon thephrase “Call on Me, and I will deliver you” in the bible which he retrieved from the beached ship he had been voyaging in:

Now I began to construe the words mentioned above, “Call on Me, and I will deliver you,” in a different sense from whatI had ever done before; for then I had no notion of anything being called deliverance but my being delivered from the captivity I was in; for though I was indeed at large in the place, yet the island was certainly a prison to me, and that in the worst sense in the world; but now I learned to take it in another sense. Now I looked back upon my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort. As for my solitary life, it was nothing; I did not so much as pray to be delivered from it or think of it; it was all of no consideration in comparison to this. And I add this part here, to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things, they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction. (151)

Modern readers will perhaps be astonished at the explicitly religious nature of the tale, and the extent to which Defoe’s

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journey, then, is symbolic of a greater journey—the journey from sin to redemption. But readers from Defoe’s time werereminded of the spiritual meaning of the work by the publication of the third volume of the novel in 1720. (There were three volumes: the first volume is what we normally read today; the second volume, entitled The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, was published with the first in 1719.) The third volume, entitled Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, with His Vision of the Angelick World, is a spiritual reflection on all the adventures that have taken place in the first two volumes, presenting the whole story as an illustration of the need to cast oneself upon the rock of faith and find deliverance in Christ.

Now that I have, I hope, established a similarity between Dante and Defoe in terms of the general purpose of their respective works and how the authors intended them to be understood, I want to move to the main purpose of my talk,which is to show how they are different. Dante’s journey of conversion is different from Crusoe’s journey of conversionbecause Dante is Catholic and Daniel Defoe is Presbyterian. I’d like to consider four ways in which these differences arefelt.

First, when we look at how each journey is carried out, we notice a profound difference in terms of the role of other people in accomplishing the journey. I’ll start with Defoe and then move backwards to Dante. For Defoe, the journey is essentially solitary. “Now wait a minute!” you’ll say. What about Friday? Well, indeed, what about Friday? One of the striking things we realize when we actually read the book, as opposed to merely hearing about it, is that Friday is much

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less prominent in the novel than in the popularized version. For one thing, he only appears two-thirds of the way into the novel. For another, Crusoe always keeps a certain distance from him, in terms of their social relationship. That’s true from the beginning of their encounter, in fact from the very first moment that Crusoe thinks of rescuing Friday from the cannibals who have kidnapped him and dragged him to the island. Here’s the passage: as he sees Friday being chased by his captors, he reflects: “It came now very warmly upon my thoughts, and indeed irresistibly, that now was my time to get me a servant, and perhaps a companion, or assistant; and that I was called plainly by Providence to save this poor creature’s life; I immediately ran down the ladders with all possible expedition, [and] fetched my two guns, for they were both but at the foot of the ladders...”(318). Crusoe does indeed save Friday, and in return, Friday “takes him by the foot, and sets his foot upon his head, in token of swearing to be his slave”(320). Crusoe tells him to get up, and is kind to him, but later in the same paragraph refers to him as “my savage.” There’s a clear hierarchical relationship between Crusoe, and Friday, and Crusoe is not on the lower side of the equation. So although Crusoe does have another person along on his journey experience, this other person is not his guide—if anything, it’s the other way around, on the whole. Crusoeteaches Friday his catechism and gets him to give up nasty things like eating other people. Indeed, Friday’s very name shows Friday’s indebtedness to Crusoe; Crusoe tells us that “I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life; I called him so for the memory of the time; I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know that was to be my name...”(324). No, Crusoe’s only real guide and companion on his journey is not a

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human one: it is his bible, the only really trustworthy guide, after all, for Calvinists (Presbyterians are essentially Calvinists) who profess the Protestant belief in Scripture alone as the only reliable guide in the spiritual life—Sola Scriptura. Robinson Crusoe, after his conversion process has begun thanks to his reading of the bible, comes to see solitude as a blessing:

“Thus I lived mighty comfortably, my mind being entirely composed by resigning to the will of God and throwing myself wholly upon the disposal of His Providence. This made my life better than sociable, for when I began to regret the want of conversation, I would ask myself whether thus conversing mutually with my own thoughts and, as I hope I may say, with even God Himself [...] was not better than the utmost enjoyment of human society in the world” (212).

For Defoe, conversion is an essentially solitary process.

How different the situation is with Dante! Anyone familiar with the Divine Comedy recognizes immediately that Dante- the-pilgrim has a number of guides, and all of them are superior to him. First, there is Virgil, the pagan Roman poet, who was sent by Beatrice, who was sent by Lucy, who was sent by Our Lady herself to rescue Dante from the snares of sin. In Paradise, there is Beatrice herself, the Florentine woman with whom Dante was in love for nearly all of his life. And then St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a most fitting leader for the upper stratisphere which is the dwelling place of Mary, to whom St. Bernard had such a great devotion. From the beginning, Dante recognizes his humble status vis-à-vis these travel-guides and mentors. Even Virgil, who has not baptized, has a dignity which Dante reverences; Dante calls Virgil “maestro”—master—revealing an exactly

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opposite relationship to that of Crusoe and Friday. And Beatrice... Can anyone doubt how Dante stands in relation to Beatrice? She is so high above him that he marvels that she condescends to look at him; but when she does, and she casts her radiant smile on him, the effect is breathtaking (Purgatorio canto xxxi: 139-144):

Parnassus’ waters, of its height,

genius fail tongueput by your veil...

O splendor of the eternal living light! Who that has drunk deep of

Or grown pale in the shadow

Would not, still, feel his burdened Attempting to describe in any

How you appeared when you

Now in case we were tempted to think that Beatrice herself is some kind of deity—some kind of goddess with her radiant beauty—Dante makes it clear that the dazzling light Beatrice send forth is a reflection of God’s light. Beatrice reflects the glory of God through her fidelity, grace, and holiness, much as Our Lady does. The point, then, is that Dante’s guidesserve as a reminder of the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints—the sense that we are never alone on our journey. We always travel in the company of all the other members of the Body of Christ: the Church suffering, the Church militant, and the Church triumphant. It is true that Virgil does not fit into that category as a non-baptized person, but we’ll talk about his more specific role a little

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further on. In any case, for Dante, conversion always somehow takes place in communion with the saints.

Now, at this point someone might object—but what about solitude? Don’t Catholics believe in that too? Can’t someone grow closer to God alone? Is the desert island a bad model for the experience of conversion? Well, for an answer to that, let’s turn to one of the best writers on the desert island experience—the desert experience—the poustinia experience—Catherine Doherty. In her spiritual classic, Poustinia, Catherine does write that the world needs people who will go into “real solitude” and “listen to God’s speech in his wondrous, terrible, gentle, loving, all-embracing silence”(216). But, as you know very well, Catherine never loses sight of the need for real communion with others. Solitude is both possible because of, and experienced for, others. In the same book, she writes, “To reach the beatific vision you must reach union with each other. In forming a family, a community of love, you have to accept the cross— embrace it gloriously and willingly”(87). The journey of conversion, then, from a Catholic viewpoint, is not, in the final analysis, a solitary one.

II. Time

So, we’ve looked at one major difference between Dante and Defoe in their presentation of the journey of conversion—namely, the role of other people. A second important difference I’d like to discuss is the significance of time in relation to the journey.

For both heroes, time has a special significance. After Crusoe lands on the island, he takes care to mark the passing of each day on a post: “Upon the sides of this square

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post I cut every day a notch with my knife, and every seventh notch was as long again as the rest, and every first day of the month as long again as that long one; and thus I kept my calendar, or weekly, monthly, and yearly reckoning of time”(98). Marking time is an important ritual, a way of giving form and context to an experience that is otherwise chaotic and wild.

Crusoe accords special significance to the day on which he arrived on the island: September 30th, which also happens tobe his birthday. He tells us: “The same day of the year I was born on, viz., the 30th of September, that same day I had my life so miraculously saved twenty-six years after, when I was cast on shore in this island; so that my wicked life and mysolitary life began both on a day”(209). This appreciation of the significance of time gives richness to Crusoe’sexperience, and is a pleasing detail.

We should notice, though, that the significance of time always relates back to Crusoe himself, not to some reality outside of and bigger than himself. A case in point is what happens with Sundays. At first, as we’ve seen, he kept track of and observed Sundays.

Not much later, however, we’re told that unfortunately he lost track of which day was Sunday: “Note: I soon neglected my keeping Sundays, for, omitting my mark for them on my post, I forgot which was which”(112). We sense that timeonly has significance to the extent that man is conscious of that significance and observes it. The most astonishingexample of that is Crusoe’s diary entry for December 25th: “Rain all day” (116). That’s it. No ‘Merry Christmas’. Nothing. Just “Rain all day.” While time has significance for Defoe in relation to the spiritual journey, then, that

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significance is dependent on the individual’s recognition of it, and indeed relates back entirely to him.

In total contrast, Dante’s journey of conversion takes place in the context of time which is laden with significance whether he is conscious of it or not, and which ultimately points, not to him, but to Christ. We call this phenomenon the liturgical year. Dante’s descent into hell begins on Good Friday: he enters into the realm of the dead on the very day on which Christ himself died; his journey there continues throughout Holy Saturday, the day on which Christ himself descended into hell. Dante emerges on Easter Sunday morning, climbs up Mount Purgatory, and ascends the various circles of heaven during Easter week, entering into the fullness of Christ’s resurrection. In other words, his journey towards salvation is accomplished in time, a time that bears the stamp of Christ’s saving action whether Dante seizes that significance or not. Christ has left his footprints on the sands of time, and Dante is following in those footsteps. The soul’s journey of conversion, then, for Dante, takes place in time, and that time is inextricably bound up with the life of the Church, and thus the life of Christ.

III. Reason

A third difference, which I’ll touch on briefly, is the role of reason in the journey of conversion. For Crusoe, despite the emphasis on reason that characterizes his period, the age of enlightenment, the human person is ultimately totally depraved and wretched, so that God’s saving action operates absolutely by grace on those whom he has (seemingly abitrarily) chosen as his elect. In contrast, the Catholic view represented by Dante suggests that reason can serve as a

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preparation for grace—a preparation for revelation. Virgil, the noble pagan, is a living (well, actually he’s dead, but apersonal) symbol of the dignity of the faculty of reason. Grace builds on nature, and reason is that part of our nature that, while not sufficient for salvation, nevertheless has a worthy role to play in the spiritual journey towards salvation. Reason, represented by Virgil, prepares us for revelation, and for grace, both of which are represented by the lovely Beatrice.

IV. Virtue

The fourth and final idea—closely related to the last one—is the idea of virtue. In good Protestant fashion, Defoe’s novel emphasizes “hard work” (he tells us that “I was not idle and [...] I spared no pains to bring to pass whatever appeared necessary for my comfortable support...”[239])—but he carefully avoids any suggestion of “works” as a necessary means to salvation. In fact, he is so careful in this respect that we don’t sense much of a transformation of his moral character at all. The craving for adventure that has been his downfall since the beginning of the novel doesn’t end after his conversion—actually it continues even beyond the confines of this novel and spills over into the sequel, the second volume of the series. Indeed, at the end of the first volume, Crusoe admits that he is “inured to a wandering life”(479), and his attachments to other people are superficial and fleeting. Take, for example, his description of his family life upon his return to England:

In the meantime, I in part settled myself here; for first of all I married, and that not either to my disadvantage or dissatisfaction, and had three children,

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two sons and one daughter. But my wife dying, and my nephew coming home with good success from a voyage to Spain, my inclination to go abroad and his importunity prevailed and engaged me to go in his ship, as a private trader to the East Indies. This was in the year 1694. (480)

Notice the very passing reference to his wife—the only reference in the novel. We don’t feel that Robinson Crusoe has, with his conversion, immensely increased his capacity for tender loving care—one of the signs of virtue. Indeed, according to Calvinist theology, there is really very little incentive for Crusoe to improve his moral life, since “works” have no effect on one’s salvation; they are at best mere tokens of one’s already elect status.

With Dante, again, the case is different. Conversion of soul is unthinkable without conversion of heart. The very first thing Dante has to do along his journey of conversion is to recognize sin for what it is: loathsome, vile, and hideous—in other words, to allow his heart to be formed in such a way that he actually hates what is evil. At first, he feels so sorry for the souls of the damned that he misses the point that what they experience in hell is really just the logical extension of what they chose in life. When he sees the souls of the lustful tossed about perpetually on the winds, and hears the tragic story of the adulterers Paolo and Francesca, for example, he tells us that “I swooned for pity like as I were dying,/ And, as a dead man falling, down I fell”(v. 141- 142). But later, under the tutelage of Virgil, he comes to see the unreasonableness of his position, and he rejects one of

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the souls of the wrathful—allegorically rejecting the sin itself, exclaiming “Accursed spirit, do thou remain and rot!”(viii. 38). Virgil praises him, saying “‘Blessed is the womb that bare thee’”(44), showing that Dante is growing in blessedness as he learns to reject sin.

As he progresses along the path of conversion, it is not enough for Dante to reject sin objectively: he must allow it to be purged from his own heart, in the arduous but fruitful struggle up Mount Purgatory. As he passes through each of the cornices representing the seven deadly sins (in order, pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust), he atones for his participation in each of these, and an angel wipes a P (for peccatum, sin) off of his head at the exit of each stage.

Even this purgation, however, is merely a preparation for what is most important: the inculcation of virtue in his heart, which is another way of saying the increase of love. As Dante ascends the circles of heaven, he beholds first-hand what love looks like. In Circle 4, for example, he encounters the Doctors of the Church, where he hears St. Thomas Aquinas (the Dominican) sing the praises of St. Francis; and St. Bonaventure (the Franciscan) describe St. Dominic with great reverence. He meets the warriors of god; the just; and the contemplatives, whose first representative, Peter Damian, rushes to greet him out of overflowing love. Translator and critic John Ciardi explains, “Speaking in a trance of bliss, spinning for joy in the rapture of its vision, yet moved by heavenly Love to share its joy with Dante, the soul explains that it is experiencing a vision of God”(p. 784).

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Through witnessing the splendour of souls given over to the love of God, and beholding the luminous glory of their faces, Dante’s own soul is transformed. As Dante nears the end of his journey, he is questioned on faith, hope, and love, to ensure that he has absorbed the lessons that the pilgrimage was meant to impart. St. John the Beloved tests him on love (how’s that for a pop quiz?), asking him, “to what [his] soul clings fast”(xxvi. 7), and he answers sincerely, “The Good which in this Court all longing sates/ Alpha and Omega is of every text/ Which love in accents soft or loud dictates”(13-15)—in other words, “to God.” By the time Dante’s journey is over, he has learned, not only to believe with his head, but to long with all his heart, for God, knowing that for this longing to be fulfilled, he must first have been cleansed of all sin, and readied himself to put into practice the virtues that allow God to dwell in us.

So, in conclusion, I’d like to suggest that both Dante’s Divine Comedy and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe are great works, works that have immense value in suggesting for us what the journey of conversion is like. Defoe’s novel inspires us with a vision of solitude in which one discovers God, and realizes that His deliverance is really the only deliverance that matters. Dante’s poem, though, presents an ultimately richer conception of the journey of conversion. He, too, leaves the familiar world behind, and embarks upon a journey of discovery, both of his true self, and of God. In fact, his journey into the underworld could be understood allegorically as a representation of what Catherine called the “pilgrimage of the Spirit,” in which one “journeys inward to meet the Triune God that dwells within”(Poustinia 27). Dante’s journey, as we have seen, is distinct from Crusoe’s in that Dante’s journey involves the

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help of the Church, as opposed to rugged invidualism; it takes place in time stamped with God’s significance rather than merely human significance; it allows for the role of reason; and it involves real conversion of heart and increase in virtue. [There are other important differences too, such as the role of the sacraments and of beauty in bringing about‘transformation in Christ,’ but I didn’t choose to focus on those aspects.] I’ll simply conclude by saying that although both works of literature contain illuminating depictions of the journey of conversion, Dante’s is better, because it contains more truth.

Works Cited

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. 1321. Trans John Ciardi. New York: New American Library, 2003.

-----. Trans. Dorothy Sayers. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1962.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 1719. New York: Aladdin Classics, 2001.

Doherty, Catherine. Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1975.

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