Reading the Self, Reading the Bible (or Is It a Novel?): The Differing Typological Hermeneutics of Augustine's Confessions and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe

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Abstract: Robinson Crusoe's conversion plot in Daniel Defoe's 1719 Robinson Crusoe bears striking similarity to Augustine's conversion plot in Confessions, especially in the ways Bible-reading is narrated as transforming the ontological nature of each "character's" self. This essay argues that while both Crusoe and Augustine employ typological hermeneutics while reading the Bible, their hermeneutics are informed by vastly different ontological, epistemological, and ethical assumptions and emphases. Dissecting and outlining Crusoe's "modern novelistic" typology and comparing it to Augustine's "premodern" typology reveals some theological limitations of modern reading practices that have long influenced how readers approach both novels and the Bible.


Saint Augustine has been linked to the formation of the modern introspective subject, and his Confessions has often been seen as a precursor to the modern British novelistic tradition. (1) Although scholars have disagreed, (2) such connections have merit, given how influential Augustine was on Protestant reformers and the Puritan culture out of which the modern British novel emerged? Indeed, Robinson Crusoe's conversion plot in Daniel Defoe's 1719 Robinson Crusoe, which itself has traditionally been classified as one of the first modern English novels, virtually imitates Augustine's conversion plot in Confessions? Both texts are spiritual autobiographies that narrate the trajectory of the individual self in relation to God using similar motifs. Augustine and Crusoe both discuss the need to reorder the desires and to control "Fancy" or appetite. Both, in retrospect, see that God worked in their lives through specific people and events, that God acted in their personal histories and had a providential plan. Both rebel because they are not satisfied with their stations in life: they are prideful, restless, and like Adam, attempting to be like God? Both also center on a Bible-reading conversion scene in which the "true self" is discovered in the moment of reading. At these conversions, both "characters" read the Bible typologically, employing a hermeneutics that has epistemological, ontological, and ethical ramifications for the reading self: the text simultaneously identifies, reforms, and instructs the self who is reading. In addition, Confessions and Robinson Crusoe are both constructed in the hope that readers also will be brought to an experience of self-knowledge and reformation through the reading process. In this way, both texts take on a function similar to the Bible's function within the characters' plots, providing opportunities for readers to gain moral and spiritual knowledge and thereby to allow their very selves to be radically altered.

Despite these striking similarities, this essay focuses on a crucial difference in the two narratives: the literal ontological nature of the individual reader or self. Although "typology" appropriately describes the hermeneutics employed by both authors, the varied assumptions and emphases grounding these hermeneutics are worth dissecting further in order to delineate the ontological nature of the "individual self" in each text and how this self relates to God, to the church, to history, and to creation. As will be seen, Robinson Crusoe binds together modern individualism and the Christian life in ways that differ significantly from Augustine's text.

Analyzing the hermeneutics informing Crusoe's and Augustine's Bible-reading can be fruitful for conversations both in novel studies and in Biblical studies, two fields that seem rarely to cross paths. (6) First, such analysis can begin to define a modern novelistic typological hermeneutics that would help us think about novels in relation to current discussions of "religion" and "secularism." (7) Second, it can help renew theories and practices of typological Bible-reading for the church, which has, especially in the United States, too often taken up a Crusoe-like novelistic approach to reading the Bible. …


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