Attacking, overpowering and eliminating cannibals

Robinson Crusoe has a fear of being eaten. For him cannibalism is the farthest thing from European civilization. His fear of being eaten develops at a young age when he decides to embark on sea adventures and is dissuaded by family and friends. However his lust to gain more adventure is a reflection of his acute luster to acquire which involves appropriation, exploitation and accumulation. This appropriation and acquiring often also involves compete domination and overpowering of humans. While Crusoe justifies his acquiring and appropriation to his distressed state from being a cast away, this also instills the fear of being eaten. These fears in Crusoe returns back to him when he encounters cannibals and witnesses the cultures and ways of cannibalism.

This fear of being eaten also naturally creates a biological revulsion to cannibalism which manifests in the Crusoe imagining attacking, overpowering and eliminating the cannibals. However things and outlook takes a change when he witnesses a group of European sailors executing prisoners in a manner and at the same spot as the cannibals killed their victims. In the later part of the story Crusoe even justifies the cannibalism act to an extent when he says that the cannibals cannot technically called murders as they kill people to fulfill their need for food — their need to appropriate and acquire. This he finds similarity with his feelings and somewhat begins to sympathize with the cannibals.

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This experience of Crusoe can also be applied to the modern society where acquiring is an accepted trend and sometimes even humans are not spared.

Cannibalism was one of the major fears or anxieties of Robinson Crusoe.

“I expected every wave would have swallowed us up” — this was the earliest indications that Crusoe was fearful of cannibalism and Crusoe revealed this while he recounted his first sea storm. This incident could have been written off as a mere metaphor but for the sequence of events that deals closely with cannibals and Crusoe’s dread of them in the latter part of the novel.

The eating spree and the fear of cannibalism and animals eating each other does not end with the completion of the desert island and cannibal section of the novel as the horror of one creature devouring another was repeated at least twice — when a horse is eaten by wolves and when a man is eaten by wolves (Defoe and Duvoisin).

But a hero being afraid of being eaten signifies a deep thought within the mind of the author and is somewhat uncommon of the author to project a hero who is fearful (Nishimura and Isoda).

This fear of cannibalism of Crusoe as depicted and imagined by the author, helps he author to enhance the problems that were faced by Crusoe as an important plot of the adventure story as the fear can be considered a possibility of the human condition. Moreover, the cannibals and cannibalism in the novel can serve a metaphorical function (Guest).

The fear and dread of cannibalism, the customs associated with cannibalism and the fear of being eaten up by a stronger entity is a form of anxiety that is common for all modes of power and accumulation. The strong and desire that is full of guilt that tends to accumulate and consume acquisitions is the primary cause of the anxiety apart from the dangers that are associated with being dispossessed, overpowered or devoured by a stronger entity. This is an anxiety that is found all around us in our lives and society.

Apart from wealth or power, acquisition in some situations also includes people. Crusoe’s actions in the novel are driven by an impetus that is derived from such a desire. However this very desire to acquire also creates a conflict within Crusoe during the course of the novel (Defoe and Duvoisin). The early indications of this ambivalence in Crusoe lies in his father’s attitude and has been indicated clearly in the early part of the novel where the father talks about the longing for enterprising adventure of Crusoe. While the education that had been imparted by Crusoe’s father to his son had in fact designed Crusoe for the law but in Crusoe’s words, “I would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea, and my inclination to this led me so strongly against the will.” But the inclination was resisted by the continuous and strong commands of Crusoe’s father and the entreaties and persuasions of his mother and other friends. Crusoe writes that their commands and persuasions were as if that a tendency of Crusoe to go for sea adventure would directly affect his life and lead him to a life of misery which was sure to befall upon him (Mackintosh).

Remembering his father’s commands and mother’s persuasions, Crusoe recalls how they had described his going to the sea as being means of the people with desperate fortunes or those who aspire for a superior fortune. They said that only those who wanted to rise by enterprise, and make themselves famous in undertakings of a nature out of the common road went abroad upon adventures. And Crusoe was told that these things were either too far above him or too far below his rightful dignity as he was in the middle state or better described as the upper level of a low life. His father believed that the upper lower level of life was the best state in the world and most suited to human happiness which the father had found by personal experience.

While these warnings and persuasions were intended to dissuade Crusoe, these in fact had led Robinson Crusoe to embark on a path that would help him satisfy his appetite for accumulation which he was forbidden to acknowledge or to express and which was condemned by his father.

In course of the development of the plot, Crusoe himself becomes a victim of its expression. This is so because the desire to appropriate acquiring can only express itself by projection onto others. This desire often gets back at the individual and returns as a threat of being captured and devoured which was the reason behind the fear of cannibalism.

Crusoe’s misfortune of being cast away on a desert island and constantly being in danger of being eaten by cannibals helps Crusoe to become aware of his overpowering desire for a life of “enterprise” in order to do away with his cast away condition and thus he needed to accumulate and consume. Robinson Crusoe’s life of appropriation, exploitation and accumulation is justified and underpinned by the fear of being eaten coupled with a biological revulsion to cannibalism. Realizing a myth of the present age, Crusoe, through his endeavor to become an appropriator and accumulator, he also becomes an economic Everyman. Justified by the conditions for survival imposed by the plot, Crusoe’s appropriation or expropriation is a domestic form of devouring-“enterprize.”

This is a trait that was warranted by his European political economy but was somewhat tamed by Christianity. The civilizing of a fundamental characteristic in a human being can be metaphorically witnessed when Crusoe manages to wean Friday away from human flesh towards animal flesh. According to Robinson Crusoe, rules are more effective than transcendence and displacement is the way to deal with the anti-social.

The primitive and fundamental appropriation, in the form of the cannibals, haunts Crusoe while he acts as an appropriator. This is signified by his aggressive conquest and incorporation that is expressed in his eating.

Even as he appropriates and incorporates more of the external world, Crusoe, in order to stand without guilt in relation to his father, must actively stand for the annihilation of that primitive style. This points to the fierce practice of cannibalism which is expressed in his words – “The cannibals capture and devour, not I.”

However in the case of Crusoe, the requirements to project the fundamental aggressive appropriation is not limited to the personal aspect but extends to the cultural aspect as well.

An even-handed condemnation of savages and Europeans is the primary trend of the troy during the first part of the novel. With several observations on the similarity of some Christians to the cannibals, in the initial parts of the novel, Crusoe makes a savagery similar to that of the cannibals adhere to the Europeans. For example, the arrivals of the Europeans with the prisoners on the island one fine day has been equated by Crusoe in a way that resembled the past landing of the cannibals with the prisoners whom the cannibals were about to eat.

This was best portrayed by Friday, who himself had been a cannibal once and also almost became a victim of cannibalism, when he called out to Crusoe saying that the English men were also in the habit of the eating prisoners as the savage men or the cannibals did. However Crusoe was confident that the Englishmen would murder the prisoners but would surely not eat them.

This incident ratifies Crusoe’s fear and apprehension about cannibalism as well as his deep belief in the culturally superior Europeans (Nishimura and Isoda). This has led to Crusoe to distinguish between the two killings — while the cannibals killed the prisoners to eat, the Englishmen simply killed them and would not eat them. A similar irony in the mind of Crusoe regarding cannibalism can be seen when he gives an account of a battle with the cannibals and with the counting of dead bodies. The savage actions of the Europeans were therefore projected onto the cannibals.

The plot that the novel is based upon successfully expresses Crusoe’s attempts to both express figuratively and to deny Crusoe’s own, and his culture’s desire for the power of appropriation and incorporation through the encounters of Crusoe and the cannibals.

A mode of being is emphasized in two significant psychological/spiritual episodes of Robinson Crusoe by the force of eating which is symbolic. The yearly fast is marked upon Crusoe’s arrival at the island and symbolizes his despair and helplessness. The second episode is the internal conflicts of Crusoe about his fear of cannibalism and his distaste to the way of life and is emphasized by the numerous encounters with the cannibals. Crusoe’s reaction to cannibalism was so strong that he often finds himself indulging in orgies where he imagines attacking the cannibals and completely overpowering them and finally annihilating them completely. However towards the end o the novel, Crusoe somewhat justifies the act of the cannibals and detracts from giving shape to his imagination of attacking them when he becomes self-aware that the cannibals were not actually murders in the actual sense of the word but were killing people to satisfy their need for food (Novak).

At this stage Crusoe even decides to avoid encountering the cannibals and even trying to find out if they were around. But he fails in the attempts and consequently his fears about being eaten and his strong reaction to cannibalism is activated with each subsequent encounter of the cannibals.


Defoe, Daniel, and Roger Duvoisin. The Life And Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe. Cleveland: World Pub. Co, 1946. Print.

Guest, Kristen. Eating Their Words. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Print.

Mackintosh, Alex. ‘Crusoe’s Abattoir: Cannibalism And Animal Slaughter In Robinson Crusoe’. Critical Quarterly 53.3 (2011): 24-43. Web.

Nishimura, Kinya, and Yutaka Isoda. ‘Erratum To “Evolution Of Cannibalism: Referring To Costs Of Cannibalism.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 228.2 (2004): 291. Web.

Novak, Maximillian E. Transformations, Ideology, And The Real In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe And Other Narratives. Print.

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