Monday, October 17, 2011

Secondary Literature Post: The American Female as compared to Crusoe

Betty Joseph’s article “Re(playing) Crusoe/Pocahontas: circum-Atlantic stagings in The Female American” calls attention to the comparisons made between The American Female and Robinson Crusoe. Joseph presents The American Female as a novel of its own, saying that it “rewrites Robinson Crusoe but... more complex because it transfers Defoe’s piece into one of female self-fashioning and into a critique of colonialism”(1). Joseph’s main argument in her section on “The Island as the other’s space” is that not only does Unca display truer signs of Christianity and leadership, but that the female protagonist uses many of Crusoe’s actions as a stepping off point for her own success. Joseph points out that the use of the survival manual in The American Female critiques, and even belittles, Crusoe’s writing of his “novel” as the creation of a survival guide; a guide that is written by the hermit in Unca’s story. In addition to having a similar guide for survival as Crusoe, Unca writes the greatest chapter into the manual herself; one that outdoes Crusoe’s own writing abilities because it offers much more than “instruction” on survival. One of the most important points that Joseph brings up is that The American Female creates a “third space” or an “imagined community, where the founding father has been displaced by the not-quite-white mother, and where Christianity becomes a female fantasy of total being the rescues the native population from the history of Anglo (male) missionary projects” (1). According to Joseph’s evaluation of The American Female, the female protagonist offers much more depth to the castaway narrative through her creation of a “third space”;  “on an unnamed island, without a founding father, Unca secedes from the possibility of citizenship and consolidates herself as the delegated lawgiver of the Christian God in a third space, unlocatable in the national histories of either England or the United States" (1). The creation of this space, according to Joseph, sets Unca above and beyond the expected missionary, who strictly identifies with the the idea of the white Englishman who “takes over” an already inhabited space. Joseph paints Unca as a hero, who, rather than treating the natives as the “other”, actually saves their souls through Christianity.
Joseph’s article argues the status of The American Female as a work that is highly ignored in eighteenth century literature studies. Joseph presents many of the similarities between Unca’s tale and Crusoe’s through her own arguments for Unca as a stronger protagonist. Joseph emphasizes the “third space” as an important distinguisher of Unca’s story from that of Crusoe’s. This space that she creates becomes a place separate from the identity of an “American” or “Englishman”, and is rather a place where Christianity becomes a fantasy-like state that is free of colonization.
Through my understanding of The American Female, I see Unca as a much different figure than Crusoe. Like Joseph argues, she takes on a Pocahontas-like role; which distinguishes her as a savior to many people, not just to herself. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, where the main goal throughout is his own survival, Unca’s goal becomes her missionary work on the island; she seeks to be a tool to God, unlike Crusoe who looks to God to fulfill his own needs. I am actually a little surprised at the close comparison between the two novels, because I believe we are working with two completely different protagonists, with two completely different journeys. Unca's tale is one that emphasizes her given role as a missionary to the people of the island. Her story is about spreading her faith to others, while throughout the entirety of Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe is looking to solidify a faith for himself. 
Why do you think that Robinson Crusoe and The American Female are so closely related according to critics? Do you think that The American Female goes above and beyond what Defoe does in his own novel?
In terms of gender, do you feel that because Joseph is a woman, her article maintains a biased view on the comparison between the protagonists? Or do you think her argument is founded in fair and supported evidence?
Lastly, what do you think of how Joseph argues for Christianity in each work? Is Christianity treated completely differently in the two novels? What is she saying about how Crusoe deals with religion? Through Unca's spreading of religion, what does Joseph seem to think about the author's portrayal of the female soul? How does this article, along with your reading of The American Female portray the soul of a female character with that of a male (what attributes do women seem to have emotionally that males do not?).

Works Cited
Joseph, B. Re(playing) Crusoe/Pocahontas: circum-Atlantic stagings in The female American. Criticism v. 42 no. 3 (Summer 2000) p. 317-35


  1. The immediate connection between Robinson Crusoe and The American Female is that both Robinson and Unca have been stranded on an island due to shipwreck. Then they both turn to religion in order to cope with their situations. Like Dayna said the way they turned to their religion was very different. Unca tries to convert the inhabitants of the island to Christianity and wants to spread the word of God. Oppositely, Crusoe prays to God only when he needs something or feels alone. The American Female does mirror Robinson Crusoe, but there are some other key distinctions like that Unca is biracial and Robinson is white. Crusoe decides to leave home and go on an adventure by choice and Unca is forced to go. Regardless the success of Robinson Crusoe is what inspired other writers to imitate similar stories - like the Female American. Although I understand that there are many differences between the two novels, they do have similar plots. For a reader just skimming the surface of the two novels there are similarities that can quality the Female American as fitting into the "Robinsonade" literary genre.

  2. The similarities between Crusoe and the Female American are obvious. They are stranded by themselves on a deserted island and must learn to adapt and survive. I don't think I agree with the article, however, which says that The Female American goes above and beyond. Of course I am only half way through the book, but in the book so far, the reader knows that Unca was not the first person to live on this island. The fact that the male hermit lived before her and wrote guidelines to live by might belittle her success because she is following in the steps of man. She is still being put in her place by being a follower of the male, where Crusoe found everything out for himself.

  3. I do agree that we should be skeptical of a close comparison between Crusoe and Unca, but I have to disagree with the claims Joseph made about Unca's status as a missionary. While I see her as sincere in her faith and sincere in her motives to convert the natives, I don't see her as completely moral in her methods of doing so. Even though she is of mixed heritage, references her similarly "tawny" complexion, and purports to "understand" all Indian languages, she assumes her superiority over these people. She also undertakes her conversion through deceptive means (from within the sun statue), unlike Crusoe who converts Friday as his natural self. Maybe there is a larger statement to be made here -- would her conversion be as effective if they were to find out she was a woman? After all, all of their high priests are men... I'm interested to see if and when she will reveal herself in vol. 2, and what the implications of that may mean.

  4. I agree with Hannah that Unca's methods are questionable. I think the fact that, even when she reveals herself in the second volume, she does so as a kind of High Priestess sent by the statue implies a lack of morality. Unca does not believe that the Indians will take her seriously as herself, and must resort to deceit to convert them. Crusoe, as Hannah said, converted Friday in a very straightforward manner, while Unca's was very roundabout.

    I think it is important to note, however that both Crusoe and Unca USE their religion as a means of asserting dominance, not just glorifying God.

  5. The similarities have been stated already and are obvious. Both characters are trapped on an island, need to find a way to survive, and have large religious aspects. I disagree that Unca's finding of the guide belittles her survivor story. In the first few days she discovers and explores more than the hermit did in decades.
    I also don't see her as moral corrupt for the way she portrays herself to the natives. She did not do it as a power trip. She chose the way she thought would best gain their acceptance. "I hoped, I feared, I trembled, I prayed...the consciousness of the purity of my intention, and the goodness of my design, prevailed over every other thought....(87) Unca deliberates of the choice, and goes through with it to spread God's word. Even when she finally speaks through the statue she is afraid that what she did may be sinful. "I must acknowledge I trembled when I had done, and was sorry I had spoken, though truly and properly; yet I rightly concluded that I must proceed." (94) Going against God's will is not something she wants to do and indeed she feel's like she is following it to the best of her ability.
    In reality how else could she have shown herself to the natives and attempt converting them. Simply appear and tell them that their entire belief system is incorrect and hope they don't choose to kill her for being a heretic? She followed her morals and did her christian duty as best she could.
    Of course the idea that one religion is more correct than another or that it should be forced down someone's throat is a different argument entirely.

  6. I think the preceding posts have all done a good job of answering the question and bringing out the similarities and so I will not discuss those. I will say though that I feel that the narrator's motives and intentions of using Christianity as thematic devices are very different, and so to argue that Unca is a stronger or more empowered survivor or Christian is not really a valid point, at least as far as I see it, and I hope someone will argue this if I am wrong. What I mean is, Unca's use of Christianity is to demonstrate the incredibly civilizing power of Christianity I believe, and it's ability to give power to the believer. It's more of a missionary's narrative. In RC though, the role of religion, or rather Crusoe's interaction with it, is to show the redeeming aspects of faith. Through his lack of faith and eventual development of faith we can see how he elevated himself past his turmoil and tribulations. It's not quite like comparing apple's and oranges, but it is a little like comparing Superman and Batman, the one always sort of had the virtue and wielded it, the other had to learn it through the tougher way. And yes, I just compared Unca and RC to Superman and Batman...

  7. I think that Robinson Crusoe and The Female American are so closely related to each other because of the similarities in the idea of going through this struggle to gain control for themselves and in society. In Crusoe we see this urge for hi to go away empty-handed from his parents and gather the experiences needed to become an independent man. While on this journey he is able to find faith and gather further insight into Christianity. At the same time in a different manner Unca is doing just that. When her and her husband decide to finally stay on the island we see that this idea of control has been fully captured. They have control over their lives and are able to become something they weren't at all in the very beginning of the novel. It is also interesting how Unca too refers to faith and the belief Christianity provides for her. She started spreading God's word to do well under God's name to make sure she was fulfilling her duties. I think that it is this similarity in control and finding oneself that makes these two so similar to many critics.