The Roles of Fate and Providence in The Odyssey and Robinson Crusoe
Both Homer’s The Odyssey and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe use fate to explain why the protagonists endure the trials they endured although in differing contexts. In The Odyssey, Fate assumes its traditional role of being puppeted by the gods, but with less rigidity. Mankind is given some freedom to determine their own destinies as demonstrated when Zeus remembers Aegisthus after Orestes had killed him: “Ah how shameless–the way these mortals blame the gods/ From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes/ but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, compound their pains beyond their proper share” (Homer 50). Homer does not seem to completely stray away from the role the gods play in commanding human destiny; however, he does not seem to entirely ignore the power mankind has in directing the course of their fates either and this is evident in Zeus’ statement to the other gods. Nevertheless, Daniel Defoe seems to place mankind’s fate entirely within human nature as demonstrated by what Robinson Crusoe tells his readers:
“My father, who was very ancient, had given me a competent share of learning, as far as house-education…and designed me for law; but I would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea, and my inclination to this led me so strongly against the will, nay the commands of my father, and against the entreaties and perswasions of my mother and other friends, that there seem’d to be something fatal in that propension of Nature tending directly to that life of misery which was to befal me” (Defoe 5).
As with Homer, Daniel Defoe does not rigidly conform to the idea that fate is entirely controlled by the divine or innate forces but that mankind has had some role to play in the fulfillment of their own destinies. Shortly after leaving Humber, Crusoe experiences a storm in which shortly after he recounts his feelings of being justly “overtaken by the judgment of Heaven” for what he thought is the result of his leaving his parents house (9). What this implies is that Crusoe does have an awareness of personal accountability. Although Homer and Daniel Defoe seem to agree on the presence of fate, both Homer and Defoe’s manner of manifesting it in their works are contrary, and perhaps this has much to do with the cultural backgrounds of both works.
For instance, Robinson Crusoe carries a religious theme that seems to mirror the religious background of its creator as noted by John Richetti, “Crusoe’s divided personality returns us to the young Defoe, the pious Dissenter who wrestled with a call to the ministry but returned to the wheeling-and-dealing life of a businessman and entrepreneur…” (xvi). Leah Orr agrees with this sentiment too, writing, “Defoe, himself, as far as we know, was a Dissenter, fiercely anti-Catholic, and interested in colonization only as far as it was profitable for investors…He (Crusoe) is Protestant” (Orr 19). Although, according to Orr there is little evidence to suggest that Daniel Defoe is trying to portray Crusoe in his image, Daniel Defoe is using Crusoe’s idea of Providence, an idea that is typified 18th century Protestantism when explaining the existence (and clash) of colonialist-inspired slavery (Koch 371). In this context, Providence does become a form of fatalism because it defines destiny:
I learn’d here again to observe, that it is very rare that the Providence of God casts us into any condition; and that of two ships companies who were now cast away upon this part of the world, not one life should be spar’d but mine…strong ideas form’d in my mind, realizing comfort, which the conversation of one of my fellow-Christians would have been to me. But it was not to be; either their fate or mine, or both, forbid it (148-149).
As Crusoe recalls the event which caused him to be isolated for so long on the island, he realizes the depth of the alternatives. His life could have ended just as the lives of the Spanish sailors could have ended, and for that he thanked Providence. Crusoe’s gratitude extended too to what he thought to be the savagery of the Trinidadian natives, in which he then claims that God “left them, with the other nations of that part of the world, to such stupidity and to such inhuman courses” (183). Now Crusoe’s idea of Providence begins to show symptoms of a dichotomy; Providence does not simply guide mankind towards their ultimate destiny, but it clearly separates man into two camps: the haves and the have-nots. The role of Providence in Robinson Crusoe may be rooted in 18th-century Protestantism; however, it is becoming an instrument of separation through which there are those where God shows favor (Europeans) and those whom God has abandoned (the “savages”).
Homer’s vision of fate follows a similar model. In The Odyssey fate may not completely command the destinies of mankind as it does in Robinson Crusoe, but it does allow for a man’s fate to be controlled by the whims of the gods. Odysseus is, since Book One, favored by Athena and hated by Poseidon. Athena becomes Odysseus’ champion, appealing to Zeus and mortal kings in order to bring Odysseus back to Ithaca. On the other hand, Poseidon wishes Odysseus doom. He sends massive waves to sink Odysseus’ ship. Fate in The Odyssey is determined by the level of favor a mortal holds in the eyes of the gods, and this is provable through the sacrifices held: “Pouring the lustral water, scattering barley-meal,/he lifted up his ardent prayers to Pallas Athena,/launching the sacrifice, flinging onto the fire/ the first tufts of hair from the victim’s head” (Homer 121). If a god does not like a mortal, then he or she may seek to alter that mortal’s fate. The gratitude of mortals towards the gods in The Odyssey is not completely set within the same dichotomy as Providence sets as depicted in Robinson Crusoe; instead, fate seems to be drawn arbitrarily, as long as those who control one’s destiny deems that person to be favorable. This use of fate as an indication of divine favor is noted by Robert C. Solomon who compares the significance of fate in The Illiad: “Fate, for Homer, cannot be gainsaid. Not even the gods—even Zeus himself—can countermand fate. Nevertheless, Zeus, at least, seems to have ample ‘elbow room’” (Solomon 10). To Robert C. Solomon, fate is seen as separate and distinct from the gods who are required to fulfill its demands; however, Zeus seems to possess some ability to defy fate’s decrees in The Illiad. In The Odyssey, the distinction between the will of the gods and fate does not exist in the poem.
In both The Odyssey and Robinson Crusoe, fate is used to explain the reasons behind the circumstances the protagonists are put into. In The Odyssey, fate seems to be related to the level of favorability a mortal held in the eyes of the gods. In Robinson Crusoe, God’s Providence guides man towards their destiny, but is is clear that there is a deterministic quality which divides people between the haves and the have-nots. Both depictions fate as portrayed in The Odyssey and in Robinson Crusoe seem to be based on the background of the works’ respective creators.