Partly a rehabilitation of Ian Watts’s Rise of the Novel, partly a theological deepening of Watts’s thesis, Joseph Bottum’s splendid Books & Culture essay on “The Novel as Protestant Art Form” is a literary education. Bottum hits all the fundamental issues, and he hits most of them out of the park.
He defends the once-standard judgment that Don Quixote is the “door by which we entered the modern novel,” since Cervantes’s mockery irreversibly cut the novel off from medieval romance. Despite complaints from Byron and others, “Cervantes won, his work too good not to provide us with permanently comic lenses through which to view that lost time.” Something of the “supernatural thickness” of medieval romance reappeared in the spooky Gothic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but there was no going back.
Don Quixote was a door, but doors are entries that don’t belong wholly to the rooms onto which they open. Cervantes presented a world that is “Protestant all the way down.” Victorian novels support Bottum’s thesis, but that becomes clear only when we escape the Edwardian “sneer” that the Victorians were hypocrites: “The sin of hypocrisy burns like Satan’s signal-fire for the Victorian novelists. Not for them the saturnine sophistication of the Continental aphorists or the Catholic cultures’ droll shrug at insincerity and pretense, the comedy of the Goliard poets and Rabelais derived ultimately from the ex opere operato principle of sacramental theology.” Victorian hatred of hypocrisy was rooted in Victorian Protestantism.
Robinson Crusoe is central to the argument. It is a deeply Protestant novel, for many of the reasons Bottum indicates. The “central moment of the novel” occurs after Crusoe’s sickness, when he “finally reads the Bible he has brought from the wrecked ship.” Defoe gives us a conversion “without a church community or a teacher to aid him, sheerly from the power of the divine text itself on an individual conscience.” Crusoe is Pilgrim’s Progress dressed up as a sea adventure, and Defoe shares many of Bunyan’s pietist instincts.
Bottum can’t decide which is egg and which chicken: Did Defoe isolate his hero because he wanted to depict a Protestant conversion, or did he start with a story of isolation and discover in it an ideal setting for his Protestant story? Either way, Crusoe is “a Presbyterian tale of redemption revealed to its hero by adversity, in God’s great plan and care for the individual sinner.”
Defoe novelized what Bottum calls the Protestant conviction that “the journey of the self is the deepest, truest thing in the universe, and the individual soul’s salvation is the great metaphysical drama played out on the world’s stage . . . the only story that is metaphysically true, of the individual soul struggling with itself in this world that God, in his Providence, has made.”
Here Bottum stumbles. For starters, to call Crusoe the paradigmatic Protestant novel is too broad-brushed. It would be more precise to say that it’s the essential English Evangelical or Puritan novel. There are, after all, ecclesial, sacramental forms of Protestantism that don’t produce stories of individual souls in island isolation. Bottum mentions Updike in passing as a Protestant novelist, and it would be revealing to see if Bottum could trace a genealogy from Defoe to Updike.
We don’t need to go all the way to Updike, though. By the end of the eighteenth century, Jane Austen was writing “Anglican romances,” stories of conversions at once romantic and moral that depend on the gentry equivalent of a spiritual director. Knightley’s severe “Badly done!” shakes Emma Woodhouse from her complacent snobbery; a letter from Mr. Darcy shatters Elizabeth Bennet’s prejudice. The moral skills of Austen’s heroines are developed in the intricate dances of small-scale social situations, at balls and in drawing-room banter. This may not be churchy, and it’s still Protestant. Yet in Austen the struggle of soul with soul is at least as important as the struggle of the isolated soul with itself.
Even in Crusoe, the journey of the soul is part of an actual journey—Robinson’s attempt to escape from his father, the journey through sickness, and the journey of civilizing the island. Crusoe is not about the “individual soul struggling with itself in this world” but about the soul struggling with this world, and with God through this world. Crusoe’s world isn’t merely stage; it’s character. Defoe is no Proust.
And Crusoe doesn’t end with conversion. Once converted, Robinson advances through a process of formation that prepares him for his encounter with Friday. Robinson the convert becomes Robinson the disciple, and then Robinson the disciple-maker. It’s a small church, but “where two or three are gathered . . .” And, Robinson’s formation occurs as he carves out a cultural order from the wild of the island. He is reborn not to retreat into cloistered contemplation, to recreate England on a remote island, complete with afternoon tea. He becomes Adam, taking dominion of his little world, his blessed plot, his demi-paradise.