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The plot of the novel is largely held together by the religious theme that winds throughout its action. The theme is set forth from the first chapter of the novel when Crusoe's father warns his son that if he goes to sea against his counsel, he will have surely regret his decision. The warning is prophetic and foreshadows all that is to happen. Like the prodigal son, Crusoe throws all caution to the wind and goes off to sea at the very first chance he gets. The result is disastrous. His first journey ends in a shipwreck, and he barely makes it to shore in a boat. When the storm first strikes the boat, Crusoe is fearful and guilt-stricken about his rebelliousness, but when the situation changes, his attitude also changes, in spite of the fact that the captain warns Crusoe about his past and compares him to Jonah. Providence, however, gives him a number of opportunities to mend his ways.
Crusoe goes back to sea and is then captured by Moorish pirates and made a slave. He manages to escape and reach Brazil, where he prospers as a planter due to his own hard work and ingenuity. He still, however, longs for more and enters the immoral business of slave trading in order to become even more wealthy. This act provokes God's anger, and Crusoe is again shipwrecked in a storm. He alone escapes and reaches a deserted island.
In this kind, intelligent, and obedient man, God answers Crusoe's cry for a companion, and Crusoe does his part and makes a good Christian out of him. He later proves his humanity by treating the Spaniard, an avowed British enemy, with respect and by acting humanely and wisely with the mutineers. Even though he knows that he holds their lives in his hands, Crusoe tempers justice with mercy. When God offers the opportunity for deliverance for the island to Crusoe, he accepts it with a sense of gratitude. He takes none of the credit of his escape for himself; instead, he acknowledges that Providence has provided for him.
When he returns to England and finds that God has blessed him even more, he becomes generous with both family and friends, sharing the wealth that God has given him. Robinson Crusoe, thus, becomes more than an adventure tale; it is the story of one man's emerging religious faith.
Although tightly tied to the religious theme, the plot also develops in the traditional manner. In the first chapter, Defoe introduces the protagonist of the novel, Robinson Crusoe, and sets up the conflict. The rising action begins when young Crusoe defies the warnings of his father and sets off on a sea journey. Throughout the next chapters, the rising action intensifies to a rapid pace, as Crusoe is shipwrecked, taken as a slave by pirates, escapes to Brazil, becomes a slave trader, is shipwrecked again, and lands on a deserted island. Once on the island, the pace of the action slows for a while, as Crusoe settles into his new lifestyle and struggles to survive. Through ingenuity and hard work, he transforms the deserted isle into a habitable, although lonely, environment for himself. Then Crusoe grows very ill, and it becomes his moment of personal climax. Since he is no longer able to help himself, he turns to God and begs for help and forgiveness. From this point forward in the novel, he is a changed man, a committed Christian who reads the Bible, prays, and is grateful for God's having spared his life and granting him continued mercy.