What makes Daniel Defoe unique?
Daniel Defoe (1660−1731), has long been considered the father of the English novel, even though he inherited an established picaresque tradition. He is also regarded as a great journalist, with a sharp eye for current events in early-18th-century London. As a “journalist,” Defoe published papers and pamphlets on virtually all the issues of his age: religious controversy, duels, bankruptcy, insurance, care for the elderly, and conditions for the mentally ill.
Defoe’s signature appears to be his plain style and his prosaic—as opposed to poetic—view of life. The writing itself takes on a conversational, unadorned style, with few allusions and few flourishes. It is attuned to modern life. Defoe is a great witness to the emergence of the middle class; he celebrates enterprise, mercantilism, and hard work. His views on industriousness and profit have been seen in terms of Protestantism and the work ethic. The focus in Defoe’s books is on the individual in this life; he doesn’t address religious salvation or transcendence.
For modern readers, his work raises the question: Is there no conflict between fattening your wallet and saving your soul? The commonsensical Defoe is visible in his world-famous "Robinson Crusoe." This story of a man abandoned on a desert island could have been an existentialist nightmare. In Defoe, it becomes a tale of "homo economicus": Get busy and organize the island.
"Moll Flanders" brings all these factors into play, while adding one more fascinating twist: The protagonist is a woman. The story of an innocent country girl corrupted by city life was a familiar topic for the 18th century. London, a thriving business capital, was growing by leaps and bounds.
After her husband’s death, Moll confesses that she never loved him, despite his kindness toward her. Instead, she is obsessed with his brother:
“And I never was in bed with my husband that I wished myself in the arms of his brother…. In short, I committed adultery and incest with him every day in my desires….”
Defoe shows us in this remarkable passage that the world of surfaces (Moll in bed with her husband) is echoed by a world of memories and other relationships (the world that takes place in her mind). We can’t help bringing that world into the world in which we live.