Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635

Fascinated as they were by tales about remote nations of the world, Daniel Defoe’s readers thrilled to such fictions as ROBINSON CRUSOE (1719), COLONEL JACK (1722), and CAPTAIN SINGLETON. Nor, of course, was Defoe the only writer of such literature. One thinks immediately of Jonathan Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1726), which, if it is not altogether typical of the genre, clearly attests to its popularity.

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Defoe can justly be called the first English novelist. The three outstanding works of prose fiction before Defoe wrote were Lyly’s EUPHUES, a courtly and philosophical work; Sidney’s ARCADIA, a chivalrous romance, and John Bunyan’s religious and symbolic allegory, THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS. Realistic characters and the commonsense point of view were Defoe’s contributions to prose fiction. In THE LIFE, ADVENTURES, AND PIRACIES OF THE FAMOUS CAPTAIN SINGLETON, unlike Robinson Crusoe to which it is undoubtedly inferior, character is subordinated to action. In both books, Defoe relied heavily on Dampier’s accounts of voyages, travelers’ tales, and available maps and geographies. The novel also contains a wealth of clearly imagined detail in its objective narrative, and two contrasted characters: the courageous, egocentric Singleton and the shrewd pacifist, William. Here and in the rest of Defoe’s fiction is the germ of the English novel.

CAPTAIN SINGLETON not only fulfills the requirements for travel literature of the period but does so to a fault. The emphasis of the novel is on action—at the expense of character—and colorful, incidental detail. Nearly the entire first half of the book treats Singleton’s wearisome trek from the east coast of Madagascar to the west coast of Africa; the second half, something of a non sequitur, embarks on quite a different course—Singleton’s adventures as a pirate. The novel, therefore, betrays Defoe’s tendency to indulge a tasteless reading public. It is diffuse, void of effective characterization, overly reportorial, and disconnected in its two major movements. It succeeds best in its fertile inventiveness and easy style. Only Defoe could build a lengthy episode around the idea of laying siege to a tree or cultivate such stylistic touches as: “to think of Death, is to dye; and to be always thinking of it, is to be all one’s Life-long a dying.”

This is a novel that also embraces much Puritan theology, as a reader would expect from the author of ROBINSON CRUSOE . Singleton is “homeless” in two...

(The entire section contains 635 words.)

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