Daniel Defoe

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Daniel Defoe Biography

Daniel Defoe was a survivor—and that's an understatement. He was young and vulnerable when an outbreak of the bubonic plague attacked England, killing hundreds of thousands of people all around him, but he survived. Then in 1666, when Defoe was not yet a teen, the Great Fire of London burned down a large portion of the city, including his entire neighborhood, leaving only his family’s and one neighbor’s houses standing. It’s no wonder, then, that his most famous book, Robinson Crusoe, is filled with adventure. Defoe’s novel is a fictional autobiography of Crusoe, who survived twenty-eight years on an island before he was rescued. The novel has remained so popular there is now a real island that bears the hero’s name.

Facts and Trivia

  • Daniel Defoe is sometimes credited with being the “father” of the English novel. Though that title is endlessly debated by scholars, Defoe undoubtedly popularized the form with Robinson Crusoe.
  • Defoe must have written every day of his life in order to publish almost four hundred works (books, pamphlets, and journals) on topics that ranged from crime to spiritualism.
  • Defoe was criticized in his time for selling his writing talents to any politician who would pay him. In other words, no one trusted him because he would take any side of an issue for the right price. His critics said he lacked integrity.
  • Defoe was a merchant by trade but was bad with money—so bad that he ended up in debtors’ prison. And in 1703, Defoe was also a political prisoner for criticizing the government. People in the streets drank and cheered as he read poetry from his cell.
  • Defoe often mocked people in power with his writing, so he often resorted to publishing under pseudonyms. The most outlandish pen name he ever used was “Heliostrapolis, secretary to the Emperor of the Moon.”


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Article abstract: Because of his inventiveness, his eye for detail, and his stylistic adeptness, Defoe was a great journalist and the creator of fiction that set the standard for the English novel.

Early Life

Daniel Defoe was born in St. Giles Cripplegate, London, the son of James Foe, a tallow chandler who later acted as an auditor for the Butchers’ Company (Daniel changed his name to Defoe in 1695). Little is known about Daniel’s mother, Alice, except that she came from Dissenting stock and, like her husband, was a Presbyterian. She died when Daniel was eight.

Daniel’s formal education began at the Reverend James Fisher’s school at Dorking, Surrey. Since Dissenters were refused admission to the universities at Oxford and Cambridge, Defoe then went to the Reverend Charles Morton’s small college at Newington Green—which, Defoe later commented, lacked the intellectual stimulus of the great universities.

Unlike his classmates, most of whom entered the ministry, when he left school in 1680 Daniel went into trade as a hose-factor, seeking out and distributing various sorts of goods. The business necessitated extensive travel in Europe. Since he was a keen observer, he thus gained knowledge of people and places that would be useful in his writing. In 1684, he married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a prosperous wine-cooper, who provided her with a considerable dowry. Mary was to bear her husband eight children.

The young merchant then became increasingly active on the political scene. In 1683, he published his first journalistic effort, a political tract. Two years later, he joined the army of Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Protestant duke of Monmouth, who was attempting to seize the throne from Catholic James II. When the rebellion failed, Daniel may have fled the country; in any case, two years later a Daniel Foe was pardoned for taking part in the uprising. In 1688, when William of Orange and his wife Mary, both staunch Protestants, became England’s monarchs, Daniel Foe was a highly visible supporter of the new regime.

His political contacts served him well, for his business affairs were in dire straits, in part because of imprudent ventures, in part because of heavy shipping losses incurred during a war with France. In 1692, Foe declared bankruptcy, and for a time only his income from appointments in the Whig government enabled him to support his family. He added the prefix to his name in 1695, perhaps to suggest to his new associates that he had an aristocratic background. During this period, Defoe also became a secret agent for William III; at the same time, he was again involved in a business venture, a brick and roof-tile factory near London. When it prospered, Defoe was able to pay off most of his debts, to buy a new house, and even to keep a coach. However, like the characters in his novels, he was soon to discover how abruptly Providence could change the direction of one’s life. At thirty-seven, Defoe became a writer.

Life’s Work

Defoe’s new life began in 1697 with the publication of his first signed work, An Essay upon Projects. In it, he suggested that the nation would benefit by educating women, providing care for the mentally retarded, setting up insurance, and instituting an income tax. The book is still of interest, demonstrating as it does Defoe’s original mind, his attention to detail, and the clarity of his prose. There is also much of lasting value to be found among the propaganda pieces that Defoe now began turning out, for example, the long doggerel poem The True-Born Englishman (1701), a brilliant work that...

(This entire section contains 2059 words.)

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countered attacks on William as a foreigner by pointing out that the English themselves were of mixed ancestry. The poem was extremely popular; according to the author, the first edition alone sold more than eighty thousand copies.

After William died in 1702 and the Tories rose to power, the Dissenters found themselves threatened by Tory extremists, and Defoe responded by writing The Shortest Way with Dissenters. Though the pamphlet appeared to urge the Tories to further action against nonconformists, it was actually a parody of the Tories at their most intolerant. When his intent became clear, Defoe was arrested, convicted of seditious libel, and sentenced to stand three times in the pillory, pay a large fine, and remain in jail for an indeterminate period. Defoe’s response was to write a poem in praise of liberty called “A Hymn to the Pillory.” Although Defoe was roundly cheered by the populace while he was in the pillory, he was deserted by the Whig leadership. It was the Tory leader Robert Harley who obtained a pardon for Defoe and also found him financial aid, for during his six months in prison the factory had failed, and Defoe was once again bankrupt.

Defoe now became a full-time professional journalist in the service of the Tories. It is difficult to believe that a single person could write so much, and so well, as Defoe did during this period. From 1704 to 1713, he composed and edited The Review, a landmark in the history of journalism. He was also turning out hundreds of highly effective political pamphlets and writing accounts such as A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal, the Next Day After Her Death, to One Mrs. Bargrave. . . (1706), which many consider his finest work as a reporter. Among Defoe’s many book-length publications were the political allegory The Consolidator (1705), Jure Divino (1706), a poem about the principles of government, and The History of the Union (1709), which drew upon the author’s knowledge of Scotland, where Harley had sent him while the two countries were negotiating over unification.

As long as the Tories were in power, Defoe felt secure; whenever he was arrested, his friends could secure his release. When George I succeeded Queen Anne and the Whigs took over the country, however, Defoe found it necessary to make peace with his old Whig enemies. He became a double agent, taking orders from the Whig leader Robert Walpole while still pretending to be a Tory. Not only did Defoe gather information from his Tory associates, but he also placed articles in Tory journals that would subvert their policies. It is ironic that at this time Defoe also produced a morally edifying book entitled The Family Instructor (1715), which became his most popular didactic work. In fact, it sold so well that he soon followed it with a sequel.

Since he had now become a master of subterfuge, perhaps it was appropriate that Defoe should try his hand at fiction. In 1719, he published Robinson Crusoe, which many scholars consider the first true English novel. Though purely fictional, Robinson Crusoe was presented as a true story of travel and adventure, so detailed that its veracity could hardly be doubted and so well provided with moral and religious content that not even a Dissenter could find it less than edifying. Some months later came a sequel, Further Adventures.

In these and in the novels that followed, Defoe like many earlier storytellers used a first-person narrator. What sets Defoe’s fiction apart from its predecessors, however, is a new complexity in characterization, especially where the narrator is concerned. Defoe’s narrators change and develop as the story progresses, thus providing a kind of unity and interest that simpler narratives did not have. Like Crusoe, the narrator- protagonists of Captain Singleton (1720), Colonel Jacque (1722), and Memoirs of a Cavalier (1724) describe the exterior landscape in painstaking detail, but they also take their readers into the interior landscape, confiding their fears, self-doubts, and moral confusion. These revelations make each protagonist distinct from the others. The narrator of A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), for example, is shown as a practical man who totals up horror like an accountant, almost certainly preserving his sanity in the process. Defoe’s women characters are just as interesting and just as distinct. The title character of Roxana (1724) describes her glittering past with regret and dies poor and penitent. However, the narrator in Moll Flanders (1722), who, along with Crusoe, is probably Defoe’s finest creation, is so adept at justifying her actions that one wonders if she has tricked even Providence, for the book ends with her rich and happy enough to indulge in a little repentance.

Defoe produced these great novels over the course of just five years and then turned back to nonfiction, rapidly producing books on subjects ranging from Conjugal Lewdness (1727) to A Plan of the English Commerce (1728). However, despite his industry, in the summer of 1730 Defoe was again in financial difficulty. Though his health was failing, he had to leave his family and go into hiding in order to escape an old creditor. The following April, he died alone in a rented room. Daniel Defoe was buried in a cemetery favored by Dissenters, not far from another literary genius well acquainted with prison life, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan.


Although scholars are still uncertain about attribution in a few cases, they have identified a total of 566 separate works as Defoe’s. So huge an output cannot be explained either by the author’s intellectual curiosity, though certainly he possessed that quality, or by his mastery of the language, though he had that gift, too. Defoe was responsible for supporting both himself and his family, and when his businesses failed, not once but twice, he could not quit. In desperation, he looked for other ways to make money, and he found two: political intrigue and writing.

It would be easy to brand Defoe as an opportunist who wrote whatever would sell and who in his own life ignored the principles he professed. That would be profoundly unfair. Defoe often wrote that his own difficult life had demonstrated how Providence operated. Like Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Defoe felt himself guided by God. He did not live to realize that his financial failures paved the way for him to become one of England’s greatest writers, breaking ground and producing works of lasting value in not one but two areas. However, as he said in a letter written from his hiding place just a few months before his death, his faith never failed. At the last, he trusted the God who had been with him in adversity and danger, on the pillory and in prison, to guide him safely to his eternal rest.


Bastian, F. Defoe’s Early Life. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981. A detailed discussion of Defoe’s family background, his youth, and his involvement in politics. Ends in 1703, with Defoe imprisoned in Newgate. Includes a good index, notes, and appendices. Illustrated.

Backscheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe: His Life. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. A lengthy biographical study of the author and his place in the eighteenth century literary tradition. Index and extensive bibliography. A work of major importance.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Daniel Defoe. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A volume in the Modern Critical Views series. Thirteen essays represent three decades of criticism. Subjects include point of view, theme, style, and characterization. Bloom’s introduction, Leo Braudy’s “Daniel Defoe and the Anxieties of Autobiography,” and John J. Burke, Jr.’s “Observing the Observer in Historical Fictions by Defoe” are of particular interest. Chronology, brief bibliography, and index.

Curtis, Laura A. The Elusive Daniel Defoe. London: Vision, 1984. Prompted by Defoe’s habit of writing in the first person, Curtis hopes to discover the true identity of the author by looking for repeated patterns in his novels. Voluminous notes point out similarities between Defoe and other writers and possible influences. Index. A highly original study.

Earle, Peter. The World of Defoe. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976. Though not new, this work is still valuable for its comments about the author’s society and his relationship to it. Helpful notes and good index.

Richetti, John J. Daniel Defoe. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Argues that examination of Defoe’s fiction should be balanced by careful study of his nonfiction. This book looks at both, noting both similarities and inconsistencies. Includes chronology, biographical overview, notes, and bibliography with secondary sources briefly annotated. Valuable.

Rogers, Pat, ed. Daniel Defoe: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1972, 1995. This comprehensive collection of comments about Defoe is essential for the understanding of such a complex figure. The editor’s introduction provides an excellent overview. Contains two appendices, brief bibliography, and index.


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Although Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) is typically referred to as an “English novelist,” he was also a pamphleteer, journalist, and an excellent storyteller who overnight became famous for writing Robinson Crusoe (1719), a story of a man shipwrecked alone on an island. Some literary historians have placed him along with Samuel Richardson as the founder of the English novel, but, according to the definition of the novel, Defoe is not a novelist. And although this is meant to be a biography of Defoe, it is important to briefly explain why he should not be thought of as a novelist, though some of his works, including Robinson Crusoe and Roxana, may certainly be considered as precursors to the novel form. 

A novel is a realistic story of some substance and length, with a clear social purpose, with a plot and characters, and in which the three elements are structurally interrelated so that development in one systemically affects the development of the other two elements of the novel. What we need to acknowledge here before returning to Defoe’s biography is that throughout his life, whether as a businessman, government employee, spy, journalist, poet, or storyteller, Defoe seemed to greatly value facts, history, and the real events of his times. Defoe was born as the son of James Foe, a butcher of Stroke Newington. He studied at Charles Morton's Academy, London, a school founded and patronized by nonconformist Christians who resisted the domination of the state religion which, at that time, was Anglicanism, or the Church of England. The Academy was famous for its opposition to Canterbury, the seat of the Anglican Church. Its principal was later the vice president of Harvard University.

Although his nonconformist father intended him for the ministry, Defoe’s passion lay in politics and trade, and he seemed to be irresistibly drawn toward the intrigues created by these two. He travelled extensively in Europe, and when he returned to England in the early 1680s, Defoe was a commissioned merchant in Cornhill. He went bankrupt in 1691 despite the fact that in 1684 he had married a wealthy widow, Mary Tuffley; they had two sons and five daughters.
Defoe earned fame and royal favor with his satirical poem "The True Born Englishman" (1701). The poem proves Defoe's radicalism. In this poem, written over three hundred years ago, Defoe argues that there is no “true born Englishman,” because almost every Englishman in London has come from somewhere else, an idea that is still a contemporary multicultural debate in the United States and in Britain.

Defoe’s next important publication is perhaps even more interesting. In 1702 he wrote the famous pamphlet "The Shortest Way With Dissenters." Himself a dissenter, he mimicked the extreme attitudes of High Anglican Tories, thus satirizing them, pretending to argue for the extermination of all dissenters. But the pamphlet offended Anglicans and dissenters alike. With the Anglicans he achieved his objective, but he completely missed the mark with his own people, the dissenters. Not understanding his irony, they took him literally. Some of the more intellectual and politically motivated Anglicans, however, who understood the satire, nevertheless instigated the usually poor dissenters and the latter rose against Defoe. This was a classic case of the satirist entrapped by his own satire. Defoe was arrested, thrown into prison, but before that was pilloried in May 1703. But Defoe would not quit. From prison, he wrote a mock ode, "Hymn to the Pillory" (1703). The poem was sold in the streets, and the audience drank to his health while he stood in the pillory and read aloud his verses.

Fortunately for him, the Tories fell from power and Defoe’s friend Sir Robert Harley became prime minister and helped Defoe with governmental appointments. For a while he worked in governmental jobs, including being a spy, and continued to dabble in commerce, selling clothing, leather goods, porcelain, and other household goods. It is said of him that Defoe was not very ethical doing business. Nor did he seem to be very good at managing his money, becoming bankrupt several times in his life. In his own time, Defoe was regarded as an unscrupulous, diabolical journalist by more famous writers such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.

Such nonconformist dealings notwithstanding, they must have prepared Defoe for what would ultimately turn out to be his real calling as a writer. Defoe was one of the first to write stories about believable characters in realistic situations using simple prose. In April 1719, he published Robinson Crusoe, a story based partly on the memoirs of voyagers and castaways, such as Alexander Selkirk. During the remaining years, Defoe concentrated on books rather than pamphlets. Among his works are Moll Flanders (1722), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and Captain Jack (1722). His last great work of fiction, Roxana, appeared in 1724.

In each of those works, there is an absorbing, realistic story line, and the realism is infused by details about goods exchanged, money transacted, profits and losses counted, and how they affected the characters. Reading such details can be very tedious for someone who simply wants Defoe to get on with the story, but the reader must realize that though Defoe wants to tell a story, the purpose behind the story is actually more important than the story itself. Defoe was a consummate political and economic animal, and such practical details as money and goods are supposed to teach his contemporary readers the virtues of industry and parsimony.

By the 1720s, Defoe had ceased to be politically controversial in his writings, and he concentrated on writing the narrative stories mentioned above. he produced several historical works, a guide book, and The Great Law of Subordination Considered (1724), an examination of the treatment of servants.

He went on writing right up to his death. In all, he is said to have produced over 6,400 pamphlets, many poems, and six long narratives. His last five years saw the publication of The Political History of the Devil (1726) and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). He died on April 26, 1731, at his lodgings in Ropemaker's Alley, Moorfields.


Critical Essays