Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4990
Although A Journal of the Plague Year is not Daniel Defoe’s first work of fiction, it offers an interesting perspective from which to examine all of the author’s novels. Purporting to be a journal, one man’s view of a period in a city’s history, this work shows especially well the nexus between realistic reporting and imaginative invention that is the hallmark of Defoe’s novels.
A Journal of the Plague Year
Defoe himself lived through one siege of the plague, and although he was only five years old when the disease swept through London, he presumably would have retained some recollections of this catastrophic event, even if only through conversations he would have heard among family members. In A Journal of the Plague Year, he also refers frequently to the mortality list, drawing on actual documents of the time to give his narrative a sense of reality. In spite of the realistic foundations of the work, however, its imaginative—not to say fantastic—elements outweigh its realism. Defoe, in fact, often shows a surprising interest in the occult or grotesque for one who is supposedly forging the realistic novel in English. Dreams and premonitions often assail his characters—Crusoe’s dream of the angel, Moll’s telepathic contact with her Lancashire husband, Roxana’s precognitive vision of the dead jeweler—and the utter incomprehensibility of the plague takes this work far beyond cause-and-effect realism.
Perhaps the main thing to consider in A Journal of the Plague Year is the narrator, H. L., who, like many of Defoe’s characters, is divided spiritually: He must decide whether to flee London or stay and trust God’s divine Providence. Like Crusoe, H. L. in times of stress opens the Bible randomly and applies its words to his immediate situation. A problem with theme—often Defoe’s weakness—immediately arises, for while the passage that he finds in the Bible convinces him to stay, by the end of the novel he has decided that flight is the only sensible option. His stay in the city is not developed as a moral flaw, however, although, given the religious concerns of the novel, it seems as though it should be: Some critics even see him as guilty of overstraining God’s Providence. This view seems inconsistent with the overall sympathetic character of H. L., and one feels that Defoe is not, perhaps, completely in control of his theme.
Even more significant for theme is the origin of the plague. H. L., a sensible, levelheaded man, insists that the plague’s cause is natural; he is just as insistent, however, that God has used natural means to bring about the plague. In fact, he makes frequent biblical references that, if not providing specific emblematic types for the plague, do give it a resonance beyond that of a mere disease. Thus, the narrator’s insistence on seeing all the horrors of the plague for himself—even though he admits he would be safer at home—has led some critics to see his curiosity as a desire to understand God’s workings directly. Again, one encounters an awkward thematic problem. Is H. L. really curious about God’s wisdom, or is his seeming inability to stay home simply a narrative necessity? There would, after all, be no journal without an eyewitness. Like many thematic problems in Defoe’s works, this becomes one only in retrospect; H. L.’s emphasis on the particulars he describes can be so interesting—even if gruesome—that it is not until the reader has finished the book that these problems surface.
Two episodes from this work show how effective Defoe can be with detail. The first involves H. L.’s journey to the post office. Walking through silent and deserted streets, he arrives at his destination, where he sees “in the middle of the yarda small leather purse with two keys hanging at it, with money in it, but nobody would meddle with it.” There are three men around the courtyard who tell H. L. that they are leaving it there in case the owner returns. As H. L. is about to leave, one of the men finally offers to take it “so that if the right owner came for it he should be sure to have it,” and he proceeds to carry out an elaborate process of disinfection. This episode, on the surface merely straightforward description, is fraught with drama and ambiguity.
While it is realistic for the streets to be deserted as people take to the safety of their houses, the silence lends an eerie backdrop to this scene. Furthermore, the men’s motivations are hardly straightforward. Are they leaving the purse there out of honesty or are they fearful of contamination? Are they simply playing a waiting game with one another to see who leaves first? Does one man finally take the purse to keep it for the owner or for himself? Finally, why does he have all the disinfecting materials—including red-hot tongs—immediately available? Was he about to take the purse before H. L. arrived? H. L.’s remarks about the money found in the purse—“as I rememberabout thirteen shillings and some smooth groats and brass farthings”—complete this episode: The particularity of the amount is typical of Defoe’s realism, and H. L.’s hesitant “as I remember” also persuades the reader that he or she is witnessing the mental processes of a scrupulously honest narrator. In fact, this whole passage is so effective that one tends to overlook an internal inconsistency: Early in the paragraph H. L. says that the sum of money was not so large “that I had any inclination to meddle with it,” yet he only discovers the sum at the end of this episode. Defoe is prone to narrative slips of this kind, but, like this one, they are usually unimportant and inconspicuous.
Another vivid episode concerns H. L. going to check on his brother’s house while he is away. Next to the house is a warehouse, and as H. L. approaches it, he finds that it has been broken into and is full of women trying on hats. Thievery is by no means uncommon during the plague, although the women’s interest in fashion does seem bizarre. What is remarkable about this description, however, is its ambience: Instead of grabbing the hats and fleeing, the women are behaving as if they are at a milliner’s, trying on hats until they find those that are most becoming. This scene shows Defoe ostensibly writing realistically when, in fact, he is creating a picture that borders on the surreal.
A Journal of the Plague Year does not always achieve the degree of success that these two episodes display; much of the book is filled with descriptions of the cries and lamentations the narrator hears as he walks the streets. Even horror, if undifferentiated, can become monotonous, and Defoe does not always know how to be selective about details. One device that he employs to better effect here than in his other works is the keeping of lists. Defoe’s characters often keep balance sheets of their profits and expenditures, and while this may indicate, as Ian Watt contends, Defoe’s essentially materialistic bias, these lists often seem examples of the crudest form of realism. In A Journal of the Plague Year, however, the mortality lists scattered throughout are rather more successful and provide almost a thudding rhythm to what is being described: God’s terrible visitation.
Robinson Crusoe, like A Journal of the Plague Year and much of Defoe’s fiction, is based on a factual event: Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor, lived for four years on the island of Juan Fernandez until he was rescued in 1709. Defoe supplemented accounts of Selkirk’s adventures with information from travel books: Richard Hakluyt’s The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589, 1598-1600), William Dampier’s New Voyage Round the World (1697), and Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681). Nevertheless, it is as fiction—not a pastiche of other people’s books—that Robinson Crusoe engrosses the reader.
Because the story centers on one character, it depends on that character for much of its success, and critics have tended to divide into two groups: those who see Crusoe as the new middle-class economic man with only perfunctory religious feelings and those who see him as a deeply spiritual person whose narrative is essentially that of a conversion experience. The answer, perhaps, is that both views of Crusoe coexist in this novel, that Defoe was not sure in this early work exactly where his story was taking him. This ambiguity is not surprising given that the same problem surfaces in Moll Flanders; it was not until Roxana that Defoe seems to have worked out his themes fully.
The opening frame to Crusoe’s island adventure provides a logical starting point for examining his character. Writing in retrospect, Crusoe blames his shipwreck and subsequent sufferings on his “propension of nature,” which made him reject his father’s counsel of moderation and prompted him to go to sea. His father’s speech seems to echo the idea of a great chain of being: Crusoe’s life belongs to the “middle state,” and he should not endanger himself by reckless acts. If Crusoe’s filial disobedience seems trivial to modern readers, it was not to Defoe: His The Family Instructor, in Three Parts (1715) and A New Family Instructor (1727) make clear how important the mutual obligations of parents and children are. Crusoe himself, recounting his exile from the perspective of old age, talks about his father in biblical terms: After Crusoe’s first shipwreck, his father is “an emblem of our blessed Saviour’s parable, [and] had even killed the fatted calf for me.” When Crusoe reflects, then, on his sinful and vicious life, the reader has to accept Defoe’s given: that Crusoe’s early giddy nature is a serious moral flaw.
Even with this assumption, however, the reader may have problems understanding Crusoe’s character. Throughout the novel, for example, images of prison and capture recur. This makes sense, for the island is both a prison and, if the reader believes in Crusoe’s conversion, a means of attaining spiritual freedom. Crusoe himself is imprisoned early in the novel by some Moors and escapes only after two years (the events of which, like the events that take place over many long stretches of time in Defoe’s novels, are only briefly summarized) with a boy named Xury, a captive who soon becomes Crusoe’s helpmate and friend. Once Crusoe is free, however, he sells Xury willingly and misses him only when his plantation grows so large that he needs extra labor. Indeed, it is indicative of his relations with other people that when Crusoe meets Friday, Friday abases himself to Crusoe, and Crusoe gives his own name as “Master.” Perhaps one should not expect enlightened social attitudes about slavery or race in an eighteenth century author. Even so, there seems pointed irony—presumably unintended by Defoe—in Crusoe gaining his freedom only to imprison others; Crusoe’s attitude does not seem sufficient for the themes and imagery that Defoe himself has woven into this work.
Crusoe does not behave appreciably better with Europeans. When he rescues Friday and his father, he also rescues a Spaniard who, with a group of Spaniards and Portuguese, has been living peaceably with Friday’s tribe. Crusoe begins to think about trying to return to civilization with the Europeans and sends the Spaniard back to Friday’s tribe to consult with the others. Before he returns, however, a ship with a mutinous crew arrives on the island. Crusoe rescues the captain and regains control of most of the mutineers. They leave the worst mutineers on the island and sail off for civilization; Crusoe apparently gives no thought to the Spaniard, who will return to the island only to find a motley collection of renegades. Defoe may, of course, simply have forgotten momentarily about the Spaniard as his narrative progressed to new adventures, but if so, this is an unfortunate lapse because it confuses the reader about character and, therefore, about Crusoe’s humanity.
Another problem—this time having to do with theme—occurs at the end of the novel. After being delivered to Spain, Crusoe and another group of travelers set out to cross the Pyrenees, where they are beset by fierce wolves. They manage to escape, and Crusoe returns to England, marries, has three children, travels back to his island, and continues having adventures, which, he says, “I may perhaps give a farther account of hereafter.” One might argue that the adventures after he leaves the island are anticlimactic, although some critics try to justify them on thematic grounds, the killing of the wolves thus being the extermination of Crusoe’s earthly passions. The question remains whether the narrative can bear the weight of such a symbolic—indeed, allegorical—reading. The fact that the sequels to Robinson Crusoe are merely about external journeys—not internal spiritual states—shows, perhaps, that Defoe was not as conscious an allegorist as some critics imagine.
Given these thematic problems, it may seem odd that the novel has enjoyed the popularity it has over the centuries. In part, this may simply be due to the element of suspense involved in Crusoe’s plight. On one level, the reader wonders how Crusoe is going to survive, although the minute rendering of the day-to-day activities involved in survival can become tedious. Of more interest are Crusoe’s mental states: His fluctuating moods after he finds the footprint, for example, have a psychological reality about them. Further, the very traits that make Crusoe unappealing in certain situations lend the novel interest; Crusoe is a survivor, and, while one sometimes wishes he were more compassionate or humane, his will to endure is a universal one with which the reader can empathize.
Aside from the basic appeal of allowing the reader to experience vicariously Crusoe’s struggles to survive, the novel also offers the reader a glimpse of Crusoe’s soul. While some of Crusoe’s pieties seem perfunctory, Defoe is capable of portraying the character’s internal states in sophisticated ways. For example, early in his stay on the island Crusoe discovers twelve ears of barley growing, which convinces him “that God had miraculously caused this grain to grow without any help of seed sown and that it was so directed purely for my sustenance on that wild miserable place.” Two paragraphs later, however, “it occurred to my thoughts that I had shook a bag of chicken’s meal out in that place, and then the wonder began to cease; and I must confess, my religious thankfulness to God’s Providence began to abate too.” The mature Crusoe who is narrating this story can see in retrospect that “I ought to have been as thankful for so strange and unforeseen Providence as if it had been miraculous; for it was really the work of Providence as to me” that God allowed the seed to take hold and grow. Here the reader finds Defoe using a sophisticated narrative situation as the older Crusoe recounts—and comments on—the spiritual states of the young Crusoe. Indeed, one problem in the novel is determining when Crusoe’s egocentric outlook simply reflects this early unregenerate state of which his mature self would presumably disapprove and when it reflects a healthy individualism in which Defoe acquiesces. Perhaps Crusoe is most appealing when he is aware of his own foibles—for example, when he prides himself on building a gigantic canoe only to find that he cannot possibly transport it to water.
If Robinson Crusoe shows an uneasy balance between egocentricity and spiritual humility, materialism and religion, The Life, Adventures and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton, more commonly known as Captain Singleton, displays what Everett Zimmerman calls a “soggy amalgam of the picaresque and Puritan.” This problem reappears in The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Col Jacque, Commonly Call’d Col Jack, known to readers simply as Colonel Jack. Jack’s motives are often suspect. When he becomes an overseer in Virginia, for example, he finds that he cannot whip his slaves because the action hurts his arms. Instead, he tells the slaves they will be severely punished by an absentee master and then pretends to have solicited their pardon. Grateful for this mercy, the slaves then work for Jack willingly and cheerfully. While Jack describes this whole episode in words denoting charity and mercy, the reader is uneasily aware that Jack is simply playing on the slaves’ ignorance. It is method rather than mercy that triumphs here.
Moll Flanders and Roxana
The confusion in Captain Singleton and Colonel Jack between expediency and morality can also be found in Moll Flanders and, to a lesser extent, in Roxana. What makes these latter novels enduring is the power of their central characters. Both Moll and Roxana bear many children, and although they manage to dispose of their offspring conveniently so that they are not hampered in any way, their physical fertility sets them apart from Defoe’s more sterile male heroes. This fertility may, of course, be ironic—Dorothy Van Ghent calls Moll an earth mother, but only insofar as she is a “progenitrix of the wasteland”—but it adds a dimension to the characters that both Jack and Singleton lack. One also feels that Defoe allows his female characters greater depth of feeling: Each one takes husbands and lovers for whom she has no regard, but Moll’s telepathic communication with her Lancashire husband and Roxana’s precognitive vision of her jeweler lover’s death imply that both women are involved deeply in these relationships—even though Roxana manages to use the jeweler’s death as a way of rising in the world by becoming the Prince’s mistress. Defoe’s heroines may mourn their losses yet also use them to their advantage.
Another difference between the female and maleprotagonists in Defoe’s novels is that neither Moll nor Roxana descends to murder, whereas Defoe’s male picaros often do. Although Moll can occasionally rejoice when a criminal cohort capable of exposing her is hanged, she feels only horror when she contemplates murdering a child from whom she steals a necklace. Similarly, while Roxana may share an emotional complicity in Amy’s murder of her importunate daughter, she explicitly tells Amy that she will tolerate no such crime. Roxana also seems to have more thematic unity than Defoe’s other novels: Instead of advocating an uneasy balance between spiritual and material values, Roxana shows a tragic awareness that these are finally irreconcilable opposites. Roxana, although recognizing her weaknesses, cannot stop herself from indulging in them, and her keen awareness of what she calls her “secret Hell within” aligns her more with John Milton’s Satan than with Defoe’s earlier protagonists.
If Defoe begins to solve the thematic problems of his earlier novels in Moll Flanders and Roxana, he does so through fairly dissimilar characters. Moll equivocates and justifies her actions much more than does Roxana; when she steals the child’s necklace, she reflects that “as I did the poor child no harm, I only thought I had given the parents a just reproof for their negligence in leaving the poor lamb to come home by itself, and it would teach them to take more care another time.” She also shows a tendency to solve moral dilemmas by the simple expedient of maintaining two opposing moral stances simultaneously. When she meets a man at Bartholomew Fair who is intoxicated, she has sex with him and then robs him. She later reflects on his “honest, virtuous wife and innocent children” who are probably worrying about him, and she and the woman who disposes of her stolen goods both cry at the pitiable domestic scene Moll has painted. Within a few pages, however, she has found the man again and taken him as her lover, a relationship that lasts for several years.
Moll seems to see no conflicts in her attitudes. Her speech also shows her ability to rationalize moral problems, and she often uses a type of equivocation that allows her to justify her own actions. When a thief is pursued through a crowd of people, he throws his bundle of stolen goods to Moll. She feels herself free to keep them “for these things I did not steal, but they were stolen to my hand.”
Contrary to the character of Moll, Roxana recognizes her failings. After her first husband leaves her in poverty, her landlord offers to become her lover. Although he has a wife from whom he is separated, he argues that he will treat Roxana in every way as his legal wife. Throughout their life together, Roxana distinguishes between their degrees of guilt: The landlord, she says, has convinced himself that their relationship is moral; she, however, knows that it is not and is thus the greater sinner.
Indeed, Roxana is portrayed in much greater psychological depth than is Moll; one measure of this is the relationship between Roxana and her maid, Amy. While Defoe’s characters often have close friends or confidants—Friday in Robinson Crusoe, the midwife in Moll Flanders, Dr. Heath in A Journal of the Plague Year—it is only in Roxana that the friend appears in the novel from the beginning to the end and provides an alter ego for the main character. When Roxana is deciding whether to take the landlord as her lover, for example, Amy volunteers several times to sleep with him if Roxana refuses. Once the landlord and Roxana are living together, Roxana decides to put Amy into bed with the landlord, which she does—literally tearing off Amy’s clothes and watching their sexual performance. By the next day, the landlord’s lust for Amy has turned to hatred and Amy is suitably penitent. The logical question is why Roxana does this destructive deed, and the answer seems to be that, since she herself feels intense guilt at sleeping with the landlord, she wants to degrade Amy and the landlord as well.
Amy, similarly manipulative, is less passive than Roxana. At the end of the novel, Susan, one of Roxana’s daughters, appears, guesses her mother’s identity, and begs Roxana to acknowledge her. Amy’s suggestion is that she kill Susan, who alone can reveal Roxana’s past, having been, unknowingly, a maid in her mother’s household when Roxana had many lovers. Roxana recoils from this idea although she admits that Amy “effected all afterwards, without my knowledge, for which I gave her my hearty Curse, tho’ I could do little more; for to have fall’n upon Amy, had been to have murther’d myself.” Some critics argue that Roxana actually acquiesces in Susan’s murder, even though she forbids Amy to do it; her statement that to fall upon Amy would be to destroy herself does lend credence to this view. Amy, perhaps, acts out the desires that Roxana will not admit, even to herself.
In fact, both Moll Flanders and Roxana seem to hint at an irrational perverseness in their characters that explains, in part, their crimes. At one point after beginning her life as a thief, Moll actually tries to earn her living with her needle and admits that she can do so, but temptation makes her return to crime. She appears to enjoy living outside the law, no matter how much she may talk of her fears of Newgate Prison. Similarly, she once steals a horse simply because it is there; she has no way to dispose of it, but the irrational impulse in her that leads her to crime causes her to commit the theft anyway. Defoe is not given to high comedy, but the picture of Moll leading the horse through the streets, wondering how she is ever going to rid herself of it, is a memorably comic scene.
The frequent irrationality of Moll’s behavior seems reiterated in the actions of Roxana; without Moll’s self-justifying rationalizations, however, Roxana becomes a tragic figure who knows that her behavior is wrong but cannot stop it. About halfway through the novel, for example, she meets a Dutch merchant who helps her out of some difficulties; she has sex with him, but when he proposes marriage she refuses him on the grounds that marriage is a kind of slavery for women. Actually, she fears that he is trying to take over her fortune. When he answers this unspoken objection, promising not to touch her wealth, she is left in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that her initial reluctance was based solely on financial considerations or else continue her spirited defense of female freedom. She chooses the latter option, arguing until the merchant admits defeat. After she is left alone, Roxana regrets her decision and wishes the merchant back, arguing that no “Woman in her Senses” would ever behave as she did.
In these two novels, Defoe seems to be exploring the nature of evil, and it is seen repeatedly as an irrational drive that can deprive its victims of free choice. In fact, Roxana is noteworthy for the ambiguously dark atmosphere that pervades the novel, even apart from Roxana’s actions. Although Moll Flanders touches on incest, madness, and murder, these seem to be the understandable results of understandable causes: If you do not know your mother, you may marry your brother; if your brother-husband discovers your identity, he may go mad with grief; if you steal from a child, you may contemplate murder to cover up your crime. In Roxana, however, many of the characters seem motivelessly malignant, obscurely evil. The midwife whom the Prince hires for Roxana seems so murderous that Roxana has him dismiss her, yet there has been no suggestion in the novel that the Prince intends Roxana harm. On the contrary, he seems delighted with her pregnancy and even spends some time with her during labor. The sexual promiscuity found in Moll Flanders turns to sexual perversion in Roxana: Roxana’s final lover before she goes to live with the Quaker disgusts her “on some Accounts, which, if I cou’d suffer myself to publish them, wou’d fully justifie my Conduct; but that Part of the Story will not bear telling.”
Even the Quaker is an ambiguous figure. Although strictly truthful—Roxana states several times that the woman will not tell a lie—she hardly seems above reproach: She shows a surprising adeptness at bringing together Roxana and her former lover; she knows how to disguise the smell of alcohol on one’s breath; she says at one point that she is almost tempted to abandon her sober Quaker attire and wear Roxana’s Turkish costume, although the costume by this time has come to be an emblem of Roxana’s sinful life.
Perhaps Defoe’s darkening vision is best seen through a comparison of the conclusions of Moll Flanders and Roxana. After a life of crime—through which she becomes quite wealthy—Moll is finally caught and sent to Newgate. Sentenced to die, she is instead transported, but not before she meets Jemmy, her Lancashire husband, who has been a highwayman and who also ends up in Newgate. They leave for America together, and since they have enough money to pay the captain of the ship handsomely, they are treated like gentry on their voyage. Once in America, they prosper, only returning to England at the end of the novel, presumably repentant but certainly wealthy from their life of crime.
The uneasy balance of religion and roguery in Moll Flanders—Moll’s pieties interspersed throughout the work sometimes sound as perfunctory as Crusoe’s—shifts in Roxana, where Defoe’s character finally realizes that one cannot reconcile sin and prosperity in the easygoing synthesis that Moll seems to achieve. The novel ends with Susan’s death and Amy’s desertion; the final paragraph tells the reader that Roxana and her husband prospered for a while but that a “Blast from Heaven” finally destroyed Roxana’s tranquillity and she ended her days miserably. The abruptness of this conclusion makes for an unsatisfactory ending, but at least it does show Defoe solving the thematic problems inherent in all his earlier novels: Roxana recognizes a higher power but is unable to obey it. Instead of having the best of two worlds—prosperity and religion—she is doomed by a just Providence that punishes her unrepentance.
If, like Defoe’s heroes and heroines, one is given to keeping balance sheets, one might summarize Defoe’s weaknesses and strengths easily. On a basic level, Defoe is often slipshod in his handling of narrative: At one point Moll tells the reader how many lovers she has had in her life, but Moll’s list of lovers falls far short of the number she mentions in her own narrative. More serious are the thematic problems that Defoe seems to solve only in his final novel. Finally, his realism is quite crude in some places; descriptions of objects assail the reader without having any sensuous reality to them. To Defoe’s credit, he is able to establish a convincing conversational tone for most of his characters, and they often have an energy that far exceeds their function as counters through whom Defoe can manipulate his episodic plots. When reading Defoe, however, one does not tend to think in terms of balance sheets. In his best works, the problems in Defoe’s writings are so well masked by the vitality of his fiction as to be unnoticeable. Like all artists, Defoe has the ability to make his readers suspend disbelief.
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