Daniel Defoe World Literature Analysis
Defoe’s admirers sometimes call him the “father of the novel” and sometimes refer to him as the “first great realistic writer.” While neither phrase is completely accurate—there is no consensus about the identity of the first novelist, and there is controversy about when realistic writing first became popular—both descriptions reveal something about Defoe’s major literary contribution. He was one of the best of the earliest writers of realistic fiction, the genre that eventually evolved into the novel as it is known today.
Defoe and his contemporaries did not invent fiction or even popularize it. Elizabethan and Jacobean England produced a number of writers whose chief oeuvre was fictional writing—imitations of classical models, prose romances, biographical accounts of criminals and rogues, picaresque tales, allegories, and even translations of the lengthy and complicated narratives so popular in France. To this tradition, Defoe added the realistic first-person narrative, featuring the humble everyday occurrences that constitute the life of the ordinary—not famous or notorious—human being.
All Defoe’s long major works are fictional narratives that pretend to be true autobiographies. Defoe’s skill at inventing realistic episodes and providing superbly realized detail makes it difficult for the average reader to believe that the tales are fictional, that they have no basis in actuality, and that they are the creations of one man.
Defoe’s fiction is notable for its verisimilitude—that illusion of reality or semblance of truth created through the use of concrete details, elaborate identifications of the sources of information or ideas, simple and unadorned prose, frequent reminders to the reader to beware of inaccuracies, and, most important, the first-person narrator. Verisimilitude is created through the naming of actual places and people, the inclusion of historical events as background, the inclusion of prefatory statements in which the narrator writes of material omitted because of lack of space or mentions corroborating testimony to the events in the narrative, and the creation of completely believable characters.
In An Essay upon Projects, Defoe suggests the creation of a Society, modeled on the French Academy, “to polish and refine the English Tongue . . . to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile. . . . ” Defoe’s concern with language is evident in the fact that “Purity and Propriety of Stile” are the dominant characteristics of his prose. To Defoe, clarity and plainness—qualities learned at Morton’s Academy—were not only necessary for understanding but also morally correct. Plain language was, for Defoe, the language of the everyday world that he inhabited, the diction and imagery of business people, the vocabulary of the middle class, the honest communication of the common English citizen. This stylistic plainness is completely appropriate to Defoe’s intentions in his fiction and lends an air of authenticity to the autobiographical discourse of his characters. Plainness of language notwithstanding, Defoe’s prose is not devoid of linguistic creativity; when it is appropriate, he skillfully uses aphorisms, proverbial phrases, and figurative comparisons. He apostrophizes, uses analogies, constructs alliterative sequences and rhetorical questions. Like Alexander Pope, he is a master of periphrasis.
At first acquaintance, Defoe’s first-person narrators seem unusual or uncommon—they are prostitute and courtesan, sailor and gentleman, criminal and Quaker—but they are very much of a type: They are practical, business-minded, middle-class folk who inhabit an active and vigorous world. These narrators—Roxana, Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, Colonel Jack, Captain Singleton, the unnamed Cavalier—are possessed of a sturdy, irrepressible desire to conquer all circumstances; they are industrious and determined, and their ingenuity often proves their economic salvation. Indeed, Defoe’s narrators seem always to be counting or tallying money or goods or movable property.
All Defoe’s long narratives tell essentially the same story: An average, but prudent and hardworking, person is forced by circumstances into desperate straits but manages, through human ingenuity and determination, to gain success. Defoe’s characters personify the heroic in common humanity, and their actions represent the religious significance of hard work and discipline. Defoe writes about everyday life and its temptations and compromises, but he also illustrates the workings of divine providence in the humblest of daily activities.
Defoe’s fiction has often been criticized for its lack of discernible structure—he rarely uses chapter divisions, leaving no clues to the dramatic moments and internal climaxes in the narratives. He provides a stunning variety of richly detailed episodes that do little to advance what little plot there is, but which do create a sense of the importance of the mundane. Unlike the novelists who would follow him, Defoe avoids character analysis, preferring instead to concentrate on action and incident; his characters show little emotion and a considerable amount of calm reflection. Defoe’s debts to allegory and the moral treatise are evident in the hortatory tone so characteristic of his tales; he moralizes frequently—to many readers’ irritation—but always, it is in the service of his intentions, in the contexts of the solid middle-class fictional world that he has created.
First published: 1719
Type of work: Novel
Shipwrecked on a deserted island, an English seaman manages to create, through hard work and ingenuity, a profitable and comfortable life for himself.
Robinson Crusoe was Defoe’s first-published full narrative and his most popular,...
(The entire section is 2409 words.)