Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2409
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, appealing to both middle-class and aristocratic readers with its combination of a believable and very human first-person narrator, realistic detail, allusions and references to actual places and people, imagery drawn from everyday life and the natural world, and an appealing, if somewhat unstructured, narrative line.
The title page of the book provides a considerable amount of information for the reader. The LIFE and Strange Surprizing ADVENTURES of ROBINSON CRUSOE, of YORK. Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’ by PIRATES. Written by Himself. That, in brief, is a plot summary. It also is evidence of the ordinariness of the narrator, a seaman from York (and therefore middle class) who is forced by circumstances to fend for himself in unfriendly surroundings, a practical man who manages to survive for twenty-eight years before his rescue. Finally, within this long title is the evidence of Defoe’s insistence on realism—the use of real place names, the statement that the book is an autobiographical narrative.
That Robinson Crusoe is a Defoe character is evident from the moment he finds himself shipwrecked. He acts immediately in the interest of survival, salvaging such necessities as he can from the stricken ship and building a rude shelter. Yet Crusoe’s concern is not only for his physical well-being; he begins a journal in which he plans to record his spiritual progress as it is reflected in the daily activities that mark his sojourn on the island. For nearly two decades, Crusoe works to create a life for himself, building what he needs, improvising where he must, and ultimately replicating a little corner of England on the desert island. What he accomplishes is beyond basic survival; he fashions an English life that is dependent on the transformation of raw materials into the necessities of his culture. He plants grain that he bakes into bread, he domesticates goats so that he might have milk, and he turns a cave into a cozy fortified dwelling that boasts comfortable furniture. When Friday arrives, Crusoe’s little English empire is complete: The conqueror has mastered both the territory and its people.
Having survived the shipwreck, Crusoe has become strongly aware of his vulnerability as a human being, and throughout the narrative he insists that his life is proof of the workings of divine Providence. Consequently, he often reflects on the spiritual lessons to be learned not only from his experiences on the island but also from the events in his life that led to his sojourn so far from home. This reflection is typical of Defoe’s narrators, who look on life’s experiences as a series of symbolic occurrences pointing to the connections between the spiritual and the secular.
Defoe has created in Robinson Crusoe a man very like himself—and very much a typical eighteenth century Englishman. Crusoe’s plebeian origins, his earnest industry, his tendency to see religious meaning in the mundane, and his talent for overcoming misfortune are all Defoe’s qualities. Like the average Englishman of his time, Crusoe is something of a bigot, and although he treats Friday well, the slave is never offered his freedom and must call Crusoe “Master.” Crusoe triumphs over his circumstances and environment, and indeed he manages to provide himself with a little paradise on earth; but he is English to the core, and with the first opportunity he returns to England and settles down to family life.
Robinson Crusoe is often described as one of the major forerunners of the novel. Although written as a travel narrative, it displays many of the modern novel’s major characteristics: realism (through verisimilitude, the first-person narrator, imagery from the natural world, and copious detail), interesting and believable characters engaged in plausible adventures and activities, and an engaging story.
First published: 1722
Type of work: Novel
Born into poverty, a resourceful and industrious woman works her way through moral lapses and misfortunes to repentance and middle-class respectability and comfort.
If Moll Flanders is Defoe’s most highly regarded fictional narrative, Moll Flanders is probably Defoe’s most memorable narrator, with her compelling account of a life spent largely in attempts to survive in a society hostile to unattached women.
Born to and abandoned by a convicted felon, Moll Flanders is reared first by Gypsies and then as a ward of the parish of Colchester. At fourteen, she is hired as a servant to a kind family who educates her along with their daughters. Moll, believing she is loved, loses her virtue to the oldest son, who later pays her to marry the youngest son, Robin. Widowed after five years, Moll is married four more times, to a draper who spends all of her money, to a sea captain who turns out to be her half brother, to a roguish Irishman (from whom she separates when he decides to continue highway robbery), and to a bank clerk (with whom she finds happiness until his death). Between the brother and the highwayman, she spends six years as the mistress of a gentleman whose wife is insane. Moll also bears several children to husbands and lover, but she seems ill-suited to motherhood. In the end, she is reunited with the great love of her life—Jemmy E., the charming Irishman—with whom she resolves to live respectably.
Because she has no social status and no real financial possibilities, Moll Flanders, like so many eighteenth century women, is dependent to a great degree on men—as husbands or keepers or employers—and on her own industry for survival. Her adventures following Robin’s death are focused on marrying profitably: Moll learns to say little about herself, to pretend to wealth in order to attract men, and to behave like a lady in order to appear worthy of gentlemen. Like so many women of the middle class and the aristocracy, her principal objects are money and security, and she employs all of her energy in the pursuit of a financially lucrative marriage. She has two embarrassing failures and achieves only modest success with the bank clerk, and when he dies, she is eventually tempted by her poverty to begin a criminal career that lasts for twelve years. By the time Moll is apprehended in the act of stealing two pieces of silk, she has become one of the wealthiest thieves in London.
In the story of Moll Flanders, the reader can recognize many of the concerns that Defoe addressed in his fiction. Moll is a sturdy, resourceful, intelligent woman, driven by her need to survive. She turns to a life of crime, is enabled by her industry and ingenuity to succeed to the point of minor wealth, and is forced by her Newgate incarceration to a recognition of her need for repentance.
The story of Moll Flanders’s life and misadventures displays the stylistic traits for which Defoe is praised. Moll’s world—eighteenth century London, with its crowded streets and throngs of humanity, with its gulf between rich and poor—is vividly realized in Defoe’s attention to detail and in his frequent allusions to actual places and real people. The horrors of Newgate Prison are detailed in vigorous language that conveys strong images of confinement and inescapable poverty. Defoe’s fascination with precise location and the intricacies of process allows Moll to elaborate on her plans for snaring rich husbands and on her techniques for stealing jewelry or other goods. So graphically located are Moll’s exploits that at times the book reads like a criminal atlas of eighteenth century London streets or even like a manual for a would-be thief.
This focus on the minutiae of thievery, coupled with Moll’s evident relish in telling stories that display her audacity and subtlety in criminal activity, her satisfaction with the expertise she developed, and her sense of triumph at acquiring wealth (albeit through crime), becomes the basis for Defoe’s didacticism. The middle-class traits that Defoe admires—practicality, determination, focus on assets and liabilities—have been employed in a reprehensible life, and Moll must undergo a spiritual conversion and repent before the narrative ends.
Finally caught in the act, Moll is incarcerated in Newgate and condemned to death. She is visited by a clergyman, who prays with her and entreats her to repent her wicked past. Moved by the minister’s words, Moll realizes that she must be concerned with her spiritual impoverishment. Her repentance is intensified by the imprisonment of Jemmy, her favorite husband, whose criminal life she now blames on her desertion of him. Moll and Jemmy escape execution and are transported to Virginia, where they purchase their freedom and become landowners. The elderly Moll Flanders who narrates the story is a woman who is determined to tell her story so it can serve as a deterrent to anyone who might contemplate a life of crime, as an assurance to the sinner that no life is too despicable to be salvaged through repentance.
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