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Although Daniel Defoe (dih-FOH) is mainly remembered as the author of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself, more commonly known as Robinson Crusoe, he did not begin to write fiction until he was fifty-nine years old. He spent the earlier part of his writing career primarily in producing essays and political pamphlets and working for strongly partisan newspapers. He also wrote travel books, poetry (usually on political or topical issues), and biographies of rogues and criminals.

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Achievements

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Daniel Defoe’s principal contribution to English literature is in the novel, and he has been called the first English novelist. The extent of his contribution, however, has been debated. A contemporary of Defoe, Charles Gildon, wrote an attack on Robinson Crusoe, criticizing, in part, inconsistencies in thenarrative. Such problems are not infrequent in Defoe’s long and episodic plots. Nevertheless, readers of almost any of Defoe’s works find themselves in real and solid worlds, and Defoe’s constant enumeration of things—such as, in Moll Flanders, the layettes for Moll’s illegitimate children, the objects she steals, even her escape routes through London—has earned for the author a reputation as a realist and for his style the label “circumstantial realism.” To see Defoe as a photographic realist, however, is also to see his limitations, and some of his critics argue that the formlessness of his novels shows his lack of the very shaping power that belongs to great art. Further, even his circumstantial realism is not of the visual sort: Once Moll has named an object, for example, she rarely goes on to describe it in such detail that the reader may visualize it.

In the late twentieth century, Defoe’s novels underwent a reassessment, and critics started to see him as more than a mere assembler of objects. Although these critics diverge widely in their interpretation of his techniques, they do agree that Defoe consciously developed themes and used his narratives to shape these themes, all of which center on the conflict between spiritual and earthly values. Instead of viewing Defoe as a plodding literalist, some critics see a keen irony in his work: Moll’s actions and her commentary on those actions, they argue, do not always agree. The reader is thus allowed to cultivate a certain ironic detachment about Moll. While few readers would judge Defoe to be a deeply psychological novelist, this double perspective does contribute to a rudimentary analysis of character. Others see a religious vision in his works, one that underwrites an almost allegorical interpretation of his novels: The ending of Robinson Crusoe, the killing of the wolves, is seen as Crusoe slaying his earthly passions. While such a reading may seem forced, one should perhaps remember that John Bunyan was a near contemporary of Defoe—he even preached at Morton’s Academy at Stoke Newington while Defoe was a student there—and that readers in his time were accustomed to reading allegorically.

Part of the fascination—and achievement—of Defoe may well lie in the tension between realism and allegory that informs his work. Using natural dialogue and a kind of realistic detail, Defoe can yet go beyond these to create events and characters that are, finally, mythic.

Discussion Topics

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To what extent did the rigors of Daniel Defoe’s early life prepare him for the career that he had?

Defoe is one of the earliest of the many writers whose literary career grew out of a journalistic background. What historical factors made this development possible?

What desires of readers did Defoe understand extremely well for a man of his time?

Explain Robinson Crusoe’s creativity beyond his skill for surviving.

How does the characterization of Moll Flanders benefit from the first-person narration of the work?

Does the great range of techniques and literary artifices of works accepted as novels of recent decades provide a basis for arguing that Defoe should be regarded as the first true English novelist?

Bibliography

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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. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Blewett, David. Defoe’s Art of Fiction: “Robinson Crusoe,” “Moll Flanders,” “Colonel Jack,” and “Roxana.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979. In Defoe’s letters and nonfiction, Blewett finds a worldview that sees the individual as isolated in an indifferent or hostile universe. Shows how four of Defoe’s novels artfully voice this outlook. An epilogue considers Defoe’s contribution to the development of prose fiction.

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.

Hammond, J. R. A Defoe Companion. Lanham, Md.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993. A useful overview. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Hunter, J. Paul. The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe’s Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in “Robinson Crusoe.” Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966. Examines Robinson Crusoe to understand not only that work but also the nature of the early English novel. Looks at the way Defoe used Puritan ideas, especially as they were expressed in seventeenth and early eighteenth century tracts.

Lund, Roger D., ed. Critical Essays on Daniel Defoe. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. Essays on Defoe’s domestic conduct manuals, his travel books, his treatment of slavery, his novels, and his treatment of the city. Includes an introduction and index, but no bibliography.

Novak, Maximillian E. Daniel Defoe, Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A biographical study by a leading Defoe scholar.

Novak, Maximillian E. Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe’s Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. A collection of previously published essays. Treats various aspects of Defoe’s artistry: the psychological realism of Roxana, the use of history in A Journal of the Plague Year and Memoirs of a Cavalier, and myth-making in Robinson Crusoe.

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.

Schonhorn, Manuel. Defoe’s Politics: Parliament, Power, Kingship, and “Robinson Crusoe.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Examines Defoe’s political and social views.

Spaas, Lieve, and Brian Stimpson, eds. “Robinson Crusoe”: Myths and Metamorphoses. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Explores many aspects of the seminal novel. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Sutherland, James. Daniel Defoe: A Critical Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. An excellent overview of all of Defoe’s work. Offers commonsensical readings of the works and provides helpful historical and biographical background as well as a useful bibliography for further study.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Discusses Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Defoe’s contribution to the realistic novel. Relates Defoe’s fiction to the social and economic conditions of the age.

West, Richard. Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1998. West covers all aspects of Defoe: the journalist, novelist, satirist, newsman, and pamphleteer as well as the tradesman, soldier, and spy. Written with considerable flair by a journalist and historian of wide-ranging experience.

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Critical Essays