Daniel Defoe

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

0111201539-Defoe.jpg Daniel Defoe (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,438 words.)