Daniel Defoe Analysis

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.


(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...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

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 decades provide a basis for arguing that Defoe should be regarded as the first true English novelist?


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 776 words.)