Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

The year 1720 was an eventful one in the career of Daniel Defoe, for in that year he published three works: THE MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER, CAPTAIN SINGLETON, and his SERIOUS REFLECTIONS OF ROBINSON CRUSOE. Like the other book-length narratives by Defoe, THE MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER did not originally carry the author’s name, a circumstance apparently intended to lend an air of authenticity to his realistic work. Over the years, attempts have been made to prove that Defoe merely edited the memoirs of some real person, but scholars are now in agreement that this book, along with others by Defoe, was his own creation and that he probably had no specific person in mind as the original for his fictional narrator-protagonist. One interesting feature of the novel is that its hero is a member of the upper class, while the usual Defoe hero is taken from the middle or lower classes, groups that Defoe knew at first hand, as he did not know the life of the upper class. The Cavalier who narrates the story is similar to other Defoe creations in that, uninterested in religion as a young man, he is worldly and materialistic. Also noteworthy is the fact that Defoe, a Protestant himself and a Dissenter from Anglicanism, glorifies the Protestant side in the Thirty Years’ War but has little to say for the English Protestants who rebelled against the monarchy and the Anglican Church during the 1640’s.

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Defoe has been called the first social historian, and certainly in his many prose fictions he explored the varied levels of the tempestuous society that he knew so well. THE MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER dealt with a somewhat higher level of society than he usually portrayed in novels such as MOLL FLANDERS (1722) and ROXANA (1724), but here, too, every detail is accurate and true. Defoe’s plain, direct style and accumulation of detail hold the reader’s interest through all of these pseudoautobiographies. Defoe always wrote in the first person; through this device, he could enter into the minds of his heroes and heroines, analyzing their motives for their actions. The men and women he wrote about are all placed in extraordinary circumstances, few more so than the Cavalier, and all struggle through a life that is a constant battle.

The Cavalier engages in actual warfare, is a participant in the making of history, and is caught in the turmoil of the larger world. Nevertheless, like Defoe’s other protagonists, he is essentially a loner. The unnamed Cavalier must stand alone amid the vastness of the concrete realities of the world, so meticulously and exhaustively detailed by the author. This approach to the hero provides the reader with a unique perspective; one feels that the ultimately tragic human condition is represented by the Cavalier and that Defoe’s vision of life as reflected in these pages is essentially bleak.

Defoe’s active life is reflected in THE MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER. As a writer of government pamphlets and a spy, Defoe traveled and came in contact with many different aspects of society in many parts of Europe. The restlessness that was apparently a vital part of Defoe’s makeup as a man is present everywhere in this “memoir.” The Cavalier, born with status and money, could have settled down to the life of a country squire, but he chose to enter into the violent and ever-changing world of the seventeenth century. Ultimately, he found a kind of peace, but not until he had passed through political and moral trials.

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