The Fortunate Mistress: Or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards Call’d the Countess de Wintselsheim, in Germany, Being the Person Known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II, commonly known as Roxana, is the last novel in Daniel Defoe’s series of great fictional works written between 1719 and 1724, which included Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). Like its predecessors, it reflects the author’s preoccupation with economic individualism and middle-class values as well as his dissenting Protestant orientation. Like other Defoe novels, Roxana is written in Defoe’s characteristically robust style. At the same time, this prose work is unique, as it departs from the earlier novels to some degree in its point of view, its thematic variations, and its plot structure.
In Roxana, as in all of his works of fiction, Defoe is preoccupied with his characters’ struggles for economic independence; Roxana, like Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, is faced with poverty and starvation, but through her ambition, practicality, and shrewd business sense she overcomes tremendous obstacles, eventually amassing a fortune. Roxana and her predecessors are fiercely individual entrepreneurs. In order to stress their independence, Defoe typically isolates his heroes and heroines in some drastic way—Crusoe is shipwrecked; Moll and Roxana are social outcasts as a result of their criminal careers. Given these dire circumstances, Defoe shows how sheer necessity operates to make his characters act as they do.
Roxana is driven to a variety of criminal activities when she and her five children are abandoned by a worthless husband. Defoe had more than ample factual evidence on which to base such a portrait. It was during his age that modern urban civilization first devised large police forces, detective networks complete with organized informant systems, and a complex court system for handling the huge new criminal population. Not only in his fiction but also in countless journalistic pieces and pamphlets, Defoe argued passionately for the repeal of inhumane debtor laws, which he recognized as the cause of much crime and injustice. As he asserted in one eloquent plea, “Necessity will make us all Thieves.” At least partly connected with this intense social concern was Defoe’s Protestant background. He did not believe in the religious tenets of Puritanism, but he inherited its conception of human existence as a continual struggle, its habit of viewing everyday events as charged with moral significance, and its tendency toward introspection.
In Roxana, Defoe’s social conscience and ethical underpinnings combine to produce a unique and, in many ways, brilliant novel that is difficult to classify. On the surface, the work resembles a picaresque tale, and it shares many features with other works of that category. In other ways, however, Roxana is radically different from a traditional picaresque narrative, most significantly in the depth of its characterizations and in the implications of its plot. A picaro is typically the tool through which an author presents a series of comic episodes for the purpose of satirizing society and human folly. Defoe’s heroine, however, is a multidimensional individual. Roxana is a woman shaped by her environment and constantly striving to get the better of it. In contrast to the picaro, whose misadventures never pose a serious threat to his or her life, Roxana is placed in situations in which the danger is real. She need only be apprehended to run the risk of hanging.
Roxana’s fears, pains, pleasures, and ambitions make her a human and sympathetic heroine. This quality of realism is further heightened by Defoe’s distinctive style, which shows all the influences of his journalist’s profession. He has a reporter’s eye for detail, and he crowds his scenes with particulars, all described in plain,...
(The entire section is 1,101 words.)