Critical Evaluation

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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...

(This entire section contains 1101 words.)

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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, straightforward prose. His objective, unadorned language creates a powerful effect of verisimilitude. Defoe always insisted that his fictions are not romances (what modern-day readers might also call adventure stories). Defoe’s social and moral orientation, coupled with his wonderful capacity for “lying like the truth,” placesRoxana far beyond the realm of typical eighteenth century romances.

There is a strongly autobiographical flavor to all of Defoe’s novels, which results largely from the author’s close identification with his main characters. In its beginning sections, Roxana is no exception. Later in the narrative, a curious thing begins to happen. As Defoe develops Roxana’s character—which he modeled closely on the actual careers of several real-life criminals—she begins to act in ways of which he cannot approve, and he loses his sympathy for and close imaginative identification with her. This shifting sympathy occurs repeatedly throughout the novel and results in a curious vacillation on the author’s part between admiring and approving of his heroine and being deeply shocked at her behavior. The basic reason for Defoe’s ambivalence toward Roxana lies in the fact that in this novel, the same basic theme used in Moll Flanders—that of the innocent woman being corrupted by the pressures of poverty—is carried to much greater lengths. Moll is to be forgiven because she abandons her life of crime once she has gained sufficient wealth to be independent. Roxana continues her illicit activities long after the demands of economic necessity are met.

Roxana also differs from its author’s other works in the relative tightness of the plot, which is particularly unified by the threat of possible exposure and consequent ruin for the heroine. This threat is reinforced so often, and the daughter is so persistent a presence in the later narrative, that exposure seems, indeed, the only natural conclusion to which the plot can proceed—but it does not. Defoe is not willing to have his heroine hanged any more than he can in right conscience allow her to live happily ever after. This conflict between sympathy and justice generates much of the dramatic tension in the novel. The solution to which Defoe resorts at the end of the novel solves not only the problem of plot but also that of the author’s shifting attitude toward Roxana. In an insightful psychological twist, he imposes Roxana’s punishment in the form of haunting guilt over her daughter’s murder and consuming fear that her evil past will be revealed. Therefore, at the end of the novel, Roxana suffers the fate of Tantalus. Surrounded by wealth and friends, she can never enjoy them. Her peace is poisoned as she realizes that the simple pleasures of her friend the Quaker woman are forever unattainable for herself.

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Critical Overview