Critical Overview

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Daniel Defoe's Roxana was published in 1724, anonymously, as a "history," customary in the early days of English prose fiction. There are critics who loosely refer to Roxana as a novel, but in this account the work will not be referred to as a novel because it is not. The definition of a novel is that it is a realistic social fiction of a substantive length in which there is considerable emphasis on character development and at least the main character(s) in the novel undergo discernible change. Applying these definitional traits to Roxana, we find that it is a social fiction of substantive length, is realistic, but there is absolutely no emphasis on any kind of character development. Defoe rarely describes a character physically; and although we get a fair amount of self-reflection and self-criticism from Roxana, the protagonist, it is all of a particular type having to do with either moral or economic issues. In the other characters we do not even get that much.

Most historians of English literature agree that the first English novel is Samuel Richardson's Pamela, published in 1741. So Roxana may be best thought of as one of the important precursors of the novel, along with Defoe's two other works, the famous Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

Why did Defoe write realistic fiction like Robinson Crusoe and Roxana? The answer lies in a very interesting preface to the story. In it he claims that Roxana's story is real; that he actually knew the protagonist's husband and father-in-law. Most importantly, he said that he decided to write Roxana's life because of its moral. Here is a lady, whose basic approach to life, preferring money over morals, was wrong and she knew it. Moreover, in what is perhaps an interesting realistic twist, Roxana never pays the price of her sins of living the life of a mistress. In fact, the opposite happens. She gets richer and richer, lives an enormously successful life, and, in the eyes of the others, is happy. However, deep inside herself, through brooding self-reflection, Roxana is very, very unhappy. She is convinced that she is a sinner without hope of redemption.

Toward the end of the preface Defoe tackles the issue of describing some of Roxana's sexual encounters in considerable detail to the point of almost creating an erotic appeal for the work. Because Defoe came from a family of Dissenters with extremely prudish views of sex, Roxana was indeed remarkable. No doubt the problem of sex bothered the author. He explains in the preface that he included those rather graphic details about sex in the "history" so that readers, especially women, could warn themselves about what not to do. Not satisfied with the disclaimer, Defoe then goes on to state that if any reader is wicked enough to derive voyeuristic and amoral pleasure reading about the sexual encounters, then the fault will lie, not in the author, but in the reader.

Obviously, Defoe's purpose of writing the preface was entirely moral. But for contemporary readers, removed by almost three hundred years from the author, the interest may lie more in the generic issues of the purpose of literature in general, and of fiction in particular.
Roxana is best described as a narrative fiction. As J. Hillis-Miller said, with narratives we build a significant and orderly world, to investigate and perhaps invent the meaning of human life. The remark applies to Roxana. Defoe seems to investigate and even invent the meaning of life in his times by creating a narrative structure in Roxana , a structure that...

(This entire section contains 937 words.)

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has a clear and discernible purpose. In order to achieve that purpose, Defoe needs to make his many stories in this fictional work to make sense, not only of the stories themselves, but, through coherence, correspondence and transference with life. Thus each of the incidents narrated in the subplot connect chronologically, often giving the reader the impression that the individual stories are of less importance than the author's overall design forRoxana. If this is the case it is reasonable to assume that the purpose of the story is more important than the plot itself, the narrative constructed not only for its own sake but for the readers to gain some knowledge from this story. Three hundred years later, however, we are more concerned with the literary knowledge that we have derived from reading this story of Roxana, "the fortunate mistress."

In the early twentieth century, when Defoe's reputation began to be restored, criticism of Roxana has centered around Defoe's sense of realism, his role as a precursor to the novel (see above), and Defoe's journalistic style. However, since the 1960s, a great deal of interest has been expressed in Roxana in terms of Defoe's interest in money and economics. There is T. Mulcaire who wrote a very interesting article on the feminization of virtue in the market place. It seems, according to Mulcaire, that the tradition of representing money and economy, especially trade as feminine had already begun in the early eighteenth century;  Roxana was created within a new tradition, a female embodiment of an already popular idea. In a similar vein, Anne Louise Kibbie writes that Moll Flanders and Roxana are the central texts for a discussion of how the analogies between monetary and biological generation that writers like Defoe who were against the lending of money at high interest rates developed to regulate capital increase. Finally, emerging in recent decades from under the shadow of its more popular siblings, Daniel Defoe's final work, Roxana (1724), has enjoyed a noticeable rise in critical fortune, despite the tragic misfortune of its eponymous heroine.

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Critical Evaluation