Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. During the late seventeenth century, early capitalist London was the trade capital of the world, and Daniel Defoe’s own obsession with commerce carries over into Roxana. Indeed, money, upon which London’s capitalist society is built, is the only true love object throughout the novel. After Roxana’s husband leaves her with five children, she herself abandons her children and becomes her landlord’s mistress, beginning a pattern of selling herself to the highest bidders, typically signing contracts with her lovers, as if she were a merchant selling goods. Love plays no part in these exchanges.

In her efforts to transform herself and her place in society, Roxana amasses great wealth in London, lodging in Pall Mall, an area well known for housing royal mistresses. There, she entertains members of the city’s high society with lavish masquerade parties. During one period in London, she spends seven years with an anonymous aristocrat—possibly the king himself. Her fortune grows with each affair in London.


*Paris. By setting much of the novel in Paris, Defoe removed much of Roxana’s wickedness from his own home city of London. This ploy also allowed Defoe to represent Paris money as dishonest money, accumulated by crime. In Paris, Roxana is intoxicated by dreams of money, high social rank, and the delusion that she can run away from her past.


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Historical Context

Roxana was published anonymously in 1721, during a time when there was a marked increase in social fiction in England. Literary historians distinguish between novels of action and adventure, and those of character. An example of the former is Defoe's Roxana, while one of the latter would be Pamela by Samuel Richardson.

Bonamy Dobree recounts in his Oxford History of English Literature (1956) that when Defoe was writing his adventure stories like Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, many other authors, most of whom were women, were writing romantic fiction. These stories, because they dealt with women in love, had a fair amount of social interest among readers, especially women. Female readership increased dramatically in England between 1700 and 1740, so much so that by 1721 thirty-seven percent of English women were able to read and write, and women formed twenty percent of fiction readers. Thus, Defoe's Moll Flanders and Roxana seem to have catered to local taste except with one major difference: while stories written by women writers tended to scare women by telling them how women were cheated in romance and very often in money by horrible men, Roxana's lovers are mostly good men, honorable and officious about Roxana's emotional and financial security. Further, Roxana also seems to allay typical men's fears about women who can argue logically and assertively. Defoe's Roxana is such a woman, but she is also beautiful, kind, an excellent conversationalist and dancer, and, of course, a good lover. In Defoe's story, none of the principal male personae are afraid of Roxana. Rather, they love and respect her intelligence.

Defoe's Roxana is extremely financially oriented. Being the mistress of her own house, Roxana is naturally parsimonious, extremely calculating about money matters. To her, money is hard earned and has to be saved and judiciously spent. Time and again in this story, there are long interludes during which Roxana appraises us about her financial condition. There is even a section in which Roxana learns from a respected economist about how to increase the value of her money by investing it properly. London's economic atmosphere also lent itself in producing small businesses and, in general,...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Backscheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation. Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 1986. Provides biographical data and critical interpretations of Defoe’s novels.

Bell, Ian A. Defoe’s Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. Studies the elements of Defoe’s writing style and characters. Discusses the character Roxana.

Boardman, Michael M. Defoe and the Use of Narrative. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985. Provides a discussion on Daniel Defoe’s technique of storytelling. Focuses on how Defoe structures his stories.

Novak, Maximillian. Realism, Myth and History in Defoe’s Fiction. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. An excellent starting place. Discusses the author’s use of realistic characters such as Moll Flanders and reveals the myth of female inferiority, discussing how Defoe overcomes that myth.

Richetti, John J. Daniel Defoe. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Looks at the process of writing and development of a plot and its characters, using Roxana and Moll Flanders as examples.

Starr, G. A. Defoe and Causitry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Discusses the character and morality of Roxana, and how she created her many problems by her own choices and decisions.