*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.
Roxana’s English landlord and lover, a wealthy jewel merchant, takes her to Paris where he is murdered. After she learns that the jewels she removes from her dead lover were stolen, she orders her servant, Amy, to sell all her possessions in London and join her in Paris. Through lying and cheating Roxana amasses an even more sizable fortune and sets herself up as a “she-merchant,” who becomes increasingly intoxicated by accumulating wealth. After Roxana meets the French prince to whom the jeweler had intended to sell the jewels, she soon becomes his mistress. For eight years, she lives with the unnamed prince in close proximity to Paris.
Defoe utilizes Parisian settings to criticize how members of the French aristocracy, unlike London’s bourgeois merchants, lavishly spend their wealth, saving little. Paris is thus represented as a place of vice and excess. It is in Paris, also, that Roxana discovers her previous husband and, fearing discovery, flees to Amsterdam.
*Amsterdam. While it is evident that Defoe views Roman Catholic Paris as a prime place of debauchery, he views Holland in a positive light. For him, Holland, long a base of world exploration and commerce, represents strong Protestant values. In Amsterdam, money is earned cleanly and honestly. There, Roxana encounters an honest Dutch merchant who saves her from jail after her jewels are discovered to be stolen property. He helps her escape and attempts to marry her. Intent on maintaining her financial independence, however, Roxana becomes his lover but refuses marriage.
Throughout the novel, Roxana treasures her money and the freedom it gives her. Also, Roxana refuses the merchant because she dreams of achieving a higher social status than he can offer. In Amsterdam, Roxana often vacillates between profit and spirituality. After she returns to London, her Dutch merchant continues to accumulate wealth through hard work and honest trade. He eventually buys a noble title and marries Roxana after her servant sends word that her legal husband has died.
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...
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