Places Discussed

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*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.

Historical Context

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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

(This entire section contains 973 words.)

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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, involving those outside of the aristocracy to participate in business and commerce. Roxana is a prime example of literature taking an active interest in commerce. At one point, while praising her landlord and lover for his success in the jewelery business, Roxana extols the virtues of men who have risen through successful trade, men who work for their money as opposed to land-owning aristocrats who do nothing except selfishly live off the labor of others. Defoe's views are in stark contrast to those that might have been expressed by John Dryden, Charles II's poet laureate, barely forty years before.

The literary setting in which Defoe wrote Roxana is remarkable for its interest in the rise in social fiction where love and romance involving people of the upper class automatically increased interest in the realistic aspects of the lovers' relationship rather than some magical, mythical lovers' adventure replete with elements of the supernatural. The writers of these stories were mostly women. Defoe's contribution was to introduce realistic fiction involving psychology and economics, and also the psychology of economics.

Narration also took a number of different approaches. Up until this point, romances and adventure stories were told by the narrator writing in indirect, third-person narration. With the rise in literacy among both sexes, and the corresponding rise in England's economic condition, and, equally important, with the advancement in scientific thinking that ushered in a rational intellectual climate, writers began to experiment with narrative techniques in prose fiction. Defoe introduced the journalistic technique, and later Samuel Richardson began to experiment with the epistolary form, a letter-writing approach to fiction that automatically raised the level of realism in literature.

In Roxana, as in his other stories, Defoe narrates the story in the first person; but in this work he also pretends to report a story about a real person, Mary Carleton, who had somewhat similar experiences to Roxana's but for which she was tried and executed in 1673. There does not, however, appear to be anything in Carleton's life that would have warranted capital punishment. Thus, Defoe might have felt that creating the story of Roxana, in sharp contrast to Carleton's, would emphasize the unfairness of the court's decision to execute her.

The preface, which is the only place we hear the author's own voice, has important implications for narrative development in eighteenth-century English prose fiction. Literary theorists like Cleanth Brooks and literary historians like Percy Lubbock have made us ask questions about narratology itself: is it better or worse if the novelist adopts a narrative voice as Defoe does in Roxana? Lubbock is against such adoption of voices. He believes that novelists should be "honest" and tell the story of the novel as a third person outside the story. Brooks, however, says that even if the novelist adopts the indirect narrative style, there is still the "implied" author imposing herself or himself through the manipulation of the story—playing God, as it were. All of Defoe's fictional works, but especially Roxana, raise interesting questions about the implied author.

It is important to note here that the England in which Defoe flourished as a writer was markedly different from England in the 1660s—Restoration England. In 1721 King George I was on the English throne. He was a Hanover from Germany and could not speak a word of English. Consequently, unlike Charles II, George I took absolutely no interest in the English language or in its literature. Whereas Charles was actively interested in poets and writers, and even advised his poet laureate on what and how he should write, George stayed away from them. England's literary milieu, therefore, tried to manage without its king. Lacking the monarch's involvement in letters, royalism in literature declined sharply.


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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.


Critical Essays