The main themes of Defoe's Roxana are morals and economics. These two are causally and conceptually related: while moral issues pervade the entire work, literally down to the last sentence, Roxana and her maid's morals are constantly compromised for money. Amy's dictum in life—“comply, survive; defy, die”—is something both women followed. At first, Roxana decides to become her landlord's mistress because her husband has abandoned her, leaving her destitute and in utter poverty. But her later decisions to give her body for considerable sums of money, stocks and property are obviously motivated by greed and ambition.
But Defoe was considerably more complex than what one would expect from a pragmatic entrepreneur in the early eighteenth century. The plots of Roxana are arranged so that the title character's behavior is arguably justifiable. She comes close to annihilation when abandoned by her husband and she resolves to never let herself be financially vulnerable again. Having made herself a fortune, courtesy of two lovers, she would never again hand over her finances—and her freedom—to a husband. Financial security becomes an obsession for Roxana. Once she is able to successfully negotiate the transactions with her first keeper—her landlord—subtly seducing him with her charm, wit and sexuality, she is on a set course to prosperity. Throughout her dealings with men—the landlord, the French nobleman, and the Dutch tradesman—Roxana is never under any illusion that she is behaving morally. In fact, through her many ruminations and self-criticism, she continuously reminds herself that she is “a whore.”
Self-reflection on moral issues and repentance seems to be an important aspect in all Defoe’s narratives. Robinson Crusoe, who had gone to the ill-fated sea voyage against his family’s wishes, bemoans his lack of obedience and asks forgiveness from God many times. But Roxana, who also has the capacity for self-reflection on moral matters nevertheless is able to give perfectly logical reasons to justify her actions. If Milton justifies the ways of God to men in Paradise Lost, Defoe seems to be justifying the ways of women to God. Time and time again, Roxana confronts the moral implications of her actions. The power of her reasoning to defend herself is impressive, especially because she invariably ends up admitting her moral liability, but insists that in her society, with the problems a woman faces, there is no other way: comply and survive; defy, die.
The moral issue in Roxana can be further subdivided into the following categories: sex, marriage, and motherhood. Once again, like a typical early Augustan writer, these concepts are conceptually and rationally interrelated.
It was Bonamy Dobree, an eminent scholar and critic of eighteenth-century English literature who first commented on the extraordinary treatment of sex in Roxana. According to Dobree, it borders toward the erotic. Interestingly, Defoe must have been well aware of the erotic passages. He wanted to be truthful to the history of this woman he was writing about, he says in the preface. “If there are any parts in her story, which being obliged to relate a wicked action, seem to describe it too plainly, the writer says, all imaginable care has been taken to keep clear of indecencies and immodest expressions; and it is hoped that you will find nothing to prompt a vicious mind, but everywhere much to discourage and expose it.” Still, the author seems troubled about the erotic nature of parts of this book. Toward the end of the preface, he puts the blame squarely on the reader: “Scenes of crime can scarce be represented in such a a manner but some may make a criminal use of them....If the reader makes a wrong use of the figures, the wickedness is his own.”
So, at least in purpose, sex in Roxana has a moral intention. The protagonist, when a handsome, intelligent woman of fifteen, chooses a handsome man, the son of a brewer, for a husband she does so because she is attracted to him sexually. After marrying him, however, the bottom falls off, as it were. She is abandoned and thrust toward annihilation. The husband is declared a fool – literally – by his wife and she and her maid plot to ensnare the landlord who is hugely attracted to her. The long discussions regarding the morals of selling one’s body for shelter and survival make for interesting reading as Amy, the smart, bright and intelligent maidservant, convinces Roxana that she should be a mistress to the landlord. Thus,...
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