Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates. Written by Himself.

THE FARTHER ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE; Being the Second and Last Part OF HIS LIFE, And of the Strange Surprizing Accounts of his Travels Round three Parts of the Globe. Written by Himself. To which is added a Map of the World, in which is Delineated the Voyages of ROBINSON CRUSOE.

The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell (the deaf and dumb conjurer)

Memoirs of a Cavalier, A Military Journal of the Wars in Germany, and the Wars in England. From the Year 1632 to the Year 1648.

The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders.
A Journal of the Plague Year
The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Colonel Jacque.

The Fortunate Mistress or Roxana
A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Memoirs of Captain George Carleton

1731 Defoe dies

He wrote over 500 recorded works after a succession of business failures, and a long career as a hack journalist & spy, during which he frequently wrote in the character of his enemies or proposing projects he didn’t agree with, for satirical or political purposes.

All of which prepared him for the acts of ventriloquism which are his famous fictions. Nonetheless, none of them are acknowledged as fictions – the reverse: they all claim to be honest autobiographies, of Crusoe, Moll, Roxanne, Captain Jack etc etc. This genre, the true-life story, sold better at the time than fictions.

And the voice in all of them is, I believe, the same – brisk & businesslike, totally oblivious to finer feelings or perceptions (sure he writes about them, but is ready to ride roughshod through them in a second – cf Austen or G. Eliot), fascinated by the details of money & its ability to enable – or not – ‘polite’ life, always ready with some practical advice or rather trite religious-cum-moral commentary.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders

is hard to read because of the lack of chapters. It is one continuous 300-page text with much repetition of the basic situation i.e. the increasingly cunning and scheming Moll’s relationship with the husband of the moment. Since none of these husbands is ever named, it’s quite hard to keep track. Several things emerge:

  • Defoe is fascinated by money & business e.g. the details of Moll’s financial arrangements with the London banker
  • The marriage market is just that: a place of brutally realistic scheming, a way for people too genteel to actually work to try & increase their capital worth
  • Are we meant to be amused or appalled by her marriage (and having 3 children) with her own brother? Part of the bigger question, which is: Is this meant to be a comedy? Because it’s very unfunny if it is.

The Rise of the Novel

Ian Watt in his classic study, The Rise of the Novel, points out that Defoe is obsessed with money: his books announce the arrival of individualist capitalism. This entails:

  • leaving friends & family at an early age to make one’s fortune: breaking of all previous social traditions
  • economic specialization/division of labour: meant that readers (often women servants or housewives) were newly freed from many daily chores (e.g. making bread which you now bought at a shop) such that Crusoe’s detailed description of making bread is newly fascinating: (an early example of the ‘Alienation Effect’)
  • Puritan concept of the Dignity of Labour i.e. inverting the elite social structure to make physical labour noble

The Puritan frame of mind

The whole trend grows out of Puritan individualism – the keeping of personal journals by post-Civil War Puritans who kept intensely detailed journals of their every thought and action. Puritanism believes in the ineffectiveness of individual action. Following Jean Calvin it believes everything is pre-determined by a God who has already selected his Chosen Ones, his elite. In fact, we are all damned to hell because of Original Sin. Only by God’s fathomless grace are we able to lift ourselves out of the mire. Hence non-conformist hymns such as Amazing Grace, only God’s grace, his forgiveness, his Love, enables us, the Chosen, to crawl from the swamp. therefore the devout believer must rigorously and continuously check his mind and behaviour for SIGNS, since the slightest sign may indicate whether you are In or Out, one of the Chosen or the Damned. Anything, no matter how trivial, could be a pointer to salvation or damnation.

Therefore, EVERYTHING you say or do must be recorded and scrutinised and pored over. The theory goes that it was this unending self-scrutiny and the thousands of journals it gave rise to, which formed the milieu in which Defoe could create and sell a minutely detailed account of religious belief in extremis like Crusoe.

300 years of adventure stories and movies later, we see it as one of the great founding adventure yarns. But an actual reading of it shows that it is also a culmination of the tradition of Puritan self-scrutiny, leading to the all-important moment when Grace enters Crusoe’s life and he is born again.

The dignity of labour – an interest in work for its own sake, as its own reward – a fascination with mercantilism – the new economic vehicle of funding plantations overseas – a Puritan fascination with the minutest workings of Providence – all these come together to make Crusoe such a rich and rewarding text.

Watt’s paradox

Watt speaks about ‘formal realism’ as distinct from the movement called Realism (19th century) or Socialist realism (1930s) etc. Formal Realism is the broad claim of the novel to be judged not against Reality (whatever that is) but against the reader’s own experience of life which can, of course, be seen in different lights (for a start, humorous or tragic, depending on a person’s humours). Thus the overtly comic Joseph Andrews is asking to be judged against our experience of life (i.e. invoking & playing with our knowledge of the thousand little hypocrisies and affectations which people are liable to).

Ian Watt on Defoe

Watt takes Moll Flanders as Defoe’s best attempt at a novel and then makes a strong case against it being a novel at all, because:

  • Moll’s character (and voice) is largely Defoe’s own. She shares Defoe’s
    • obsession with material goods
    • pious but completely ineffective Christian preachifying
    • voice, Moll uses the same language, diction, vocabulary as Crusoe and every other Defoe character
  • Lack of character development: despite bigamy, rape, incest, gaol and transportation Moll remains utterly unchanged by her experiences. Defoe has no interest in the arc of a character’s development, no sense that situations can be contrived in order to show a change or development in their psyche.
  • Lack of interest in human relations: we don’t even get the names of her husbands or three or four dead children.
  • Defoe has no grasp of plot: one damn thing happens after another. Taken with evidence that s/he forgot or garbled incidents from earlier in the narrative the impression is that Defoe wrote at top speed with no plan, no forethought, and no revision. Thus Defoe is a writer of brilliant moments – Crusoe and the seeds growing, the footprint in the sand – which are vividly painted, but no context or linking to a larger plan. His books are more anthologies than novels.
  • Irony: if you believe Defoe is a great artist it’s because his characters’ protestations are often undercut with ironic affect. Bracingly Watt thinks every single example of irony is simply an example of Defoe writing epic long sentences, linking 20 or 30 clauses, with so much material lumped together that he can’t escape producing what we today, after 200 years of increasingly sophisticated novelists, perceive to be irony, but which Defoe neither planned nor saw as particularly incongruous.


The novel as we know it requires:

  •  realistic narrative
  • to be organized into a meaningful coherence
  • involving realistic characters
  • and realistic relationships between those characters
  • moving smoothly between close-up moments and wide-shot narrative
  • for an overall moral (or artistic) purpose

Defoe fails all these criteria, ‘which is why Richardson rather than Defoe is usually regarded as the founder of the English novel.’

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