DANIEL DEFOE (1660-1731)

DANIEL DEFOE (1660-1731)


Daniel Defoe led an adventurous life. He travelled extensively, was a journalist, a writer, a spy and he was a businessman who faced bankruptcy and made it through using any method he could, even those that were not considered altogether legal, he strongly supported Whig ideas and then denied them to get himself out of prison, self-assertive and strong minded he pursued his interests as best he could. He was born in a family of Dissenters (protestants who rejected the authority of the Church of England), he began his literary career by writing on  Whig periodicals, he founded The Review  which he published three times a week from 1704 to 1713, he became very popular for his criticism against politics and the government provoking Queen Anne’s strong reaction, in fact he was arrested and even exposed at the pillory for three times; he was freed after he denied his political ideas and became a secret agent for the government. He began writing novels late in life, but they were all successful. He is especially renowned for what is considered the first modern novel, Robinson Crusoe, and he is also the author of  The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders. We will analyse both during our lessons.



Robinson Crusoe (1719) is probably his best known novel. The protagonist of the novel embodies in many ways the typical middle class man. This becomes evident when Robison is shipwrecked on an island where he lived 28 years before he was rescued and where he partly recreates the same type of proto-society that he had left behind in England, outlining the positive aspects of social mobility and individual initiative. He behaves as the perfect middle class man who, although he believes in God, he’s also certain that the individual can shape his own life and destiny. Just as any pragmatic middle class man he faces problems by carefully analysing them, he observes the surroundings and the situation, then makes a list of pros and cons, evaluates all possible solutions and only then he makes a decision. Furthermore his isolation on the island is the clear proof that he is a man of his time and he creates for himself the conditions to exploit nature and shape it to fit his needs. But the novel also emphasizes the struggle between good and evil and how Robinson turns to God and his faith to achieve spiritual salvation. The language is simple and concerned with objective observation to stress the idea of reality and is narrated in the first person singular; in fact the bulk of the novel, which can be divided into three main sections, consists of Robinson’s writings, dutifully recorded on his journal on a daily basis, just as a bourgeois man would do.

The Plot

The three different sections of the book can be thus described:

–      The first part recounts how, despite his father’s disapproval, Robison at 19 sailed on a ship to make a fortune abroad and after many dangerous experiences he settled in Brazil where he set up a plantation, during a trip to Africa where he meant to go to buy slaves he was shipwrecked on a remote island.

–      The second part, which is, as we have said, the main part of the novel, is about his years as a castaway on the island, through a diary in which he scrupulously records every single experience, thought and feeling, he outlines his great achievement, in other words, he reports how he was able to partly recreate the world he had known in England, how he saves a local who he names Man Friday and made him his servant, and his eventual rescue.

–      The third section regards his return to England where he learns that his plantation in Brazil has prospered and made him a rich man and how he is a respectful and admired man.

Robinson is the archetype of the mercantilist colonist

Robinson embodies all the traits of the typical mercantilist  bourgeois man of the England of the time, he stresses his superiority over the local native who he names Friday to remind him constantly that he, the master, saved the servant on a Friday; he teaches Man Friday enough English to understand any basic communication between the two characterised essentially by Robinson giving orders and Man Friday following them; he also overpowers Man Friday by preventing him from using his weapon thus forbidding him any technical knowledge and finally he imposes on Man Friday his own religion and his own God conveying him the message that his local faith is the lesser compared to the Christian one. Summarising, Robinson (the colonist) is superior to Man Friday (the colonized) in three supreme ways: linguistically (Robinson never learns the local Language), technically (he has a weapon and jealously keeps it to himself without sharing knowledge nor skill) and culturally (Robinson quenches virtually all of Man Friday’s traditions and roots).



The Plot

Moll is the daughter of a thief and she is born in Newgate prison where her mother is serving sentence, eventually Moll’s mother is sent to Virginia (criminals were periodically sent to the colonies to alleviate the overcroweded British jails conditions) while she was assigned to live in the household of the Mayor of Colchester and at the age of fourteen she is sent to the service of a rich family. Moll is very pretty and she is soon seduced by the eldest son of the family. Later she goes through five marriages and has children to support so she helplessly turns into a prostitute and then a thief till she is herself sentenced to prison and afterwards deported to Virginia. In the new world, however, Moll finds her release from distress and through hard work she achieves success by becoming a rich plantation owner. Finally she goes back to England and attains full respectability.

The novel is written in retrospect by Moll herself as a warning to others to avoid the mistakes that she has made in life, carrying out a didactic aim.

Robinson and Moll, two sides of the same coin

Moll Flanders (1722) can be seen, in some ways as the female counterpart of Robinson Crusoe. In fact, as the male protagonist of his first novel, Moll too undergoes many hardships, experiences failures, but thanks to her faith in her own will power and strength she, not only survives, but in the end she even obtains respectability and wealth which are, as we have often said, the most important values championed by the British bourgeoisie.

They are important to the point that Moll considers poverty as sin and in her way of thinking, it is better to steal or become a prostitute, rather than being poor, her main objectives in life, those for which she fights for are self-assertion and material well-being. In order to obtain them she denies herself feeling and shuns away from suffering or emotional experience because, as in the best Puritan tradition, she believes that it would prevent her to concentrate fully on how to make money and consequently gain social status.

Defoe’s Realism and His New Outlook on Industrialised Britain

This novel is mainly set in London and through the description of the city and its inhabitants Defoe shows the negative aspects of the developing industrialization, we can say that, in contrast with his first novel, here Defoe casts some shadows on what, till then, he had celebrated as the best possible world and starts to express some social criticism as he analyses more in depth the gloomy conditions in which many of his contemporaries were forced to live, dealing with starvation and crime as Moll had to since she was born lacking almost any future perspectives and being a woman, this endowed her with an even greater disadvantage, for women in this time could not make an honest living unless they were married.


Daniel Defoe, as we have said, laid the basis for a new form of narration. His novels follow the pattern of the “true” story told in the first person singular by the main character many years after the taking place of the events related, adopting the journalistic and, therefore the matter of fact style. The authenticity of the story is emphasized in the opening by a preface written by the author through which he substantiates with proof of a found manuscript, or a bulk of letters, the true happenings narrated there on. The episodes that make up the entire novel are kept together by the chronological sequence and by the single hero/character. They are all concerned with the struggle for survival and they are an efficient method to represent the emerging middle class with its life style, ideals and values transposed in literature. The characters are shown from the inside and they are flat, in the sense that there is no psychological insight and no personal development, as of yet.

Lesser Known Novels

Captain Singleton (1720) is his second novel and tells the story of a captain that becomes a pirate during his voyage.

Colonel Jack (1722) is about a pickpocket who makes amends for his crimes and sins and is rewarded by Providence in ending his days through respectability and wealth.

The Fortunate Mistress or Roxana (1724) was Defoe’s last novel and it is about a high-society woman who exploits her beauty to get what she wants.

Images taken from Google Search

Link: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Daniel_Defoe.aspx

© L. R. Capuana

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