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About this book


Daniel Defoe's writings have bred controversy since their first appearance in the eighteenth century: 'Robinson Crusoe' fuels virulent disagreements among critics, while Defoe's two scandalous women, 'Moll Flanders' and 'Roxana', can still shock us and challenge the range of our sympathies.

This essential study:
• takes a fresh look at these intriguing novels and leads the reader into close analysis of Defoe's texts, encouraging an open-minded approach to interpretation
• features chapters on the novels' openings, conscience and repentance, society and economics, women and patriarchy, and the use of 'outsider' narrators
• provides useful sections on 'Methods of Analysis' and 'Suggested Work' to aid independent study
• offers historical and literary background, a sample of critical views, and suggestions for further reading.

Equipping students with the critical and analytical skills with which to approach Defoe's work, this inspiring guide helps readers to appreciate the brilliance of the author's writing and to enjoy the complexity of his fictional creations for themselves.

Table of Contents

Analysing Defoe’s Novels

Frontmatter

1. Setting the Agenda

Abstract
The novels we focus on in this book are Robinson Crusoe (1719) Moll Flanders (1722), and Roxana (1724). The stories of all three remind us of how unpredictable life could be. Defoe’s critics are almost equally unpredictable. So Harold Bloom writes that Defoe does not understand Moll; Virginia Woolf writes that Robinson does not believe in nature, God, or death; V. O. Birdsall says the narrators vainly seek ‘a significant selfhood’;1 Rousseau saw Robinson as a pre-industrial ideal while for Marx he was an emblem of industry; for Katherine Clark his story is ‘a sacred drama that involved the redemption of Crusoe and Friday’2 while for Michael McKeon Crusoe justifies ‘material and social ambition’ as ‘the way of nature and the will of God’.3 There is such a wide variety of opinions that it could be hard to maintain our grip on the original experience of reading the novels themselves for the first time.
Nicholas Marsh

2. Conscience and Repentance

Abstract
In Chapter 1, we have noticed that Defoe fills his narratives with particularly unpredictable changes; and we have found that his themes are fluid, sometimes fading from the foreground, merging with a different theme, or subverted by irony. In this chapter we look at the moral and religious values encountered or expressed by Defoe’s narrators: are they as hard to pin down as the ‘agendas’ we considered in Chapter 1?
Nicholas Marsh

3. Society and Economics

Abstract
This chapter considers how far Defoe can be regarded as a spokesman for or critic of the developing mercantile society about which he writes. There is much about colonial economics, merchants, and trade, in all three books. Robinson is a merchant at least three times, and his eventual fortune is earned from a Brazilian plantation; Moll becomes a Virginia planter twice; and Roxana’s Dutch husband is a merchant. Additionally, Roxana and Moll both examine the roles of money, rank, and corruption in the old societies of England and Europe, as well as offer a revealing tour of the economics of sex and marriage. Defoe’s views are difficult to locate, because of what Ellen Pollak calls the ‘kaleidoscopic’ effect of his narratives. We have noticed narrators with ambivalent motives, facing rapid changes in circumstances, what we might call the ‘instability’ of Defoe’s fictional worlds. We attempt the question nonetheless, and begin by looking at an extract from each novel.
Nicholas Marsh

4. Women and Patriarchy

Abstract
This chapter considers a question that has been controversial throughout the history of Defoe criticism: how successful are his female narrators — and how far does Defoe provide a critique of the gender-stereotypes of his time? Clearly most discussion will focus on Moll and Roxana. In Robinson Crusoe, we will glance at the four occasions when women appear, rather than studying a single passage.
Nicholas Marsh

5. Instability and the Outsider

Abstract
This chapter is an attempt to describe the quality we have recognised in several different contexts during the course of our study that can be called ‘instability’, and is made up from the unpredictability, improvised adaptations of character, rapid changes of circumstances, and complex motives that abound in Defoe’s novels. In Chapter 4, we remarked that ‘Defoe’s novels partake of the quality of ordinary life: they resist purpose and shaping, they remain stubbornly unpredictable, anarchic’. We will now look at this aspect of Defoe’s narratives, and at the same time we will consider his choice of three narrators who are at or beyond the margins of society.
Nicholas Marsh

6. Themes and Conclusions to Part I

Abstract
Themes are nothing more than topics raised by the text, so they are easy to list, but hard to separate from each other. For example, Defoe’s novels are obviously concerned with society and gender, but can we discuss the one without the other? Look back at Moll’s rejection by her first lover: how far is their relationship determined by their different social status and birth and how far by gender? The answer, of course, is that the narrative involves both issues and neither can be ignored. We should therefore remember that ‘themes’, as headings, are only a matter of convenience: topics selected by us rather than by Defoe.
Nicholas Marsh

The Context and the Critics

Frontmatter

7. Daniel Defoe’s Life and Works

Abstract
Daniel Defoe lived a busy and varied life about which we have a great deal of information, but do not know everything. He wrote a vast number of works — pamphlets, treatises, poems, travel writing, histories, as well as his few fictions. Much of this output was political, some expounding his own opinions, but a great deal written to order while he was more-or-less secretly employed by politicians. As a result, many of the works attributed to Defoe were published anonymously, or under invented names; and scholars still argue about the authorship of many pieces. This chapter will give a brief account of Defoe’s life and some account of his better-known works.
Nicholas Marsh

8. The Place of Defoe’s Novels in English Literature

Abstract
Defoe’s fictions have attracted attention from literary historians, because they appeared among the first prose fictions in English. Arguments therefore often circle the question: were these the first ‘novels’ in English? Or, were they forerunners of the ‘novel’ which only developed later in the works of, say, Richardson and Fielding? Such debates can be enlightening, but will never be settled because opinions depend so much on the question of definition. What is a novel? Do we list Defoe’s characteristics and call them a ‘novel’, or list a ‘novel’s’ characteristics and seek them in Defoe?
Nicholas Marsh

9. A Sample of Critical Views

Abstract
This chapter cannot attempt to survey the critical history of Defoe’s novels: we only have space for a sample. For an overview you need to go to Paul Baines’ excellent Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe/Moll Flanders; A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism.1 Instead, this chapter has a deliberate aim: to show that a range of different approaches and different interpretations exist, in order to encourage readers and students to develop your own ideas with confidence, and to be stimulated by debate. We make no pretence that the critics represented here are typical. They are only representative of critics in general, in that they hold different opinions from each other. We begin by noting how three twentieth-century novelists responded to Defoe, and with some remarks on Ian Watt’s hugely influential work, as a form of background. We will then sample six critical arguments in the form of summaries and extracts.
Nicholas Marsh
Additional information