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History of English Literature

Daniel Defoe
(1667 1731)

Life and career

Born in London son of a tallow-chandler a Dissenter
(member of a Christian group who does not acknowledge the
Established Church e.g. Puritans) real name: Daniel Foe
Early commercial career considerable prosperity
Restless nature versatility a variety of careers: trade,
business projects, journalism, literature
First important work: An Essay upon Projects, 1697 concerns:
trade, banking, health service, education, academy for women,
the state of the English language (correct language, polite
political pamphleteer supporter of the Whigs, then of the
Tories; supporter of William III (e.g. The True-born Englishman,
1701 his first literary success), then of the Hanoverians

The True-born Englishman, 1701 an anti-xenophobic pamphlet in support

of William III of Orange the English: not a pure, but a mixed race
[] a race uncertain and uneven,
Derived from all the nations under Heaven.
The Romans first with Julius Csar came,
Including all the nations of that name,
Gauls, Greeks, and Lombards, and, by computation,
Auxiliaries or slaves of every nation.
With Hengist, Saxons; Danes with Sueno came,
In search of plunder, not in search of fame.

Scots, Picts, and Irish from the Hibernian shore,

And conquering William brought the Normans o'er.
From this amphibious ill-born mob began
That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman.
The customs, surnames, languages, and manners
Of all these nations are their own explainers:
By which with easy search you may distinguish
Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.

1702: the accession of Queen Anne the rise of Tory power

persecution of Dissenters
The satire The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, 1702 he
assumes the literary mask of a Tory Anglican and ironically
suggests that the extirpation of the Dissenters as the only way to
save the Church of England
Let her foundations be established upon the destruction of her
enemies! The doors of Mercy being always open to the returning
part of the deluded people, let the obstinate be ruled with the rod
of iron!
This biting satire inspired Swift for A Modest Proposal its irony
failed to be understood as such Defoe incurred the anger of
both Tories and Whigs he was imprisoned and condemned to
stand in the pillory Hymn to the Pillory released in 1703
among the founders of modern journalism: The Review (17031713) support for a series of both Whig and Tory politicians

Novelistic career

In 1719: Defoe turns to fiction writing Robinson Crusoe followed

quickly by two sequels:
The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Serious reflections during the life and surprising adventures of

Robinson Crusoe : with his Vision of the angelick world (1720)

Enormous success their huge popularity encouraged Defoe to continue

his novelistic career

other novels:
The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton,
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, 1722
The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Colonel
Jacque, 1722
Roxana, or the Fortunate Mistress, 1724

He also continued to write on moral, religious, social, economic, historical


The genius for mixing fact with fiction: The Memoirs of a

Cavalier (the Thirty Years War; the Civil War); A Journal of the
Plague Year (1722)

Defoe never admitted to writing fiction he presents his stories as

authentic documents (true accounts) diaries or memoirs the
Editor convention
Marked didactic tendency e.g. Robinson Crusoe: written by
himself meant to provide the instruction of others by this
example and to justify and honour the wisdom of providence in all
the variety of our circumstances
The Preface to Moll Flanders recommends it as a work from
every part of which something may be learned, and some just and
religious inference is drawn

William Hogarth (16971764) The Harlots Progress (1731) Moll Hackabout

Characteristics of Defoes heroes and heroines

hey start at the periphery of society (exception: Robinson Crusoe) from

anonymity and poverty to wealth and security

their means of securing economic success clash with the socially

accepted moral norms

vitality, resourcefulness, capacity for adjustment and survival

pragmatic, dynamic, versatile

the individual victorious over circumstances and environment (physical

and social)

rise to affluence and social respectability moral reformation

his novels: stories of success picaresque form

influences: criminal biographies (popular in the 17th and 18th centuries)

a rogues life: recipe for literary and financial success

combines in them entertainment with moral teaching the reformation

of a sinner, rewarded by Providence (a reflection of Defoes Puritan
background the influence of didactic and religious treatises; the Puritan /
spiritual autobiography)

Robinson Crusoe
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 [Orinoco] ; Having been cast on shore by Shipwreck, wherein
all Men perished but himself, With An Account how he was at last as
strangely delivered by Pirates. Written by Himself)
Based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor, abandoned on
an island in the South Pacific, who survived almost five years (17041709) in complete solitude before being rescued

Alexander Selkirk reading his Bible

Illustration from The Life of Alexander
Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe:
a narrative founded on facts
(anonymous, 1837)

Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe themes

and motifs

A Puritan Odyssey
The archetypal motif of the son leaving home in
defiance of parental will Robinsons original sin
The pursuit by Fate in the classical epic the
Puritan themes of predestination and divine
grace, of sin and retribution the allegorical
journey from sin to salvation

[During his first voyage, after a storm]

My ill fate pushed me on now with an obstinacy that nothing
could resist; and though I had several times loud calls from
my reason () to go home, yet I had no power to do it. [He
thinks of] a secret overruling decree that hurries us on to be
the instruments of our own destruction.

[During his first year on the island]

Now, said I aloud, my dear fathers words are come to pass:
Gods justice has overtaken me, and I have none to help or
hear me: I have rejected the voice of Providence, which
had mercifully put me in a posture or station of life wherein I
might have been happy and easy; but I would neither see it
myself, or learn to know the blessing of it from my parents.

Robinson Crusoe as a spiritual autobiography in

the Puritan tradition

The model: John Bunyan Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners

(1666), The Pilgrims Progress (1678)

Stories of the reformation of consciousness, of spiritual awakening

Life as journey: the realisation of ones sinful nature penitence,

sincere repentance the revelation of Gods benevolence; spiritual

Robinsons isolation on the island: a punishment, but also an

opportunity to reflect on his mistakes and the occasion for a radical
spiritual change

The experience of the island acquires a new meaning isolation: the

proper condition for the typically Puritan act of self-scrutiny and
introspection the Puritan quest for the retired soul (Ian Watt)

In Serious Reflections, Defoe suggests an allegorical reading of the

novel Robinson: It seems to me that life in general is, or ought to be,
but one universal act of solitude

The felix culpa motif the fortunate mistake, the mistake with
fortunate consequences
Robinson realises that Providence had not intended him for
destruction, but for deliverance the revelation of Gods
goodness has radically altered both his knowledge (different
notions of things) and his desires and delights
The island: from prison (punishment for his disobedience) to a
home the motif of the Prodigal Son Robinsons symbolic
reconciliation with his father through his recognition of the heavenly
The romantic hero, in search for adventure at sea, turns into the
quiet, pragmatic middle-class seeker for comfort at home
The island: from prison to the equivalent of Paradise:
I began now to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be
more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was probable
I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world

The island as Utopia

An economic utopia

The businessmans utopia no competitors, no rivals

The rational pursuit of material self-interest a utilitarian philosophy

a reflection of Lockes conception of economic life in the state of nature

The redemptive value of work the dignity of labour work: no longer

the Adamic curse, but a source of satisfaction; character-forming

Robinsons insistence on infinite labour, on patience and relentless

effort, and on the spiritual reward of hard work

The dignity of work the possibility of regaining Paradise

The defamiliarisation of basic economic processes, which have

become alien in a complex economic system, based on the division of

Ian Watt: Manufacture, trade and commerce had made the main
processes whereby man secures shelter, food, and clothing become
alien to the everyday knowledge of Defoes contemporaries.

The function of utopia as education of desire I had neither the

lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, nor the pride of life. I had
nothing to covet, for I had all that I was now capable of enjoying
Robinson vs. the romantic hero: not a fortunate conquest of wealth
(which would remove the necessity of work), but the ordinary
economic activities which enable subsistence
the celebration of homo faber the autonomus, self-reliant
individual focus on personal achievement a reflection of the
individualistic ethos of Defoes time
The motif of the island and the theme of solitude seen as a
critique of the values of civilisation

Jean Jacques Rousseau: Robinson Crusoe: the best treatise on

natural education symbolic return to the state of nature
(innocence), as opposed to the false and corrupting conventions of

Robinson: the essential Englishman, the British

imperialist, or universal man ?
A) Robinson: the essence of Englishness pragmatic,
commonsensical, resourceful, taste for travel, love of the sea,
piety, commercial and practical instincts
His homely virtues: a celebration of middle-class Englishness

Walter Scott: Crusoes rough good sense, his prejudices, and

his obstinate determination not to sink under evils which can
be surpassed by exertion, forms no bad specimen of the TrueBorn Englishman
Victorian (19th century) critics see in Crusoe the spirit of the
Anglo-Saxon race (Walter Raleigh), as manifest in the
conquest of India and North America

Leslie Stephen : Robinson as the typical Englishman of his

He is the broad-shouldered, beef-eating John Bull, who has been
shouldering his way through the world ever since. Drop him in a desert
island, and he is just as sturdy and self-composed as if he were in
Cheapside. Instead of shrieking or writing poetry, becoming a wild hunter
or a religious hermit, he calmly sets about building a house and making
pottery and laying out a farm. . . . Cannibals come to make a meal of him,
and he calmly stamps them out with the means provided by civilisation.
Long years of solitude produce no sort of effect upon him morally or
mentally. He comes home as he went out, a solid keen tradesman, having,
somehow or other, plenty of money in his pockets, and ready to undertake
similar risks in the hope of making a little more. He has taken his own
atmosphere with him to the remotest quarters. Wherever he has set down
his solid foot, he has taken permanent possession of the country.

John Doyle, Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday


B) Crusoe as the embodiment of British imperialism

e.g. James Joyce Defoes novel: a prophecy of empire Robinson is the true
prototype of the British colonist, as Friday is the symbol of the subject races

The opposition civilised man/savage cannibal Crusoe: the imperialist desire for

Defoes novel: the prototypical colonial novel of the 18th century

The typical colonial situation: the white Westerner conquering a foreign

territory, which he turns into a liveable environment through intelligence and
hard work, and on which he imposes the ideas of order of his own civilisation

Numerous postcolonial replies to Robinson Crusoe contemporary writers from

former colonies writing back to Defoes master colonial narrative e.g. Derek
Walcott (West Indies): Pantomime (1978), J.M Coetzee (South Africa): Foe


The high point of Crusoes enjoyment of authoritarian kingship occurs when he is in

total solitude, reigning over a parrot, a dog, and two cats; he becomes
embroiled in unwanted complications from the moment that Friday, his first
human subject, appears. When his island becomes an organized colony in
communication with the outside world, Crusoe loses all interest in it except in so
far as it ministers to his vanity. (Patrick Parrinder)

Crusoe and his

man Friday
R.J. Hamerton,
Punch, 1843

C) Robinson Crusoe as the universal individual

The Romantics interpreted Crusoe as a figure of general human
significance his experience: universally appealing

For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he is the universal

representative, the person for whom every reader could
substitute himself Defoes novel makes me forget my
specific class, character, and circumstances, raises me into
the universal man
Contemporary critics: Crusoe as the embodiment of modern
man the individualist self e.g. Louis James: Crusoes
contradictions are basic to the human predicament for both
Western and non-Western readers
Thomas M. Kavanagh: Robinson Crusoe is the story of a
man alone; a story of how, within that solitude, he achieves an
awareness of self denied him during his time among men

Defoes style
Genius for narrative
His style: influenced by his journalistic career

Features: simplicity, flexibility, immediacy, urgency,

factuality, lack of unnecessary ornamentation, plainness
Accessible to a large audience contributed
considerably to the democratisation of literature
The world of common fact and action Defoes style
evokes a tangible reality, but allows for symbolic
Narrative realism impression of authenticity
faithfulness to detail, episodic structure of the story
(imitates the episodic quality of life itself)

Ian Watt on Defoes style

Defoe concentrates his attention on the primary qualities of
objects as Locke had defined them: especially solidity,
extension and number; and he presents them in the
simplest language Defoes prose contains a higher
percentage of words of Anglo-Saxon origin than that of any
other well known English writer except Bunyan. His
sentences, it is true, are often long and rambling, but Defoe
somehow makes this a part of his air of authenticity. The
lack of strong pauses within the sentence gives his style an
urgent, immediate, breathless quality; at the same time his
units of meaning are so small, and their relatedness is made
so clear by frequent repetition and recapitulation, that he
nevertheless gives the impression of perfect lucidity.

Robinson Crusoe revisited and revised

The immense popularity of
Defoes novel numerous
rewritings and imitations
the Robinsonades
desert island stories

E.g. The Swiss Family

Robinson by Johann David
Wyss (1812)
1959 movie treehouse concept
by artist John Hench

Contemporary rewritings

William Golding, Lord of

the Flies (1954)

Cormac McCarthy,
The Road (2006)

Michel Tournier,
Vendredi, ou les
limbes du Pacifique
[Friday or the Other

Song from
Crusoe, Jr.
(1916) an
musical fantasy