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Kristy McCluskey
Dr. Rosanne Denhard
Novels in Context
15 December 2009

Daniel Defoe’s Personal Life Reflected in Roxana

Daniel Defoe’s experiences in his early life played a crucial role in shaping the

many aspects of his career. As a young child he witnessed the suffering caused by the

Plague and the Great Fire of London (West 2). He endured the loss of his mother and

experienced lifelong discrimination and harassment because of his religion. Defoe’s early

experiences prompted him to shield himself in secrecy. In publishing his works he often

disguised his name, address and even his handwriting. But his struggles also opened

doors and taught him to stand up for himself. Defoe studied at Charles Morton’s

Academy, one of the best educational institutions for children of Dissenters (9). Morton

helped shaped Defoe’s strengths as a writer, as he taught him to stand up for his beliefs

and how to present convincing arguments to others. This proved to be one of Defoe’s

greatest strengths in his careers as both a journalist and a novelist. Defoe crafted brilliant

twists of fact and fiction in which he presented compelling arguments for views he did

and did not hold. His personal experiences greatly influenced his writings. Defoe’s

beliefs, ideals and experiences are reflected in 1724’s Roxana.

Roxana’s obsession with money, jewelry and other signs of wealth is one of the

novel’s recurring themes. Her obsession has seemingly innocent roots: when her

husband’s disappearance results in the devastating loss of her children, Roxana hits rock
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bottom. She is left with only a servant, for whom she must provide should she desire the

servant’s continued service.

Like Roxana, Defoe was all too familiar with debt and loss. He became involved

in trade in the late seventeenth century under the guidance of his father in law (West 51).

Unfortunately for Defoe, piracy was widespread at that time, and he experienced great

financial losses as a result. The losses put him under a tremendous amount of stress, but

he refused to admit defeat. He embarked on a vicious cycle of borrowing and losing

money until creditors ultimately lost patience with him, declared him bankrupt and put

him in prison (53).

Roxana, like most women in her time, is accustomed to being provided for. When

her husband’s disappearance leaves her in a dire situation, she is forced to adapt if she

wishes to survive. At the encouragement of her servant, Roxana pursues a sexual

relationship with her landlord, also referred to as the Jeweller, as a means of survival,

trading her body for the roof over her head. She is honest with her readers, openly

admitting that “[she] Receive’d [his] Kindness at the dear Expence of Body and Soul,

mortgaging Faith, Religion, Conscience, and Modesty, for… a Morsel of Bread” (Defoe

38).

West writes that “Defoe understood how debtors attempt to escape from their

misery by indulging in joyless debauchery” (54). Defoe’s attempt to escape manifested

itself in the very business that caused him the misery; that is, the more money he lost to

trade, the more obsessed he became with investing in it. Both he and Roxana sought
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comfort in a dream of wealth, though Roxana fares far better financially than Defoe did.

Her relationship with the Jeweller, which begins as a struggle for survival, gradually

morphs into an obsession. The relationship, which initially offers board and bread, begins

to present Roxana with more. The Jeweller offers her gifts and money as well as power

and control, items incredibly tempting for a woman who had lost everything. Just as

Defoe relentlessly pursued wealth in trade, Roxana begins to obsess over wealth and the

power that accompanies it.

When the Jeweller presents Roxana with a marriage contract that promises great

financial gain, she is eager to comply. The situation shifts from one of survival to one of

opportunity, but the transition presents no immediate consequences—that is, until Roxana

feels that her newfound wealth is threatened. Her servant, Amy, makes a casual inquiry

as to why Roxana is not yet pregnant: “Why you have been Marry’d a Year and a half, I

warrant you, Master wou’d have got me with-Child twice in that time” (Defoe 45).

Roxana interprets this as an assertion of her inadequacy, and reacts as though Amy has

suggested that she is not worthy of her new riches and subsequent power. These two

things are all that Roxana has to hold on to, all that she considers dear, and so she lashes

out. In a shocking assertion of control, she forces Amy to engage in intercourse with the

Jeweller until she is indeed with child. West suggests that Defoe knew that he had

behaved dishonorably in his quest for wealth, just as Roxana behaves here (54). Defoe

refused to admit defeat until he had exhausted all of his resources, and Roxana’s behavior

models his, as she clings desperately to what little she has.


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West writes that “the anxiety of the chronic debtor pervades Defoe’s novels,

expressing itself in a sense of being hunted by real or imagined enemies; in constant

changes of residence and disguise; and, above all, in fantasies of acquiring a fortune”

(53). Upon first experiencing Roxana, the reader might easily become perplexed by

Roxana’s obsessions with securing her estate. She frequently changes residences and

adopts new personas, each time taking great care to transport her possessions and her

wealth: “…how to get my Money remitted to England; applying therefore, to several

Merchants, that I might neither risque it all on the Credit of one Merchant, nor suffer any

single Man to know the Quantity of Money I had..” (Defoe 163). But to the reader with

knowledge of Defoe’s own financial struggles, Roxana’s great care with her fortune

makes a great deal of sense. It appears that Defoe is redeeming himself through Roxana.

His financial decisions were reckless, while Roxana regards her finances with a great deal

of care and goes to great lengths to preserve her fortune.

Here Defoe exhibits and incorporates one of his greatest strengths as a writer. He

channels himself into Roxana’s tale, permitting her to learn from his mistakes, and grants

her the redeeming quality of careful consideration that he himself did not possess. But he

is just as quick to demonstrate that such care can quickly morph into a destructive

obsession. Roxana takes great care of her wealth, but soon becomes possessed by it. She

begins to judge others in terms of their financial worth, in terms of what they are able and

willing to give to her. Defoe first presents this in Roxana’s orchestration of Amy’s rape,

where she demonstrates that her wealth elevates her to a position of power. It is also

evident in the namelessness of most of the characters. Their identities and other
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characteristics are not important to Roxana, and so she does not relay them to her reader.

Her only focus is what these characters have to offer her, and so that is how she defines

them. We know her lovers only as their occupations, which directly indicate the amount

of wealth they possess: Brewer, Jeweler, Prince and Merchant.

The introduction of the Dutch merchant is a brilliant move on Defoe’s part. He

offers Roxana an escape from the needlessly promiscuous life that she leads The

Merchant represents financial stability, but he doesn’t offer an endless supply of jewels or

a bank account with an exponential interest rate. Instead, the Merchant offers true and

genuine love. If Roxana were still seeking comfort and survival as she initially sought,

the Merchant would be a wholesome and ideal choice. But Roxana has been tainted by

wealth. The Merchant offers love, but love won’t line Roxana’s bank account. She

admits, “He had indeed, remov’d… all my Objections… yet I wou’d not give up my

Money, which, tho’ it was true… was really too gross for me to acknowledge” (Defoe

147).

But even as Defoe condemns Roxana’s decisions and the manner in which she

views people in terms of what she can gain from them, he continues to acknowledge the

error of his own ways. The merchants that are present in his novels are reflective of his

own career, and the terrifying prospect of financial ruin is something he himself had

experienced (West 54). This technique is what makes Defoe’s novel so believable and

authentic. It takes tremendous skill to condemn others while admitting the error of one’s
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own way. Defoe translates his own misfortunes and discoveries into Roxana’s, and

combines the two to present a brilliant cautionary tale.

It is particularly interesting to note that much of the money Defoe squandered

away belonged to his wife (West 54). Roxana’s initial suffering and subsequent survival

mechanism is a result of her husband’s financial failures. The financial woes she

experiences as a result of her husband’s inadequacies bear a striking parallel to Defoe’s

own life. This parallel is undoubtedly intentional on Defoe’s part, and its presence

possesses a dual functionality. First, Defoe expresses his regret for his mistakes and

acknowledges the harm he could have caused, for the struggle that Roxana endures could

have easily confronted his own wife. But he also acknowledges the downfall of men, and

in doing so begins to build his case as a champion for women’s rights.

Roxana introduces us to her husband the Brewer by describing his redeeming

qualities: “he was a Handsome Man, and a good Sportsman… a handsome, jolly Fellow”

(Defoe 7). But she is quick to denounce him as an “otherwise… weak, empty-headed,

untaught Creature, as any Woman could ever desire to be coupled with” (7). She urges

readers that if they desire a life of happiness, they should never marry a fool, for in doing

so she took the first step toward her eventual downfall.

The words come from Roxana, but the reader knows that they truly belong to

Defoe. His perspective on the foolishness of men is so natural, so authentic and flawless,

that it is evident that the words are genuine. These proclamations are not just Roxana’s,

they are Defoe’s, as he acknowledges the flaws of the supposed greater sex. It was not at
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all common for men to express such viewpoints during Defoe’s time, but his voice is real

and credible. This expression is also a brilliant example of Defoe’s ability to intertwine

fact and fiction. He enhances his fictional tale by peppering it with subtle political

propaganda. He encourages the reader to consider the imperfection that is the male sex

and the flawed relationship that exists between the sexes, but does so without offending

his audience. If a reader were to be offended by such a radical viewpoint, Defoe can slip

back under the shield that is Roxana, and use her to absorb any potential backlash.

Defoe possessed a broad and progressive view of marriage, which he presented to

Roxana’s audience in the form of her conversations with the Merchant. Roxana has many

personal reasons behind her aversion to marriage, and Defoe uses his belief in women’s

rights to further support her. The Merchant repeatedly asks for Roxana’s hand in

marriage and is puzzled by her constant refusals. When her usual explanation continues

to puzzle the Merchant, Defoe introduces another reason for Roxana to reject the

proposals:

“I told him, I had, perhaps, differing Notions of Matrimony, from what the
receiv’d custom had given us of it; that I thought a Woman was a free Agent, as
well as a Man, and was born free, and cou’d she manage herself suitably, might
enjoy that Liberty to as much Purpose as the Men do; that the Laws of Matrimony
were indeed, otherwise, and Mankind at this time, acted quite upon other
Principles; and those such, that a Woman gave herself entirely away from herself,
in Marriage, and capitulated only to be, at best, but an Upper-servant, and from
the time she took the Man, she was no better or worse than the Servant…” (Defoe
147).
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It is apparent that these opinions are Defoe’s, and that he is utilizing Roxana’s tale

as a means of presenting his beliefs to the public. Defoe had appeared as an early

champion of women’s rights twenty years prior to Roxana’s publication, when he

declared the censoring of women to be “unjust and too severe” (West 137). Here Defoe

supports “women’s rights in social behavior, the choice of a husband, education and the

control of women… he discerned… that women had minds of their own” (West 95).

Hastings writes that “[Defoe’s] views… often have a strikingly modern tone… his

constant endeavor to promote moderation…indicates a breadth of view rare in those

times” (19). Defoe was indeed unique in his support for the respect and equality of

women. But though his views are radical, his writing ensures that they are not offensive.

In presenting his viewpoints through a female narrator, Defoe inspires his readers to

consider gender relations. Yet he permits them to dismiss the viewpoints as those of an

unreliable and far from credible source if they so please.

Defoe’s Roxana presents a brilliant mix of fact and fiction. The novel is a story

and a cautionary tale, an apology and a warning, an acknowledgment of societal norms as

well as a call to action. Defoe’s work as a novelist came at the end of his career, at the tail

of his own mistakes and his exposure to the mistakes of society. The timing is

impeccable, for Defoe has crafted his writing as an art form, and has perfected a balance

between storytelling and teaching. Defoe’s personal life was not without errors, but he is

humble enough to learn from them, and is gracious enough to offer the error of his own

ways to society, to permit others to learn from his mistakes. Despite his personal
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struggles he lands on his feet, and stands as an example of learning mistakes. Roxana

hasthe opportunity to learn from Defoe’s mistakes, but ultimately succumbs to her greed.

Defoe utilizes his own personal experiences to educate his readers, but leaves any final

decisions to the readers’ own discretion. His personal experiences are certainly reflected

in Roxana, and serve to enhance the novel. Because Defoe has experienced the depths of

Roxana’s despair, he is able to present her story in an authentic voice. His experiences

also serve to give the novel a personal touch, which readers can actively respond to.

Defoe’s personal life played a crucial role in the development of the success that was

Roxana.
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Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel. Roxana. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Hastings, William T., ed. The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson
Crusoe. Chicago: Scott Foresman Company, 1913. Google Books. Web. 12
December 2009.

West, Richard. Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures. 1st ed.
New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, Inc., 1998. Print.