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Revenire Cuprins

DANIEL DEFOE AS NOVELIST

Conf. univ. dr. Aurel Curtui, asist. univ. Natalia Muntean,


Universitatea “1 Decembrie 1918” Alba Iulia

The paper deals with Daniel Defoe’s novels. It focuses its interest on Robinson Crusoe
which is examined in detail.

1. Introduction

Defoe wrote novels in which he discussed serious matters of human experience, and which
satisfied the emotional requirements of the readers. We find in them rough and harsh descriptions,
rude and impressive details and the problems of those times. He was mainly concerned with the
ordinary aspects of life which are depicted in a matter-of-fact, straight forward manner. The
treatment of the subject-matter is handled in such a way as to disclose the world of the so-called
middle of lower classes. Defoe’s prose-works also reveal accuracy or detailed and through
background information as well as a concern for verisimilitude. In other words, Defoe created the
descriptive prose writing peopled by strong and rather complex characters such as Robinson
Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, Captain Singleton, Roxana, who are determined to fight in
order to find their way out of the hardship of life. His insights into the inner life of man actually
make him the first English novelists. He was not only a debater of sharp social issue but also the
interpreter of the acute contemporary social affairs. He wrote for a different readership, namely for
the simple and hard-working people. And he wrote for them with a great evocative power and
spontaneous energy, as one who knew the social implications of the life of those who had to work
hard in order to earn their living.

2. Defoe’s Biography
Defoe was born as the son of a London butcher. His parents sent him four years to school in
Newington where he was given a sound practical education. The school and university of the day
focussed interest on the traditional study of Greek and Latin with logical training and the reading of
English writings. They strengthened this kind of reading with an infusion of practical subjects such
as mathematics and navigation. Thus Defoe got a middle class practical education which he later on
completed by private effort and thirst for knowledge. Throughout his life Defoe had the habit of
looking for a wide variety of subjects such as history, geography, economics and navigation. In this
way he acquired a wide factual knowledge of the political, social and economic conditions of the
age.
He lived for a while in Spain and travelled throughout a few European countries such as
France, Italy, and Germany. On his coming back home he became a prosperous London merchant
endowed with a strong common sense who viewed life with curiosity and suspicion. Defoe seemed
to be an Ainscrutable character@1 whose real life was not too favourably regarded by his
contemporaries. He had a shifting or changeable attitude towards public and political affairs.
However, he has an active spirit who wrote plenty of essays and pamphlets displaying his desire to
improve practical conditions in everyday life. He collaborated with various journals and newspapers
and founded his influential periodical The Review in 1704. It lacked an evident literary interest but
it was an important cultural vehicle in which Defoe proves himself a notable interpreter of English

1 Angus Ross, Introduction to the Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Penguin Books,
London, 1965, p. 8.
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internal and external affaire.

3. Defoe’s Works
In 1697 Defoe published his first important work An Essay upon Projects in which he
expressed his ideas about the necessity of an English social reform. Like most thinkers of the new
rising social class Defoe laid stress upon the value of education and assumed that it would solve all
the social problems of the day. Four years later his The True - Born Englishman, a vigorous satire
in verse, set forth his judgement on misconceived patriotism. It was in a similar spirit that Defoe
wrote The Shortest Way with Dissenter (1702) conceived as an ironic attack against religious
issues of the time. The pamphlet was publicly condemned as a piece of seditious writing and its
author fined and imprisoned.
On the whole Daniel Defoe sensed the spirit of the age presenting in his novels those events
and facets which had a special significance. He wrote a few notable and interesting novels such as
Robinson Crusoe (1719), Captain Singleton (1720), Moll Flanders (1721), Colonel Jack (1722)
and Roxana (1724). Some of his novels, such as Moll Flanders (1721), offer a unique
demonstration of the relationship between the individual of the day and the new bourgeois English
society. Such a society was entirely absorbed and dominated over by the economic profits and
interests. Therefore, the individual of the day was totally neglected or ignored. Consequently,
everything in this book is centred on the value of money.
The narrative technique used in this prose work throws light on the possible mergence
between various elements of the picaresque novel and those of the novel of manners. Defoe
employs narration skilfully as he allows Moll to tell her own story with a matter-of-fact precision.
The novelist proves to be an excellent analyst of the inner mechanism of the life of the protagonist.
Defoe skilfully presents events and happenings as seen from Moll’s angle of vision.
As in any picaresque novel Defoe often shifts the social environment of the heroine. The
dramatic biography of Moll Flanders hastens the incidents and cumulates further adventures out of
which her existence emerges. Such aspects of this novel, to which of course others can be added,
mark an advance in Defoe’s novelistic art.

4. Robinson Crusoe

This is even more relevant in Defoe’s major work. The Life and Strange Surprising
Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner. The work as it is, comprises a much more
complex and profound human significance than it is often considered. It is true that the novel is for
great interest for people fond of pure adventures. It is also true that the book considerably appeals or
moves the feelings or children. They find in it plenty of amusing, instructive, and entertaining
incidents. The novel improves their mind and fantasy with a lot of strange and fascinating
adventures.
But the novel also offers, like many other works of world literature, a food for thought and
delight to other categories of people as well. Because it brings out into bold relief the pattern or
sample of a rough, exciting and fierce human existence by means of allegory. Defoe himself gives
us complete justification for regarding Robinson Crusoe as more than an adventure story. In the
Preface to Serious Reflections... of Robinson Crusoe he makes Crusoe write that Athe Story,
although allegorical, is also historical... In a word, the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe are one
whole scheme of a real life of several years, spent in the most wandering desolate and afflicting
circumstances that ever man went through@. So Defoe created a work which can be seen in a more
complex way as one of the prototypes of the modern novel. Because as one critic points out
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ACrusoe’s world is in many respects, however, Defoe’s world@.2 Robinson Crusoe has its roots in
the very journalistic activity of Defoe. His Atrue accounts@ as he called them, which are in fact prose
literary pieces are his first steps towards a novel-like writing.
However, the true background of the work is to be found in Defoe’s inner life and real
experience, in his realistic imagination, in his sharpening sense of reality. Since, his vast and
profound knowledge of the life of the age with its various aspects predominates over the fiction. It
is common knowledge that Defoe describes to some extent the true adventures of a sailor named
Alexander Selkirk who accompanied the famous voyager Dampier in a journey around the world.
As a consequence of a quarrel between the two, Selkirk was left for disobedience on the
uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez.
Selkirk lived there in solitude for about five years. In 1709 he was saved by Captain Woodes
Rogers who brought him home. Two years later Captain Woodes wrote a book entitled A Journey
around the World (1711) in which he set forth the story of Selkirk. On the other hand, it is said
that many newspapers of the day reported Selkirk’s adventures. Obviously, Defoe read about those
strange and unusual happenings. We have all reason to believe that he was stimulated by them in
writing his novel, because the case of Alexander Selkirk Shows a certain similarity to that of
Robinson Crusoe. But the story of Selkirk incited only the interest and imagination of Defoe to
write a novel based on such incidents. Like Shakespeare, Defoe was able to re-create and give a
dimension and moral significance as well as an unexpected literary formula to his source.
In fact, the novel draws out its substance and meaning from the everyday reality of English
life. The story of Robinson Crusoe is more often moulded from economic and social motives or
reasons. For the building op of such a prose work like Robinson Crusoe was not only possible but
urgently demanded by the new public taste.
With the rise and the consolidation of the bourgeois society, the Englishman became more
active and more lucidly concerned about the sense of life. He lived a less conventional life than the
earlier aristocrat. The new bourgeois tastes and desires were simpler but more practical. Most of the
bourgeois people were home or overseas merchant, explorers of new, exotic and uninhabited lands.
Both by their nature and by training or profession they were no longer satisfied with the old-
fashioned, conventional aristocratic literary productions.
Therefore, prose-works like Robinson Crusoe were in fashion and they appealed directly to
an increased desire of the predominantly middle-class audience. In one way the novel is but a
praise, a glorification of manual labour, of the individual or private initiative, and of the capacity of
human enterprising spirit. It promotes the cult of labour and of life in nature. Robinson Crusoe is
the novel of human will that is able to pass over the obstacles or hardships of life. It is also a work
of perseverance, of ingenuity, of courage, of tenacity and hope. These aspects are insisted upon in
the struggle of Crusoe with the forces of nature. The relationship between the hero and nature seems
to be one of the basic themes of the novel. But this is not the only one. As Maximilian Novak
asserts, the work is Aan attempt to dramatize economic conflicts@. Or, in the view of another
outstanding contemporary critic, this novel Areflects the new economic individualism of the
eighteenth century@.3

5. Plot and Structure


Such significant and major questions give the novel a universal meaning. Defoe constructed
an excellent plot in Robinson Crusoe involving as consistently in a logical step by step progression
of the action. Robinson Crusoe begins by introducing himself to the reader. He informs him about

2
Angus, Ross, Op. cit., p. 9.
3
Ian Watt, Robinson Crusoe in The Rise of the Novel, London, 1928, p. 72.
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his family, his education and his early experience. Then the protagonist leaves home in search of
adventure. He makes several voyages and during one of them he is caught by pirates. The he is sold
as a slave. Crusoe escapes and becomes a rich plantation owner in Brazil.
During another voyage the ship is wrecked and Crusoe is the only survivor. On the first
night he sleeps in a tree and when he awakes next morning he finds himself on an uninhabited
island. And this is the starting point of the exciting island experience. It consists of several phases.
In the first one, Crusoe gets settled and adjusted on the island. He builds a raft and carries all
the supplies from the ship to the shore. Then he builds and fortifies his house. Similarly, the hero is
interested in making provisions, food supplies, corn, goats, birds etc.
The second phase of his island experience is entirely devoted to Crusoe’s explorations. He
surveys the island and discovers its richness and beauty. He builds a boat and sets out to sail around
the island. After a while, the protagonist thinks of getting out of the island, for life on the island
seems to be so full of suspense. The idea occurs to him particularly when he discovers a foot print
on the sand. Moreover, he has also become alarmed at the idea of cannibals visiting the island.
In the third phase of his island experience a new and more idyllic part of the novel begins. It
raises a new hope. The rescue of Friday is basical in this respect. It provides the occasion for a few
interesting aspects. Crusoe begins to educate Friday and again makes plans for leaving the island.
After a long, hard, and interesting existence on the island an English ship passes by and
Robinson Crusoe returns to his native country.

6. Character Treatment
However, the full meaning of the novel is more distinctly rendered in its character treatment.
Robinson, the model hero is a young common Englishman who stands out as a symbol of human
conduct facing the hardship of everyday life. Therefore, the imaginary of fictitious voyage of an
ordinary Englishman constitutes but a pretext in order to bring into relief a model destiny. The
protagonist takes on or is invested with qualities according to the demands of the narrative in which
he finds himself. He narrates his troubles, adventures, attempts and meditations in a simple, natural
and spontaneous manner. His way of speaking is that of a lucid, or clear-minded and simple man
who expresses his thoughts with good sense and without affectation. The novelist eliminates as
much of the mental activity as possible. He maintains interest over the succession of various
incidents by concentrating on the hero’s state of mind rather than on his activities. The first person
novel, exemplified in this work, is the best for this kind of narrative.
Robinson Crusoe is not only the hero of the novel but he is also the prototype of the early
eighteenth century Englishman. The work is to be praised particularly for imparting that sense of
truth about English life. The character of Robinson Crusoe is a kind of combination of the features
of the English merchants, adventures or explorers of that time. His greatness lies in the power of his
intelligence, in the dexterity and ease with which he is able to adapt himself to the new, unexpected
and quite unfavourable conditions. He is a practical and enterprising spirit who knows how to make
the things he needs with his won hands. So if the environment acts upon hi, the hero is very active
creating his own conditions for a tolerable existence. This aspect of Robinson’s destiny makes him
a modern character whose dominant feature is not pure adventure but conscious activity. This side
of the problem constitutes, in fact, the full and real significance of the novel.
Crusoe also embodies the heroism of human will, its diligence and inventiveness
subordinated to a precise aim or purpose. His thirst for knowledge and culture imbues the hero with
a certain wisdom and greatness. In approaching the character of the protagonist Defoe proves his
craftsmanship. He shows him as a humane and good-natured personage who yearns for human
companionship in order to remove his loneliness. The need of human society on the island is
symbolically rendered by the appearance of Friday in chapter XII - XIV of the book.
When Friday comes along new relationships spring up on the island: those between master
and servant. Although Robinson is somehow an egocentric character, he does whatever he can in
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order to educate and stimulate his servant. In doing to the novelist shows the hero in the best
possible light and lays special stress on other facets of his personality. He is also depicted as an
industrious and hard-working man. He is very careful about what he does with his supplies; he
always has in mind that anything he finds might be useful one day. Daniel Defoe does not lay
special stress on the secondary characters of the novel. He invests them with the qualities or
individuality they need to have. Friday’s character, for example, remains fairly consistent
throughout the book. Since his main function is to provide help and comfort to Crusoe but not to
initiate any of the major action himself, his required traits are docility, strength, agility, adaptability
and affectionateness. Quite often Defoe emphasizes Friday’s loyalty.
The rest of the Crusoe World is peopled with flat characters, who provide either stimulus to
which Crusoe can respond or simply narrative relief.

7. Narrative Technique
Such basic aspects of the book are even more prominently revealed by the narrative
technique used in it.
The unfolding of the plot is provided by an interesting and exciting speech of great vitality.
The action works brilliantly for Defoe’s main purpose to maintain an interesting human assumption.
Though it should never be forgotten that the adventure of Defoe’s hero is both mental and physical,
the novel promoting the cause of morality and industriousness.
The structure of the plot is not incidental at all. It is worked out precisely and meticulously
and assumes a fundamental artistic from. The writer starts from the idea that he has to make things
as difficult as possible for his hero. He introduces obstacles at every step in his activity disturbing,
what we may call, his normal existence. Defoe sustains and increase tension by dividing the
narrative into episodes representing stages in the hero’s mental progress. He makes his long story
consist not only of a succession of incidents but of a series of smaller stories of various dimensions.
The reader enjoys these independent episodes for their details and setting which are brilliantly
described. Then the writer brings the action in each episode to a certain pattern. He creates the
setting of the action, then the situations in which the hero finds himself in such a position that he is
each time surprised by the unexpected happening. Defoe builds up each episode gradually,
increasing the pace and the number of complications until the episode reaches a climax. Here are
two examples. The boat episode, for instance, which provides an intense emotional involvement of
the reader, is constructed to achieve a high degree of interest. It comprises a rising action during
which the boat is launched, a complication when the wind carries it out to sea, a crisis of despair
when the boat is split by the rocks, and then a falling action, in which the boat gradually returns to
the island.
When Defoe exhausts the possibilities of this phase of the narrative, he invests something
new and different. The footprint occurs at this moment because there is nothing else that could
interest the reader so much. Its discovery is a real dramatic blow determined by the fact that it is
completely illogical: there is only one footprint. Therefore, for about several pages the reader is
carried through Crusoe’s mental adventures. The variety of the possible moods he goes through is
followed on the psychological level by various feelings such as terror, despair, calmness, anxiety.
The tension is maintained until the action reaches its climax. Once more, a particular line of action
has exhausted itself and it is time to give the reader something else to interest him. In this way the
plot of the novel unfolds somehow in a cyclic manner. The writer slackens the tension every now
and then since the reader cannot be kept constantly at the same pitch of expectation.
The most important aspect in this novel seems to be the fact that the writer does not push the
moral. He allows the reader to discern and judge, to draw out his own conclusions. Moreover, as the
narrative progresses and especially as it enters its second half, Defoe decreases the number of major
problems the protagonist has to worry about.
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If so far the novelist was interested in dispersing the material of the narrative, now he starts
gathering the various narrative strings. One notices then that the major incidents are spaced
regularly throughout the novel. They are intermingled with shorter or longer period of reflection.
On the other hand, Defoe maintains a consistent level of interest by applying a consistent sense of
time in this novel.

8. Literary Value
In the last two decades critics and commentators have made some progress in understanding
and appreciating Defoe not as an intuitive genius but as a conscious craftsman who knew how to
create the effects he had in mind. One of such critical interpretations aims at revealing the art of
gradation stressing the anxiety of human solitude. Thus, Defoe’s hero becomes the prototype of a
literary brought by Joyce and Kafka to perfection. The degree of skill of the narrative technique in
Robinson Crusoe ranks Defoe among the most gifted eighteenth century novelists. Dr. Johnson
and Samuel Coleridge seem to be the first outstanding critics who proclaimed the real value,
freshness and authenticity of this novel. Defoe possesses the unusual power of giving verisimilitude
and vividness to his fiction. The value of the novel lies particularly in the minute and faithful
description of the characters and natural setting proper for what is called atmosphere.
The novel is appreciated then for the manner in which is discloses the specific English
character of the age and the way it is made alive for the reader.
The moral integrity of Crusoe spreads an atmosphere of naturalness and credibility all over
the story. While the style of the novel is simple, sincere, precise and animated, the general mental
vision spreads a cold, meditative and sad perspective of great dramatic impact. It is in fact an
attitude towards life typical of a man of the Enlightenment.