Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) opted for a life of writing after years of struggling as a businessman. For the amount of non-fiction pamphlets he came to produce, in the modern age he would have been a blogger. Add in the scale of his fiction output and the man becomes quite the enigma, especially considering the spark of his imagination, putting his pen furiously to work at the age of 59, which led to the seminal masterwork that is The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). One peculiar and marveling aspect about the man, it seems, is that he is the only published author known to the literary canon to have been pilloried. Can you imagine? Being pilloried?
Ian Watt situates Defoe as among the triumvirate of authors whose literature participates in the founding of the novel writing tradition, the other two being Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Defoe’s work is of particular interest, both for its form, which seems a kind of meandering style that somehow ends up being well worth the read, and for its content which, in two of his novels, concern the lives of unfortunate women.
Unlike the olden medieval tales and their damsel saving heroes, and even in contrast to the amatory and scandal fictions of his day, Defoe’s work comes across as anomalous. Dubbed as “private histories” (and building on a lesser-scale tradition), he goes into copious detail about the daily lives of his heroines, Moll Flanders and Roxana, without so much as a single chapter heading to help digest the material. It seems he had beginning and end points roughly in mind, making up much of the middle based on his worldly experience, and then he set about the task of writing his works in seeming singular fell swoops, staggering for the length in which they came to encompass. At times his paragraphs are so long that it’s hard to imagine forcing a quill pen to perform in such a way, all without the luxury of a backspace button and copy/paste features. Most profoundly, the notion that he happened to stumble into the form — carrying on at length, elaborating on the minutia of daily life, experiencing the ups and the downs of a character — it all speaks to the mysterious manner in which nature itself intermixes with the human mind to produce that which will blaze new trails.
Where the form sneaks up on the literary establishment, the choice of characters and their experiences are equally as innovative. With no relation to the aristocracy, and with the debt that haunted him, Defoe knew well the trials of life. That he applied his ideas of misfortune to the lives of two fictional women is a fascination. Moll Flanders begins by telling us how renowned she was at the prison at Newgate, and that Moll Flanders is not even her real name. The sense of shame is immediate, yet with the enormity of detail that follows, revealing both her good and bad natures, readers are compelled to consider the “why” of it all; Defoe makes it difficult to pass judgment.
And if Moll Flanders entices readers with her escapades as a career criminal, Roxana’s tale confounds us with alternative schemes that are mind-boggling. Again we are presented with a woman caught in the throes of despair, where only a few pages pass before we find her labeling her first husband a “fool,” no less than seventeen times over the course of two paragraphs. She is ranting, for the man’s inability to care for her, which serves to underscore most pointedly how the chivalric days of gallantry are, indeed, long past. Unlike her literary predecessor, however, Roxana employs sexuality instead of thievery to make ends meet, which leads to her from one debasing situation to the next as she makes the effort to survive. Replete with a perplexing relationship with her devoted servant, and the willingness to throw her own daughter under the bus, that Roxana ends with a shallow portrayal of penitence, should come as no surprise. Realism is Defoe’s game play, unconcerned as he is with notions of making the reader feel good, much less the aspects of epic and spectacle.
When we consider how Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey was in production during the same years in which Defoe wrote these incredible works, it becomes a task to comprehend what it is that is so compelling about Defoe. Pope was among the elite, Homer is timeless and iconic; Defoe was not. Yet his lasting impact as a composer of those “private histories” can be traced and even summed up in that which has been threaded into the modern American consciousness, the desire to write the “Great American Novel.” Defoe’s endeavor to document fictionally the lesser known peoples of the world has, in a roundabout way, paved the way and given voice to the thousands upon thousands of writers who followed in his footsteps, shaping and modifying the realism of his style to give us the novels that we know of today.
[Images courtesy of Wikipedia]