Defoe’s admirers sometimes call him the “father of the novel” and sometimes refer to him as the “first great realistic writer.” While neither phrase is completely accurate—there is no consensus about the identity of the first novelist, and there is controversy about when realistic writing first became popular—both descriptions reveal something about Defoe’s major literary contribution. He was one of the best of the earliest writers of realistic fiction, the genre that eventually evolved into the novel as it is known today.
Defoe and his contemporaries did not invent fiction or even popularize it. Elizabethan and Jacobean England produced a number of writers whose chief oeuvre was fictional writing—imitations of classical models, prose romances, biographical accounts of criminals and rogues, picaresque tales, allegories, and even translations of the lengthy and complicated narratives so popular in France. To this tradition, Defoe added the realistic first-person narrative, featuring the humble everyday occurrences that constitute the life of the ordinary—not famous or notorious—human being.
All Defoe’s long major works are fictional narratives that pretend to be true autobiographies. Defoe’s skill at inventing realistic episodes and providing superbly realized detail makes it difficult for the average reader to believe that the tales are fictional, that they have no basis in actuality, and that they are the creations of one man.
Defoe’s fiction is notable for its verisimilitude—that illusion of reality or semblance of truth created through the use of concrete details, elaborate identifications of the sources of information or ideas, simple and unadorned prose, frequent reminders to the reader to beware of inaccuracies, and, most important, the first-person narrator. Verisimilitude is created through the naming of actual places and people, the inclusion of historical events as background, the inclusion of prefatory statements in which the narrator writes of material omitted because of lack of space or mentions corroborating testimony to the events in the narrative, and the creation of completely believable characters.
In An Essay upon Projects, Defoe suggests the creation of a Society, modeled on the French Academy, “to polish and refine the English Tongue . . . to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile. . . . ” Defoe’s concern with language is evident in the fact that “Purity and Propriety of Stile” are the dominant characteristics of his prose. To Defoe, clarity and plainness—qualities learned at Morton’s Academy—were not only necessary for understanding but also morally correct. Plain language was, for Defoe, the language of the everyday world that he inhabited, the diction and imagery of business people, the vocabulary of the middle class, the honest communication of the common English citizen. This stylistic plainness is completely appropriate to Defoe’s intentions in his fiction and lends an air of authenticity to the autobiographical discourse of his characters. Plainness of language notwithstanding, Defoe’s prose is not devoid of linguistic creativity; when it is appropriate, he skillfully uses aphorisms, proverbial phrases, and figurative comparisons. He apostrophizes, uses analogies, constructs alliterative sequences and rhetorical questions. Like Alexander Pope, he is a master of periphrasis.
At first acquaintance, Defoe’s first-person narrators seem unusual or uncommon—they are prostitute and courtesan, sailor and gentleman, criminal and Quaker—but they are very much of a type: They are practical, business-minded, middle-class folk who inhabit an active and vigorous world. These narrators—Roxana, Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, Colonel Jack, Captain Singleton, the unnamed Cavalier—are possessed of a sturdy, irrepressible desire to conquer all circumstances; they are industrious and determined, and their ingenuity often proves their economic salvation. Indeed, Defoe’s narrators seem always to be counting or tallying money or goods or movable property.
All Defoe’s long narratives tell essentially the same story: An average, but prudent and hardworking, person is forced by circumstances into desperate straits but manages, through human ingenuity and determination, to gain success. Defoe’s characters personify the heroic in common humanity, and their actions represent the religious significance of hard work and discipline. Defoe writes about everyday life and its temptations and compromises, but he also illustrates the workings of divine providence in the humblest of daily activities.
Defoe’s fiction has often been criticized for its lack of discernible structure—he rarely uses chapter divisions, leaving no clues to the dramatic moments and internal climaxes in the narratives. He provides a stunning variety of richly detailed episodes that do little to advance what little plot there is, but which do create a sense of the importance of the mundane. Unlike the novelists who would follow him, Defoe avoids character analysis, preferring instead to concentrate on action and incident; his characters show little emotion and a considerable amount of calm reflection. Defoe’s debts to allegory and the moral treatise are evident in the hortatory tone so characteristic of his tales; he moralizes frequently—to many readers’ irritation—but always, it is in the service of his intentions, in the contexts of the solid middle-class fictional world that he has created.
First published: 1719
Type of work: Novel
Shipwrecked on a deserted island, an English seaman manages to create, through hard work and ingenuity, a profitable and comfortable life for himself.
Robinson Crusoe was Defoe’s first-published full narrative and his most popular,...
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Daniel Defoe (1660?-1731), English businessman, journalist, pamphleteer and prolific author wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719);
"For sudden joys, like griefs, confound at first." …. I cast my eye to the stranded vessel, when, the breach and froth of the sea being so big, I could hardly see it, it lay so far off; and considered, Lord! how was it possible I could get on shore.--Ch. 3
Crusoe's fictional autobiographical account of his twenty-eight years shipwrecked on a remote island against incredible odds is continued in The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720). First published when he was almost sixty years old, Defoe is considered by many to have written the first English novel. He wrote Crusoe in the style of social realism in which he is the observant reporter, historian, humorist, and grand story teller. With his extraordinary bibliography comprising myriad historical, satirical and political writings, Defoe's most famous novel was an immediate success.
Many of Defoe's works are laden with irony, similar to how Jonathan Swift would write such works as Gulliver's Travels (1727). At various times writing under pseudonyms, Defoe also wrote essays on business; biographies; short stories; and poems including his famous The True-Born Englishman: A Satyr (1701)
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The Devil always builds a chapel there;
And 'twill be found, upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.--Part I, l. 1.
which won him court favour with then King William III. However, upon publication of "The Shortest Way With Dissenters" in 1702 he was charged with sedition and libel and sent to Newgate prison the following year.
Alas, the Church of England! What with Popery on one hand, and Schismatics on the other, how has She been crucified between two thieves. NOW, LET US CRUCIFY THE THIEVES!
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!
Let all true sons of so holy and oppressed a Mother, exasperated by her afflictions, harden their hearts against those who have oppressed her!!
And may God Almighty put it into the hearts of all the friends of Truth, to lift up a Standard against Pride and ANTICHRIST! that the Posterity of the Sons of Error may be rooted out from the face of this land, for ever!
During his imprisonment he wrote "Hymn to the Pillory" which won him much favour with the crowds;
...let all the statesmen stand;
Who guide us with unsteady hand;
Who armies, fleets, and men betray;
And ruin all the shortest way.
Let all those soldiers stand in sight.
Who're willing to be paid and not to fight.
Agents, and Colonels, who false musters bring,
To cheat their country first, then their King.
In 1685 Defoe had participated in the Monmouth Rebellion against James II and he also served time in prison for debts incurred after failed speculative business ventures. Although Defoe was actively involved in the dissenting politics of his time, he is best remembered for his fictional works. They have inspired countless authors including Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, authors who also had fantastic tales to tell.
Not much is known of his early years, but Daniel Defoe was born sometime in the year 1659 or 1660 in the Cripplegate Parish of London, England, the youngest of three children born to Alice and James Foe, a tallow chandler. He began to preface his name with De sometime during the mid-to late 1690's. His parents being Presbyterian dissenters, Daniel attended Charles Morton's Dissenting Academy in Newington Green for four years, with plans to enter the ministry. But it was not to be, for as his non-Conformist father, he too decided to enter the business world. Settling in Cornhill, he became a merchant in various woolen goods as well as tobacco, wine, and wood. Religious upheaval and Plague did not stop Defoe as importer-exporter from also becoming involved with many social, political and religious causes including freedom of religion and the press. His first foray into the publishing world was his series of essays on business and banking collected in An Essay Upon Projects (1697).
Dickory Cronke (1719) was followed by The Life of Captain Singleton (1720) and Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720). Defoe's next major work is Moll Flanders (1722), sub-titled Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and dies a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums . . .Colonel Jack (1722) was published the same year as Defoe's convincing journalistic History of the Plague in London (1722). Other titles by Defoe include Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724), The Complete English Tradesman (1726), and Military Memoirs of Capt. George Carleton (1728).
In 1684 Defoe married Mary Tuffley, with whom he would have eight children, five surviving to adulthood. In his later years Defoe suffered much strain from debt. He died of a stroke in April of 1731 at his home in London and now rests in the Nonconformist cemetery of Bunhill Fields, London, England. His wife Mary was buried beside him in 1732. A large memorial now stands there in his honour.
The best of men cannot suspend their fate:
The good die early, and the bad die late.--Character of the Late Dr. S. Annesley (1715)
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2009. All Rights Reserved.
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