Defoe As Novelist
by Ian Watt Dean of School of English Studies, at the university of East Anglia (1960)

Defoe was nearly sixty when his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, appeared. He had been known to his contemporaries as a journalist and pamphleteer, however, long before he took overtly to fiction. The first work which brought him fame was The True-Born Englishman (1701), probably the most influential verse satire in English after Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel. It was a defence of William III against those who thought that it was intolerable for a Dutch king to govern 'true-born Englishmen'. Defoe retorted that there was no such thing:

We have been Europe's sink, the jakes where she
Voids all her offal outcast progeny.

He was no poet, although his crude vigour was undeniable. It is further evidenced in such couplets as:

But English gratitude is always such
To hate the hand which doth oblige too much,

and the famous opening:

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.

Defoe knew his poetic limitations full well. He wrote in poetic form because that, since Dryden, was the favoured mode for public polemic; but Defoe's real aim was not literary greatness, but immediate effect. So in his Preface he anticipated the critics very jocularly:

'Without being taken for a conjuror, I may venture to foretell, that I shall be cavilled at about my mean style, rough verse, and incorrect language, things I indeed might have taken more care in. But the book is printed; and though I see some faults, it is too late to mend them. And this is all I think needful to say...'

He could be cavalier because his main audience cared little for such niceties; they were not the cultivated patrons to whom so much of previous literature had been primarily addressed, but plain middleclass folk, who constituted an important new force in the reading public, and were strongly asserting their independence, cultural as well as political. They felt, and Defoe agreed, that

Fate has but small distinction set
Betwixt the counter and the coronet,

and that the tastes of those who worked behind the counter must also be served.

So if the great Augustans, Swift and Pope, sneered at him as an outsider, Defoe took little notice. He had more than his share of the truculent self-reliance of the trading classes and he was less an artist than a literary tradesman himself, producing, in a career that was as much devoted to business and politics as to literature, some four hundred separate works, as well as a vast amount of journalism, including the whole of his thrice-weekly newspaper, The Review, which ran for nine years from 1704 to 1713.

His novels —which are certainly the works that interest us most today —were among the greatest concessions he made to the tastes of the reading public. His own literary preference seems to have been for something more factual — for the political, economic, social, and moral improvement of his countrymen. But he had learned as editor of The Review that his readers often needed to be 'wheedled ... in to the knowledge of the world'; and, to 'carry out this honest cheat and bring people to read with delight', he had made an important journalistic innovation. To the usual contents of his paper, an essay-like editorial on a political topic, he had added a lighter section, 'Advice from the Scandalous Club', which dealt humorously with controversial aspects of the social life of the day. This innovation was very successful, and paved the way to The Tatler's more polished presentation of similar matter; it also taught Defoe much about this side of the public's interests and gave him practice in catering to them.

In any case, he was a professional writer, and always ready to supply whatever the printing press could use. Pope might attack what he called Grub Street and the Dunces that wrote for it; but Defoe saw Grub Street as merely an application of commercial principles to the manufacture of literary goods. As he wrote in a letter signed 'Anti-Pope', published in the popular Applebee's Journal in 1725:

'Writing, you know, Mr Applebee, is become a very considerable Branch of the English Commerce. ... The Booksellers are the Master Manufacturers or Employers. The several Writers, Authors, Copyers, Sub-writers, and all other Operators with pen and ink are the workmen employed by the said Master Manufacturers.'

He was true to his understanding of his proper role, then, in writing fiction, whatever his personal inclinations.

He was also true to himself in imposing on what he wrote so much of his own personality and outlook that it became something quite different from anything that the world had seen before; and thus almost accidentally created a form of prose narrative which, if it was not quite the novel in our sense, undoubtedly led to the rise of the novel proper. It is, incidentally, highly appropriate that the rise of the novel — then regarded as a sub-literary form — should begin with a sub-literary figure like Defoe, responsive to the greatly enlarged reading public and independent of patronage and the critical standards of the literati.

* * *

Defoe's most important innovation in fiction was his unprecedentedly complete narrative realism. There is little doubt that it springs directly out of his long practice of journalism. Leslie Stephen has described how his early pamphlet, the famous A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next day after her death, to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, the 8th of September, 1705, contains all the hallmarks of Defoe's later narrative style, including 'the manufacturing of corroborative evidence' and the deflection of attention from weak links in the chain of evidence. Stephen thought that it was a work of fiction, but it has since been discovered that Defoe was merely reporting a popular news item of the day in his own characteristic manner. He was to use exactly the same technique when he came to write fiction, and even there we are never quite sure how much is pure invention. Robinson Crusoe itself was widely regarded as authentic at the time of publication, and it is still not certain to what extent some of Defoe's works, such as the Memoirs of a Cavalier and the Carleton Memoirs, are fictitious or genuine.

It was certainly Defoe's overriding intention that readers should be gulled into thinking his fictions true. If he did not know already that the illusion of authenticity was his forte, he could have learned it from one of his journalist rivals who wrote in 1718 of 'the little art he is truly master of, of forging a story, and imposing it on the world for truth'. Defoe never admitted that he wrote fiction; and typically prefaced his greatest success, Robinson Crusoe, published the next year, with the statement that he, writing merely as 'Editor',

'believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it'.

This, of course, is not literally true. For, although Defoe had read about Alexander Selkirk and other castaways, the story and the character are very largely of Defoe's invention. But they are described with so much circumstantial detail, whose only justification would seem to be that things actually happened in just that way, that we do not think of the book as fiction but accord it at least a semi-historical status. Consider for example the way in which the famous finding of the green barley sprouts is told:

In the middle of all my labours it happened, that rummaging my things, I found a little bag, which, as I hinted before, had been filled with corn for the feeding of poultry, not for this voyage, but before, as I suppose, when the ship came from Lisbon. What little remainder of the corn had been in the bag was all devoured with the rats, and I saw nothing in the bag but husks and dust; and being willing to have the bag for some other use, I think it was to put powder in, when I divided it for fear of the lightning, or some such use, I shook the husks of corn out of it on one side of my fortification, under the rock. It was a little before the great rains, just now mentioned, that I threw this stuff away, taking no notice of anything, and not so much as remembering that I had thrown anything there; when, about a month after, or thereabout, I saw some few stalks of something green shooting out of the ground, which I fancied might be some plant I had not seen; but I was surprised, and perfectly astonished, when, after a little longer time, I saw about ten or twelve ears come out, which were perfect green barley of the same kind as our European, nay, as our English barley.

The main aim of the writing is clearly to keep as close as possible to the consciousness of the narrator as he struggles to make the situation clear to himself and to us. Nothing but the exclusive pursuit of this aim, we feel, would have brought about such abrupt dislocations of rhythm and syntax as are found in the first sentence; no other reason could explain the repetitions, the parentheses, the stumblings. And the upshot is that the little bag takes its place with all the other objects of Crusoe's life that have fastened themselves on our imaginations — the first clay pot, the climatically inept fur garments, the umbrella, the boat, the grindstone.

For Defoe's style obeys more fully than ever before the purpose of language as Locke redefined it: 'to convey knowledge of things'. Defoe concentrates his description on the primary qualities of objects as Locke saw them: especially solidity, extension, and number; and he gives them in the simplest language — Defoe's prose contains a higher percentage of words of Anglo-Saxon origin than that of any other well-known writer, except Bunyan. His sentences, it is true, are often very long and rambling, but he 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 perfectly simple lucidity.

Defoe had been exposed to all the influences which were making prose more prosaic in the seventeenth century: to the Lockian conception of language; to the Royal Society's wish for a language which would help its scientific and technological aims by keeping close to the speech of 'artisans, countrymen, and merchants': and to the plain unadorned style of later seventeenth-century preaching which obtained its effects by repetition rather than by imagery or structural elaboration. Most important of all, his twenty years of journalism had taught him that it was impossible to be too explicit for the audience of 'honest meaning ignorant persons' he kept continually in mind. As a result, his natural prose style is not only an admirable narrative vehicle in itself: it is also much closer to the vernacular of the ordinary person than any previous writer's, and thus admirably adapted to the tongues of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and his other characters.

But the effect of the passage quoted does not depend only on its style: there is behind it Defoe's emphatic pressure forcing us to attend to the matter. Every relevant detail of the occurrence is made explicit: and after Crusoe has evidenced his scrupulous honesty by admitting that he cannot be absolutely certain about all of them — when the bag had originally been filled with corn, or what he had wanted the bag for later — we are in no mood to take seriously the objection that, as Crusoe admits, 'the climate ... was not proper for corn': for fiction has long before been accepted as established fact. So, wholly convinced, we rejoice with Crusoe at this miracle of divine Providence.

The Puritans saw the whole world, and every incident of their experience, as alive with secret indications of divine intervention or intention; and Crusoe follows the tradition in looking for signs of Grace or Reprobation in this, and in a11 else that happens to him. Robinson Crusoe is not just a travel story; it is also, in intention at least, one of Defoe's 'honest cheats', a sincere attempt to convert a godless form of literature to the purposes of religion and morality: Crusoe's story is supposed to demonstrate how God's Providence saves an outcast who has sinned against the divine will by leaving his family and forgetting his religious training, out of a 'secret burning lust of ambition for great things'.

Defoe wrote two continuations of the book we know, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; they were called the Further Adventures, and the Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, (2) and were written mainly to cash in on the first volume's phenomenal success. In the latter he repeats the moral and religious aim he had avowed earlier; his book

'is calculated for, and dedicated to, the improvement and instruction of mankind in the ways of virtue and piety, by representing the various circumstances to which mankind is exposed, and encouraging such as fall into ordinary or extraordinary casualties of life, how to work through difficulties with unwearied diligence and application, and look up to Providence for success.'

We look at Defoe's work rather differently today. His was a much secularized puritanism, which put its emphasis on 'unwearied diligence and application' rather than on faith. Defoe's heroes tend to act on the assumption that the more you keep your powder dry the less you will need to rely on the imponderable effects of your trust in God. We do not find Crusoe's religious ruminations very convincing: they are, like bouts of benign malaria, easily shaken off, and indicating no organic spiritual change. As soon as he remembers that previously he had 'shook a bag of chicken's meat out in that place...' his wonder ceases; and, as a result, he confesses that '.... my religious thankfulness to God's Providence began to abate too, upon the discovering that all this was nothing but what was common'. The same primacy of non-religious considerations is evident in the book as a whole. For, of course, Crusoe is well rewarded for his sins: without them he would hardly have risen above the 'middle station of low life' to which he had been born, and become a wealthy merchant, plantation owner, slave trader, and colonizer.

If today we are sceptical about the book's religious significance, we see much else in it which was no part of Defoe's intention. We see Robinson Crusoe as the symbol of economic man, who, by recapitulating on his island all the basic productive processes, provides the economists with their favourite example. We see him too as the empire builder, leaving a crowded homeland for the wide-open places, establishing a little city in a tropical forest and converting the heathen. We may notice too that, just as economic individualism in general stands in the way of harmonious personal and social relations, so Crusoe's radical egocentricity leads him to sell the Moorish boy Xury, who has saved his life, to the Portuguese trader for sixty pieces of silver, and later to treat Friday in the manner of a benevolent slave owner rather than in that of a friend. Defoe, it seems certain, was not conscious of the prophetic nature of his tale; but he had experienced the crucial social and economic processes of his time more fully and deeply than anyone, and, as an honest reporter, he reflected their effects on human behaviour with absolute fidelity.

Not that he was wholly blind to the symbolic quality of Crusoe's experience. In the preface to the Serious Reflections he hints that the story is an allegory of his own life: and though this assertion is mainly an afterthought to defend himself against the critics who had charged that Robinson Crusoe was fiction, his plea has a certain essential truth. Defoe tends to identify himself with all his protagonists and most fully perhaps with Crusoe; his own life, too, had been one of solitary and heroic achievement against great odds. In an eloquent chapter, 'Of Solitude', which begins the Serious Reflections, he converts Crusoe's island existence into an image of the perpetual aloneness of " man which springs from his basic egocentricity:

'... it seems to me that life in general is, or ought to be, but one universal act of solitude. Everything revolves in our minds by innumerable circular motions, all centering in ourselves ... we love, we hate, we covet, we enjoy, all in privacy and solitude.'

It seems then that Robinson Crusoe, one of the myths of modern civilization, does not celebrate only the material triumphs of its society, and the strength of its rational will to conquer the environment: it also prefigures some of the spiritual loneliness and social alienation which this civilization has brought with it.

Some of this loneliness is itself a reflection of a force which did much to build modern civilization — Puritan individualism. The Puritans saw the activities of the world as a diversion from man's proper spiritual purpose, which is the scrutiny of his conscience for signs of his probable destiny in the divine plot of redemption and damnation. So Defoe makes Crusoe write in his Serious Reflections:

'It is the soul's being entangled by outward objects that interrupts its contemplation of divine objects'; and he concludes that 'the business is to get a retired soul', which can be done anywhere: 'so I can affirm that I enjoy much more solitude in the middle of the greatest collection of mankind in the world, I mean, at London, while I am writing this, than ever I could say I enjoyed in eight and twenty years' confinement to a desolate island.'

We must not underestimate Defoe's dissenting background. If he is not as serious as Bunyan, he has many of his qualities; if he does not convince us that considerations of piety are really the controlling factors in his stories, at least they are there, and their presence gives Defoe's novels a real moral dimension which had been as largely absent as narrative realism in previous prose fiction.

Indirectly, Puritanism is also partly responsible for Defoe's literary realism. Defoe shared its hatred of fiction, as he tells us in the Serious Reflections: 'This supplying a story by invention is certainly a most scandalous crime, and yet very little regarded in that part. It is a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart, at which by degrees a habit of lying enters in.' Pressure of circumstances led him to write novels: but one feels that, with a curious obliquity, he resolved to make his lies as like truth as possible so that his scandalous crime would escape detection.

** *

If Defoe's Puritan forebears need not have turned too often in their graves at Robinson Crusoe, their slumbers must have been seriously incommoded by the major works of fiction which succeeded it. Their protagonists were not merely successful sinners, like Crusoe, but successful criminals, whores, and pirates. The best of these later works are probably Moll Flanders (1722), Colonel Jack (1722), and The Fortunate Mistress (1724), usually called Roxana; all three are closer to being novels than Robinson Crusoe, which is too little concerned with personal relationships and has too restricted an emotional range. But all Defoe's other narratives are worth reading, especially Captain Singleton (1720) and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which are closer to the quasi-historical mode of Robinson Crusoe.

The earlier pages of Colonel Jack are perhaps Defoe's finest piece of writing; they have all his characteristically vivid reporting, his penetrating sociological understanding of the conditions which make children into criminals, and they also have an insight into the whole moral world of a young waif which he hardly equaled elsewhere. The final scenes of Roxana have a powerful dramatic interest unique in Defoe: the desperate expedients of the heroine to avoid discovery by the daughter she has abandoned have great psychological and narrative tension; they also — and this is rare in Defoe — embody in the action the story's moral theme —the terrible price exacted by Roxana's life of prostitution in forcing her to deny the claims of motherly love.

But Moll Flanders has, at least since the praise of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, been generally accepted as the best of Defoe's novels. It is richer in feeling than Robinson Crusoe; it is full of Defoe's best-written episodes; the heroine is perhaps Defoe's most successful piece of portraiture; the theme is concerned, not with a fight against Nature, but with something more typical of the novel, the individual's struggle against society; and the plot, though rambling and confused, is based on a pattern of personal relationships which is finally rounded out with a degree of unity by the restoration of Moll to her husband and her son, and a final curtain closing on a peaceful old age of penitence and prosperity.

Much of Moll Flanders is concerned with plain reporting of the heroine's loves and larcenies, often brilliantly done in a narrative manner very similar to that in Robinson Crusoe (except that some unregenerate spirits may find the subject-matter inherently more interesting). This narrative mastery is already much: no novelist can succeed unless he is a good reporter, and there is a long and honourable tradition in the novel which makes the depiction of social reality its main aim. But there is more than this in Moll Flanders — much humour and drama, and some genuinely novelistic presentation of personal relations.

The humour is often of a blunt cockney variety, as when Robin quiets his sister who opposes his marriage with the penniless orphan Moll: 'Prithee, child, beauty's a portion, and good humour with it is a double portion; I wish thou hadst half her stock of both for thy portion.' And Moll adds: 'So there was her mouth stopped'. But we also get more complex effects, sometimes ironical in their psychological point: as when Moll, having robbed a child, reflects that she had 'given the parents a just reproof for their negligence, in leaving the poor lamb to come home by itself, and it would teach them to take more care another time'; or when, giving her son a gold watch

'... I desired he would now and then kiss it for my sake. I did not, indeed, tell him that I stole it from a gentlewoman's side at a meeting house in London. That's by the way.'

There are also examples of a more polished wit that recalls Addison or Swift: Moll comments of her first lover, the elder brother, that

'though he had levity enough to do an ill-natured thing, yet had too much judgement of things to pay too dear for his pleasures'.

Moll Flanders has more conscious literary craftsmanship than Robinson Crusoe, and its orientation to the social and emotional world brings it much closer to the novel. The account of the first seduction and many of the episodes with the Lancashire husband combine vivid reporting with a command of character and emotion that foreshadow the later triumphs of the novel form. Such a scene occurs when, after a long absence, Moll Flanders is reunited with her Lancashire husband:

He turned pale, and stood speechless, like one thunderstruck, and, not able to conquer the surprise, said no more but this, 'Let me sit down'; and sitting down by a table, he laid his elbow on the table, and leaning his head on his hand, fixed his eyes on the ground as one stupid. I cried so vehemently, on the other hand, that it was a good while ere I could speak any more; but after I had given some vent to my passion by tears, I repeated the same words, 'My dear, do you not know me?' At which he answered, 'Yes', and said no more a good while.

This passage, and a few others, have a supremely evocative quality; they show how powerful Defoe's narrative manner could be when focused on human feeling. But such passages are rare. Selected quotations normally give us a much more favourable opinion of Defoe than reading the whole work would; and Moll Flanders is no exception. Its pages contain a great deal of uninspired filling-in; and this is one reason for believing that Defoe's stature as a novelist has tended to be overestimated of late.

His central defect is a lack of serious order or design, a lack which is manifested, not only in the development of the story, but in the psychological and moral aspects of his work. What narrative unity there is comes from the fact that it is Moll Flanders who is the chief character throughout; but this is lost by a somewhat undiscriminating attempt to tell all that happened in a busy and eventful life, so that the movement of the novel is very episodic.

The moral disunity of the work is even more striking. The purported moral does not tally with the plot. Defoe says in his preface that 'there is not a wicked action in any part of it, but is first or last rendered unhappy'; but actually the heroine does not have to disgorge her ill-gotten gains, and they are the basis of her final prosperity. Even if Defoe had avoided this contradiction, the quality of his moral would have little to commend it, since it amounts to little more than telling the reader to look to his silver and be on his guard against pickpockets. The actual moral which emerges is even worse: if honesty, the story suggests, will not maintain you genteelly without your being driven to ply your needle, then crime may prove more rewarding — you can always settle your spiritual accounts later on. This crassly material nature of Defoe's outlook is well shown in the moral reformation scene which occurs when Moll brings home to her husband all the wealth from her mother's plantation,

'... the horses, hogs and cows, and other stores for our plantation; all which added to his surprise, and filled his heart with thankfulness; and from this time forward I believe he was as sincere a penitent and as thoroughly a reformed man as ever God's goodness bought back from being a profligate, a highwayman, and a robber'.

Reformation by cows and hogs. The book is indeed an example of 'mercantile morality that Defoe has apparently neglected to measure'. (6) So much so that many have been tempted to regard the whole moral aspect of the book ironically, although certainly against Defoe's intention.

The psychological defects of the book are less obvious to the eye and could not be demonstrated without lengthy analysis. It can only be suggested, therefore, that Moll Flanders is not seen objectively by Defoe as a character in the round; like many other of his characters, she is at times indistinguishable from her author, despite the various feminine traits she is given, particularly in her first love-affair with the elder brother, and in her regular concern for genteel lodgings, clean linens, and the creature comforts of her males. But the autobiographical form, which Defoe always uses in his fiction, makes it particularly difficult for him not to identify himself with the heroine; it certainly makes it difficult for his picture of her to have much depth, since we do not know what other characters think of her, and can only see her through her own eyes. It is certainly suspicious that nearly all the other characters are shown treating her with adoring and selfless devotion, whereas she is always less than completely honest with everyone. If we try to get deeper, and ask whether she or her author are aware of her duplicity, we find that Defoe has not told us enough of the relevant facts for an opinion to be possible. It seems that Defoe did not ask such questions himself, or conceive that his readers would. His heroine's moral and emotional life were not within his terms of reference. Defoe keeps us informed, as no other novelist does, of his heroine's holdings in cash and personal effects: he does not bother to make clear her emotional development, or to take stock of her real character.

Nor, apparently, does he consider the nature of her personal relationships any more seriously. We are told nothing about most of her lovers or her children: it appears she had a dozen or so of each, but it is impossible to be sure, because most of them are treated very cursorily. She is suitably maternal on being reunited with one son, Humphry, in Virginia; but what of the remaining seven children whose deaths have not been indicated? The answer is surely that all these are items mentioned merely as items of realistic detail, and that then Defoe does not give them another thought, and does not intend the reader to; we are certainly not meant to draw the conclusion that she is a heartless mother, nor, indeed, any conclusion, but only to forget as easily as she does. Everything that is told is real, but much of it has no existence once it is off-stage: convincing the reader of the reality of the story is for Defoe not only the means, but the end. There is no developing personality in Moll to be observed, no moral or psychological pattern to the loosely-strung-out network of personal relations. Defoe is too intent on getting away with the reality of his characters to be able to get into them.

* * *

Defoe's forte, then, is the brilliant episode. His imagination creates events and characters, and sets them solidly in their background; in this his narrative is much in advance of anything that fiction had seen; and in many respects it has not been surpassed since. But in the larger units of composition his shaping imagination is much less in evidence. The novel as a literary form could be considered established only when realistic narrative was organized into a plot which, while retaining Defoe's lifelikeness, also had a genuine unity of development; when the novelist's eye was focused on character and personal relationships as essential elements of the continuity of the novel and not as incidental matter to be used in furthering the verisimilitude of the actions described; and when all these things were related to a unifying theme, a controlling intention. Defoe had begun the process, but it was left to Richardson and Fielding to take these further steps. However, now that later novelists have gone so much further than they did, we tend to read Richardson and Fielding in the perspective of the novel tradition as a whole, and they may suffer in comparison. Defoe, on the other hand, does not really compete, and this perhaps lends his artless veracity an adventitious charm: we rejoice to see a writer so innocently unaware of how novels are supposed to be written, and are tempted to find irony and moral sophistication because we cannot credit that so remarkable a writer and so amazing a man could as a novelist be genuinely innocent. That, at least, is the main critical problem he seems to pose.