The World of Defoe
Peter Earle, in a comprehensive new book on Daniel Defoe, fits one of the most prolific authors of all times into the social and economic history of his own era. As Earle does so, he gives thoughtful attention to the effect of religion and social class on Defoe’s work; and thus he handles a problem of which Defoe is a crucial instance: the linkage of aesthetic culture to religious or social affiliation.
It is a commonplace of scholarship and criticism that great literary works reflect the social institutions of their age. But the implications of the assumption are vague and infinitely various. Nobody would deny that the religious training and social origins of an author affect what he has to say. The point to be settled is how far they determine the way he says it.
Marx used Robinson Crusoe as a parable to illustrate an economic concept. Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (though not primarily literary) supplied some scholars with a theoretical justification for binding not merely Defoe’s fiction but the whole tradition of the novel to a phenomenon which they call the Rising Middle Class. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism marshaled English data to strengthen and refine Weber’s largely Continental case. And Lukács systematically analyzed the evolution of the novel as reflecting the evolution of bourgeois consciousness, with Defoe’s representative role casually taken for granted.
So we should not be surprised if American literary critics routinely trace Defoe’s accomplishment as a novelist to his Presbyterian, bourgeois, commercial background. Indeed, without Defoe, the beginnings of the English novel do not easily blend with a landscape of middleclass commercial soil and Protestant trees. Inasmuch as the Rising Middle Class takes on substance (in most accounts) during the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and the novels of Defoe only foreshadow the deluge of fiction that began erupting from the press in the middle of the eighteenth, a few chronological adjustments must be made before the cause and the effect can be matched.
Since fictional narratives (unless heavily didactic) were commonly frowned upon by Protestant teachers, we have another crux to resolve if the usual explanation is to be perfectly convincing. It is a further misfortune (for the marriage between the RMC and the novel) that the most self-conscious artists employing the form, in the eighteenth century, were neither Presbyterian nor bourgeois. I refer to Fielding and Sterne. Finally, we must wonder why the greatest novels of Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, and Austen should deal not with shopkeepers and merchants but with landed country gentlemen.
All these questions are easily answered by the sort of critic who fixes one eye on Lukács and the other on Tawney. He hardly shares the taste of Lukács for Sir Walter Scott, and he does not know that Tawney’s evidence was shaky; but he clings to the happy sense that if a literary problem can be translated into the realm of economics or sociology, it becomes respectable.
Defoe alone fits the formula snugly. His father was a Presbyterian businessman. He himself had several careers as a capitalist entrepreneur. Defoe said that “matters of accounts” (i.e., financial accounts) were his particular element. He also said that writing about commercial affairs was “the whore I really doted on.” The reader of his novels finds them abounding in merchants, tradesmen, and shopkeepers. He notices Defoe’s attention to losses and gains, and his religious faith. Where is bourgeois art to be found if not in Defoe?
The trouble is that the striking features of Defoe’s art remain unexplained by his class origins. All his novels pretend to be memoirs written in the first person. In this they are like Gulliver’s Travels and Tristram Shandy, neither of which is a solid embodiment of bourgeois capitalism. Although most of Defoe’s novels have men as narrators, two of the three best have women. Are we to suppose that Calvinism feels especially at home in skirts, or that, except for castaways, women best express the mercantile mentality?
A good part of any novel by Defoe is given to dialogue—often internal—about conflicts of conscience: e.g., was Robinson Crusoe defying God when he went to sea? was Roxana excusable for living in adultery? Such debates were rooted in Defoe’s nature and appear constantly in his journalism or political pamphlets, often within a narrative. Yet discussions of the application of general moral doctrines to individual cases (“casuistry”) were at least as characteristic of Roman Catholic teaching as of Protestant. Why should the novelist have been attracted to this technique?
Just as Defoe’s Puritanism can be exaggerated (he was a most unconventional Dissenter), so also the commercial element in his characters can be oversimplified. Their important decisions often go contrary to financial self-interest, and the deep effect of Defoe’s stories upon a reader is to celebrate the yielding to unprofitable impulse. When Crusoe went to sea, his primary motive was not to make money.
Besides, whatever occupation the characters may follow, they normally wish to end up in the class of landed gentry. The final resolution of Defoe’s plots—such as it is—hinges on that tendency. It seems odd that a spokesman for the commercial bourgeoisie should regularly invite his readers to become country gentlemen.
The truth is that there were many Nonconformist tradesmen in London in 1720 but only one Defoe. If during middle age he turned his talent (for about five years) to the production of what we call novels, the reason could not be that he was bourgeois or Calvinist or in business. A stronger clue may be found in Defoe’s letters and his political journalism. It is obvious from them that he got enormous pleasure out of wearing a disguise and mimicking the personalities of other men. In fact, he constantly created imaginary autobiographies.
When the English government was trying to establish a parliamentary union of Scotland and England, Defoe went to Edinburgh to report on local sentiment and to lobby quietly for the Union. He was instructed never to let on that he worked for anyone in England. In an often-quoted letter he told his patron how successfully he misled the Scots:
To the merchants [I say] I am about to settle here in trade, building ships, etc. With the lawyers I want to purchase a house and land to bring my family and live upon it…. Today I am going into partnership with a Member of Parliament in a glass house [i.e., glass factory], tomorrow with another in a salt work. With the Glasgow mutineers I am to be a fish merchant, with the Aberdeen men a woolen- and with the Perth and western men a linen-manufacturer…. I am all to every one that I may gain some [i.e., for the Union].
It is entirely characteristic of Defoe that he should find in St. Paul’s “all things to all men” authority for his work as a spy and secret agent.
No doubt Defoe was telling the boss what he wished to hear. But his delight in role-playing was not superficial. Defoe loved to practice mystification and deceit. He constantly wrote under pseudonyms, giving himself fictitious identities filled out with supporting facts. He took pride in the ability to argue on both sides of an issue, and would sometimes write a pamphlet replying to himself. This power of inventing speeches for viewpoints he did not share was essential to his novelistic genius. He communicated the talent to his characters, who enjoy play-acting and often misrepresent themselves to test the candor of others.
A mark of Defoe’s narrator-protagonists is their remoteness from the world that immerses them. Crusoe trapped on his island, Roxana shutting herself up in the house for the sake of the Prince, are extreme cases. But again and again the chief figures of the novels slip in and out of other men’s lives without establishing firm relationships. They easily develop strong attachments that are easily terminated. They are cut off suddenly from their families, lose their friends, or simply go into hiding.
This quality of apartness seems related to Defoe’s own history. He spent long periods in jail, long periods in hiding from the government or from creditors. His last extant letter is a deeply pathetic message to his son-in-law: the septuagenarian Defoe was yet once more living in secret where a vindictive creditor could not get at him. He had no chance to see his new grandchild or to visit his favorite daughter and her husband, nor did he dare let them visit him.
The self-contained narrators of the novels grow expansive when they examine and debate motives, canvass alternative plans of action, or reflect on their experience. But they can move with amazing speed through even the most important actions. Toward the end of his story Crusoe offhandedly marries an unnamed woman, fathers three children, and loses his wife, all in a sentence and a half. It is not through the external narrative that Defoe holds us. It is through an absorbing central situation realized in a fourfold rhythm of action followed by emotional response, by reflection, and by the moral balancing of new possibilities for further action.
Defoe draws the reader into a novel while drawing him into the analyses of feelings, motives, and plans of conduct. It is hard for us not to begin picking and choosing alternatives along with the character, hard not to take sides in the moral debate, not to hope for deeds and incidents that will vindicate our choices.
Yet here Defoe leaves one suspended. Surprisingly often, the dialogue or debate does not lead simply to appropriate behavior. What the character will finally do remains unpredictable until it takes place. Crusoe discusses at length the morality of killing cannibals, and the circumstances in which it would be right for him to do so. Yet he concludes merely that he will act “as God should direct.” When he finally does shoot a number of savages (and he does so twice), the event and its consequences are uncluttered by doubts or regrets. However, the preliminary discussions have lured us into the process of decision; and our aroused sympathies or antipathies give powerful reverberations to the actual shootings.
As for the narratives and descriptions as such, they are more likely to be generic than particular. Defoe normally tells us the sort of thing that used to happen, rather than the specific thing that did happen. He likes to list objects and say what they mean to a character, what feelings and thoughts they arouse, what use they are. Seldom does he give a concrete representation of a unique person or thing.
His treatment of the wild animals that Crusoe meets along the coast of Africa is comically weak: “vast great creatures,” “two mighty creatures,” he calls them. At last, one turns out to be a “most curious leopard, spotted and fine.” Yet the sensations the animals provoke are rendered in detail.
Even the exceptions are revealing. When Crusoe describes himself, most of the details belong to a catalogue of his clothing. We also learn the color of his exposed skin and the shape of his beard. We are not told how tall or thin he was, what sort of facial features he possessed, or the color of his hair. In different clothes he would be unrecognizable. When Crusoe describes a drowned boy (in the wreck of a Spanish ship), he tells us only what clothes the lad had on and what was in his pockets. Friday receives a proper description, but he was naked at the time.
Such a style envelops the reader in the unfiltered sensibility of a narrator. One cannot follow the story without entering the moral world of Crusoe or (to some extent) Defoe. Yet it would be absurd to argue that the author’s morality inevitably produced the special qualities of his style.
The effect of life in Defoe’s fiction derives from the constantly changing situation of a stable personality freely establishing and transforming its relations with the physical and social environment. The effect of reality is due to the movement back and forth between the sturdy, enduring sensibility of the narrator and the unpredictable emergence or transience of the scenes and persons he deals with. As an incident is followed by an emotional response, each validates the other.
We take the leopard for granted not because it was described so well but because it startled the narrator so thoroughly. We take the narrator for granted because he responds so fully to so much. We take his reliability for granted because he harps continually on the moral implications of his experience.
What fascinates a reader in the makeup of Defoe’s protagonists is the survival of a curiously unassertive personality in the face of remarkable onslaughts. Crusoe is radically unheroic. It is not his bravery that certifies his merit for us, and it is not the fortune he amasses. It is his instinct for turning all experience into fuel for normal sensations; it is his willingness to contemplate an extraordinary range of moral possibilities and yet come to rest in rational principles.
Saying all this, I do not ignore the aspects of Defoe’s fiction that spring from what might be called his ideology, for they are significant enough. For example, he probably wrote Robinson Crusoe (among other reasons) to take advantage of the great interest Englishmen had in trade with South America—especially the slave trade—during the early decades of the eighteenth century. Defoe always promoted the idea of such trade; and in Robinson Crusoe he treats contemporary Spaniards with impressive sympathy, as honest and reliable merchants or colonists. (But he condemns the Inquisition and denounces the cruelty of the conquistadors.)
Defoe also brutalizes the natives, who appear in the novel as subhuman cannibals. Yet Friday has a docile nature, and features similar to those of a European. He easily learns to be a Christian, and works with selfless loyalty for his master. At the same time, although Friday learns English from Crusoe, his speech remains curiously broken and ungrammatical.
By so characterizing the Spaniards and the natives, Defoe encourages the reader to feel that the relation already established between aborigines and the European colonists is natural; and in the person of Friday he suggests that the natives have much to gain from contact with European civilization, but will always remain inferior.
If such motifs are important in Robinson Crusoe, they do not bring out the essential lines of Defoe’s narrative art; and that art is what keeps Defoe from the obscurity now burying the journalists who competed with him. On the other hand, Peter Earle wishes to use Defoe’s writings as illustrations of English society in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. So he very properly gives little attention to the imaginative storyteller, concentrating instead on the journalist and propagandist.
Earle’s book is divided up by themes, such as the personality of Defoe, his religious principles, and his views on social mobility. In each section, Earle compares Defoe’s views with those of other writers and with actual conditions in England so far as they can be ascertained. So a survey of the position of women takes in Defoe’s opinions and topics like the laws governing marriage, the attitudes of churchmen, the proportion of males to females in the English population, and courtship customs.
For his evidence Earle draws on an enormous range of sources: not merely Defoe’s novels but scores of his other books, pamphlets, newspapers, essays, and poems—not to mention biographies of Defoe and numerous monographs or articles on his work. Apart from material directly relating to Defoe, Earle uses a long list of further sources, primary and secondary: sermons, poems, plays, essays by Defoe’s contemporaries, and studies of the period by modern historians, economists, and sociologists. Merely to locate and turn over the quantity of material on which this book is based required a degree of ingenuity and industry that would daunt many excellent scholars.
Besides his breadth of learning, Earle has the virtue of appreciating the complexity of his subject. He does not oversimplify Defoe’s thought or the socioeconomic development of England. He does not reduce the inconsistencies of the evidence to schemata that would satisfy the devotees of Weber and Lukács.
Earle’s long, central chapters on economic theory and social structure are easily his best. Here he avoids catch-all terms like “mercantilism” and “capitalism.” He makes careful discriminations among the various types of commercial enterprise, the stages of economic history, the subdivisions of social levels. He indicates how much overlapping there was: how different the stages of development were in different parts of England, how easily a shopkeeper could become a gentleman, or a lord marry into a mercantile family.
Defoe drew too many generalizations about England from his knowledge of the London area. He paid far more attention to the distribution and sale of goods than to their manufacture. He attached too much value to the woolen industry and did not foresee the development of English technology. Earle shows how limited Defoe’s perspective was; how rigid and old-fashioned he could be in some ways, how original and penetrating in others; above all, how unreliable he was, especially in his statistics.
The chapters on exploration, Anglo-French rivalry, education, and the rights and responsibilities of women are less consistently helpful. Earle jams too many different topics into them; and although an orderly progression may at last be discerned, the immediate effect will confuse the inexpert reader. In reviewing Defoe’s biography, his religion, and his attitudes toward death, Earle is least satisfactory. Here he does not select the evidence judiciously but mixes Defoe’s irresponsible statements in potboilers, or the opinions of his fictitious characters, with principles one might fairly attribute to the author. About the Devil, for example, Defoe was not so naïve as Earle makes him out to be.
So also the dangerous flaw of the book is a muddling of arguments that Defoe soberly and regularly supported with those he advanced capriciously or to serve other men. One of the chief problems in the study of Defoe is to determine when he promoted a policy mainly because he had been paid or instructed to do so.
It is clear from Defoe’s letters that once he began serving the government as a secret agent, he was willing to back up the ministry that happened to be in power. It is also clear that he agreed at various times to serve a number of special interests or powerful patrons. At other times he just wrote what would please an audience, or he played with bold speculations as if to see how far they would carry him. Only a meticulous analysis of statements made in several places can disentangle his own opinions from various forms of self-misrepresentation. For example, as Earle observes, Defoe is a distinctly more cheerful economist in the Tour of Great Britain than elsewhere.
In his two central chapters Earle generally avoids confusing propaganda or amusement with principle. In the rest of the book he seems less acute. A revealing example is Defoe’s dramatic reversal of position on the proper terms for ending the War of the Spanish Succession. I am not attracted by the plea that external events altered Defoe’s mind, and prefer to think so extraordinary an about-face reflected the need to defend a new ministry whose policies were directly opposed to those of the old.
But in a work of synthesis as concentrated and fast-moving as Earle’s book, grosser lapses would be tolerable. He has brought together a vast amount of important, suggestive material, drawn valuable inferences from it, and given the complicated data a coherent, orderly shape.