The Moral World of Robinson Crusoe

The World of Defoe

by Peter Earle
Atheneum, 353 pp., $12.50

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 …

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