The critical reputation of Defoe's novels: a reflection of changing attitudes toward the novel in England
Black, Sidney James
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Daniel Defoe's critical reputation in the tradition of the English novel rests primarily on seven works of prose fiction. Robinson Crusoe, Captain Singleton, Memoirs of a Cavalier, A Journal of the Plague Year, Colonel Jack, Moll Flanders, and The Fortunate Mistress have been objects of a renewed critical interest in recent years. This dissertation has been an attempt to relate the criticism of Defoe's novels with definitions of the form end function of the novel. The initial problem is to justify Defoe's fiction as a point of departure; the purpose then becomes an examination of subsequent criticism as an index to successive and current tastes in the novel in any given period and therefore, as a study, does not reduce itself simply to an account of Defoe's critical reputation as a novelist, but can be thought of as a commentary on taste in English fiction since the beginning of the eighteenth century to the present day--a period during which the novel, in the modern sense, became a critically recognized genre. The dissertation is divided into four parts, each of which has as its theme the central tendency dominant in the criticism of the period covered. The first part, "Traditions," involves an account of literary and sub-literary prose forms important to the eighteenth century novel. In the former tradition, the dominant theme was a striving for vraisemblance in the romance, picaresque, and novel forms--explicit in the Scudérys, Mrs. Behn, Congreve, and Mrs. Manley. In the latter, the need for an amalgam of fact and moral instruction was implicit in periodical, pamphlet, and travel literature. Two related aspects characteristic of both traditions were the rise of the middle class and the development of a native prose idiom. The second part, "Fact and Fiction," deals with three aspects of the eighteenth century novel, all related to the central problem of the emergence of a new form of the novel derived through Defoe's fiction from the literature of fact. Defoe's definition of his fiction is studied in the prefaces to his fiction. His first concern was to make fiction appear as fact; but his prefaces to Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack show positive attitudes toward fictional elements and an interest in fiction as a vehicle for social reform. Later critics found in The Fortunate Mistress dramatic elements of plot, character development, and the theme of marital status. But earlier in Serious Reflections Defoe called Robinson Crusoe an emblematic history--a term which raises the problem of critical nomenclature used to describe fiction between 1700 and 1800. In Defoe's time, the terms history, biography, memoir, or journal were applied loosely to fiction because the need for authenticity was seen to be the dominant problem. By midcentury these terms merged with an esthetic which asked simply of fictional reality that it reflect a just standard of nature. Johnson, Fielding, and Smollett wrote fictional "histories" without feeling that they were resorting to subterfuge by using the term. In the latter part of the century, as Defoe's critical reputation grew from sparse notes, critics of novels, Who tested Defoe in terms of the standard of nature--Blair, Beattie, and Reeve--began to link Robinson Crusoe with accepted classics: Don Quixote, Pilgrim's Progress, Gulliver's Travels, and Tom Jones. These critics and others, notably Charles Gildon, felt that Defoe's personal morality of necessity and prudence and the questionable authenticity of his subject matter weakened the artistic merit of his work (even of Robinson Crusoe) and disqualified his minor fiction from serious consideration as literature. In the nineteenth century these two reservations became dominant themes in Defoe criticism. Part three, "Art and Morality," traces the acceptance of the novel as an art form in the gradual dissociation of an author's personal morality from his works. During the romantic period (1790-1830), Defoe's earliest biographers--Chalmers, Towers, and Wilson--tended to see him as an exemplary statesman-patriot, much misunderstood in his time. The reform projects, the outspoken pamphlets, the plain and easy manner, the magnitude of his activities and writings--all had enormous appeal in an age or republican reform. The romantic view accepted the novel as a form and Defoe, at his best, as comparable to the great poets. Coleridge saw in Robinson Crusoe the universal conflict or man against nature. Hazlitt said the Journal had epic grandeur. Then, Lamb and Wilson directed attention to the "secondary novels": Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, and The Fortunate Mistress. The coarse material in them was justified by Defoe's avowed purpose of effecting social reform by educating the lower classes. Scott undertook to analyze the fiction. He gave to Defoe and novel criticism a standard terminology for an esthetic. He isolated four aspects: style, structure, subject matter, and character. In a famous examen of "Mrs. Veal" he showed that Defoe fell appreciably short in all four; but that in his ability to create verisimilitude, he was unrivalled. Scott related the secondary novels to the picaresque, the memoirs and journals to rudimentary historical fictions. His edition for Ballantyne was much respected in the nineteenth century, and his view of the novels has since been echoed by numerous critics: Forster, Lee, Stephen, Minto, Raleigh, Lovett and Hughes, Baker, and Sherburn. While the picture of Defoe as a republican patriot remained intact, the question of the relation of his personal morality to works of fiction was held in abeyance. By the end of the century this generous view was curtailed. Because of Lee's discovery of Defoe's ambiguous political activity (1714-1724), the morality in his novels became subject to question. Gildon's charge of an expedient morality was renewed; and a dualistic picture of Defoe's fiction emerged in the criticism of Stephen, Minto, Raleigh, and Saintsbury. They praised his remarkable verisimilitude, but decried the superficial morality and the vulgar scenes. In the present century, this criticism bas taken the form of impugning Defoe's motives as an artist. Woolf, Cather, Anderson, Burch, and Ross find his moral sentiments the chief flaw, and his view of reality limited. Other critics point out that the morality in Defoe's fiction is consistent with his characters, and that it is an effort to reconcile conflicting realities--the demands of the spiritual and the temporal. Lee, Aitken, Wright, Secord, Roorda, and Boyce are all willing to grant Defoe a measure of sincerity. Same insist that morality in Defoe's fiction is a minor aspect, that the key to his importance lies in his method of accumulating detail to achieve verisimilitude. Part four, "Techniques of Realism," attempts to show the resolution of the moral and esthetic problem in Defoe and identify it with the problem of a definition for the modern novel. The period 1900-1950 is characterized by an effort in critical canons to see relativity in novel forms. The Defoe novel has been viewed as a distinct departure, not so much in terms of dramatic elements, but in the direction of technique. Aitken provided a pivot in Defoe criticism in that he interwove the strands of Defoe criticism and research that derived and expanded from Scott, through the period in the midcentury when novels reflected a moral and social consciousness, to the end of the century, when it became fashionable to think of the novel in terms of the tradition, the experience of the author, and the literary and social environment. Thus Aitken, working from hints in Defoe criticism from Chalmers to Lee, suggested an examination of sources in the factual literature of the seventeenth century to account for Defoe's technique of composition. Aitken's views were developed by Wackwitz, Nicholson, Secord, and Moore. From Stephen, Saintsbury, Raleigh, and Baker came definitions of the novel as an ordered presentation of a problem in life, which unified its elements of plot, character, setting, and style. It was seen as a complex artifact and Defoe as an important transitional figure, whose tone of voice--the easy style, the enumerations, the accumulations of detail-prepared the way for the novelists more in terms of technique than in the adaptation of dramatic elements to fiction. Defoe as a journeyman novelist became respectable. As he was studied within the limits of special traditions (in Morgan, Chandler, Secord, McBurney, and Peterson), his achievement and stature grew. Defoe is no longer condemned because of his superficial morality or his coarse material, but rather for hasty composition, faithlessness to his craft as a novelist, lack of insight into particular characters, or an indifferent sense of unity. Even these criticisms are vitiated by the knowledge that they are made from twentieth century dispensations of the novel. By these standards, however, Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, The Fortunate Mistress, and A Journal of the Plague Year are seen as important contributions to the modern novel. In terms of technique, Defoe's method is defined as an arrangement of historical but disparate incidents fictionally fused into a set of probabilities which create a sense of the real--not real as in life experiences, but with sufficient selection and order that they appear life-like. This forms a parallel to contemporary views of technique in the novel, when writers do not have to convince their readers that their novels are not fiction. Their works are appreciated in accord with the success they achieve in convincing readers that what they describe could be. The present century demands techniques of concealment in the novel, parallel to those of Defoe; but unlike Defoe, whose view of reality depended on a one-for-one relationship of word to thing, novelists' perceptions of reality are not seen to be equivalent. For one, the mental life treated by means of the stream of consciousness. technique may constitute the significant reality; for another, the selection of material detail may be the means to reality. It is not necessarily Defoe's realism that is his contribution to the modern novel, but his ability to find a way to create fiction that appeared to be real.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University