Saturday, 05 December 2015 04:39

Writers for Conservatives: 34 - Daniel Defoe and Verisimilitude

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Writers for Conservatives: 34 - Daniel Defoe and Verisimilitude

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was a prolific journalist with his own newspaper who, in the last dozen years of his life, wrote four memorable books: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year, and Roxana. They stand out because in them Defoe created a style of narrative remarkable for its verisimilitude, its likeness to life, achieved by writing in a discursive, undistinguished style, notable for its chatter of seeming trivialities. Here's the opening paragraph of Robinson Crusoe:

I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise and, leaving off his trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual corruption of words in England we are now called, nay, we call ourselves, and write our name "Crusoe," and so my companions always called me.

Where have we seen this before? In the opening paragraph of Gulliver's Travels, published just a few years after Crusoe.

My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge, at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied my self close to my studies: but the charge of maintaining me (although I had a very scanty allowance) being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years; and my father now and then sending me small sums of money, I laid them out in learning navigation, and other parts of the mathematics, useful to those who intend to travel, as I always believed it would be some time or other my fortune to do.

Both writers are intent on creating a believable character, but Swift has another purpose: Gulliver must be credible if he is to carry the burden of the satire. In Lilliput he is the norm, the judge; in Brobdingnag the king is the norm and Gulliver is judged; in Houyhnhum land the norm lies outside the book, in common sense and Christian humility, and Gulliver is a ridiculous fool, falling for the rational horses. But Defoe's characters serve no end beyond themselves. That creates a problem. Since these books are all written in the first person, and the style is deliberately pedestrian, the narrator must be an interesting character, and the plot must be lively. That works with three of these four works, but A Journal of the Plague Year, a daily catalog of plague victims and related incidents, soon becomes drearily repetitive. But Defoe's technique is superlative in Crusoe.

I imagine that most of my readers will know at least this much of the story: that Robinson Crusoe is a castaway on an island who eventually meets a native who becomes his "man Friday," and then he's rescued. What is not known, or not remembered, is that while the bulk of the book is about Crusoe's life on the island, he isn't washed up there until page fifty, and there are some adventures and transactions after he and Friday leave the island. Furthermore, the sequel to Crusoe's sighting of a footprint in the sand is not as we imagine it, or think we remember it: it is two full years before Crusoe and Friday meet, and fifty pages have gone by, which tell of Crusoe's terror at seeing the footprint and his retirement to his secret dwelling which he makes doubly secure by planting more trees until it's surrounded by an impenetrable thicket. We think of it as an uncomplicated story of a shipwrecked castaway, but there is much more to it, and that is the character of Crusoe.

In the twenty-eighth essay in this series, I discussed the question of how authors convince readers of the reality of their fictions, how they induce readers to suspend their disbelief, and I don't want to go over that ground again, but keeping the idea in mind, think for a moment about the great characters in some of the books we have discussed, and ask yourself in how many you believe, and how far do you believe? For example, although Dickens' characters are very vivid, even outside the books, I know they are fictions, whereas Jane Austen's characters are always real as I read. Huck Finn seems very real to me in the book, and I can imagine him living outsides its pages. Conrad's characters seem the most real to me; it is hard to think of them as fictions. Robinson Crusoe? There is never any doubt in my mind that he is a real person, even as I know that he was created by Defoe. It was his great achievement to create characters who do not seem to be characters at all.

How did he do it? We are saturated, from the beginning, with Crusoe's characters because there is nothing reticent about him; he always tells us whatever is in his mind at the moment, but who is "us," who is his audience? By some legerdemain, Defoe gives the impression that Crusoe is talking to someone, but it is not quite himself, or he would be more personal, and it is not quite his readers. At the same time, he is not self-conscious. That's always a problem with first person narratives: too much of that and the narrator is only a mask for the author, thus spoiling the illusion. But how Defoe knew - if, indeed, he did consciously know - just how to create and maintain this tone is one of those mysteries of creation.

Before he becomes a castaway, Crusoe sails on various voyages, not as a sailor but as a small trader, and although he frequently criticizes himself for his rashness and impetuosity, it is clear that he is a shrewd, determined character, an impression bolstered by his escape in a small boat from Moorish captivity, and his eventual prosperous establishment in Brazil. These qualities are apparent as soon as he is shipwrecked: he swims out to the wreck to salvage anything useful, makes a raft, and ferries stuff back to shore. All his actions and thoughts are thoroughly described, and they are always sensible. Thus, how to land the cargo from his raft safely:

As soon as I found water enough, for my raft drew about a foot of water, I thrust her upon that flat piece of ground and there fastened or moored her by sticking my two broken oars in to the ground, one on one side near one end, and one on the other side near the other end; and thus I lay till the water ebbed away and left my raft and all my cargo safe on shore.

And so it goes on throughout the book as Crusoe confronts one problem after another: carving wooden shovels, weaving baskets, making pottery, planting grain, taming goats, making clothing, and eventually training Friday. These are the fascinating pages in the book, the painstaking descriptions of physical processes, a subject of increasing interest in the 18th century. To a modern reader, the only longueurs are the lengthier moralizing passages that are as much a part of Crusoe's character as his practical skills.

Such is the uneven state of human life. And it afforded me a great many curious speculations afterwards, when I had a little recovered my first surprises; I considered that this was the station of life the infinitely wise and good providence of God had determined for me; that as I could not foresee what the ends of Divine wisdom might be in all this, so I was not to dispute His sovereignty . . .

Although Crusoe is not a hero in any sense of the word, he is a representative middleclass Englishman of his time, a type who would be increasingly important in England's affairs (especially her colonial affairs), and Defoe, by an alchemy we can only wonder at, has created in him the realest character in all English literature.

In the next issue: Lincoln's Inner World. *

Read 1313 times Last modified on Saturday, 05 December 2015 10:39
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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