Born: c. 1661
Died: 24 April 1731 (natural causes)
Best Known As: The author of Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe is generally considered to be England's first true novelist. His book
Robinson Crusoe (1719), the tale of a sailor shipwrecked alone on a deserted island, is a
classic of English literature. (The novel was based on the true-life story of Alexander Selkirk.)
Defoe also wrote the well-known novel Moll Flanders (1722) and the lesser-known Roxana
(1724) among many other works.
DeFoe was born as Daniel Foe, but later added the aristocratic-sounding "De" to his name.
Roxana is apparently a sociological and historical novel, in which we are given a
direct testimony of a woman called Roxana, who speaks about her life in Europe at the end of
the seventeenth century. The realism of some events and the knowledge we may have of the
actual life conditions at that time may lead us to believe that the events narrated are facts
which actually took place. To present a story as "laid in Truth of Fact" was already at the time
of Defoe quite a common device to create a reality effect.
As for Roxana, she is taken into a web of social ties. Through the novel, she has
several husbands and lovers and she bears several children. Stimulated by the fear of
starvation and poverty, she engages in a never-ending quest for money and riches to secure a
conformable social status, and in that process, she tries to justify her means as well as her
Taking my sociological part of education in this university into consideration, I will
write how she reacts to the family structure, given that family can be considered as the basic
unit of social ties. But then, the society she lives in being a commercial one, I will write about
the financial attachment. Finally, it will be analysed in this seminar paper how Defoe, through
Roxana, manipulates the narrative bond in her relation with the reader.
SOCIAL ASPECT IN THE NOVEL
One of the main features of Roxana as well as Moll Flanders is the number of lovers
the two heroines meet in the course of their lives. With Roxana, it is all the more surprising as
she repeatedly expresses her hesitation to be a wife :
"I had no Inclination of being a Wife again, I had had such bad Luck with my first
Husband, I hated the Thoughts of it" (p.132).
Roxana displays some of the most powerful arguments against the position of wives,
and extols the status of mistress :
"I found, that a Wife is treated with Indifference, a Mistress with a strong Passion ; a
Wife is look'd upon, as but an Upper-Servant, a Mistress is a Sovereign ; a Wife must give up
all she has […] ; whereas a Mistress makes the Saying true, that what the Man has, is hers,
and what she has, is her own" (p.132)
"If I shou'd be a Wife, all I had then, was given up to the Husband, and I was
henceforth to be under his Authority only" (p.144)
On the other hand, being a Mistress offers a whole range of possibilities otherwise
denied to her, as she notices :
"While a Woman was single, she was a Masculine in her politick Capacity" (p.148)
Against the traditional vision concerning woman common in that time, and even in
ours, she gives a very modern definition of femininity :
"I thought a Woman was a free Agent, as well as Man, and was born free […]" (p.147)
Leaving the Dutch Merchant speechless, she sums up what she thinks of the
"Marriage-Contract", which is
"Nothing but giving up Liberty, Estate, Authority, and every-thing, to the Man, and the
Woman was indeed, a meer Woman ever after, that is to say, a Slave" (p.148)
The arguments of the merchant, who expresses a more traditional view of marriage,
"the Man had all the care of things devolv'd upon him […] ; that the Woman had
nothing to do, but to eat the Fat, and drink the Sweet; to sit still, and look round her ; be
waited on, and made much of" (p.148),
but such an idyllic description is a far cry from Roxana's reality and experiences : the
marriage bond is "a State of Inferiority, if not of Bondage" (p.171). That leads her to speak an
"Amazonian language" (p.171), and she wants to be "a Man-Woman" (p.171).
Indeed, she lives a life in great contrast to the norm of the time. To begin with, her
sexuality is not limited to that of the marriage bed. There is a qualityof narcissism in her, and
furthermore, there are many implications about a lesbian relationship with her maid Amy,
who bears a violent affection for her Mistress, in which no Servant ever went beyond her. One
of Roxana's lovers finds her sharing the same bed.
Children come as a burden to her. One of the plots of the novel tells of her abandoning
her children and trying to provide, for them later in life, in an attempt to make up for lost
time and affection. The reason for abandoning her children was poverty, but she expresses in
strong terms the distance she puts between herself and them, denying the natural - at least
conventional - bond existing between mother and child :
"[I] hardned my Heart against my own Flesh and Blood" (p.19). "like one of the pitiful
Women of Jerusalem, I should eat up my very Children themselves" (p.18).
Such an absence of feelings towards her children is deeply felt by her daughter Susan,
who cries with bitterness :
"She is my mother, she is my mother, and she does not own me !" (p.304)
And as Susan becomes a threat to her social security, Roxana perceives no other
means to get rid of her daughter than to murder her, with Amy's help. Roxana do not feel any
motherly bond towards her children and she will only in the second half of the novel evolve
towards more humane feelings. The only social link she maintains throughout the novel is the
link that which binds her to her servant Amy, as they share the same as well as the same
Crime is the last word of the novel, and most of Daniel Defoe's works are criminal
biographies (with the notable exception of Robinson Crusoe). Crime was considered as an
offence against God, that is to say a sin, and so existed the notion of sin of intention. Daniel
Defoe was much concerned by the status of woman in his time. Legally speaking, women had
no more rights than children or lunatics. The laws of seventeenth century England are harsh to
the poors and they are all the harsher when itis a woman.
Roxana is fully aware of living outside the law and she breaks up the social factors to
her own ends. Although one could say that, as long as she lived with her first husband, she
was more sinned against than sinning, once she agrees to go to bed with her lodger and then
with the other lovers (a provisional list of whom is given page 230-3), she runs the risk of
being accused of adultery and/or bigamy, the penalty for the latter being death - her first
husband not being dead, as we learn afterwards (p.90). She therefore sinned with open eyes.
She changes her own laws to rule her behaviour towards her fellowmen. The justice
she fears is not human however, but divine : she seems to fear the justice of Heaven for the
sinful life she lives, and to experience a certain feeling of remorse, as she says she lives a
secret hell within. She does not mind twisting Biblical quotations to satisfy her own purposes
- with a little help of her friends the Poor or Amy :
" Tell him you'll do as Rachael did to Jacob, when she could have no Children, put her
Maid to Bed to him" (p.39).
"So possible is it for us to roll ourselves up in Wickedness, till we grow invulnerable
by Conscience ; and that Centinel once doz'd, sleeps fast, not to be awaken'd while the Tide of
Pleasure continues to flow, or till something dark and dreadful brings us to ourselves again"
Religion or God is not the norm by which she abides :
" Had I had any Religion […] but I had none of those things about me " (p.121)
Nevertheless, Roxana acknowledges a divine punishment which knots the loose
threads of the novel together. As a consequence, her principles, suggested by Amy, are
cynical- "Comply and live ; deny and starve''. Her rule of life is not "in God we trust" (as
stated on dollar banknotes) but rather "in Gold we trust".
She swears in the name of money :
"not for a thousand Guineas", "[I] wou'd have given 500 l. to have shun'd it" (p.222).
She "prostitutes her chastity" so as to become, from a lady of pleasure, a woman of
business. It is interesting to notice that Roxana's husbands and lovers are never called by their
name, but designated by their social status (the brewer, the jeweller, the prince, the wicked
lord, the Dutch merchant), perhaps as a way of showing to what extent they matter to Roxana.
Money, riches, fines clothes, the admiration of the princes become her goal in life, and she
frequently mentions her wealth, trying to prove to herself that she has no poverty to fear. It is
because of that poverty that her contract with society changes, when she accepts to sleep with
the Lodger. Gathering riches turns into a obsession to such an extent that money becomes the
only values by which she abides :
"These were my Baits, these the Chains by which the Devil held me bound ; and by
which I was indeed, too fast held for any Reasoning that I was then Mistress of, to deliver me
Her only care, when she comes back from France to England, is to get her fortune safe
to England. Greed in her heart has replaced more humane feelings. She reacts surprisingly fast
to the news of the jeweller's murder :
"These things amaz'd me, and I was a good-while as one stupid ; however, after some
time, I began to recover, and look into my affairs ; I had the Satisfaction not to be left in
Distress, or in danger of Poverty" (p.55).
When she listens to the Dutch Merchant who courts her, she thinks :
"it cou'd not be Matter of Love, […] and therefore it must be matter of Money"
(p.140), "I construed it quite another Way, namely, that he aim'd at the Money" (p.143).
She is more joyfull at the money lavished on her than at the affection she might obtain
from her lover, as for instance in the case of the will in her favour written by the Lodger:
"He gave me my Writings, and the Bond for my Maintenance during his Life, and for
500 l. after his death" (p. 44).
"so I granted him the Favour […] to balance the Account of Favours receiv'd from
After she marries the Dutch Merchant according to her own conditions, she says :
"I hop'd he was satisfied I had paid the Debt, by offering myself to be chain'd ; but was
infinitely Debtor to him another way, for letting me remain free" (p.225).
In this period she is fascinated by the glittering of gold, and she admires her lovers'
wealth. It is no wonder then that she connects with Sir Robert Clayton, a man who knows arts
of improving Money or that she is virtually lost without the help of her dear Amy, who did all
her business. She acknowledges to the reader, but not to the Dutch Merchant, that
"tho' I cou'd give up my Virtue, and expose myself, yet I wou'd not give up my Money"
Being aware of all her vices, and although she exposes them to, she repeatedly tries to
justify her behaviour.
What is striking at first glance about the novel is that it has no definite. The novel is
full of chronological inconsistencies. For instance, the events are supposed to occur under the
reign of Charles II, but he died in 1685, and Roxana arrives in England in 1688 aged ten. How
could she have been Charles II's mistress ? This is but another clue to remind us that it is a
work of fiction, and not an historical document. The unexpectedly sudden end is no exception,
for some of the events narrated have a similar suprising ending. For example, the
disappearance of the first husband, the end of her affair with the Prince, or the murder of her
"The most cursed Piece of Hypocrisie […], Grimace and Deceit ; a Piece of meer
Manage, and fram'd Conduct" (p.300)
That is the definition Roxana gives of herself. If truth can be considered as a bond
regulating normal verbal exchanges, Roxana weaves a very efficient network of lies, in order
to protect her actual identity as a high-class prostitute. She perverts the usual forms of
communication by her almost compulsive lies. She lies to have her husband the jeweller
buried in holy and a rumour in the newspapers saying that he had been stolen after he had
been murdered, she adds that he had with him a fine Diamond Ring valued at 100 Pistoles, a
Gold Watch, and a great Quantity of Diamonds of inestimable Value, in his Casket. She lies
again to the Prince when she tells him in tears that she is left almost totally poor - and we can
notice the irony of the passage when she says:
"it was impossible to Estimate the Loss which I had sustain'd, besides that of the Life
of my Husband" (p.59).
The death of her husband comes as a second thought, where one would have thought
that by "great loss", she said indirectly primarily, if not only, to the fate of her late husband.
She is passed mistress in the art of flattery too, knowing for instance perfectly what
was very agreeable to the Prince. She knows how to lure people with sweet words and she is
not immune to flattery either :
"I cou'd have sat a whole Day together, to hear Amy talk to me, and call me Your
Ladyship at every word" (p.246)
The novel explores in depth all the games of embedded narration, as when the
conversation between the Poor Woman and Roxana's sister-in-law about Roxana's children is
told by or rather through Roxana. While the Poor Woman addresses Roxana's sister-in-law,
there is a doubtfulness as to whether she might not be addressing Roxana as well, in telling
her how things turned out and what happened. Moreover, Roxana addresses the reader to tell
him how things turned out. Such a phenomenon crops up again when Amy tells her mistress
the conversation she had with her first husband : Roxana tells the reader what Amy told her
her first husband had told Amy about herself. Conversely, we could say that Roxana informs
the reader through Amy of what she learnt about her first husband. As a narrator, Roxana
enjoys and seems to like to enjoy a particular relationship with her reader, as she frequently
addresses him or her. She anticipates his or her reactions and feelings - as she does with the
other characters :
"It must be a little surprizing to the Reader" (p.12)
"I have given you the whole Detail of this Story" (p. 161)
"I am a Memorial to all that shall read my Story" (p.89).
All this anticipations implicate an involvement of the reader in the core of the novel.
COMPARISON OF MOLL FLANDERS AND ROXANA
In Daniel Defoe's Roxana and Moll Flanders, the title characters represent strong and
independent women, who survive despite economic hardships. Moll, who seeks appropriate
alliances, manipulates the marriage market to find good husbands, while Roxana, who rejects
marriage, prefers to be a mistress. Because of these characterizations, many feminist consider
Defoe a proto-feminist. In doing so, however, they fail to consider the outcomes of both
narratives. Although Moll and Roxana share many similarities, their fates are very different.
Moll enters into a happy marriage and acquires a considerable estate, but Roxana's narrative
concludes with her pain and misery. These different endings demonstrate that Defoe
reinforces traditional roles for women, rather than advocating their independence from them.
He rewards Moll for her decision to remain in the marriage market, but he punishes Roxana
for her rejection of it.
Roxana is evidently a complex novel, not only because it tells the "Vast Varieties of
Fortune of Mademoiselle de Beleau" and enables us to consider what such a fate entails, but
also because it does so in mingling the stances of the narrator, who is seen through her own
eyes but also, thanks to cross-references and reported speech, through the eyes of other
characters, underlining the various connections linking Roxana to the world she lives in, be
they sexual or financial, and underlining also the nature of the bond or contract the narrator
entertains with the reader. As such, Roxana is a careful interweaving of "Profit and Delight".
Defoe, Daniel, Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (Oxford World's Classics), USA, Oxford
University Press, 1998
Clark, Robert, The Fortunate Mistress; or Roxana, The Literary Encyclopedia, University of
East Anglia, 2000