Daniel Defoe

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DANIEL DEFOE
(1660-1731)

Defoe was born in London of a family of Baptists in the year of the Restoration. He was educated at one of the best Dissenting Academies (Newton Green) where he grounded in practical subjects like geography, economics, chemistry and modern languages. Defoe was a man of many trades, was a part-time writer, a part-time businessman, with a full-time obsession for money. All his jobs and projects, he thought, would make him a rich and respected gentleman but his wrong speculations caused him to go bankrupt. His political inclinations, Tory or Whig, changed rapidly according to hopes of enrichment, too. All these adventures and experiences eventually went into his fiction. Defoe was a prolific writer: he wrote essays, pamphlets and travel books besides many articles for newspapers and magazines ( Defoe's role in laying the foundations of modern journalism was very important). In 1719 Defoe, all at once, hit success with Robinson Crusoe, the story of a shipwrecked sailor who for 28 years was forced to live alone on a desert island. Books and novels about the sea and the dangers of navigation were highly popular at the beginning of his century and so Defoe, writing his Robinson Crusoe, was ispired by "Captain Woodes Rogers' A Cruising Voyage Round the World" where a Scotch sailor, Alexander Selkirk, had managed to survive alone on the island of Juan Fernandez, 350 miles off the coast of Chile. However Defoe's is not a re-telling of Selkirk's story and the fact that the novel had such a realistic background is important because was this kind of descriptive realism that distinguished it from other types of fiction. The story is told by a first-person narrator (the same Robinson Crusoe) and is thus a fake autobiography and, to enhance its realism, Defoe gives us a Robinson's life-profile. Moreover the places Crusoe visits in England and abroad are not generic but carefully described and set in their geographical context while time is accounted for in the most precise manner and, at one point in the story, Robinson even starts writing a diary: thanks to our possibility to follow Robinson's actions day by day, we are made to believe an otherwise out-of-the-ordinary story. Robinson's psychology is rather simple, at least from our point of view: after his shipwreck he does not despair but sets about doing practical things to make his life as comfortable as possible, and his comments when he is rescued by a British ship and goes back to England are equally unemotional. Robinson was only a sensible, practical man and he behaved accordingly. The only development in his personality stressed by Defoe is that of his religious conversion: Robinson's adventures convince him that life is not meaningless and that God has not deserted him. He returns to live in society only when he has acquired a new and heightened sense of man's social role. It is just as possible to read Robinson Crusoe as the celebration of the English mercantile spirit. Today Robinson appears to us as the representative of the Englishman who in those years was beginning to colonise the world: Robinson is the archetype pioneer, armed only with his own strength and intelligence, and with a Puritan's firm convinction that he has God on his side.
Daniel Defoe wrote other important novels as Moll Flanders (1722) and Lady Roxana (1724).

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