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Defoe, Daniel

social crusoe plague story

(British, 1660–1731)

Defoe, often considered to be the first English novelist, travelled extensively as a merchant, a secret agent and a journalist before turning to fiction. His ground-breaking first-person narratives merged popular genres such as travel journals, romances, picaresque tales, political writing, histories, and social reportage for what was probably the first time. Defoe was a liberal, optimistic writer, one of the earliest to portray the lives of the poor and uneducated. His novels implicitly challenge the moral and social assumptions of many of his contemporaries and are remarkable for their faith in the resilience of the human spirit.

Begin with Moll Flanders (1722), the lively, entertaining ‘confession’ of a woman who, having been born in a debtors' prison and separated early from her mother, is determined both to survive and to gain financial independence. As Moll relates the story of her early thieving and prostitution, detailing her concealed pregnancies, her marriages, her eventual conviction, and transportation, Defoe creates an entirely convincing sense of eighteenth-century London through realistic prose and detailed, carefully observed descriptions. Move on to Robinson Crusoe (1719), the classic story of a shipwrecked survivor and his attempts to civilize the desert island he is stranded on. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), a semi-fictional account of the horrific devastation caused in London by the bubonic plague epidemic of 1665, is also highly recommended.

Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding; for recent explorations of ideas in Robinson Crusoe, see Jane Gardam, Crusoe's Daughter (1985), and J. M. Coetzee, Foe (1986). See THE SEA, SOCIAL ISSUES  SR

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