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Moll Flanders | Study Guide

Daniel Defoe

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Daniel Defoe | Biography


Early Life

Daniel Defoe was born in London in 1660. As a young man Defoe studied to become a Presbyterian minister, but he abandoned the clergy to seek his fortune as a merchant. The business allowed Defoe to travel widely, and he enjoyed some success initially, although it was never consistent. By 1692 the business faltered badly, and he declared bankruptcy.

Political Writings

Fortunately, along with his interest in business, Defoe had a lifelong interest in politics and religion. This interest led him to become a political writer, journalist, and pamphleteer. He published his first political pamphlet in 1683, and his output over his lifetime was prodigious. Politics and religion were closely connected topics during Defoe's heyday, and he tackled these subjects fearlessly. On more than one occasion his writing caused sufficient controversy to land him in jail. The bulk of his political writing appeared in his journal, the Review, which he single-handedly wrote and published from 1704–13. The Review began as a weekly, but eventually Defoe published the periodical three times a week.

Published Works

Defoe is considered the father of the English novel. Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, was the first novel written in English to use the prose narrative form throughout. The novel propelled Defoe to international fame. Novels were considered popular literature, yet genre conventions had not yet solidified. The boundaries between nonfiction and fiction were blurry during this period, and Defoe drew on the conventions of travel literature, memoirs, and confessionals. His novel Moll Flanders, published in 1722, posed as "a private history," which is to say a memoir, written to confess and justify the criminal activities of the narrator and protagonist Moll Flanders, who, forced by economic necessity, ends up living a life of crime. Defoe's personal experiences with the justice system and in Newgate prison informed his critical attitude towards draconian sentences at the time, such as imposing the death sentence for non-violent crimes. Although widely regarded as a classic today, Moll Flanders was not considered serious literature for many decades. In an 1810 foreword to his edition of Defoe's writings, Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott called the book not "entirely fit for good society," no doubt due to Defoe's attempt to garner empathy for his heroine's life of crime and vice.

Other works that cemented Defoe's reputation as a novelist are A Journal of the Plague Year and Colonel Jack, both published in 1722.

Defoe married Mary Tuffley in 1684, and the couple had eight children, two of whom died before adulthood. They remained married until Defoe's death in London on April 24, 1731. Defoe's novels are considered classics of English literature in the 21st century and have secured the author's place in the pantheon of literary greats alongside Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Blake, among others.

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