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Robinson Crusoe and the Rise of the Novel in England by Sheila Dalton

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Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

The Rise of the Novel

Robinson Crusoe and the Rise of the Novel in England

by Sheila Dalton

The rise of the novel in the English language began in 18th century England, and though scholars disagree as to what the first work of fiction actually was, many cite Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This is a book that was wildly popular almost as soon as it was off the presses.

That Defoe is often credited with writing the first novel is ironic, given that he hated fiction, and called it a form of lying. He always asserted that Robinson Crusoe was a true account, which is stretching the point to a rather amazing degree. Certainly, the book was based in part on journals Defoe had read that were written by real castaways, but the character of Robinson Crusoe and the story itself were largely a product of the author’s unique imagination.

Why was Defoe so opposed to fiction? Many think it was the influence of his Puritan ancestors. Although Defoe himself was Presbyterian, he carried over the Puritan distaste for imaginary narratives.

With Robinson Crusoe, Defoe obviously hit a nerve in the population at large. He was the first English author to write a book that did not concern itself with mythical or Biblical figures, that told a totally new story with “the common man” as protagonist.

This was significant in the popularity of the book, and also in the rise of the novel as a literary form. The printing press, a recent invention, meant that more people had access to the printed word, and for the first time, literary endeavours were not aimed solely at the aristocratic classes.

It was the age of the Industrial Revolution which, while it impoverished some, was a boon to others. A new middle class was on the rise, with more discretionary funds than ever before. It was also the age of overseas expansion, with colonies such as India and America providing raw materials like cotton and tobacco, which English factories then processed and sold.

Defoe, a product of this new age, was a journalist who embraced the commercial potential of books. In other words, he recognized an opportunity, and set about the task of capitalizing on it, ignoring his own distaste for “untrue narratives” in the process, and inventing a whole new literary form almost as an aside.  Robinson Crusoe himself, with his adventurous spirit and “colonial” mentality (viz., the subjugation of Friday), reflected the temper of the times. England’s nouveau riche and the growing middle class were actively asserting their independence, and hungering for stories that reflected their own realities.

Stylistically, too, Defoe paved the way for the rise of the novel. He did not write in the flowery, ornate style characteristic of the time, but in a plain, straightforward manner that became the new standard for the English novel.

Almost in spite of himself, then, Defoe, who was responsive to the greatly enlarged reading public and unconcerned with the critical standards of the literati, paved the way for the rise of the novel. With the publication of Robinson Crusoe, he set in motion the process further developed by Samuel Richardson (Pamela) and Henry Fielding (Tom Jones), and still evolving today


The Girl in the Box by Sheila Dalton

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Sheila Anne Dalton is the author of The Girl in the Box, and other books. She is Canadian writer born in the UK. She attended the University of Toronto, and the University of London, England. Read more about Sheila Dalton and The Girl in the Box.

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