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  • The Soldierly Imagination:Narrating Fear in Defoe’s Memoirs of a Cavalier
  • Sharon Alker (bio)

The representation of war in Daniel Defoe's Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720) is at the centre of two conflicting, yet equally convincing, textual readings by two of Defoe's biographers, Maximillian E. Novak and Paula R. Backscheider. Novak foregrounds Defoe's long-term admir a tion of military matters, arguing that the protagonist is "Defoe's ver sion of the ideal cavalier—brave, idealistic, fair."1 Novak points out that, as the text evolves, the young man learns that certain sorts of hero ism are ineffective, such as Prince Rupert's tendency to pursue and plunder fleeing regiments, while neglecting problems at the centre of the battle. And he labels one moment at the end of the text as disturbing—a moment in which the Cavalier has to engage in a mas sacre in a private home. He suggests that the soldier never recovers from this experience, but does not discuss the Cavalier's response in depth. Novak's approach to the memoirs primarily places the work within the traditional model of the military memoir, with its emphasis on martial accomplishments, heroism, stoicism, and soldierly duty.2 In contrast, Backscheider argues that Defoe's work primarily critiques war, that the power and appeal of the work [End Page 43] is located in "its utterly unexceptional hero, its pessimism, and its philosophically nihilistic conclusion."3 Backscheider contends that readers perceive Defoe's Cavalier as "the dramatization of the powerful anti-war sentiment that would sweep England" in the eigh teenth century, and compares Memoirs of a Cavalier to Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms or Joseph Heller's Catch 22, which feature "powerless, frustrated soldiers."4

The dissonance between these two readings can be partially attributed to the ambiguity that saturates much of Defoe's fictional work, yet the presence of both the heroic stoicism recognized by Novak and the expression of battlefield trauma noted by Backscheider also derives from the text's exploration of the relationship between narrative and war. This fictional memoir displays and disturbs the tendency of contemporary war narratives to elide the psychological trauma of combat, opening a space for a different sort of war literature, one that takes into account the effects of combat on the soldier's psyche.5 The Memoirs unsettles traditional military narratives at two interrelated levels. First, at the level of character, the Cavalier's description of his experiences as a young man explores the deployment of the rhetoric of honour and neo-Stoicism by military leaders to minimize the terror of combat, while testing the limits of this rhetoric under the particular pressures of a civil war. By rhetoric, here, I mean not only oral speeches, sermons, and other means of linguistic discourse, but also the entire framework, including rituals and other performative acts, that military leaders used to valorize sacrifice and make violence acceptable and desirable to their troops, such as visual displays of military discipline in exercises and public exhibitions. The function of this rhetoric is to enable soldiers to breach social norms, to control their emotional responses to the battlefield, and to kill and be killed with minimal fear or horror. Second, at a level of narration, Memoirs operates as a meta-commentary on the war literature circulating in the period. Prose narratives centred on the military reproduced the rhetoric of the battlefield, interweaving it with a focus on detailed [End Page 44] reporting on military tactics and strategies.6 Memoirs destabilizes this language by exposing gaps between the events and their reporting, between stoic language and the soldier's psyche, raising questions about the horrors of war that such works elide.

Narratives of war are not clearly distinct from the rhetoric of war disseminated by military leaders, but dynamically engaged with it. The narrator's admiration for the rhetoric of Gustavus Adolphus is evident in his textual repetition and articulation of the noble ideals that the Swedish leader espouses. And the proliferation of manuals in the period suggests that military leaders used ideas and language circulated in these guides, and that they were influenced by other textual forms, such as...


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