- Transformations, Ideology, and the Real in Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and Other Narratives: Finding “The Thing Itself” by Maximillian E. Novak
Maximillian Novak is very familiar to Defoe scholars. Over the last fifty years he has authored several important monographs on Defoe, beginning with two now classic works, Economics and the Fiction of Daniel Defoe (1962) and Defoe and the Nature of Man (1963), and continuing on through a series of important essays, some of which were published in his Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe’s Fiction (1983). Novak’s biography, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions (2001) ranks among the best and most reliable works on this notoriously elusive and mercurial writer. His latest book offers a collection of previously published articles and book chapters related to Defoe’s fictional writing and especially his best known work, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). Of the book’s eleven chapters, seven are directly concerned with Robinson Crusoe, and the novel figures prominently in the other chapters as well. Novak uses his readings of Defoe’s Crusoe not only to further explicate Defoe’s engagement with the intellectual currents of his age—a task that has occupied the bulk of Novak’s more than half-century–long career devoted to studying Defoe—but also to develop an argument about the realism of Defoe’s narrative method.
Novak sees Defoe’s fiction writing as part of a lifelong interest in depicting reality through prose. For Novak, Defoe’s narrative realism can be summed up by this book’s subtitle: it was an exercise in finding the most accurate way to represent “the thing itself” through the written word. In an intriguing chapter on Defoe’s interest in painting and the visual arts, Novak argues that Defoe was particularly concerned with, and knowledgeable about, contemporary trends in northern European painting. He sees Defoe’s narrative realism as a verbal parallel to the visual realism of “Dutch” painting in its golden age. In Defoe’s prose (and especially in his prose fiction), he finds an achievement in realism that surpassed the achievements of Netherlandish artists working in visual media. Defoe’s prose fiction, Novak argues, could be “even more powerful, more vivid, than painting” (54).
On this topic, Novak agrees with Ian Watt with regard to the uniqueness of Defoe’s realism. Both have claimed that “Defoe’s wide grasp of social, political, and economic problems, as well as his way [End Page 390] of working them into the novel, created a new kind of realism and a new kind of fiction” (180n47). It is hard to argue with this. Defoe’s prose is replete with thick descriptions of people, places, and things, and he was prolix in his efforts to explain them all in detail. But it is also difficult to know just what to make of Defoe’s realism, both within the contours of Defoe’s own writing as well as for Novak’s critical enterprise. Unlike Watt, Novak does not link Defoe’s realism to broader social and cultural developments, such as the rise of a middle-class reading public. Instead, it seems that Novak sees Defoe as a writer of immense curiosity and broad reading who delighted in explaining the world to his readers. Defoe’s realism in this account is more practical than ideological.
The great problem for all realist artists is that some things are not easily represented true to life. Realism always has its limits. Novak claims that Defoe’s preferred sobriquet for the object of realist representation is “the thing itself” and that the faithful reproduction of that thing in prose is the ultimate goal of the realist writer. It is interesting, however, that the only instance in which he can cite this phrase in Defoe’s writings appears in the Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) when Crusoe attempts to compare an attack upon a...