- Daniel Defoe: Contrarian by Robert Merrett
Thirty-five years ago, when Robert Merrett published his first study of Defoe, Daniel Defoe: Contrarian would have seemed outlandish; Merrett builds his new, ambitious work on the belief, once a matter of heated disagreement, that Defoe was a skilful and “genuine artist,” the conflicts and [End Page 402] contradictions of his writing deliberate and purposeful—not the product of authorial incompetence or historical context. This stance is arguably the foundational strength of Contrarian, allowing Merrett to energetically pursue conceptual paradoxes, semantic ambiguities, and dialectical tensions within and between works. These kinds of complexity, Merrett ultimately proposes, serve to “induce readers to meditate on the nature of being and on the workings of public and private discourse.”
Ranging across an impressive variety of the Defoe canon, Contrarian is held together by the abiding concept of “contraries.” “Contraries,” Merrett argues, “whether defined as narrative devices, material dualities, or theological paradoxes, are as basic, if not more so, to [Defoe’s] writing than verisimilitude, empirical observation, and religious orthodoxy.” The concept of contraries offers a productive articulation of Defoe’s characteristic (and critically divisive) predilection for contradiction and ambiguity. Engaging with this tendency through the methodologies of discourse analysis and reader-response, Merrett argues that Defoe’s writing, his religious thought especially, is defined by diverse modes of “polarity thinking.” It is a flexible approach, serving more to inflect Merrett’s vigorous analysis than to delimit it. There are certainly moments when this inclusive framework can seem superfluous, partly because more than forty years of engagement with Defoe has generated interpretations that cannot readily be characterized as “contrarian.” The book would hardly be improved if such readings were pared away, since the primary appeal of this study is the range and sophistication of its analysis.
The eight chapters of Contrarian are defined primarily by discursive strategy, rather than by work or genre. Chapter one, “Contraries: Linguistic, Narrative, and Theological,” introduces a number of the dynamics that Merrett explores, most importantly the way “linguistic and narrative contraries” underpin his consciously dialectical “spiritual vision.” The second chapter expands on this vision, demonstrating how the varied and multitudinous repetition of the phrase “just reflections” throughout his novels serves to “subordinate epistemology to theology.” The constellation of “contrary stances” that constitutes Defoe’s religious expression, and thus arguably the core of Merrett’s study, emerges in the third and fourth chapters, which explore the productive “reciprocity” between secular and religious attitudes. One of the strengths of these chapters, which move from the Serious Reflections to an array of works, is that they allow Defoe to adopt secular perspectives without devolving into a “secular thinker”; Defoe’s dialectic treatment of religion, Biblical allusion in particular, underpins his typological techniques, his treatment of commerce, and even his engagement with Milton and Rochester.
The latter half of the study elucidates the social and political facets of this polar imaginary, tracing, throughout the fifth and sixth chapters, [End Page 403] how impersonation enabled Defoe to refine and defend his political views, in particular his characteristically alloyed commitment to “the constitutional principles of 1688.” After a comparatively brief chapter on Defoe’s dualistic conception of marriage, Merrett turns to his final and longest chapter, “Defoe’s Imaginary: Narrative Inference, Figurative Expression, and Spiritual Cognition.” Touching on paratextual dynamics, “narrative reflexivity,” and “figurative polyvalency,” this is arguably the most diverse and potentially inchoate chapter. At times it feels like a catch-all for remaining insights, but it is given a degree of coherence by the emphasis on Defoe’s pedagogy—his diverse methods of “heighten[ing] the critical self-consciousness” and spiritual awareness of his readers.
There is no doubt that Contrarian is a valuable contribution to Defoe scholarship. Even as Merrett judiciously disavows biographical speculations, he cultivates an exceptionally detailed and nuanced picture of Defoe; those grappling with the protean author would do well to consult Merrett, who will quite probably have dexterously parsed the difficulty at hand. Certainly, in a work that covers so much ground, there are some notable omissions. It is not clear, for...