Defoe’s Major Fiction: Accounting for the Self by Elizabeth R. Napier (review)
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Defoe’s Major Fiction: Accounting for the Self by Elizabeth R. Napier
Newark: University of Delaware Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
xxxii+158pp. US$70. ISBN 978-1-61149-613-0.

Defoe’s Major Fiction is centred on how the self is constructed and how this construction is presented through various aspects of narration in Defoe’s first-person fictional accounts. Elizabeth R. Napier states that her “argument is that this narrative articulation (and disarticulation) of self is central to an understanding of Defoe’s work and to Defoe’s contribution to the novel ... From Defoe’s characters’ self-conscious narratives may be extracted, furthermore, unusual, recurrent paradigms of the self (competitive, performative, compulsive, fractive) that fascinate Defoe and that show his keen attention to narrative and moral accountability and to the link between them” (xi). Her book is a culmination not only of work in Defoe studies, but also of critical investigations of the development of self-characterization in the novel. Her study reveals profound disconnects between the selves that the characters wish to present and the ones that they frequently do represent, and shows how Defoe manipulates the space between these two separate spheres.

Her introduction begins by exposing the performative layer of the self that Defoe’s characters often display in order to “reveal a keen interest on Defoe’s part in how and why narrators shape the stories they tell” (xiv). It also discusses some of the machinery of Defoe’s texts, such as how the prefaces of his novels work to direct the reader as to how to read the narrative that is to come, and how character accountability establishes a delicate balance between blame and self-disclosure.

Chapter 1 considers the various ways in which Defoe’s narrators carefully construct the version of themselves that they wish the reader to see, including what is left out: “Defoe’s fictions are a palimpsest of embedded texts, countertexts, and antitexts, of backstories that the reader is made aware of but does not hear, of hypothetical stories ... that do not occur, [End Page 521] or that are unverifiable, of other life histories that remain untold ... or are translated into forms more acceptable to the hearers” (2–3). This chapter also sets up the tension between competing genres, both spiritual and secular, that prevent them from being easily defined.

The next chapter focuses on how characters manage the stories they mean to tell while attempting to check those that they do not. Frequently this means, at the very least, a nod towards seeming transparency in order to encourage sympathy with even the worst of characters in the most reprehensible of situations, such as with Roxana or Moll Flanders, and a skilful level of theatricality that manages to keep the reader interested without delving too deeply into the characters’ interiority. This method is a concentration of surfaces rather than an exercise in depth: “Defoe’s characters’ theatricalization of the self appears, indeed, to be so instinctive as to constitute their ‘true’ selves, suggesting a notion of identity that is in perpetual flux, expansion, or fragmentation” (46). Additionally, these characters engage in a level of role-playing above and beyond their narrative representation that is neither fun nor playful, again, most notably exemplified in Moll Flanders and Roxana.

Defoe’s characters’ general tendency towards compulsiveness is the subject of the next chapter. Rarely do his characters display self-discipline or moderation. His characters are frequently driven by, and at the mercy of, their impulsive desires coupled with their extreme avoidance of accountability, which of course then raises the issue for the reader of “to what degree should one be held liable for one’s actions” (65)? Furthermore, Napier divides those actions and agencies down gendered lines, to show that female characters’ movements are not only less mobile but also more frequently a reaction to circumstances imposed by other characters than a primary action—in other words, they have a “tendency to be acted upon (and hence their ‘moves’ dictated) by circumstance” (68). Their impulsiveness or inability to act in certain circumstances are what cause characters to relinquish their moral agency, initiating a moral downfall. This is...