- Defoe’s Major Fiction: Accounting for the Self by Elizabeth R. Napier
Elizabeth Napier’s Defoe’s Major Fiction: Accounting for the Self analyzes the narrative techniques through which Defoe renders personal identity. It tackles “the pervasive concern with narrativity and self-construction that marks Defoe’s first-person fictional narratives” (xi) and attests to “the complex narrativity of Defoe’s world” (20). The result is an incisive approach to Defoe’s fiction, characterized by rich attention to style and structure. It will benefit specialists and those studying Defoe for the first time. In some respects the book reverts to questions addressed in formalist appraisals of Defoe undertaken in the 1970s, particularly John Richetti’s Defoe’s Narratives: Situations and Structures (1975), Everett Zimmerman’s Defoe and the Novel (1975), and David Blewett’s Defoe’s Art of Fiction (1979). These books may be understood as responses to studies of Defoe’s fiction written in the previous decade that sought coherence in Defoe’s fictional presentation of social, philosophical, religious, or economic themes. Those 1970s scholars urgently needed to emphasize Defoe’s craft to avoid the novels being approached as merely vehicles for ideas, and it is understandable that Napier now feels the same impetus to understand why Defoe’s novels continue to be enjoyed. However, the main shortcoming of this book is the evasion of context, so that Defoe’s representations of selfhood are shorn of significance in terms of the history of philosophy, religion, politics, class, national identity, colonialism, gender, or the family.
As Napier explains, Defoe’s novels are typically retrospective, first-person accounts, in which an elderly character recounts and reflects on his or her life. This introduces a “double” perspective, as readers experience incidents both with the seasoned penitents who relate events and the more naïve characters who participate in them. Therefore, self-construction depends on memory and the imagination: acts of narrative iteratively construct selves. The confessional mode means that story is a burden which characters like Moll and Roxana unload with a mixture of relief and reluctance, actively seeking listeners but balking at full disclosure (2). The act of telling is often implicated in the nefarious activities told, compounding rather than atoning for sin, resulting in tergiversation, digression, and qualification. Furthermore, we often have multiple versions of events (Crusoe is especially guilty), drawing [End Page 571] attention to evolving motivations for telling. And we have tantalizingly “untold” stories, introduced but left un-narrated or incomplete, drawing attention to narrators’ “strategic omissions” (xxviii) and “narrative tyranny,” as they muscle out competing perspectives (21). So, the narrative forms of Defoe’s novels produce uncertainties, such as prolepsis or backstory within retrospective delivery, which contribute to a sense that these narrators are impelled by competing urges—compulsive revelation and reactionary concealment—to the point that it is difficult to piece together events. The traditional assurance that a fable has been crafted to uphold a moral rings false, these components seeming more often in competition than concurrence. And to cap it all, readers are implicated by being taken into the confidence of these characters, constantly at risk of a misreading that would speak to their own immorality (57 n.11) even as the narrative perspective elicits sympathy.
The sense of selfhood produced by this mode of narrative is “perilously fluid,” possibly hollow, in a state of “perpetual flux” (xvi, 46). Defoe draws attention to doubleness, disintegration, and performativity. All this may appear to betoken skepticism about the existence of a core, verifiable self basically continuous through time and circumstance, but this is an issue on which Napier turns over competing evidence rather than definitively pronounces. So, Defoe harbors “the radical idea of a successive self that assumes no continuity over time or place” (46), but then again “Defoe at bottom rejects this view in favor of a more conservative idea of the self as permanent” (47). However, “Defoe seems occasionally to suspect [that] there may in fact be no ‘core’ identity at all and proof of one’s existence may be exclusively...