How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Defoe and the Invention of Realism in the Novel

Shows featured author, Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

Realism in the Novel is an old story today. But at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Realism was something new, and Daniel Defoe was one of the first writers to practice it.

In the early 1700s, a metamorphosis in English fiction writing took place. Fewer stories featured high-born princes and gorgeous ladies, clever rogues, or their slaves and minions. Instead, fiction focused more on clerks, maids, sailors, lawyers, bankers, bakers—realistic, ordinary people that an 18th century reader might actually meet.

Settings moved from vaguely described kingdoms lying somewhere in foreign lands to everyday places, like the streets of London or Colchester, or the inside of a shop, rooming house, or jail. Instead of characters who spoke in high-flown witty phrases manifesting extremes of emotion, fictional characters slowly began to talk more and more like real people.

Before the advent of this newer way of writing fiction, which became known as Realism, writers had not focused on providing “verisimilitude” to their tales. That is, they had not developed all the writerly techniques that make readers feel that a story could have happened in the factual world, the one they saw daily out of their windows.

But with Daniel Defoe’s publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and Moll Flanders in 1722, “verisimilitude” is exactly what readers saw: fictions that seemed as real as actual memoirs or biographical accounts. In fact, many of Robinson Crusoe’s earliest readers believed that this fictional account was a true story. With Crusoe and Moll Flanders, and other novels to come, Daniel Defoe was helping invent something that seemed new: Realism and the Novel genre, which developed as showcase for the Realist’s techniques and aims.

Defoe made his storytelling in Crusoe feel real by basing its form on a popular memoir of an actual castaway, Alexander Selkirk. Defoe populated his faux-memoir Crusoe’s pages with numerous mundane details to make readers feel he was writing about the real world, not just dreaming up wild events in his imagination.

In Moll Flanders, the Defoe novel that I know the best, he continued to experiment and develop with techniques to make a story feel real, so much so that you can watch Defoe’s techniques develop and the story’s texture evolve as you read it from one end to the other.

To learn more about where Defoe got inspiration for this new way of writing, and how he invented and honed his Realism, come along for a closer look at Moll Flanders, and an important fictional predecessor to Defoe, a famous teller of sexy romantic tales, Aphra Behn. And before that, we’ll talk a bit about whether Realism is really a “thing,” and if so, where it might have come from.

“Before”–painting by William Hogarth

Links to Related Topics:

Reading Restoration and 18th Century English Literature: Background information

Timeline and Reading List: Restoration and 18th Century English Literature


Is “Realism” Really a “Thing”?

Of course readers today, and probably most readers in the 1700s as well, are and were perfectly aware that fiction written in Realist mode is still fiction. Even Realist stories are invented, however many techniques a writer may use to make readers feel as if they actually happened.

Today we are hyper-aware that even so-called factual reporting can have an underlying narrative. Narratives can lead writers to pump or suppress detail in its service. Literary historians argue about whether it is meaningful to make distinctions between Realism and other modes of fiction, mainly the older mode of storytelling known as Romance, since all of it is just made up anyway.

However, I stick to the assertion that fictional Romance and fictional Realism are two different kinds of “made up,” two different fictional modes aiming for different effects on readers.

Today, we might not see such a big difference between Romantic storytelling and Realism, but 18th century readers certainly did. If we look at the history of the evolution of storytelling technique in western literature, we see that the readers themselves did notice that Realism, the new way of fiction writing being developed by Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and other writers, was something different. They were surprised, then puzzled, then delighted by this new kind of storytelling.

Before Realism: Prose Romance

To understand Realism, and why this new fictional mode brought such a sea-change to fiction readers in the 18th century, we can start by learning more about an older kind of story-telling, Prose Romance, a mode of fiction that predominated before Realism.

Romance in this context doesn’t refer specifically to love stories as it does today, but rather to tales of adventure and mystery, often including supernatural elements. The Romance has ancient roots and still survives and thrives today, alongside Realism and other hybrid modes of fiction.

The definition of Prose Romance I find most helpful is that of M. H. Abrams. Abrams was  a 20th century literary critic who also served as the longtime executive editor of the Norton Anthologies. Abrams did not formulate his definition to apply strictly to the types of writing before Defoe’s day. He meant it to apply to 19th and 20th century fiction that was still being written in the Romance mode. No matter– the qualities he defines of modern romance do apply to much of fiction written before Defoe came onto the scene, and can help us understand better what it was like.

Here’s Abrams’s definition of Prose Romance 1 (I separated and numbered the clauses defining its six major characteristics):

“The prose romance has as its ancestors the Chivalric romance of the Middle Ages and the Gothic Novel of the latter eighteenth century. It typically
1. deploys simplified characters,
2. larger than life,
3. who are sharply discriminated as heroes and villains, masters and victims;
4. the protagonist is often solitary, and isolated from a social context;
5. the plot emphasizes adventure, and is often cast in the form of the quest for an ideal, or the pursuit of an enemy; and
6. the nonrealistic and occasionally melodramatic events are sometimes claimed to project in symbolic form the primal desires, hopes, and terrors in the depths of the human mind, and to be therefore analogous to the materials of dream, myth, ritual, and folklore.”

From Medieval tales of Knightly adventures, the Prose Romance tradition has come down to us through writers like Mary Shelley (in Frankenstein), Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and today, J.K. Rowling in the beloved Harry Potter series.

In Romance, isolated protagonists can face down villains and monsters, are propelled into adventures, and ride the dramatic ups and downs of melodramatic plots. Characters don’t have to be complex—they can be simply good or bad, heroes, heroines, villains, or monsters. No complex social structure need be portrayed or described.  Characters don’t need to represent any real-world social class, or interact with more than one or two characters throughout the whole fiction.

Romances can be just as “true” as Realist works, but they are figuratively rather than factually true, by means of revealing elements of the human psyche in symbolic form, like dreams or stories of monsters or magic.

How Realism is Different: What Walter Scott Saw

What, then, is this “Novel” form that evolved with Defoe’s help to become a kind of fiction distinct from Romance?

Sir Walter Scott, painted by William Allen

Sir Walter Scott, well-known early 19th century writer, who himself invented the genre of historical romance, famously defined the novel as “A fictitious narrative accommodated to the ordinary train of human events.”

Scott himself hewed more to the large-canvas stories about heroic adventures typical of Romance mode. But he admired his contemporary Jane Austen, a famous Realist, for her skill at rendering ordinary human events and regular people within well-observed stories. Her work struck him as something quite different from his kind of fiction.

See, for instance, this quotation from Scott’s 1826 private journal, shared by “History Girls” on their historical fiction blog. It showcases nicely the contrasting of prose romancers, like Scott, and realist novelists, like Austen, suggesting that indeed these two fictional modes are something different:

“READ again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.”

–Sir Walter Scott

Clearly Scott drew a big distinction between his sort of romantic adventure and the quieter, finely observed domestic realism of Jane Austen.

A Definition of Realism

For a great definition of the Novel and Realism, I turn again to M. H. Abrams.1 As above with the definition of Prose Romance, clauses defining each characteristic have been separated and numbered:

“The novel is characterized as the fictional attempt to give the effect of Realism,
1. by representing complex characters with mixed motives
2. who are rooted in a social class,
3. operate in a highly developed social structure,
4. interact with many other characters, and
5. undergo plausible and everyday modes of experience. “

In what different fictional realms from Romance do these qualities place readers! From works like those of Shelley, Poe, Stevenson, and Rowling, we come to the real-seeming fictional worlds of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and John Steinbeck.

The definition of Realism is easy to apply to Austen’s works, as Scott observed. In Austen’s works, characters tend not to be perfect heroes or heroines, but to have flaws or blind spots. Most of the dislikable characters are not outright villains, they are just ordinary selfish or short-sighted people who have both bad and good qualities all mixed up together.

Austen’s fictional realms also reflect the social class structure of the real world of her day. We always know what social class a character is from (they “are rooted in a social class”). We also see Austen’s characters interact with a large variety of other characters who come from different social strata, showing that society is a complex network of differently defined tiers.

Above all, nothing happens in an Austen novel that might not have happened to the people and families Austen herself was acquainted with in her time. Indeed, any reader who (so incomprehensibly to me) might find Austen dull is probably bored by her exclusive focus on women negotiating domestic problems while conversing in places no more exciting than the drawing room or garden short path to town. It’s hard to imagine literary characters undergoing experiences any more “plausible” and “everyday.”

Jane Austen

Of course Realism does not have to restrict itself to domestic issues alone. Realism can be about anything that takes place with some frequency in the everyday real world. Readers enjoy reading Realistic fiction either to see their own selves and societies mirrored and shrewdly analyzed, or to learn about other places, people, and societies they might not otherwise be able to visit or know.

Now, having looked at why I continue to insist that Realism is something different from Romance mode in fiction, let’s go back and take a look at how Defoe helped start it all.

Realism: In the Air in the 1700s

After English religious wars and strife in the 17th century, England returned to a period of stability in the 18th. Stability allowed commercial interests to flourish, and opened a few more opportunities for people to change their social class than in the past. A new middle class consisting of merchants and the people who worked in their businesses formed. Many more people became literate—not just those from the middle class, but some from lower classes as well. More women read more widely as well.

These changes in culture and readership led to more readers who wanted to know about the world around them, to read about what is happening in the “here and now.” Defoe was an enterprising writer who set out to meet the new tastes of the time.

Realism and Journalism

It’s no accident that Defoe made more 18th century literary history by inventing another writing genre: popular journalism. He published his popular newspaper The Review, the first thing of its kind with up-to-date news and commentary, from 1704-1713.

Yale’s Andrew Pettegree gives us some background on Defoe and “the invention of the news” that also helps us understand why a market had also developed for Realism in fiction:

“Defoe was lucky. He had launched the Review at a time when the reading public was expanding rapidly, along with a market for current affairs. Naturally Defoe made the most of it. . . . The present times, wrote Defoe, had seen a media explosion. He recalled a time, even in his own lifetime, when there had been no such torrent of newspapers, state papers and political writing. The rage for news was transforming society, and Defoe was happy to be in the thick of it.”

–Andrew Pettegree

It’s no coincidence that the writer who helped develop the modern newspaper was also the one who helped create the genre we know as the novel, frequently defined as a longer fiction written in Realistic mode.

Like journalists, novelists are interested less in philosophic principles than in actual facts; like journalists, writers of realistic fiction sought to capture and convey what was really going on in the world as it really is, relying on close observation conveyed through realistically detailed description. This spirit of investigative reporting on the real world seemed to appeal to a new, developing class of readers coming from the middle and commercial classes as the 18th century began.

Moll and the Picaresque

Scene from Gil Blas, a famous picaresque novel, painted by Daniel Maclise.

With Moll Flanders, a fiction about a famous adventuress, thief, and all-around rogue, it’s easy to spy Defoe’s affection for a type of fiction popular at the time, the picaresque. defines “Picaresque” this way:

“Picaresque novel, early form of novel, usually a first-person narrative, relating the adventures of a rogue or lowborn adventurer (Spanish pícaro) as he drifts from place to place and from one social milieu to another in his effort to survive.
In its episodic structure the picaresque novel resembles the long, rambling romances of medieval chivalry, to which it provided the first realistic counterpart. Unlike the idealistic knight-errant hero, however, the picaro is a cynical and amoral rascal who, if given half a chance, would rather live by his wits than by honourable work.”

The first picaresques were Spanish, the original being Lazarillo de Tormes, in 1554. This form reached English shores in 1594 with Thomas Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller; or, The Life of Jacke Wilton.

English readers enjoyed picaresques for 200 years or more, so clearly Defoe was capitalizing on a type of fiction that was popular when he formulated Moll Flanders. Just take a look at the full title of Moll Flanders to see how Defoe was drawing on the picaresque tradition. The work promises its readers all sorts of dramatic episodes and adventures:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who Was Born in Newgate, and During a Life of Continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, Besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife (Whereof Once to her Own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at Last Grew Rich, Liv’d Honest, and Died a Penitent. Written from Her Own Memorandums.

Looking at the title, it’s easy to see the influence of the picaresque form, but how could there be any Realism in all this? Don’t doubt too soon! It is exactly Defoe’s innovation that he can write about traditionally romantic adventures as if they were all common or plausible occurrences—of which, more below.

How Defoe Morphs Romance into Realism

Amatory Fiction v. Defoe’s New Realism

Aphra Behn

If the Picaresque form was one influence, the writing of the women known at “The Fair Triumvirate of Wit,” particularly Aphra Behn, was most likely another.
According to Wikipedia: “The fair triumvirate of wit refers to the three 17th and 18th century authors Eliza Haywood, Delarivier Manley, and Aphra Behn.”
These writers wrote popular poetry and dramas, along popular works in a genre known as “Amatory Fiction.”

These works featured dramatic adventures woven around intense, titillating, or outright sexy love stories, especially stories focusing on the seduction of trusting, passionate women. For instance, Eliza Haywood’s “Love in Excess” follows the adventures of three women, Alovisa, Amena, and Melliora, who vie for the love of D’Elmont, including secret meetings, passionate forbidden correspondence, misdirections, and finally, a happy ending.

Aphra Behn’s work The Fair Jilt; Or; The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda makes an interesting contrast to Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Behn’s characters are high-born. Hendrick had been “a prince of Germany, in the house of _____,” (left romantically unnamed). He ended up in Flanders as a disguised Pilgrim who then took the order of St. Frances and became a priest. Miranda is an incredibly beautiful, wealthy orphan living in a religious house in Amsterdam, as the narrator says many did in “Catholic countries”—not an avowed nun, but in temporary retreat there.

Defoe’s Moll Flanders, on the other hand, has a much more pedestrian history. She was born in Newgate prison, of a mother who was convicted of stealing three pieces of fine Holland cloth; when her mother was transported to “the plantations” in America, Moll was left to be taken up by gypsies who ultimately abandoned her at Colchester in Essex.

Her lovers are hardly princes. Instead, they consist of the oldest son of a small-town mayor and his younger brother, a linen-draper who was also a gambler, a captain and small plantation owner in America, an outright con-man and highwayman, a sugar-daddy rich guy she meets in Bath, and a banker. None of these characters would be met with in the romantic heights of an amatory novel, but they could certainly have been met with on any street in London in Moll’s day.

For more on Aphra Behn, see this post: “Reading Restoration and 18th Century English Literature,” and this timeline page: Restoration and 18th Century English Literature.

Behn v. Defoe

The Fair Jilt: Heights of Passion

As I read through Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt, I think it quite likely that Defoe knew her work, since like Behn, he includes many scenes of intimate love talk between Moll and her suitors. However, the super-heated emotion and copious tears and melodrama to be found in Behn’s work are in another realm from Moll’s matter-of-fact negotiations with her many suitors as described by Defoe.

Moll cries plenty of tears, but neither she nor the reader are allowed to bathe in them, making Defoe’s book feel more real and matter-of-fact—a fiction written about similar themes and events as Behn’s, but put into a whole new mode.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

In The Fair Jilt, Miranda falls madly in love with the young priest/prince and decides to get him to marry her, or at least to go to bed with her. She visits him in his priestly role ostensibly to make her Confession but really to plead for his love, in spite of the fact he has taken priestly vows. Her first move is to confess as a penitent that she harbors a forbidden passion for someone. Hendrick tries to discern who it is:

“[M]y dear Father,’ said she, and wept, ‘I love with a violence which cannot be contained within the bounds of reason, moderation, or virtue. I love a man whom I cannot possess without a crime, and a man who cannot make me happy without becoming perjured.’ ‘Is he married?’ replied the Father. ‘No,’ answered Miranda. ‘Are you so?’ continued he. ‘Neither,’ said she. . . ‘He is unenjoyed, unpromised, and so am I. Nothing opposes our happiness or makes my love a vice, but you—’tis you deny me life. ’Tis you that forbids my flame. ’Tis you will have me die and seek my remedy in my grave, when I complain of tortures, wounds and flames. O cruel charmer, ’tis for you I languish, and here, at your feet, implore that pity which all my addresses have failed of procuring me—’ With that, perceiving that he was about to rise from his seat, she held him by his habit and vowed she would in that posture follow him wherever he flew from her.”

[Hendrick explains that, though tempted by her amazing beauty, he cannot marry her because he has taken vows, and asks what she wants him to do:]

“When she replied, ‘Do that which thy youth and beauty were ordained to do; this place is private, a sacred silence reigns here and no one dares to pry into the secrets of this holy place. We are as secure from fears of interruption as in deserts uninhabited, or caves forsaken by wild beasts. The tapers too shall veil their lights, and only that glimmering lamp shall be witness of our dear stealths of love.—Come to my arms, my trembling, longing arms, and curse the folly of thy bigotry that has made thee so long lose a blessing for which so many princes sigh in vain.’ At these words she rose from his feet and, snatching him in her arms, he could not defend himself from receiving a thousand kisses from the lovely mouth of the charming wanton. . . .”

–from Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt

And so the impassioned romance winds on.

Moll: Back Down to Earth

“Harlot”: Engraving by William Hogarth

In contrast, we see a very different tone of dialogue in Moll Flanders, much more natural and down-to-earth, though it sounds a bit stilted to modern ears. The earliest dialogue is a series of heart-warming little exchanges between Moll as a child and her “governess,” a poor woman who makes a living by taking in charity children, like a foster mother. The governess finds it sweet, though somewhat troubling, when little Moll insists that she won’t become a servant when she grows up, and that she wants to become “a gentlewoman.”

A bit later on, when Moll is in her late teens, she has been adopted into the Mayor’s family as kind of an upper maid to the sisters when she is seduced by the elder brother of the family. Here, instead of a trembling beauteous maiden imploring a young priest to make love to her, we read about something more homely: a typical family spat in common language between an older brother and the sisters he likes to annoy. The brother has designs on Moll and starts to win her attention by comparing her favorably to the sisters. In the scene, the younger brother also joins in to quibble with the sisters, as brothers often will do:

‘Oh, Mrs. Betty [the name Moll was called in this family],’ said he to me, ‘how do you do, Mrs. Betty? Don’t your cheeks burn, Mrs. Betty?’ I made a curtsy and blushed, but said nothing. ‘What makes you talk so, brother?’ says the lady. ‘Why,’ says he, ‘we have been talking of her below-stairs this half-hour.’ ‘Well,’ says his sister, ‘you can say no harm of her, that I am sure, so ’tis no matter what you have been talking about.’ ‘Nay,’ says he, ”tis so far from talking harm of her, that we have been talking a great deal of good, and a great many fine things have been said of Mrs. Betty, I assure you; and particularly, that she is the handsomest young woman in Colchester. . . . ‘ ‘I wonder at you, brother,’ says the sister. ‘Betty wants but one thing, but she had as good want everything, for the market is against our sex just now; and if a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she’s nobody . . . .’ ‘ Her younger brother, who was by, cried, ‘Hold, sister, you run too fast; I am an exception to your rule. I assure you, if I find a woman so accomplished as you talk of, I say, I assure you, I would not trouble myself about the money.’ ‘Oh,’ says the sister, ‘but you will take care not to fancy one, then, without the money.’

–from Defoe’s Moll Flanders

From these first flatteries of Moll, the elder brother goes on to entice Moll one step at a time. She describes one occasion:

[H]e briskly comes up the stairs and, seeing me at work, comes into the room to me directly, and began just as he did before, with taking me in his arms, and kissing me for almost a quarter of an hour together. It was his younger sister’s chamber that I was in, and as there was nobody in the house but the maids below-stairs, he was, it may be, the ruder; in short, he began to be in earnest with me indeed. Perhaps he found me a little too easy, for God knows I made no resistance to him while he only held me in his arms and kissed me; indeed, I was too well pleased with it to resist him much. However, as it were, tired with that kind of work, we sat down, and there he talked with me a great while; he said he was charmed with me, and that he could not rest night or day till he had told me how he was in love with me. . . . [B]y and by, taking his advantage, he threw me down upon the bed, and kissed me there most violently; but, to give him his due, offered no manner of rudeness to me, only kissed a great while. After this he thought he had heard somebody come upstairs, so got off from the bed, lifted me up, professing a great deal of love for me . . . and with that he put five guineas into my hand, and went away downstairs. I was more confounded with the money than I was before with the love, and began to be so elevated that I scarce knew the ground I stood on.

–from Defoe’s Moll Flanders

Sex and seduction indeed, just as in Behn, but instead of a beautiful high-born impassioned maiden, we have an ordinary if excessively conniving young man working on convincing an upper servant to go to bed with him. Passion is there, but also all the mundane or unsavory details that often surround such scenes in real life, such as being thrown awkwardly on a bed or having one’s head turned by a generous amount of hush money.

Welcome to Realism.

Watching Realism Develop in Moll Flanders

Even though Defoe’s tale of Moll incorporates the grainier details of reality from the beginning, heightened hysteria and melodrama has scarcely disappeared from fiction with Defoe’s work. Some examples are the scene where Moll realizes that her Virginia-planter husband’s mother is in fact her own mother, transported to America for theft after Moll’s birth in Newgate prison, or the scene where her best-loved husband, Lancashire Jemmy, tries to leave Moll but hears her tearful cries from miles away and comes back.

The Realist Investigates

Daniel Defoe, engraving.

Even before we reach the middle of Moll Flanders, we see signs of the journalist-investigator writer with the Realist’s temperament. For example, Defoe often writes Moll’s thoughts as she ponders the changing nature of social class definitions that was happening in the 18th century in Defoe’s time. For example, she speaks of her second husband as “an amphibious creature, this land-water thing called a gentleman-tradesman.” Not that many years before, it would be unheard of to speak of any person who earned a living as a “gentleman.” Defoe’s example of “gentleman-tradesman” turns out to be a bankrupt gamer, perhaps to make Defoe-the-investigator’s point about the instability of social class definitions at this time.

Indeed, all the way through Moll Flanders, Defoe moves his heroine up and down the social class ladder, from female orphan to respectable wife to incestuous wife to kept woman to thief to convict, then back up to successful American planter. And all the way through he reports, through her life, on what things are like “out there.”

In one incident, Moll is pregnant with no man to protect her. What can she or others like her, do in this situation? Defoe tells us through Moll’s experience that there was a business for that, places that unmarried pregnant women can pay to live respectably, give birth to their babies, and have them “taken off their hands” to be nursed in the country. In one odd passage in the book, Defoe even pauses the storytelling to include a detailed list of what it costs for different services to these women in need, which by the way, Moll finds quite reasonable. We can probably take this list of charges as true-to-life.

The Realist Learns to Dramatize

Through most of the first half of Moll Flanders, Defoe lets Moll describe every incident largely as simple narrative, interspersed with long-winded dialogue with few breaks other than to interpolate “says he” or “says I” to change speakers.

But half-way through the book, Moll’s life as a thief begins. These adventures seem to inspire Defoe, as he describes in more and more detail every moment of her adventures and how her quick wits enable her to escape detection and capture for many years. These incidents take on the feel of full-blown drama, the difference between “telling” and “showing” that creative writing teachers often try to explain to their students. This kind of dramatization provides verisimilitude to readers, the feel of being there, inside the story, alongside the characters, and was a new thing in literature in the 1700s.

One early example of increased dramatization is when Moll tries but fails to steal a watch from a gentlewoman while in a crowd. Defoe describes how Moll, thinking quickly, takes a step back and cries out that a thief tried to steal HER watch. He spends several words describing this scene, what people said, how they moved, and how, ironically, another thief was apprehended in the crowd, getting Moll off the hook.

Then about 70% of the way through the book, we come to a fully dramatized, 10-page scene. In this incident, Moll is (ironically) arrested by mistake for another woman’s theft in a mercer’s shop:

It happened that while I was going along the street in Covent Garden [dressed as a widow for a disguise], there was a great cry of ‘Stop thief! Stop thief!’ some artists had, it seems, put a trick upon a shopkeeper, and being pursued, some of them fled one way, and some another; and one of them was, they said, dressed up in widow’s weeds, upon which the mob gathered about me, and some said I was the person, others said no. Immediately came the mercer’s journeyman, and he swore aloud I was the person, and so seized on me. However, when I was brought back by the mob to the mercer’s shop, the master of the house said freely that I was not the woman that was in his shop, and would have let me go immediately; but another fellow said gravely, ‘Pray stay till Mr. ——’ (meaning the journeyman) ‘comes back, for he knows her.’

This scene goes on, tracking how Moll is detained at the shop to be taken before the justice of the peace. Then the real culprit is caught. The mercer decides he wants to drop it, knowing he has been wrong.  But Moll demands that the case go forward to determine what crimes he has committed for falsely detaining her. The situation builds until:

. . .[A]t length we went all very quietly before the justice, with a mob of about five hundred people at our heels; and all the way I went I could hear the people ask what was the matter, and other reply and say, a mercer had stopped a gentlewoman instead of a thief, and had afterwards taken the thief, and now the gentlewoman had taken the mercer, and was carrying him before the justice. This pleased the people strangely, and made the crowd increase, and they cried out as they went, ‘Which is the rogue? which is the mercer?’ and especially the women. Then when they saw him they cried out, ‘That’s he, that’s he’; and every now and then came a good dab of dirt at him; and thus we marched a good while, till the mercer thought fit to desire the constable to call a coach to protect himself from the rabble; so we rode the rest of the way, the constable and I, and the mercer and his man.

–from Defoe’s Moll Flanders

Compared to the breathless “and then. . . and then” storytelling style in the first half of the book, which can be seen in the early seduction scene quoted above, Defoe’s style has developed quite a bit. He now has a detailed scene with many characters that builds nicely to a climax, enfolds many related events, showcases his character’s cleverness and quick-thinking, and places readers right in the street watching the London crowd throw dirt at Moll’s hapless mistaken accuser.

The more Defoe pursued his Realist point of view, the more verisimilitude he learned to create for the reader.

B & W print of woodcut or engraving showing 18th century woman with fan. Farm workers and hanging men in background.

Moll Flanders, Defoe’s Thought Experiment

The Mad, Mad Real World of Defoe, and of All of Us

To be sure, Defoe’s work reads today as rough and raw, as indeed it probably was, given that writers were often paid by the word, not by the work. Defoe’s aims were to create output that would please the new class of readers, as fast as he could.

But in reading his works, it’s clear that making money was not his only aim as a writer. Defoe was curious about people and society. He wanted to know how things worked, how people interacted, how they managed, to make a living, to get along with others, to get out of a tight spot. He was thoughtful: in Moll Flanders, though he observes the real world, he also asks a big question about his current society: How much chance does an enterprising person really have to make good?

In Moll, he created a heroine who began as low as you could go in that society: an orphaned female born in Newgate prison, holding not even the poor status of being registered as a resident of any distinct parish that would have responsibility for her welfare. She had nothing but personal attributes: brains, beauty, wit, ambition, a friendly way with folks, and a fairly loose moral system. How could she succeed? Does she succeed? What does her fictional life show about Defoe’s answer to his own question about his REAL world? Do enterprising underdogs have a real chance?

You can read Moll Flanders to decide how he answered his own question. You can also read it to see how his Realist writing techniques developed, right within this novel.   As you do, we can also thank him for being one progenitor of the many great Realist Novels to come after him–novels that ask about, inform, and report on the state of our real world.

1M. H. Abrams. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Heinle and Heinle. 1999.

Plaque commemorating Defoe. Near Gateshead.

Photo Credits:

Defoe-Color Portrait. Unknown, style of Sir Godfrey Kneller / Public domain.

Before,” painting by William Hogarth. George Vertue / Public domain.

Knight with Sword.   Photo by  Daisa TJ  from  Pexels.

Sir Walter Scott painting. Scottish National Gallery / Public Domain.

Jane Austen.  James Andrews / Public Domain.

Scene from Gil Blas.   By Daniel Maclise / Public Domain.

Aphra Behn.   Peter Lely / Public Domain.

Harlot . William Hogarth / Public Domain.

Daniel Defoe engraving.  Public domain {{PD-US-expired}}

Moll Flanders Woodcut. Author unknown / Public Domain.

Defoe Commemorative Plaque.   Spudgun67 / CC BY-SA .


  1. Carl Parsons

    Excellent essay! While Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert deserve much credit for launching realism in France, Defoe’s earlier role in England is too often ignored, even though it is astonishing in many respects.
    Interestingly, all four authors made use of actual news or historical stories in their fiction. In a “A Journal of the Plague Year, 1665,” Defore makes extensive use of research he conducted with parish records and other local accounts to determine just how and where the plague spread.
    Also, I agree with the importance you attach to picaresque novels as precursors to realism, since they naturally present a panoramic view of time and place (i.e., “slice of life”) such as the romp of Tom Jones from Somerset to London and back again.
    Still, it is true that no one else establishes the “show, don’t tell” rule of modern literature that accompanies realism as well as Flaubert.

    • MJ Booklover

      Carl, thanks for your thoughtful response to the article! French literature is not my expertise, though I have read some of “the French greats” in translation, so it is especially interesting to hear from you that significant French realists, like Defoe, used real-world research and events in their fictions. Great realist minds evidently thought somewhat alike. I have read enough Flaubert to agree that his use of “show, don’t tell” is unique and masterful. What interests me so much about Defoe, however, is that although he was writing more that 100 years before “Madame Bovary” was published, he was working out “show/don’t tell” methods of storytelling even while he was in the midst of writing “Moll Flanders.” To me, it is fascinating to observe how by the end of the book, Defoe begins dramatizing whole scenes, quite a departure from the pure narrative storytelling method with which he began it. Thanks again for your comment.

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