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
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.