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Daniel Defoe

Many of us enjoy a good novel—fantasy, science fiction, or maybe even a mystery. But where did novels get their start? While it isn't possible to completely credit one person with writing the first novel, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) certainly made an impact on English literature. He broke out of the mold in his inventive style of storytelling, and because of this, he is often credited as being one of English literature's first novelists. 

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Many of us enjoy a good novel—fantasy, science fiction, or maybe even a mystery. But where did novels get their start? While it isn't possible to completely credit one person with writing the first novel, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) certainly made an impact on English literature. He broke out of the mold in his inventive style of storytelling, and because of this, he is often credited as being one of English literature's first novelists.

Daniel Defoe: Biography and Facts

Let's take a closer look at Daniel Defoe's life.

Defoe was actually born Daniel Foe and later added the "De." It is thought that he did this to make his name sound fancier and to make it seem that he had connections to wealthy and aristocratic families.

Daniel Defoe: Early Life

Daniel Defoe was born in London, most likely in the year 1660. As a young child, he experienced some highly unusual historical events. In 1665, the bubonic plague killed nearly 25% of London's population in the Great Plague of London. The following year brought the Great Fire of London, which ravaged much of the city but left Defoe's house standing.

Despite these events, Daniel Defoe received a good education; he attended a boarding school in Surrey and then an academy in Newington Green. Defoe's parents were dissenters—they did not follow the Church of England. This influenced Defoe's upbringing and later his career.

English Dissenters disagreed with the Church of England and separated from it in the 17th and 18th centuries, forming new Protestant churches. Many branches of Christianity can trace their history back to dissenters, including today's Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers. In addition to new churches, English Dissenters created their own schools and sometimes even entire communities.

Daniel Defoe wrote many works related to his religious views as well as his political views, which were influenced by his religion. Defoe frequently wrote in support of freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

Daniel Defoe: Career

Daniel Defoe became a businessman; however, he was always in debt. Even so, he married Mary Tuffley in 1684 and over the years the couple would have eight children—six of which survived to become adults. Unable to shake his mounting debt, Daniel Defoe went to debtor's prison and then declared bankruptcy in 1692.

Daniel Defoe began writing political and religious pamphlets as well as poetry. Thanks to being raised in a dissenting family, he devoted a lot of his time to writing about religious freedom among other social issues. Defoe published two political pamphlets, An Enquiry into Occasional Conformity (1698) and Shortest Way With the Dissenters (1703), that landed him in prison for six months for seditious libel in 1703.

Seditious libel: the crime of printing a statement that is both harmful to the entity it is about and false.

Daniel Defoe was also put in a pillory (a structure similar to the one pictured below that was used to hold a criminal) for libel.

Daniel Defoe, Pillory, StudySmarterDaniel Defoe was pilloried three times for seditious libelPixabay

Daniel Defoe managed to recover his writing career after his stint in prison. He started his own newspaper, The Review, in 1704; his political writings for this periodical led him to become involved in political work both with France and then Scotland until about 1712. After this, an aging Defoe began to write something a bit different—novels. He published seven novels between 1719 and 1724, including Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), and Roxana (1724).

Daniel Defoe: Decline and Death

In his final years, Defoe was restless. He returned to writing on political topics, but also moved between multiple residences and was likely trying to avoid debtor's prison. Daniel Defoe died on April 24, 1731, likely having suffered a stroke, and was buried in Bunhill Fields.

Daniel Defoe: Books and Characters

Daniel Defoe wrote some of the first books in English literature to be about wholly original characters and stories rather than retellings of old legends or historical events.

Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked on a deserted island, StudySmarterRobinson Crusoe is shipwrecked on a deserted island in Defoe's adventure novelPixabay

Considered by some to be one of the first novels in English literature, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe tells the tale of the main character Robinson Crusoe who, shipwrecked on a deserted island, must find a way to survive for 28 years. Crusoe not only accomplishes this but manages to flourish in his new circumstances. The book explores not only the physical demands of surviving alone in a wild landscape but also delves into the psychology of isolation and despair.

Moll Flanders (1722)

Moll Flanders is a novel written by Daniel Defoe to look like the autobiography of the main character, Moll Flanders. The book follows Moll from birth, relating her determination to take control of her life and manage to survive. To do so she must act as a con artist and thief through many relationships and marriages before finding peaceful stability in old age.

A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Daniel Defoe, image of the bubonic plague, StudySmarterNearly a quarter of London's population died in 1665 from the bubonic plaguePixabay

A Journal of the Plague Year is written as a first-hand account of the Great Plague of London that Daniel Defoe survived at age five in 1665. It is believed that Defoe based the book on his uncle Henry Foe's journal; he even published the book under his uncle's initials, H. F. and the first-person narrator of the book is H. F. as well. The book's accuracy has long been a subject of debate, and at various times it has been considered nonfiction, fiction, and well-researched historical fiction.

Daniel Defoe: Other Works

In addition to his novels, Defoe is believed to have written several hundred works of nonfiction, poetry, and pamphlets. Most of these were political, expressing his dissenting views, and many used satire. Some of the more prominent titles are mentioned below.

Nonfiction

The Storm (1704)

Considered by some to be one of the first in-depth works of journalism, The Storm reports on the Great Storm of 1703—a devastating hurricane that hit Britain in November 1703.

Other works of nonfiction by Defoe include Memoirs of the Church of Scotland (1717), The Political History of the Devil (1726), and A Plan of the English Commerce (1728).

Poetry

Daniel Defoe also wrote some poetry, including satirical political poems such as 'The Pacificator' (1700) and 'The True-Born Englishman' (1701) as well as the collection 'Poems on Affairs of State' (1703) and the previously mentioned 'Hymn to the Pillory' (1703).

Pamphlets

Some of Daniel Defoe's pamphlets include An Enquiry into Occasional Conformity (1698) and Shortest Way With the Dissenters (1703), which led to his arrest for libel, as well as The Great Law of Subordination Consider'd (1704), Every-body's Business, Is No-body's Business (1725), The Protestant Monastery (1726), Parochial Tyranny (1727), Augusta Triumphans (1728), and Second Thoughts are Best (1729).

Daniel Defoe: Quotes

Below are quotes from some of Daniel Defoe's famous novels.

Thus, fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself, when apparent to the eyes; and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about. (Robinson Crusoe, ch 11)

After a night of anxious nightmares and difficulty sleeping due to his mounting fears, Robinson Crusoe states in this quote that fear is often worse than the danger that we are afraid of. In the light of day, the things that Crusoe was so anxious about do not seem as terrible as they were in his head.

…we resolve to spend the Remainder of our Years in sincere Penitence, for the wicked Lives we have lived. (Moll Flanders, ch 30)

This quote comes from the ending of Moll Flanders, after Moll has been through many years of theft and conning men and has been in many relationships and marriages. Moll is now finally able to live a peaceful life no longer committing crimes. In the quote, Moll expresses her understanding that her life has been full of misdeeds and her desire to be better now.

A dreadful plague in London was/In the year sixty-five/Which swept an hundred thousand souls/ Away; yet I alive! (A Journal of the Plague Year)

This verse is the final sentence of Daniel Defoe's novel A Journal of the Plague Year. This quote highlights the terrible danger of the plague, numbering the lives lost at 100,000 in a single year. It also indicates the speaker's surprise at his own survival.

Daniel Defoe - Key Takeaways

  • Daniel Defoe was born in London in 1660.
  • Defoe is credited as being one of the first novelists in English literature.
  • Daniel Defoe's most famous work is the novel Robinson Crusoe (1719).
  • Defoe died of a stroke in London on April 24, 1731.

1Daniel Defoe, British Library.

2Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719.

3Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, 1722

4Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722

Frequently Asked Questions about Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe was an English writer and is most famous for the novel Robinson Crusoe (1719).

It is thought that Daniel Defoe was born in 1660, though we cannot be sure.

Daniel Defoe wrote numerous pamphlets, poems, and novels. He is best-known for the novel Robinson Crusoe (1719). 

Daniel Defoe lived in London, England.

Daniel Defoe was born in London, England.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What book by Daniel Defoe is considered by some to be one of the first novels in English literature?

Which of the following are events that Daniel Defoe experienced in his childhood?

True or false: Daniel Defoe went into business, but was often in debt and at one point declared bankruptcy.

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