Credibility and Realism in Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders and Aphra Behn's Oroonoko

Anne-Kathrin Rochwalsky

Note: This is the text of a final paper one of my students in Freiburg did for the course "The Beginnings of the English Novel" at the University of Freiburg in 1997. I would like to thank her here for going to the extra trouble of rewriting her paper for this page.

1 Introduction

In the Dictionary of Literary Terms, Harry Shaw states, "In effective narrative literature, fictional persons, through characterization, become so credible that they exist for the reader as real people." (1) Looking at Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (2) and Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (3) the reader will find it difficult to make this definition conform to Moll and Behn's narrator. This doesn't mean that Defoe's and Behn's work is 'ineffective', but there is indeed a difficulty: it is the claim of truth. Defoe in his preface states, "The Author is here suppos'd to be writing her own History." (Moll Flanders, p. 1) and Behn claims, "I was myself an eye-witness to a great part, of what you will find here set down, and what I could not be witness of, I received from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself, (...)" (Oroonoko, 75)

Although both authors claim their stories are true, and thereby that their characters are realistic, there seems to be a gap between the authors' claims and the "reality" of the characterization. This question is closely connected to the fact that both novels belong to the earliest English novels. There was no fixed tradition that the authors worked in; instead the novel was in the process of being established. The question arises whether the two works lack a certain roundness in their narrators.

The main characteristic of the new literary form of the novel according to Ian Watt is "truth to individual experience" (4) and its new shape is created by a focus on the individual character. He is presented in a specific definition of time and space. The second section of this paper will show how far this is realized in both of the novels. In the third section I want to analyze the characters' individualism in connection with the claim to truth and their complexity in description.

2 Realism

Watt argues that the characters in a novel owe their individuality to the realistic presentation. "Realism" is expressed by a rejection of traditional plots, by particularity, emphasis on the personality of the character, a consciousness of duration of time and space and its expression in style.

2.1 Rejection of traditional plots

Watt states that, "Previous literary forms had reflected the general tendency of their cultures to make conformity to traditional practice the major test of truth: .... This literary tradition was first and most fully challenged by the novel ..."(5).

Aphra Behn's work especially is part of this development. The best example is the story's outline. In her novel there is both a rejection and an acceptance of traditional plots: the Surinam episodes are far from established plots. The story is innovative, for example, inasmuch as the hero is black and enslaved. Behn actually was among the first to contribute to the image of the 'noble savage' in literature, seventy years before Rousseau did. It is now commonly accepted that Behn probably experienced this part of the plot herself. The first part which takes place in Africa, on the other hand, is very traditional: it follows patterns of the typical oriental tale like "Arabian Nights" or narratives in the romance tradition narration (6).

Moll Flanders is indebted to the tradition of the picaresque. But while the rogue biographies have a "contrived air" Moll is "closer to authentic biography than to the semi-fictional rogue biography." (7) Watt states that it is the fact that Moll's life is ordinary and her story is presented in episodes which make it life-like. Thus, the rejection of traditional plots is in both novels expressed by the choice of biography as the method of presenting the story, because the aim is to attract the reader's attention with stories as authentic as possible.

2.2 Particularity

The second element Watt speaks of is particularity, which is most obvious in the presentation of character and background.

It is difficult to decide whether the narrator in Oroonoko is particular or rather a universal type. She is only a minor character in contrast to Moll. Oroonoko, however, is particular: he is described minutely and doesn't fit into any stereotype. He is a prince and in the style of a romance finds his great love, but at the same time he is a black slave. In the description of the background as well we find an immense love for detail. Yet the narrator's character doesn't seem developed. She observes and tells the story to her audience, as Behn probably did before, but we know little about her appearance or why she is in Surinam, or her family, her occupation, or her life in the colony. We know that she is in some ways Oroonoko's mentor and teacher because she is quite well-educated. Her father should have become lieutenant general in Surinam, but died at sea, and she pretends to play an important role in the politics of the colony, but there is no evidence for it. On the contrary, she withdraws whenever she should make use of this circumstance. However, we learn more about her by Behn's conscious identification with her narrator. Reading between the lines, the picture of an independent woman arises (8).

The aspect of particularity in Moll Flanders is often discussed in literary criticism. Moll is quite one-sided because all her concerns in life are of an economic nature. Critics go so far to speak of her having an "economic psychology" (9). Her character is revealed by her actions and thoughts but we know few details of her marriages, nor does she express any emotions without mentioning economic matters in the same sentence. She is completely devoted to material comfort. This is the reason why Dorothy Van Ghent, for instance, argues that Moll is not an example of true realism, although she admits that looking at the whole novel there is a realistic representation of the background (10).

Both narrators are conscious about their individuality because they feel unique in their environment. For example neither of them identifies with wicked people of their own class, a circumsatnce which is expressed in the skilful use of personal pronouns: "(...) 'tis fit I tell you the manner of bringing them to these new colonies; for those they make use of there, are not natives of the place, for those we live in perfect amity, without daring to command them;" (Oroonoko, 75) and Moll Flanders speaks of other pickpockets as "they," she doesn't include herself: "Namely, that tho' I often robb'd with these People, yet I never let them know who I was ..." (221). The personality of a character also expresses itself in the name. Watt claims that the innovation of giving characters individual and ordinary names instead of universal ones gives identity to the person. Former prose fiction had preferred 'unrealistic' names like type names, historical names or names connotating something (11).

Defoe's protagonist Moll Flanders has a very ordinary and realistic name while the narrator in Behn's Oroonoko actually doesn't have any name. Behn identifies with her. As a result we can see that both of the characters show certain inconsistencies in their realistic particularity because they don't seem to be fully presented. On the other hand, neither of them is stereotyped, both obviously specific characters who act unpredictably and individually.

2.3 Time

The element of temporal development is another novelty Watt analyzes. Time influences a character as far as "past experience" is the "cause of present actions" (12). Personal development, thoughts and changes are dependent on the flow of time. In earlier prose fiction in the Middle Ages, timelessness and "a-historical" aspects like death and eternity supported the universality of a work, while the novel shows that the "time process" has "effects upon characterization" (13).

Watt points out that especially Defoe's characters gain individuality in view of the "historical process" and "against the background of the most ephemeral thoughts and actions," (14). Looking at Moll Flanders we can see that time is an important factor. It is a biography which begins with the protagonist's birth. The whole story is told by an old Moll looking back on her life. There is an inconsistency between the young and the old Moll, however, as she doesn't seem to be aware of any difference in her memories and thoughts between the past and the present. She doesn't realize her development. Furthermore, she doesn't seem to grow older physically and she forgets many parts of her life. Ira Konigsberg rates this as a withdrawal from consciousness of time whereas Watt argues that this is an unattentiveness towards formal elements which results from Defoe's emphasis on moral purpose (15). Despite this, Moll is deeply rooted in the time process and although there is little development in her character, she is nevertheless influenced by her former experiences: "I had been trick'd once by that Cheat call'd Love, but the Game was over; I was resolv'd now to be Married, or Nothing at all." (Moll Flanders, p.60).

Time contributes to Oroonoko in as far as it reflects a part of British history. The Surinam epidoses read more like a romantic travel story than a novel. As it is commonly believed that Aphra Behn went to Surinam it is quite possible that her readership read it like a travel journal. But, nevertheless, the narrator doesn't respond to time as there is no development in her throughout the story. She promises to support Oroonoko and claims to have authority in the beginning of the novel which later she will not give or have. Similar to Moll, she isn't capable of applying her past thoughts.

Looking at the time process in both works there are inconsistencies. They are obviously in a transitional state but there is a clear difference from the universality of a work by Shakespeare, Milton or Chaucer and these two early novels.

2.4 Space

The reader will notice a specific awareness of space in both novels. This finds its expression in description. Moll's world in particular is precisely revealed. Moll is caught in the self-defined space of a lower middle-class environment full of craving for material wealth and comfort. In her report she makes this world 'visible' to the reader.

Behn's narrator is conscious of space in a different way. As her work (especially the part taking place in Surinam) is in many ways a travel story, there is a lot of description of the colony and its inhabitants and a lively illustration of customs and scenery. Thus, although both narrators lack a certain concern for their surroundings they are aware of it.

2.5 Language and style

The last characteristic of realism in the novel Watt defines as "the realist point of view in language and prose structure"(16). Language in realistic literature should show accuracy and authenticity. Therefore, the novel can do away with formality and rhetorical figures. Defoe was a journalist with an immense output of written work. Moll Flanders mirrors this, as it is written in a journalistic, observing and, in some ways, bare style. There are no literary devices, no flourish and no poetic images, so that the reader finds a certain "immediacy and closeness of the text" (17).

Behn's style is very functional as well. Her narrator tells what she sees and what has been reported to her. Aphra Behn is said to have narrated her story orally many times and this is the impression the reader gets in her work, as she often addresses her "audience," for example: "But before I give you the story of this gallant slave, 'tis fit I tell you the manner of bringing them to these new colonies; ..." (p. 75). She also does not use rhetorical devices but writes in plain language. In both books there is an immediacy between the reader and the narrator and a kind of transparency in their report. This forms a clear difference to their predecessors.

3 The Narrators' Individualism

3.1 The claim of truth

As stated above, the characters' presentation by Defoe and Behn is problematic. It is possible that both authors were aware of the difficulty of creating a credible character and therefore claimed "truth" before starting the story. Angeline Goreau points out that Aphra Behn's "claim to veracity had its roots in a desire to establish the story as part of her own experience rather than in a self-conscious literary device" (18). Behn also wanted to "make his (Oroonoko's) glorious name to survive to all ages" (Oroonoko, p.141). Yet her claims to truth might have been a protection against male prejudices concerning women's writing too,(19) with Behn trying to verify her characters by identification with the narrator. Thus, Behn's narrator owes her realistic presentation to both literary circumstances and Behn's ingenuity.

In Moll Flanders there is no difficulty in the presentation. We can accept the claim of truth as a literary device, intended to support her roundness and contribute to the book's attractiveness, even knowing that Moll never really existed (20). It doesn't add to her realism.

3.2 Complexity

The narrator figure in Oroonoko probably is in many ways a fictionalized Behn. Therefore, she becomes very vivid, because the reader assumes a connection. The debate about Aphra Behn having been to Surinam and Oroonoko being a real travel account shows how authentic her narrator is: otherwise, her claim to truth would have been seen as a literary device similar to Defoe's. Another element supporting her individualism is her view of the world. Behn uses her narrator to voice protest. Although she has an unclear standpoint on slavery, her indictments of bureaucracy, politics and male dominance over women is strong. Some critics even saw in the novel an allegory of English politics and compare Oroonoko to Charles I, or speculate about a private revenge on Behn's enemies such as Lord Byam.(21) This all makes her narrator life-like because these are personal and individual features.(22) But as it is fairly difficult to differentiate between the narrator and Behn, the reader can only get a complete picture of the narrator by looking at Behn's life.

Moll Flanders seems to lack this complexity. Ian Watt says it is not possible to analyze Moll because her merely economic motivation makes it "superfluous," and Defoe focussed on realistic action rather than on Moll's personality (23). Furthermore, it is quite difficult to recognize any emotions in her relationships to other people. We don't get a full picture of her because we only see her through Defoe's eyes. This leads to another conclusion: the relationship between Moll and Defoe himself. Watt maintains that both are similar because "the facts show that she is a woman and a criminal, for example; but neither of these roles determines her personality as Defoe has drawn it." (24) Moll has less feminine or criminal than masculine and middle-class-citizen traits and hence is to be identified with Defoe.

Many inconsistencies might have their origins in Defoe's journalistic and rapid way of writing. Thus he might just have forgotten, for instance, to mention what becomes of her children. Except for one, none of them appears again. Her age is inconsistent; according to the length of her marriages she must have been much older than she says. Another inconsistency is that Moll doesn't show any moral compunction, although both she and the "editor" often speak of the didactic purpose of keeping the readership from imitating Moll's mistakes. But Moll doesn't show honest repentance, which makes her unreliable. As G.A. Starr puts it, "We are drawn into the quest of a heroine who in some degrees escapes the bounds of everyday moral, social and psychological law." (Moll Flanders, p. VIII)

4 Conclusion

Aphra Behn's Oroonoko was written in 1688 and Moll Flanders in 1722. Literary theory regards Moll Flanders as the first English novel rather than Behn's work (25). Certainly, Oroonoko is an imperfect example of the novel. Yet we have to bear in mind that Oroonoko was written at a time when the narrative technique and the feature of the fictionalized author were undeveloped. Looking at Oroonoko and the definition of the novel, we can see that it fulfills many criteria of this form. Particularly her narrator-figure reflects the new genre, although there are inconsistencies in her presentation. Not only is Oroonoko a first-person narrative but the narrator is a woman and self-conscious and life-like, too. She has moral qualities and a clear motivation, as she wants to give eternal fame to Oroonoko. The time and place are the appropriate framework for this aim, and she even criticizes current society. All these qualities support the realism and novelty of Oroonoko and its narrator.

There is an ongoing discussion whether Moll Flanders is credible or not. The question of Moll's roundness is not easy to answer. Similar to Oroonoko, it fulfills many criteria of realism in the novel. Moll's self-realization is further developed as she is more of an individual character than Behn's narrator, who is an imperfect fictionalized author. It is rather the insufficiency of formal or moral patterns which lessen her credibility.

Both authors have in common that they claim the truth of their narratives and both narrators have weak points in credibility. Yet the first-person narrative is susceptible to imperfection because it is a new creation. Fielding and Richardson will be more skillful in the presentation of their narrators but they owe their dexterity to the innovations of Behn and Defoe.


1 Harry Shaw, Dictionary of Literary Terms, New York, St. Louis, San Francisco, et al.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972: 47.

2 Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, Oxford, New York, Athens, et al.: Oxford U.P. 1971.

3 Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, The Rover And Other Works, London, New York, Victoria, et al.: Penguin Books, 1992. Page numbers from this edition and the above will henceforth be given in the text.

4 Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, London: Chatto & Windus, 1974: 13.

5 Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: 13.

6 About Oroonoko's place in the history of the novel see Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel. 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen, London and New York: Pandora, 1986, esp.: 60-64.

7 Watt: 107.

8 For details about Behn's life in Surinam and Oroonoko see: Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra. A Social Biography of Aphra Behn, Oxford, London, Glasgow, et al.: Oxford U.P., 1980: 41-69.

9 Ira Konigsberg, Narrative Technique in the English Novel. Defoe to Austen, Conneticut: Archon Book, 1985: 30.

10 Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel. Form and Function, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, et al.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953: 33-35.

11 Watt: 18-21.

12 Watt: 22.

13 Watt: 22.

14 Watt: 24.

15 Ira Konigsberg, Narrative Technique in the English Novel. Defoe to Austen: 35, and Watt: 116-118.

16 Watt: 30.

17 Watt: 29.

18 Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra. A Social Biography of Aphra Behn: 281.

19 For details see Ros Ballaster, "Pretences of State. Aphra Behn and the Female Plot", Rereading Aphra Behn. History, Theory, and Criticism, ed. Heidi Hutner, Charlotteville and London: U. of Virginia, 1993: 202-208.

20 See Konigsberg: 18-21.

21 For details see Moira Ferguson, Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670- 1834, London: Routledge, 1992: 27-49.

22 For further research on the realistic description of the narrator, her work and her importance see William C. Spengemann, "The Earliest American Novel: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko", Nineteenth Century Fiction 38 (1983-1984): 384-414.

23 Watt: 108/109.

24 Watt: 113.

25 For more details about Behn's reception see Ruth Nestvold, (12. 4. 1996) Die Unmöglichkeit der weiblichen Autorschaft. Das Beispiel Aphra Behn (1640 - 1689), The Aphra Behn Page [On-line] 28. May (1997).

5 Bibliography

5. 1 Primary Sources

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, The Rover And Other Works. London, New York, Victoria, et al.: Penguin Books, 1992.

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Oxford, New York, Athens, et al.: Oxford U.:, 1971.

5. 2 Secondary Sources

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 6th ed., 1993.

Adams, Percy G. Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1983.

Ferguson, Moira. Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834. London: Routledge, 1992.

Van Ghent, Dorothy. The English Novel. Form and Function. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, et al.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953.

Goreau, Angeline. Reconstructing Aphra. A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. Oxford, London, Glasgow, et al.: Oxford U.P., 1980.

Hutner, Heidi, ed. Rereading Aphra Behn. History, Theory, and Criticism. Charlotteville and London: U.P.of Virginia, 1993.

Kelly, Edward, ed. Moll Flanders. Daniel Defoe. An Authoritative Text. Background and Sources. Criticism. New York and London: Norton & Company, 1973.

Konigsberg, Ira. Narrative Technique in the English Novel. Defoe to Austen. Conneticut: Archon Book, 1985.

Nestvold, Ruth. (16. 4. 1996) Die Unmöglichkeit der weiblichen Autorschaft. Das Beispiel Aphra Behn (1640 - 1689). The Aphra Behn Page [On-line] May 28 (1997).

Novak, Maximilian E. Realism, Myth and History in Defoe's Fiction. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Spender, Dale. Mothers of the Novel. 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen. London and New York: Pandora, 1986.

Spengemann, William. "The Earliest American Novel: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko." Nineteenth Century Fiction 38 (1983-1984), 384-414.

Shaw, Harry. Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York, St. Louis, San Francisco, et al.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: Chatto & Windus, 1974.

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