Daniel Defoe

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Defoe or De Foe, Daniel

(dĭfō`), 1660?–1731, English writer, b. London.

Early Life and Works

The son of a London butcher, and educated at a Dissenters' academy, he was typical of the new kind of man reaching prominence in England in the 18th cent.—self-reliant, industrious, possessing a strong notion of personal and moral responsibility. Although intended for the Presbyterian ministry, he had by 1683 set himself up as a merchant dealing in many different commodities. In spite of his own considerable savings and his wife's dowry, Defoe went bankrupt in 1692. Although he paid his creditors, he was never entirely free from debt again.

Defoe's first important publication was An Essay upon Projects (1698), but it was not until the poem The True-born Englishman (1701), a defense of William III from his attackers, that he received any real fame. An ill-timed satire early in Queen Anne's reign, The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702), an ironic defense of High Church animosity against nonconformists, resulted in Defoe's being imprisoned. He was rescued by Robert Harley and subsequently served the statesman as a political agent.

Defoe has been called the father of modern journalism; during his lifetime he was associated with 26 periodicals. From 1704 to 1713 he published and wrote a Review, a miscellaneous journal concerned with the affairs of Europe; this was an incredibly ambitious undertaking for one man.

Defoe the Novelist

He was nearly sixty when he turned to writing novels. In 1719 he published his famous Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, followed by two less engrossing sequels. Based in part on the experiences of Alexander SelkirkSelkirk, Alexander
, 1676–1721, Scottish sailor whose adventures suggested to Daniel Defoe the story of Robinson Crusoe (1719). In 1704, as a sailing master, Selkirk quarreled with the captain of his ship in the Juan Fernández islands and asked to be put
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, Robinson Crusoe describes the daily life of a man marooned on a desert island. Although there are exciting episodes in the novel—Crusoe rescuing his man Friday from cannibals—its main interest derives from the way in which Crusoe overcomes the extraordinary difficulties of life on the island while preserving his human integrity. Robinson Crusoe is considered by some critics to be the first true novel in English.

Defoe's great novels were not published under his name but as authentic memoirs, with the intention of gulling his readers into thinking his fictions true. Two excellent examples of his semihistorical recreations are the picaresque adventure Moll Flanders (1722), the story of a London prostitute and thief, and an account of the 1665 great plague in London entitled A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

Defoe's writing is always straightforward and vivid, with an astonishing concern for circumstantial detail. His other major works include Captain Singleton (1720), Colonel Jack (1722), Roxana (1724), and A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–27). In 1724 A General History of the Pyrates by a Captain Charles Johnson was published; it was not until 200 years later that Defoe was discovered to be the true author of the work (see edition by Manuel Schonhorn, 1972).


See Defoe's letters, ed. by G. H. Healey (1955); biographies by J. R. Sutherland (2d ed. 1950), J. R. Moore (1958), and J. Richetti (1987); studies by G. H. Starr (1965 and 1971), J. R. Sutherland (1971), P. Rogers, ed. (1972), L. A. Curtis (1984), and P. R. Backscheider (1986).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Defoe, Daniel


Born c. 1660 in Cripplegate; died Apr. 26, 1731, in Moorfields. English writer and publicist.

Defoe graduated from a Dissenters’ Academy. He took part in the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against James II and supported the coup d’etat of 1688-89 (the so-called Glorious Revolution). He began his literary work with An Essay Upon Projects (1697), which proposed certain economic and social reforms. He was the author of pamphlets in defense of civil rights and freedom of the press and of religion; he wrote the satire in verse The True-Born Englishman (1701), which was directed against the aristocrats who discredited William III of Orange for “not being English.” For his pamphlet in defense of religious tolerance, The Shortest Way With Dissenters (1702), he was sentenced to stand in the pillory and was sent to prison. A child of his age, Defoe was not averse to entrepreneurial activity and in the last years of his life was forced to hide from his creditors.

Defoe’s story “Jonathan Wild” (1725) was one of the sources for one of H. Fielding’s satirical novels. Many of Defoe’s novels belong to the adventure genre, such as Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), Captain Singleton (1720), and The History of Colonel Jack (1722). Outstanding among these is Moll Flanders (1722; Russian translation, 1896), about a poor young woman driven by social conditions down the road of prostitution and thievery. An especially outstanding work in this genre isRobinson Crusoe (1719; Russian translation, 1762-64), about an English merchant shipwrecked upon an uninhabited island and how he produces everything necessary to sustain life by his own labor. Some bourgeois economists of the 18th and 19th centuries tried to use the example of Robinson to show that material production originally had an individual character. In criticizing the idea of the “robinsonade,” Marx showed that production has a social character at all stages of development (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 12, p. 709). Imbued with enthusiastic industriousness and optimism, Defoe’s novel was highly regarded by J.-J. Rousseau and L. N. Tolstoy and retains its educational value to this day.


Novels and Selected Writings, vols. 1-14. Oxford [1927-28].
In Russian translation:
Moll’ Flenders. Moscow, 1965.
Robinzon Kruzo. Moscow-Leningrad, 1959.


Anikst, A. D. Defo. Moscow, 1957.
Nersesova, M. D. Defo. Moscow, 1960.
Istoriia angliiskoi literatury, vol. 1, issue 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1945.
Mirimskii, I. “Realizm Defo.” In Realizm XVIII v. na Zapade. Moscow, 1936.
Novak, M. E. Defoe and the Nature of Man. London, 1963.
Starr, G. A. Defoe: Spiritual Autobiography. Princeton, N. J., 1965.
Shinagel, M. Daniel Defoe and Middle-class Gentility. Cambridge, Mass., 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.