Defoe's Roxana and the Discourse of Marriage

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Roxana: The Unfortunate Mistress
and the Discourse of Marriage

“...I thought a woman was a free agent, as well as a man, and was born free, and cou’d she manage herself suitably, might enjoy that liberty to as much otherwise as the men do; that the laws of matrimony were indeed, otherwise, and mankind at this time, acted quite upon other principles; and those such, that a woman gave herslef entirely away from herself, in marriage, and capitulated only to be, at best, but an upper-servant, and from the time she took the man, she was no better or worse than the servant among the Israelities who had his ears bor’d, that is, nail’d to the door-post...” (p. 187).

In a patriarchal age when it was a husband's role as governor of his family and household, one woman refuses to except the role given to her by society. In Daniel Defoe’s novel Roxana, Roxana finds herself in the same unhappy and inevitable situation as most women of her time. Continually instructed that their spiritual and social worth resided above all else in their practice of and reputation for chastity, unmarried virgins and wives were to maintain silence in the public sphere and to give unquestionable obedience to both their father and their husband. It was her responsibility to cook, clean, and administer medicine to her family. However, though not was free-willed as their men, widows were granted many more freedoms than those of wives and virgins. They were allowed more control of making their own decisions and managing their affairs, than married women, whose husbands were allowed sole control of their estate.

Throughout the story of Roxana, the union of marriage is continuously coming into play. Though courted by many, Roxana continues to avoid the act of marriage and the wifely role, which she habitually equates to servitude, slavery and imprisonment. She justifies her aversion to marriage on the basis of her unhappy and misfortunate union with her first husband, the brewer. Born to a fairly wealthy family, Roxana, as she is later called, is given a dowry of £2,000 and married off to a brewer at the age of fifteen. With her first husband she lives a moderate, comfortable lifestyle, yet she is still unhappy. She finds him to be a handsome, jolly man with very little intelligence. Roxana herself advises other young women not to marry a fool if she would like to live a happy comfortable life with her husband. Due to the mismanagement of the estate left to her by her deceased father by her brother, Roxana is left with only her husband’s estate to support the family. However, her husband’s lack of business and money management skills slowly leads to the loss of almost all of his assets as well. Having gone bankrupt, the brewer abandons his wife and five children without warning or way to support themselves. Having no means to support her children, and having sold all items of value, Roxana leaves her children in the care of her husband’s relatives and, aided by her faithful servant Amy, becomes the mistress of her landlord, who is also a wealthy jewel merchant.

The merchant soon shows an interest in the comfort and well being of Roxana. He adorns her with many gifts and a home to lodge without charge. Soon the two grow every close. One night, after dinner, Roxana begs the merchant to stay the night and lye with her. The merchant then suggests that they marry, even though English law does not permit remarriage. He then draws up a contract of marriage, as if Roxana were a merchant as well, selling goods, that would informally bind them. Roxana is initially hesitant of the idea, seeing it as adultery; however, the fear of the horrible poverty that had plagued her only a few years before was more powerful than that of any devine punishment. Defending himself, the merchant states that he “wish'd there had been a Law made, to empower a Woman to marry, if her Husband was not heard of in so long a time”. Though she cannot bring herself...
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