Defoe and the English Novel

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Topics: Emotion, Narrative, Style
Crudely Human

Defoe’s book Moll Flanders offers an interesting glimpse into the ancestry of the works that we call novels today. While much of the work holds characteristics that today’s reader would recognize as those of a novel, there are also many moments where Defoe’s technique is obviously outdated. A timeless quality to Defoe’s novel, however, is the way in which he constructs realistic characters through informal structure, a lowered register, and an organization of ideas that creates a distinctly human voice.
When Moll Flanders is sent to Newgate prison, Defoe is extremely detailed on the setting and on Moll’s reaction. The only thing more noticeable than the sheer amount of detail in Moll’s account, is the length in which it is conveyed in. Moll recognizes Newgate as “... the place, where so many of my comrades had been lock’d up, and from whence they went to the fatal tree; the place where my mother suffered so deeply, where I was brought into the world, and from whence I expected no redemption, but by an infamous death...” (Defoe, pg. 275) and the description continues! This long description strings together ideas and contains little to separate them, making them flow together and begin to feel overwhelming. The paragraph that follows this quote is a continued description of Newgate that is nine lines long and only contains one period. The absence of this crucial piece of punctuation leaves these descriptions feeling as though there is no room to breathe within them while also making them appear rather endless. This technique is crude, but effective. It not only explicitly tells the reader what Moll is thinking, but also causes them to feel a part of what she must be feeling: overwhelmed with no time to breathe in her panic.
What makes Defoe’s mode of description seem antiquated and perhaps even what today’s audience would consider grammatically incorrect actually serves a useful purpose in this context. Beyond causing the reader to feel

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