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British Colonialism In Daniel Defoes 'Roxanna'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1421 words Published: 29th Jul 2021

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Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism claims that Capitalism “educates and selects the economic subjects it needs through a process of survival of the fittest” (Weber 154). Weber believes that there is a direct link between institutions and individual characters. In other words, one can say that Capitalism would not survive without economic men and also economic men could not maintain their social place without Capitalism. In the following the researcher tries to show that at least certain men and women, were swayed by the logic of Capitalism’s productive possibilities.

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Defoe was intensely interested in capitalist modes of production, efficiency and improvements and in the exploitation and expansion of new markets along imperialist lines that would favor English trading interests. Defoe was also interested in the politics of his time and in the social issues. Defoe was a mature product of the cultural process initiated by Capitalism. In other words he is a master over circumstances, over nature. He has the confidence, despite his mediocre birth, to comment on the social, political, and economic affairs of his day. In turn, Roxana was a woman, who, despite her reverses and her own mediocre birth, could entertain princes and kings.

In the beginning of this emerging capitalist interest, and with the thirst of reform, Defoe was able to synchronize in his own life Capitalism’s vision of a new social order, of commerce’s role and change. All his novels are rich in content and context.

Roxana has been called by modern critics Defoe’s darkest novel. Many critics have claimed that the greatest difference between Defoe’ last novel and his earlier works is Roxana’s greater gravity. Many critics described it as a novel whose primary concern is with the psychological nature of Roxana and Amy’s sin. Roxana has most often been appraised as a story of moral decay, in which the heroine progresses from “virtuous poverty to corrupt wealth.” Roxana has also been criticized as a woman with a cynical attachment toward those who love her and whose rational self-interest places her as the embodiment of Defoe’s vision of a corrupt society.

Roxana is a heroine who rushes toward material comfort and self transformation at the price of her soul. Roxana’s internal world of memory and guilt concerning her various sexual partners, the death of her daughter Susan at the hands of Amy, and the like, becomes the price Roxana pays for the control she assumes in external world of financial and sexual interests. In this aspect, two factors about Roxana should be emphasized: the nature of Roxana as a new economic woman caught between profit and spirituality and the issues of empire and slavery which were not only important in the fictional life of Roxana, but also in Defoe’s life.

Considering the above mentioned remarks, some examples are traceable in the novel. For instance, when Roxana discusses the dangers of marrying a foolish husband her remarks repeat one of Defoe’s favorite maxims about the nature of commerce, while also underlining the context of commerce’s international nature: “I was a Warning for all the Ladies of Europe, against marrying of Fools; a Man of Sence falls in the world, and gets-up again, and a Woman has some Chance for herself; but with a FOOL! Once fall, and ever undone; once in a Ditch, and die in the Ditch; once poor, and sure to starve” (ibid 96).

Roxana addresses her comments to the “Ladies of Europe”, and Roxana like so many of Defoe’s novels is at the center of attention internationally and all these shows that Roxana’s warning have larger international designs. Another example of this imperialist economic instruction can be found in Sir Robert Clayton’s disquisition on prudent money management. As he instructed Roxana, he talks about industry as such: “If the Gentlemen of England would but act, every family of them would increase their Fortunes to a great degree” (ibid 167).

That international commerce and empire are part of the overall fabric of Roxana is also evident in the rituals of adornment which Roxana undergoes with each of her lovers. Because the English female body and female dressing were powerful motives of 18th century’s imperialist ideology. Roxana’s Turkish dress is an example of this motif. This dress comes to the hands of Roxana from a “Malthese Man of War,” which had captured as spoils a Turkish ship and enslaved its passengers, one of which Roxana bought during her tour of Italy (ibid 173-174).This dress enables Roxana to market herself to English court culture. Roxana explains: “that Notion of the King being the Person that danc’d with me, puff’d me upto that Degree that I … was very far knowing myself” (ibid 177). Further, this dress is also, as Roxana emphasizes, a counterpart to the slave she purchases. She says: “I bought the rich clothes too…as a Curiosity, having never seen the like” (174). Here Roxana confronts the “other” in the form of a person, and the material culture of that “other”. The dress is explained as “extraordinary fine indeed… the Robe was a fine Persian, or India Damask … embroidered with Gold, and set with Pearl in the Work, and some Turquoise stones”(ibid 174).

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Both the slave and the dress are also delivered to Roxana through the agency of imperialist aggression- by the acts of a “Malthese Man of War” (ibid174). Significantly, Roxana who is without Amy on her travels throughout Italy uses her slave as a means to put the dress, with its various decorations, on her body. In other words, she learned how to cover herself in the dress of the “other” with the aid of an “other”. Literally, Roxana is using the local knowledge of the Turkish woman’s material culture in order to use that knowledge to her advantage and this is a good example of the methodology of imperialist expansion.

On the other hand, Roxana’s dress is an important metaphor for imperial expansion; another important metaphor is her purchase of a slave. Defoe, like many of his contemporaries during the early eighteenth century, was ambivalent about the issue of slavery; in other words, Defoe was no abolitionist. Defoe demonstrated his ambivalence toward the slave trade by generally giving it strong support to increase his nation’s share of the market in human chattel, and in the African trade in general.

Like Defoe, Roxana was also interested in what profits she could reap from the slave trade. She versed herself in the culture of the Turkish woman she bought from the “Malthese,” so one can assumes that Roxana did not find her slave, or her slave’s manners, repugnant or distasteful. In dressing for her second husband, Roxana even set her picture in diamonds above her heart, which was a compliment among the “Eastern peoples” (ibid 247). In fact, in learning the language of the Turkish woman, Roxana sought to know this Turkish slave and her culture in a way that was far more intimate than most Westerners at this time could have claimed or even imagined. The knowledge Roxana acquired of her Turkish slave is used to advance her socially and for a time, in London court society. Therefore, for Defoe and Roxana alike, prosperity could be found in the slave trade, and in the monies and knowledge of the world found in that trade. Like Defoe, Roxana claims that “I could give up my virtue, but not give up my money” (ibid147).

In conclusion, while Roxana is a novel with an emphasis on the psychology of sin, that psychology is informed by more than just her own guilt, and her quest for individuality. It is informed by issues that concerned her creator: trade, imperialism, and slavery. Each was used to create networks of knowledge and power over the world within sight of both Defoe and Roxana. Like any other good capitalist, they both used knowledge to further their own ends. The acquisition of this knowledge was, in turn, directed toward populations of others- Africans, Arabs, Native Americans, etc. – who could most readily serve their interests. For Defoe it was in form of improving Britain’s economy and social structure and for Roxana in the form of improving one’s social status. Therefore, Roxana, as a creation of Defoe, mirrored Defoe’s life as a capitalist. Yet she mirrored it as a seeker of personal aggrandizement than as a person committed to seeing Britain flourish. In conclusion, this may ultimately explain Roxana’s fall.


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