In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Daniel Defoe

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Introductory Works
  • Biographical Studies
  • Bibliographical Studies
  • Correspondence

British and Irish Literature Daniel Defoe
Andreas Mueller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0124


Since the 1950s, not least due to the appearance of Ian Watt’s seminal study The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (1957), Daniel Defoe has occupied a central position in the history of the English novel, and he has subsequently risen to the status of one of the most important canonical authors of the 18th century. Defoe’s literary importance derives largely from his contribution to the emergence of “formal realism,” to use Watt’s phrase, in novelistic narratives of the period. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) initiated one of the best-known Western myths, the civilization-building castaway on a desert island, and it has been suggested that is rivalled only by the Bible in terms of the number of translations and republications. Moreover, due to the thematic and generic heterogeneity of his writings and his close proximity, for a time, to high politics, Defoe’s works continue to attract the attention of scholars from a variety of disciplines—literature, history, sociology, economics, etc.—and he remains a figure who is frequently positioned as the epitome of the zeitgeist of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. While modern scholarship generally continues predominantly to regard Defoe as a groundbreaking author of (proto-)novels, his oeuvre is, in fact, characterized by a remarkable generic diversity: beside famous first-person narratives, Defoe produced hundreds of pamphlets on topics ranging from social reform and moral instruction to trade and the economy to political philosophy and religious doctrine and practice. In addition, he wrote thousands of lines of verse (his best-known poem is The True-Born Englishman [1700–1701]), single-handedly published a triweekly, government-sponsored newspaper, The Review (1704–1713), and produced several conduct books. Indeed, it is important to remember that, during his lifetime, Defoe’s reputation was predominantly that of a prolific (if not necessarily great) satirical poet and mercenary political propagandist rather than a representative of the emerging category of novelist. The Defoe canon has undergone significant revision since the late 1980s. After a long period of enthusiastic attribution of anonymously published works to Defoe, in the main by W. R. Trent and John Robert Moore, P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens have scrutinized these ascriptions for their validity (see Furbank and Owens 1988, cited under Bibliographical Studies). The result of this work was the de-attribution of hundreds of works that, they claim, cannot be described as at least probably by Defoe. Any student of Defoe does well to pay attention to the year of publication of a given piece of criticism, and whether it takes into account the significantly reduced canon presented in Furbank and Owens 1998 (cited under Bibliographical Studies). Defoe scholars continue to engage with attribution problems, highlighting Furbank and Owens’s occasional inconsistency in applying their own attribution criteria, and they have more recently begun to reattribute works to Defoe.

General Overviews and Introductory Works

In spite of the study’s age, Sutherland 1971 offers a good overview of Defoe’s various activities as a writer. Backscheider 1986 is similar in nature and structure, offering some early positive commentary on Defoe’s poetic productions. Novak 1963 remains a good overview of Defoe’s concepts and ideas in relation to their more-or-less immediate historical and intellectual contexts. Rogers 1972 allows readers to trace Defoe’s reception from the early 18th century to the late 19th century. Downie 1979 is the standard work for Defoe’s involvement in political-propagandistic journalism, while Marshall 2013 offers an excellent overview of Defoe’s satiric practice. Vickers 1996 explores Defoe’s general indebtedness to 17th-century scientific theory and discourses. Merrett 2013 represents a fresh, language-based approach to studying Defoe. Novak 2015 is particularly useful for readers who want to gain a sense of some of the dominant concerns in the history of Defoe scholarship. Stoler 1984, a bibliography, is impressively comprehensive and the best resource for an overview of Defoe criticism pre-1980.

  • Backscheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe: Ambition & Innovation. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986.

    The book rests on the premise that the works of other canonical authors are misleading reference points for an evaluation of Defoe’s literary merits and steadfastly champions Defoe’s artistic ambitions by asserting Defoe’s awareness of existing literary forms (poetry, pamphlets, histories, and novels) and his innovativeness in adapting them for his own purposes.

  • Downie, J. A. Robert Harley and the Press: Propaganda and Public Opinion in the Age of Swift and Defoe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511895890

    Downie’s book remains the standard study of Defoe’s role in the propaganda machine initiated by Robert Harley. Offers a detailed exploration of the early relationship between Harley and Defoe. Mandatory reading for students of Defoe’s Review.

  • Marshall, Ashley. The Practice of Satire in England, 1658–1770. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

    Extensively researched, historicist study of satiric practices between the Restoration and the second half of the 18th century. Offers a clearly set out taxonomy of kinds of satire, with several excellent sections on Defoe’s habits as a satirist.

  • Merrett, Robert James. Daniel Defoe: Contrarian. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442664494

    Thematically diverse and complex account, which, by adopting a linguistic and cognitive approach, focuses on Defoe’s use of words and his interest in what is now called reader response. Covers a broad range of Defoe’s works.

  • Novak, Maximillian E. Defoe and the Nature of Man. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.

    An in-depth exploration of Defoe’s use of natural law in relation to politics, economics, and practical morality. Novak places a substantial selection of Defoe’s writings in relation to a wide range of prominent 17th-century and early-18th-century voices.

  • Novak, Maximillian E. Transformations, Ideology, and the Real in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Other Narratives: Finding “The Thing Itself.” Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2015.

    Revisiting eleven of his essays, and including several asides to his other studies of Defoe’s fiction, Novak traces the origins and development of his ideas over more than half a century to the present, and, by considering them anew, he offers an interesting reflection on the history of Defoe studies. A book that will undoubtedly become standard reading for students of Robinson Crusoe.

  • Rogers, Pat, ed. Defoe: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

    This remains a useful sourcebook for a first attempt to gauge Defoe’s reputation across the centuries. Still an excellent introductory survey.

  • Stoler, John A. Daniel Defoe: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Criticism, 1900–1980. New York: Garland, 1984.

    Impressively comprehensive bibliography of Defoe criticism. The 1,600 items presented in this volume include more than 200 foreign-language pieces and graduate dissertations.

  • Sutherland, James. Daniel Defoe: A Critical Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

    Predates the revised canon and, as such, Sutherland’s book is now dated, but this pithy study nevertheless offers insightful explorations of Defoe’s work as a journalist, poet, and writer of fiction.

  • Vickers, Ilse. Defoe and the New Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Explores Defoe’s place within the 17th-century Baconian tradition by offering extended discussions of General History of Trade, Robinson Crusoe, A New Voyage Round the World, and the Tour.

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