Dating the Devil: Daniel Defoe's Roxana and the Political History of the Devil

By McInelly, Brett C.; Paxman, David | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Dating the Devil: Daniel Defoe's Roxana and the Political History of the Devil


McInelly, Brett C., Paxman, David, Christianity and Literature


In 1724 Daniel Defoe published his last novel, Roxana, and began writing works on the occult, including The Political History of the Devil (1726), A System of Magic (1726), and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). Maximillian E. Novak has suggested that the meager financial success of Roxana may have led Defoe to abandon fiction (Daniel Defoe 624) and then turn his attention to answering contemporary attacks on orthodox Christianity and the Bible ("Defoe" 94). The shift from novels to treatises appears rather decisive, but critics have suggested possible links between Defoe's novels and his work on the occult. In the view of Richard Titlebaum, Defoe's work on demonology casts "a fascinating light on Defoe's fiction" (6); however, he makes no mention of Roxana. In Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe's Fiction, Novak proposes that Defoe began "toying" with a notion in Roxana he would later develop fully in the Political History--namely, the means by which human beings transform themselves into devils. Even more than Defoe's previous novels, Roxana focuses on the internal state of its protagonist and traces her moral decline (105, 100). David Blewett similarly claims that "the attention paid to the interior drama of moral deterioration" distinguishes Roxana from Defoe's earlier novels, and he examines the "subtle" means by which the devil preys on Roxana's mind, a theme developed by Defoe in the Political History (130, 139). Novak and Blewett point to a central feature of the Political History--the view that hell is more an internal reality than a physical place of fire and brimstone.

These readings help us interpret one of the most notable junctures in Defoe's writing career; however, they suggest more than they substantiate. This essay argues that rhetorical and formal, as well as thematic, concerns link Roxana and the Political History. By examining Roxana in light of Defoe's writings on the occult, and vice versa, we can understand the motives and methods of each text more clearly. The Political History does not merely develop themes introduced in Roxana; the continuation of these themes from novel to treatise indicates an inability on Defoe's part to put to rest, via the medium of prose fiction, attacks by deists and freethinkers on the orthodox Christian views of the providential order and the reality of hell, both of which were foundational to Defoe's religious outlook. The differences between the two texts reveal the serious challenges their author faced in writing about the Devil in a time when a dual complication was occurring: belief in the Devil was dwindling at the very moment when, in Defoe's view, polite society and learning had all but allowed the Devil to cease using magical methods suitable to credulous eras and to rely on normal-seeming customs and institutions of society, religion, politics, and learning to do his work for him. This situation required a risky strategy. By avoiding superstition and the belief in magic that appeared in contemporary treatises on the occult, and by seeking to expose normal-seeming characteristics of society as the work of the Devil, Defoe in his own way risked eradicating the Devil.

The existence of the Devil created controversy because believers in Defoe's lifetime considered it a crux of religious thought at the same time as skeptics questioned the rationality of such beliefs. While Defoe had, as Novak points out, "moved far from the notions of a horned and cloven-footed devil" (Daniel Defoe 659), the Devil was an undeniable reality for Defoe and an indispensable element in his system of belief. Writing in the Political History, Defoe explains: "The Truth is, God and the Devil, however opposite in their nature, and remote from one another in their place of abiding, seem to stand pretty much upon a level in our faith: For as to our believing the reality of their existence, he that denies one generally denies both; and he that believes one necessarily believes both" (20).

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