Defoe and the Whig Novel: A Reading of the Major Fiction

Defoe and the Whig Novel: A Reading of the Major Fiction

Defoe and the Whig Novel: A Reading of the Major Fiction

Defoe and the Whig Novel: A Reading of the Major Fiction


This study places Defoe’s major fiction squarely in the emerging Whig culture of the early eighteenth century. It offers an alternative to the view that Defoe is essentially a writer of criminal or adventure fiction and to the Marxist judgment that he extols individualism or derives his greatest inspiration from popular print culture. This study reads the novels as reflections of mainstream Whig social and political concerns, the same concerns Defoe revealed in his verse and expository writings before and after his major period of fiction writing, 1719-24.


When Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding appeared in 1957, many believed the last word had been said. That book promoted such terms as individualism, realism, capitalism, and middle class to unquestioned critical status in scholarship on the English novel. a host of studies followed in the wake of Watt’s titanic achievement.

Watt began with the assumption that Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding were responsible for a new form, the realistic novel. His task was to discover what the “favourable conditions in the literary and social situation were” to allow this to happen.

In the present study, I accept Watt’s basic assumption that Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding mark a new direction in the novel, but I question some of his assumptions about individualist, capitalist, and middle-class origins. I differ from Watt by placing great importance on the rise of Whig culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Whiggism as a culture, and only secondarily as a political force, was a key factor in providing both the social and formal requirements for innovations in the English novel.

The older novel forms continued to flourish in what I call the Tory novel, which sometimes is at odds with the newer Whig model and exerts influence in the development of the new form. the Tory line of fiction maintains many of the traditions of the ancient Greek novels of Chariton, Achilles Tatius, Xenophon of Ephesus, Longus, and Heliodorus. the tradition continues in the work of important women writers, such as Aphra Behn, Delarivière Manley, and Eliza Haywood. As Maximillian E. Novak has pointed out, Defoe looked down upon these Tory novelists for doing no more than “diverting the public.” This seems to indicate that Defoe made a distinction between his own fiction and that of his Tory predecessors. the Whig novel and the Tory novel are important subgenres that deserve to be distinguished from one another.

The distinction between these two brands of fiction can be seen, not only in terms of politics revealed in the novels, when political views are noted implicitly or explicitly, but mainly in terms of cul-

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