I recently finished writing a paper on Robinson Crusoe for my English class on the rise of the novel. We had read the novel concurrently with excerpts from Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel, in which he argued that the works of Defoe, Richardson (we then read Pamela) and Fielding - which Watt categorized as the early novels - used what he called "formal realism". Moreover, he stated that these were some of the first - if not the first - significant pieces of literature to do so.

Robinson Crusoe bears many hallmarks of formal realism (as I understand them):

  • The presentation of people and events as "evidence", to use Watt's phrasing.
  • An attention to detail even in cases where it might seem overboard. For instance, some sections of Crusoe's journal seem . . . unnecessary. At the least, as we discussed, it's not clear that they're intended to advance the plot.
  • The implication that this is an authentic presentation of the events as they occurred.

All of this has me a little curious as to the thought processes of Defoe and company (although I'll stick to Defoe, for simplicity). Was Defoe aware that he was using a new sort of realist techniques, and was this usage intentional? Put another way, are the indicators of formal realism in Robinson Crusoe part of an effort by Defoe, or just elements of the writing that were noticed long after the fact?


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