Teaching Defoe’s Roxana

Laura Alexander, High Point University

 Anyone who has ever tried teaching Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724) to undergraduates will most likely find it challenging. The heroine is, quite simply,  unlikeable. A distinct possibility that she murders her child, Susan (or has her maid, Amy, commit the crime) alienates her from most readers, and Defoe directs us not to like her before the narrative “officially” begins. As a kept woman whose perspective is colored by Calvinist doctrine, Roxana consistently sees her own actions as evidence of eternal damnation, inviting the reader to judge her. While students sometimes see her as a victim of an oppressive system for women, most students follow Defoe’s advice and condemn her actions. Literary critics have found the lack of narrative closure interesting, but readers often find it frustrating. All in all, Defoe’s novel is a tough sell to students.

For several years, I taught a thematically based first-year writing course at Duke University on libertinism,  “Staging Identity: Power, Performance, and the Libertine,” and I typically ended the course by teaching Defoe’s novel, which satirizes libertinism and Charles II’s court. The novel works well when students have read earlier works by Aphra Behn, George Etherege, William Wycherley, and John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester.  Restoration writers often represent complicated relationships between power and performance in libertines’ language, behavior, and dress.  Teaching Roxana after students have thought about how the libertine figure craves and acquires power through complex gender performances often helps them think about Roxana’s actions as a set of performances she enacts to gain and wield power. Students read libertine works alongside selections on power and wit by the seventeenth-century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan (1651) provides the philosophical basis for ideas most associated with libertinism.

Prior to the first day of class, students have little information about Restoration and early eighteenth-century literature or libertinism. I give them a detailed course description that explains what the course will cover before we begin:

“The glittering figure of the libertine during the period of the Restoration in England challenged authority in ways that defied the prevailing social, political, religious, and cultural norms. Taking their cue from the king, Charles II, the court wits flagrantly opposed any kind of moral restraint, dueling with swords and language, and defied established modes of power. In this section of Writing 20, we will use academic writing and the peer review process to engage questions about the implications of the libertine’s desire for power as we study the emergence of libertinism in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Specifically, we will look at a “real life” libertine, the infamous Earl of Rochester, whose personality, wit, and poetry sparked several onstage adaptations in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, George Etherege’s The Man of Mode, Aphra Behn’s The Rover, Congreve’s The Way of the World, and Daniel Defoe’s Roxana.

We will look at how characters in these works use language to achieve power over others, a core characteristic of the libertine identity in this period, and how they assert an autonomous self that rejects social, religious, and political restriction. In particular, we will consider how women’s participation in this movement ultimately redefined it.

To begin our discussion of power, performance, and libertinism in these works, we will research the Carolean court using the library databases and read selections from Rochester’s poetry and Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. In addition to regular responsive writing, you will write a close-reading analysis using primary sources on libertine power in The Country Wife, a longer essay on gender and libertine performance that incorporates secondary sources in The Rover, a critical essay that compares the Hobbesian libertines in The Man of Mode, a Restoration comedy, with those presented in The Way of the World, a comedy that reflects John Locke’s ideas on “liberty and property,” a rewritten imaginative “ending” to Defoe’s Roxana that considers the ways in which libertines enact violence to challenge authority, and a critical comparison of endings written by students in the course.”

Background to the text

Students find it helpful if I begin a study of Defoe’s Roxana by covering the historical time gap between late Stuart and early Georgian England in the narrative. Roxana recalls a historical model of one of Charles II’s mistresses, the self-proclaimed “Protestant Whore,” Nell Gwynn. I provide a brief biography of Gwynn’s relationship to Charles II, and we compare it to points in the narrative, such as Roxana’s own proclaiming of herself as the “protestant whore.” Because of Roxana’s French background, I also discuss some of Charles’s other real-life mistresses, including Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, whose life and disastrous marriage prior to arriving in England in the 1670’s was the subject of much gossip, speculation, and fiction. It is helpful for students to compare selections from Mary Astell’s Some Reflections on Marriage (1700), which Astell wrote about the Duchess of Mazarin’s marital difficulties, to Roxana’s speeches on marital prostitution in the novel because they raise important questions about women in the time period and their lack of agency after marriage. I ask students to consider the conditions she experienced in her earliest marriage to the brewer with her reluctance to marry the Dutch Merchant. If time permits, I will also ask students to read Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s poem about the bitter conditions of marriage and divorce in her Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to her Husband, which was based on a real-life case and was written during the same time as Defoe’s novel.

Group Discussions

I typically divide Roxana into four sections (covering two weeks of class) and have students start in small group discussions before we come together as a class for a large group discussion.

Discussion Questions (I use the Oxford University Press edition of the novel):

Roxana to p. 57

1. Consider Defoe’s preface, in which he states that the story is a history and fact. Clearly, the novel cannot be a history or fact since it has a complicated time shift between Georgian (1720s) and Stuart England (1670s or 80s). Why does Defoe make this claim? What does it say about the novel?

2. Consider the phrase in the Preface, that the story is for our “profit and delight.” What kinds of expectations does Defoe construct for the reader?

3. Roxana begins early in the narrative to disparage marriage. What has made her so bitter? What might be Defoe’s goals here in her disdain for marriage?

4. Defoe was trained as a casuist, and he sets up a number of temptations for Roxana early in the story meant to provoke the reader to ask, what would I do in the same situation? Is this technique effective, do you think, in our reading experience?

5. What kinds of obstacles does Roxana face? What tempts her?

6. How does Amy facilitate Roxana’s early entry into a life of vice? How does Roxana punish her?

7.  Look at the quote on page 39, beginning with “But Poverty was my Snare; dreadful Poverty!” and the following paragraph. Read it aloud to us. Are we meant to find Roxana and her plight sympathetic?

8. On Page 40, Roxana labels herself as a “whore,” and there begins her self-loathing. Are we meant to have the same reaction? To loath Roxana?

9. Look at the quote/phrase on page 43, when the landlord assures Roxana that she “was perfectly at Liberty.” Is she?

10. Look at the quote on page 43 beginning with “And thus in Gratitude for the Favours I receiv’d from a Man…” and following. Read it aloud for us. How is Roxana’s perspective beginning to change?

11. On Page 44, Roxana says she “sinn’d, knowing it to be a Sin, but having no Power to resist.” Read this paragraph to us. How does this show Defoe’s strong Calvinist background?

12. Would you say that Roxana “rapes” Amy in that she forces Amy to go to bed with the landlord against her will? Think about her guilty confession to us that she “knew that [she] was the principal Occasion of it” (47). Is this just Roxana’s self-loathing again, or do you think she’s really guilty?

Roxana to p. 142

1. Why does Roxana watch Amy’s “rape” by the landlord?

2. Think about the motivations for Roxana’s treatment of Amy by looking at the quote on p. 47: “…as I thought myself a Whore, I cannot say but that it was something design’d in my Thoughts, that my Maid should be a Whore too, and should not reproach me with it.”

3. How is Roxana like Horner in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife?

4. How does Defoe begin to comment on the Restoration (Charles II and his court)?

5. What happens with the Jeweler? What does this reveal about Roxana’s character?

6. Defoe concentrates on Roxana’s vanity, particularly as the narrative progresses. Consider the frontispiece  opposite the title page. What’s depicted? What does it look like?

7. Why does Roxana have so many names? Are any of them her real ones? How does this relate to her ability and desire to perform?

8. Why doesn’t Defoe name most characters? Why are they called the Jeweller, or the Brewer, etc.?

9. Consider the Dutch Merchant. How are we meant to react to his character? How is he different from Roxana’s other lovers?

10. Consider the quote on p. 121 that begins, “…had I had any Religion, or any Sence of a Supreme Power…” and following. Read the paragraph for us aloud. Who “saves” Roxana? How has Defoe firmly placed her in the category of the reprobate (damned)? Or has he? Are there redemptive possibilities for her?

11. Roxana nearly drowns (pp. 126). What nearly happens to her and Amy? How might water be symbolic in the Christian tradition?

12. By page 129, shortly after Roxana nearly drowns, she says she cannot repent. Look at the paragraph in the middle of the page. How does this illustrate Defoe’s Calvinism?

Roxana to p. 224

1. Roxana says she’s become “a Lady of Pleasure, a Woman of Business”  (p. 131). Do you think Defoe targets these identities? If so, then why do you think he writes about successful businessmen and prostitutes so much (he has other stories about them too)? Do you think he (like the reader) might be attracted to Roxana’s character?

2. Roxana appears to have lots of sex, but we never hear the details. Why not?

3. Why won’t Roxana marry the Dutch Merchant? Look at the last paragraph on p. 147, and read it aloud for us. Do you think Defoe endorses such a view?

4. Look at the discussion of the “Marriage Contract” that occurs on pp. 148 and following. What might be Defoe’s point with this discussion? What kinds of points do Roxana and the Dutch Merchant make?

5. Why can’t Roxana tell anyone her past?

6. Why is Roxana so fascinated to hear stories about herself? What does it imply about her character?

7. Discuss the Quakeress. What role does she play in the novel?

8. Look at the top of page 182. What does the name “Roxana” mean? How does it define her character? Where does she get the name?

9. Why doesn’t Roxana age? She always appear young, beautiful, and desirable, even in her fifties and beyond—if we’re meant to read the story in a chronological sequence. Does this say anything about Defoe’s perspective on her?

10. Who does Roxana really want to marry but can’t? Why is she obsessed with him?

11. Wycherley’s play was about performance and masks. How is Defoe’s Roxana also about performance?

12. What is Roxana’s attitude towards her children? How does she see them?

Defoe, Roxana, to the end

1. How does Susan “hunt” her mother? What do they share (besides a biological bond)?

2. Why does Amy stay with Roxana?

3. Do you think Roxana kills her daughter? Why does Defoe leave this ambiguous?

4. Some critics have read Amy’s character as a psychological extension of Roxana—a kind of alter ego. Think about it in regards to the novel—they are always together, and Amy follows Roxana’s path. Could we read the story this way?

5. Roxana is a story of a woman’s psychological anguish, yet Defoe creates little sympathy for her. Do you think we’re meant to feel anything for Roxana, or are we meant to loathe her, as she loathes herself?

6.  Do you think the Dutch Merchant would have left Roxana had she told him her life story?

7. If this text is a satire, then does it have a reforming ideal? If so, which character is it? If not, then what kind of text might it be?

8. Do you think Roxana cares for others or is she completely wrapped up in herself only? Is this her main problem?

9. What would happen if the narrator was someone else in the story? Since we’re privy to every thought, feeling, and action from Roxana’s perspective, we get an inside view of everything she experiences. Usually, as readers, this allows us to draw closer to the main character. How does Defoe create distance?

10. Defoe himself was always concerned about money (he spent some time in prison). The novel centers on finance. Can we see some of Defoe in Roxana? Or at least some of the same temptations?

11. Defoe leaves the ending mysterious. We never know what happens to Susan or even to Amy or Roxana, who says they end in misery. Why do you think he does this?

12. Do you think the narrative is complete as is, or do you think Defoe leaves it unfinished? Is it really to teach a moral, as the Preface implies? If so, what is that moral?

Paper Assignments

In addition to informal responsive writing in class (using a few of the above questions as prompts), students write two formal papers in response to Roxana. First, they write a creative “ending” to the novel. They will read this aloud to the other class members. As a final project, they write a critical comparison paper that looks at two of the students’ works. I’ve included descriptions for both papers, “The Critical Imagination” and the “Critical Comparison.”

“The Critical Imagination and Defoe’s Roxana

For this paper, you will turn to a much later text by Daniel Defoe, Roxana (1724), which looks back to the Restoration in a complicated time shift between Restoration and Georgian England. By shifting the time sequences in the novel from 1724 to the 1680s, or even earlier in the 1660s, Defoe recreates a libertine culture embodied by Roxana’s character, which undergoes a variety of permutations as the novel progresses.  Libertinism creates textual problems along with moral ones that Defoe could not easily resolve, if he resolves them at all. Many readers, in fact, do not believe Defoe ended the novel at all since it seems to end so abruptly without having answered the moral questions Roxana and Amy, a character sometimes seen as Roxana’s double or alter ego, raise.

In this paper, you will rewrite the ending of Roxana either by picking up where Defoe left off at the end OR by rewriting the narrative at a certain point near the novel’s closing point. You may continue to write using Roxana’s voice and, like her, have your character look back on the past and reflect, or you may choose to write a narrative through another person’s eyes, like Amy, the Quakeress, or the Dutch Merchant. You might revive one of Roxana’s former lovers or pursuers from earlier in the novel, or you might explain what happens to Roxana’s other children and/or use one of her unnamed children as your primary narrative voice. The direction of your narrative is your choice, but remember not to contradict earlier parts of the novel unless you explain how the contradiction will work for your ending. Keep in mind the discussions about libertinism, power, gender, and identity that we have engaged all semester, and consider how Roxana’s libertinism functions by the end of the narrative.

Questions you might consider as you write your narrative include (but are not limited to): Should she reform, continue in paths of wickedness, lose her fortune, or stand trial for murder? Can she remain married to the Dutch Merchant (remembering, of course, her important speeches against marriage in the novel)? Should she move to a new land, say, America or back to Europe? Should she be reunited with her other children? Does Susan, who vanishes from the novel, really die? Is Roxana responsible? What is Amy’s role in the narrative? What about Susan? Should we learn more “real” details about Roxana’s life, or is it necessary to keep the narrative mysterious? Is this mystery part of the libertine identity?

“Critical Comparison of Roxana’s Interpretative Endings”

In the last paper, you rewrote an alternate version of Defoe’s Roxana, either through Roxana’s voice or through another narrative voice in the novel. For your last project, you will write a compare and contrast paper that considers the different approaches you and your writing partner took in project three. During the workshop for project three, you were required to write a typed response that concentrated on your partner’s narrative structure and approach to Defoe’s novel. In response paper 6, you chose a passage or character from your partner’s narrative and undertook a close reading of that character or passage. Return to both of your responses, and compare them with the responses your writing partner wrote about your narrative. What similarities or differences do you see at work? Why are these similarities or differences important to your understanding and recreating of the novel?

As you develop your argument, think about our discussions of libertinism all semester, and consider how your partner entered into a discussion of libertinism through his or her imaginative rewriting of the novel. Questions you might consider include (but should not be limited to): How do you see your partner engaging questions about power, identity, gender, and performance? Is your understanding of libertinism different from your partner’s, and did these differences emerge in the narrative you each created for the last paper? How do you both see Roxana’s character by the end of the novel? Did you both preserve Roxana’s narrative tone and voice? Did one of you concentrate more on irony, on regret, or on sincere repentance? Did you choose to write through another narrative voice? Did you preserve the libertine mystique that surrounds the novel, or did you unravel the mysteries by the end? Did Roxana reform, die, suffer, triumph, divorce, travel, or stand trial for murder? Did one of you concentrate on questions about gender and/or power? On autonomy? On religion or class issues?

After you have considered these questions thoroughly both in your narrative and your partner’s, develop an introduction that briefly summarizes the kinds of approaches you both took. Contextualize both narratives in your introduction, and then present a strongly organized thesis that integrates both positions. Ultimately, your narratives should reveal two definitions of libertinism. These definitions of libertinism may be similar or different, depending on how you and your partner approached your respective narratives. Reflect in your paper on how the narrative similarities and differences articulate a relationship between libertinism and performance.


Students’ experiences with the novel, especially after they have finished both papers, have been overwhelmingly positive. Many of them try to write in the style of Defoe for the “creative” paper, and a number of them find psychological readings of the text appealing, particularly the idea that Amy might be either Roxana’s alter ego or her lover. Some see their relationship as Roxana’s true marriage in the text, and because gay marriage is such a current topic in national debate, it opens the text in a different way for them. I cannot claim that any students particularly “like” Roxana as a heroine better than they did before writing and discussing the text, but they do indicate that they find the novel fascinating in its endless complexities.