Anna Kirsch


In the 1970’s Robert Trivers sought to Apply evolutionary logic to explain basic social relationships such as ‘parent/offspring, male/ female, relative/friend, in- group member/ out-group member ’ (1) . He concluded that these relationships all function with some degree of deceit and self-deception and further that self- deception was actually a selected survival trait because it assisted an individual to deceive others. Roxana was Defoe’s last, darkest, and most mercantile novel about a woman who trades her virtue for survival and, once she is secure financially, continues to sacrifice her virtue for greater and greater riches: a prime example of the triumphs and failures of self- deception. In his introduction to the Oxford World Classic edition of Roxana John Mullan calls the novel ‘a fable of the ordinary human capacity for self- deception’ (xxv).

Those who practice self- deception ‘repress painful memories, create completely false ones, rationalize immoral behavior, act repeatedly to boost positive self-opinion, and show a suite of ego-defense mechanisms’ (Trivers, 2). Defoe’s heroine does all these things making her an incredibly unreliable narrator showing two different selves: one of a penitent sinner and the other a practical woman calmly explaining how she amassed her wealth. The heroine’s surprising ability to live ‘ six and twenty Years of Wickedness, without the least Signals of remorse; without any Signs of Repentance; or without so much as a Wish to put an End to it’ (Defoe, 188) can be seen as an unconscious suppression of information. There are two stages where the narrator fails to recognize her thinking as feeding a version of reality that is dangerously unreal.

The first stage of her fall in virtue and her rise as a business woman is convincing herself that ‘mortgaging Faith, Religion, and Modesty’ (Defoe, 38 ) for food is justifiable. She presents herself as ‘a seduced victim forced to sell her body for bread and not a sexual agent who whored for sexual pleasure’ (Binhammer, 507). This distinction between economic victim and abandoned pleasure seeker is an important moral distinction in the Eighteenth century as the domestic ideal for women was one of morality, delicacy of feeling, maternal caring, and inner purity (Bernau,144) , all qualities the narrator abandons to survive. The first thing she sacrifices is her children which she justifies by asking anyone that is a mother of children used to a life of plenty and fashion to reflect on how she felt watching her children starve in front of her. (Defoe ,14) This caring is balanced with her confession that ‘the Misery of my own Circumstances hardened my Heart against my own Flesh and Blood; and when I consider’d they must inevitably be Starv’d, and I too, if I continued to keep them about me , I began to be reconcil’d to parting with them all, any how, and any where, that I might be freed from the dreadful Necessity of seeing them all perish and perishing with them myself (Defoe, 19) . This is disturbing because parental love is supposed to be stronger than ‘ narcissistic love for one’s self, romantic love for other adults, or love for one’s own parents’ (Maestripieri,107). While her blaming her husband for abandoning his wife and children to die in a world where virtuous women had few job opportunities is justifiable, her memory of events can be questioned. It is a natural reaction for people to reconstruct internal motives and narratives to rationalize bad or questionable behavior and it is natural that she should rationalize this decision (Trivers, 145). Society would judge her, and she would judge herself, less harshly as a victim forced by her husband to turn her back on her children to seek her fortune in the public sphere of business.

The second stage involves the fall of her business. It happens because of her own vanity which is an integral part of her character: one that does not change no matter what name or disguise she goes under. She may avow that she is a whore, but she does not focus on this side of her nature and her narrative focuses on the wealth she acquires. In this she is a product of the Eighteenth century’s move towards a capitalist economy and ‘the powerful fantasy of social, economic, and psychological autonomy’ (Moglen, 17) that was central to its development. Fantasy is ‘deeply rooted in our biology’ (Trivers, 109) and from an early age we create imaginary worlds and live in them because they replace reality in a positive way. For the narrator her fantasy is one of upward mobility and material pleasure. After having been the mistress of a prince she thought of ‘nothing less than of being Mistress to the King himself’ (Defoe, 161) . This is where she begins to be overconfident and deceive herself. At first her self-deception pays off making her a brilliant hostess, but soon it becomes a liability. When she returns to society after being a sequestered mistress the narrator is convinced that she is not at all impaired in beauty though she is four years older and fatter than formerly (Defoe, 208). Though she continues to do well she eventually lowers herself to being visited by more than one man. While her earlier conquests were longstanding relationships her later ones showed an acceptance of multiple men and a slippage into a lower class of prostitution, even though there is no financial reason for this slippage.

The heroine is not in any sense a feminist. She is a capitalist who’s opportunistic use of sexuality in a patriarchy where ‘[m]ale dominance is sexual. Meaning: men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize hierarchy’ (MacKinnon , 135) gives her a form of liberty: yet it is a liberty with limits. Her use of her sex and her sexuality sets her apart, but her very sexuality actually moves her closer to a sexualized hierarchy because she begins to embody it. When she appears in her Turkish costume dancing a French dance she invites a male gaze to construct her as something erotic and sexual making her an object rather than a person (Hester, 1). Yet her deployment of sexuality, as long as she remains unattached emotionally, is Machiavellian: she is able to manipulate the male propensity to exaggerate a women’s interest in them and feed their sexual fantasies to acquire wealth and security (Trivers, 105).

Roxana in Her Turkish Habit

Biologically speaking, females of any species have the most power in selecting the genetic material for the next generation. Yet in humans, and chimpanzees our closest relatives, males were able to create a patriarchal system of power that operates through political alliances with relatives and friends. Once in possession of power males were able to take control of sexual politics and exploit females, turning sex into today’s multimillion dollar industry. They were

very successful at this because many women either do not understand they have control over a valuable commodity or they undervalue it. Those women that do realize the value of sex as a commodity, like the narrator of Roxana, keep the power to themselves and do nothing for other women. While the narrator argues independence to her financial advisor claiming that there was ‘ no State of Matrimony, but what was, at best, a State of Inferiority, if not of Bondage’ (Defoe, 171) she uses her wealth in the same ways that a man would. It does not occur to her that sending the son she has with the Jeweler ‘a Wife; a beautiful young Lady, well-bread, an exceedingly good -natured pleasant Creature’(Defoe, 263) is putting another woman into the bondage she is so anxious to escape. Further her reaction when her son rejects the woman and passes her on to another is simply to withhold her financial assistance, a heavy patriarchal measure. The heroine’s failure to build close bonds and cement political alliances with others serves as a warning of the dangers of fantasy and self-deception. Her failures to see beyond herself serve as a cautionary tale for other women seeking to create a culture where through female bonded alliances and networks there are more respectable job opportunities.

The heroine takes calculated risks in her sexual transactions and turns each one into a favorable one. Her business like attitude towards sexuality can be seen in other animal species, such as Rhesus Macaques. In early studies researches put a male and a female macaque in a small cage and observed that they had sex every day for a month. In 1968 the researchers concluded that the females’ role was to be passive and attractive, but another view of the exchange is that they were making a business exchange with the males: their sexual availability for safety and survival. (Maestripieri, 83) This exchange is not so different from having a landlord kiss you and claim he is allowing you to stay in your house out of the kindness of his heart; Or having a prince maintain your household in exchange for sexual favors; Or having a Dutch merchant who seeks marriage see going to bed as the best way of achieving his goal. The merchant is thwarted by the fact that while ‘ any other Woman in the World’ ( Defoe, 142) would marry after this, the narrator is not among them. She does not need to give him her fortune of twenty thousand pounds in order to purchase the respectability of marriage. Instead she sees the merchant’s project of bedding her and tricking her into marriage as a trick upon himself since it does not get him any closer to marrying her (Defoe, 144). The moral is that even fairly honorable men use the social codes governing sexuality to gain authority over women. The Dutch Merchant is so familiar with these codes that he tells the narrator that there certainly never was a woman who refused to marry a man after laying with him and being with his child (Defoe,156) .

The narrator of Roxana articulates the necessity of female choice in the selection of a husband. She tells women that ‘If you have any Regard to your future Happiness; any View of living comfortably with a Husband: any Hope of preserving your Fortunes, or restoring them after any Disaster; Never Ladies marry a Fool; any husband rather than a Fool; with some Husbands you may be unhappy, but with a Fool you must ’ (Defoe, 8). To not pick a fool, or a bad provider, was the key to a successful life and indeed the continuation of the family line. When the narrator finds herself with five children,’ The only Work (perhaps) that Fools are good for’ (Defoe, 10) abandoned she has little choice but to throw her children onto relatives and the parish for support. As a new genre the novel was valorized and critiqued as ‘a vehicle for producing the idea of a core self that can stand apart from the market and for instantiating and cultivating that ideal in the figure of the domestic woman’ ( Freeman, 235). Female virtue can be considered a commodity just as much as a woman’s body: To lose one is to sell the other. in a world where ‘a Woman ought rather to die, than to prostitute her Virtue And Honour’ (Defoe, 29) . Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the rights of Woman argues that the perfection of human nature and happiness must be ‘estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguish the individual’ (Wollstonecraft, 76). Wollstonecraft did not mean virtue in the simple sense of chastity, but rather in the sense of all good moral qualities coupled with willingness to work. Qualities the narrator demonstrates in a mixed manner: her aim is to be a kept woman and not having to work, although she works to gain this point. Beyond this she does not demonstrate qualities that are culturally acceptable as good or intellectual.

Even though the lady may seem to purchase and sustain ’ her affluence at the cost of a categorical denial of wife- and motherhood’ (Maurer, 364) her failure to live a happy life can be seen as her failure to deny these titles. When she finally marries the Dutch Merchant breaking all her original resolves to live in financial liberty by being a ‘Man- Woman’ (Defoe,171) both her body and her money become the property of her husband in the eyes of the law. By giving up her Amazonian attitude towards men she loses the very thing she built her identity on: her money and independence. With marriage comes the threat of her past in the form of her cast -off daughter Susan who seeks to know and be acknowledged by her mother. Her daughter represents the two identities society has given her, that of wife and whore, about to come crashing together.

Ultimately Defoe’s ambivalence towards the figure of a female capitalist overwhelms his narrative and individual independence proves fragile as the heroine fails to recoil independence with the ideals of wifehood and motherhood, ideals society would not demand from a man. The punishment for neither caring too much or too little is her complete absorption into patriarchal capitalism and the loss of self. The failure of the heroine of Roxana lies in her failure to see through her own self-deception. After buying into the fantasy of capitalism she undervalues human connections and finds that while she was pursuing wealth in one of the few ways open to women she has lost every reason to amass wealth.


Anna Kirsch is a second year English Literature student at Bath Spa University. She is an international student from Maui. Her research interests centre on the Early Modern Period. She is especially interested in the application of Evolutionary Biology to literature and the impact Evolutionary Biology will have on discussions involving gender. 

Bernau, Anke. Virgins: A Cultural History. London: Granta Books. 2007. Print

Binhammer, Katherine. “The Whore’s Love.”Eighteenth Century Fiction 20.4 (2008): 507-534. Project MUSE. Web. 1 Sep. 2014. <;.

Defoe, Daniel. Roxana, ed. John Mullan. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008. Print. Freeman, A. Lisa. “The “Oldest Profession” Made Modern.” The Eighteenth Century 51.1 (2010):

235-240. Project MUSE. Web. 1 Sep. 2014. <;.
Trivers, Robert. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life .New

York: Basic Books, 2011. Print
Maestripieri, Dario. Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have

Conquered the World. Chicago: Chicago UP. 2007. Print

Maurer, L. Shawn. “I wou’d be a Man-Woman “: Roxana ‘s Amazonian Threat to the Ideology of Marriage.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46.3 (2004): 363-386. Project MUSE. Web. 3 Sep. 2014. <;

Moglen, Helene. The Trauma of Gender: A Feminist Theory of the English Novel. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 2001. Print

“virtue, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 2 September 2014. Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Men; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman;

An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. Print

MacKinnon, A. Catharirie. “Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: Pleasure Under Patriarchy”. In Feminism and Philosophy: Essential Readings in Theory, Reinterpretation, and Application. Eds. Tuana, Nancy, and Rosemarie Tong. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995. Print.

Image Credits:

The life and adventures of Roxana, the forunate mistress; Or, Most unhappy wife. Containing, I. An account of her birth in France, in 1683. II. Her marriage in London with a brewer, who ran out his estate, and left her in a destitute condition whith five children. III. Her cohabiting with her landlord, their journey to Paris, where her gallant was robbed, and murdered. IV. Her being fell in love with by the Prince of – by whom she had a son; her going with the Prince to the palace of Mendon, where she saw her husband, who had entered in the gensd’ arms guard, the Prince leaves her. V. The dealings she had with a Dutch merchant and a Jew, the latter of whom wanted to defraud her of a great parcel of her jewels, her return, in a dagerous storm to England; her going afterwards to Rotterdam, where she fees the Dutch merchant, to whom she soon after became a bedfellow. VI. Her return to England again, living a great lady, where she had the name of Roxana. Her marriage with the Dutch merchatn in London, who was naturalized, and created a baronet; the miseries she and her maid Amy sell afterwards into. Embellished with curious copper plates. London, MDCCLV. [1755]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Bath Spa University. 5 Sept. 2014.