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Daniel Defoe’s ‘Moll Flanders’ and Congreve’s ‘the Way of the World’ are symptomatic of their particular historical time period. Congreve concentrated on the Restoration Comedy while Daniel Defoe’s stance on Moll Flanders depicted another typicality of the eighteenth-century literary historiography that is the Picaresque novel. Societal and political upheaval set the backdrops of the novels and conflicts generated therein reflect the ethos of the peculiar chronoscope of both the texts. The reader response quotient is built on the reception of the literary productions across cultures.
In the case of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a popular view was circulated to include the members of the lower classes to be the veritable readers of the adventures of the protagonists. In the case of Congreve’s comedy, it was centred to the court of Charles II. In this paper, I would like to engage in a comparative study of both the texts including the thematic, stylistic and philosophical analysis. Money and morality are the intrinsically attached phenomenon in both narratives. How money meddles with the way of people and how individuality meets the social dictates would be a critical juncture in this proposed study.
Literary and historical conjectures
Comedy of manners reflects the flavour of the seventeenth-century ethos. The Way of the World (1700) by Congreve is denotative of the author’s take on the society around him, thriving in the court culture. The restoration period relates to the resurrection of the literature, culture and every creative facet of the society that was so long been impeded by the puritanical morality in the French rule. Charles II took to the throne of England in 1660 and after his return from the French exile brought with him the French way to outdo the moral subjugation in England. The pleasure principle became the fad of society. The frivolities attached with it created a new space and spirit for Restoration Literature and theatre. The dramatists in the libertine regime and permissive court of Charles II used to present their creations that involved their trysts with society. This period was nebulously associated with the carefree, unthinking attitude of the courtiers who were a merry lot laughing and quaffing away life.
The picaresque novel on the other hand deals with more down to earth practicality of the experiences and adventures of the people who belonged to the lower echelons of the society – the rouges, the scoundrels, the pickpockets, and thieves. The adventurer is used to be the first person narrator who moves from one juncture to another in order to survive. Amorality works as a leitmotif in the plot construction while the story deals with the pursuits of the amoral, cynical protagonists.
Congreve while doing up his experimental comedy adhered to the pulses of the aristocratic society and he actually indulged in the satirical exposition of the characters who’re doused in the trivialities and hollowness of the time. His object of satire is the way the high society glowing in the outright absurdity of an insecure existence. The merriness and the carefree avocations of the people of the drama are episodic and characteristic of their superfluities. Restoration drama thriving around the centres of the corner on the promiscuity divulging the anxiety of an outwardly brimming civilization. The hero of this drama belongs to this sophisticated air. Congreve also included the relationship of the individual to the moral code of conduct. The conventional court society including gallants, dandies, and libertines thriving in the shallowness vibrated the critical convention and fashion of the period.
The political ethos is also intermingled with the body of the narratives. The merging merchant capital in Moll Flanders creates the sense of an upcoming business class. A complete new middle-class ethics and bourgeois mentality is depicted. England at the time Moll Flanders was written was burgeoning with commercial interests. The novel also speaks of the English colony in the lands of America—the British colony in Virginia. It was the epitome of England’s growing and expanding business inclination to venture into overseas trade. In the guise of trade England was meditating on the prospects of political imperialism in the colonies. Virginia was soon becoming a thriving commercial centre complementing England’s economy. The cloth was important merchandise and manufactured product in England to be meant for overseas commerce.
In the case of Congreve’s drama, it precedes the period of escalating mercantile ventures and concentrates rather on the more complacent period of time in the history of England, indulging in smug satisfaction after Charles II takes to the throne only to be regained by the Parliament in 1688. This short-lived and carefree episode in the English canvas sets the prologue of rapid commercialization in England. The comedy also attaches to the vacuum the transitory essence of its political upheaval. Nonetheless, political unrest was now taking a back seat in the age of Congreve and the court dramatists could concentrate on the more licentious aspects to override the moral dictums so long enervating England.
Metaphysical elements in the narrative
Moll’s journey through the plethora of experiences that were thrown on her way, appear sloppy and shoddy on the surface. But through the witty and candid portrayal of her being abandoned by the prison and the society at large, the narrator couldn’t help the striving for life. It was audacious and contagious at times hinting at Defoe’s take on the philosophy of life. The author’ initial comments in the novel are unequivocally discarded by Defoe who doesn’t propose a completely realistic avocation of his intentions. Even in the unscrupulous ventures of her husband-hunting, bigamy and coming to terms with her crime at length the life force is never negated, hinting on the ineptness of society to leave such loose ends to be mediated with frivolities.
Raising above the realistic social and political verbiages, the narrative of The Way of the World also seeks to integrate the couples of the restoration drama in the perplexities of realities that are more grounded with philosophical references. The critic historians of literary history have often been tempted to subject the couples such as Mirabell and Millamant to a more psychological setting of love-hate relationships. Even the metaphysical workings of life are adhered to while analyzing the social space that tempts such promiscuous escapades.
Money and morality
Congreve’s drama deals with the central protagonist Mirabell who’s sophisticated and conforming to the conventions of high society. Mirabell is the centrality around which the story develops, thrives. The story goes about the love interest of Mirabell for Millamant and attains its height of dramatic intensity through the tortuous and meticulous plot constructions. The conflicts generated in the love story of Mirabell and Millamant are engineered by the antagonistic portrayals of Fainall and Mrs Marwood. They are vengefully seeking revenge on Mirabell. Millamant and Mirabell are diametrically situated against their malicious conduct. Money becomes the crux of the story. Avarice and malice are paramount when Fainall gets to know that his wife and his mistress have fallen for Mirabell. Mrs Marwood is revengeful in her own way as her advances towards the hero go unheard. Mirabell’s plan to marry Millamant faces a potential threat from the intensifying and increasing scheming of the conspiring duo. Mirabell’s plot is further intruded and vitiated setting the climax when Lady Wishfort received an anonymous letter divulging Mirabell’s plans. The prologue to the story is the typical tongue in cheek satire throwing challenges to the reader audience to measure the merit of the play. The conflicts of interests in the play are symptomatic of the social inclinations and conventions of seventeenth-century England.
The reciprocity of the different sexes and promiscuous advances are dealt with with precise diction. The Way of the World as well as Moll Flanders delves into the absurdity and precariousness of the societal dictums. The role of the female protagonists takes a peculiar edge in both of the texts. Female characters in Congreve are developed to ascertain the docility and coyness disintegrating in courtships. Defoe’s protagonist Moll is typical of the cynicism and the amoral portrayal of a woman who’s drawn into the world of crime. The Way of the World also focuses on the porosity of the moral standard where friends are not infallible resorts, they are Janus-faced. People in courtship or sharing love interests deceive each other. Money becomes the decisive bargain with the dawning prospects of frivolities and matter of mere conveniences. Love meddles with dowries and social comforts. Reputation and social order are the priorities. Capricious and swerving voices can hardly camouflage the hollowness.
Moll Flander’s narrative is unpretentious of its amoral plunge. Going by the stylistic overtures there are a lot of differences in both the narratives —the nature of literary conventions set them apart. The editor of the first-person narrative of Moll Flanders reveals the story. Moll’ mother was imprisoned for stealing cloth and she gave birth to Moll in the Newgate prison of London. The very word prison spells the lack of sophistication unlike The Way of the World’s court life. The word attaches a nuance to this story which on the very onset points to the discursive plane of moral-ethical propositions. Prison is related to wrongdoing, infringement. Even in the flow of the narrative, the infringement is indicative. Like Congreve’s experimental drama, Moll Flanders circulates the popular myths of the time that is money. Moll doesn’t want to stick to the servile conditions and in order to rise above servility, she contemplates earning her way of the world. The accumulative power of wealth is recognized by the navigating fortune seeker who moves for survival. Moll is more attached to men who are wealthy and rich in spite of the flattering glances from all the men of the society.
The satirical tone present in both the narratives seeks to analyze the philosophy behind such a credible portrayal of society. Comic relief in The Way of the World is achieved through the introduction of numerous tricks and subterfuge. In Moll Flanders too, the author intended on the inherent irony of the liaison between individual and society. Whether this text necessitates a realistic or ironical reading is decided by its precarious overstepping on the fringe of reality. Defoe’s agenda in writing a more realistically inclined narrative is evident from the structure of the novel. The socio-economic conditions, the burgeoning and prospering commercial class, the merging merchant capital, the political rhapsody are embedded in the very flow of the narrative body. As many critics have argued about the latent and unconsciously conceived irony in the discourse it can be said that the author was never so naïve of his interest to indulge the element of irony in the portrayals subjecting them to critical interpretation. Not only has the social convention of eighteenth-century England picked the mood of the novel but it also hints at the amorality of capitalism.
To conclude, the reader’s response as to the soaring popularity and reception of both of the texts should be considered to gain insights into the symptomatic ethos. As mentioned earlier, Defoe’s Moll Flanders according to the popular vibes of the time was falling into the hands of the servant classes. The story of the infamous Moll who lived by her wit and the acquaintances she kept makes this story more than a social chronicle. More thorough research into the reception acknowledges the adaptability of the novel moving beyond the reaches of the servant class to a greater audience who was opening to a new genre of realistic narrative style.
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The story of thieves and pickpockets were going round the corner of eighteenth century England with extensive records of the female pickpockets and thieves in the prison records. The response was lukewarm in case of Congreve’s The Way of the World; still the vivid and deft handling of the credible portrayals of the drama lives on to speak of the specific literary genre and its historiography. Both of the narratives are vivid accounts of the specificity of socio-cultural and economic conjectures with an innate agenda of philosophical insight attached to them hinting on the metaphysical reality of life.
- Congreve, William (2000), The Way of the World. London, England: A & C Black Limited
- Daniel Defoe (2002), Moll Flanders, Modern Library Classics, Modern Library; Modern Library edition