Feminine Deviance and Marriage in Daniel Defoe’s Roxana

Feminine deviance, or the failure to adhere to societal standards set for women of the time, is a concept displayed by characters across many genres and eras, from William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth to Ernest Hemingway’s Lady Brett Ashley, but this phenomenon seems to have disappeared from 18th-century novels. Rarely are there characters dramatically defying feminine expectations in the works of and Jane Austen and Mary Shelley. However, Daniel Defoe revives the feminine deviant in his novels, perhaps most notably with the failure of the institution of marriage in Roxana. Roxana is “perhaps the period’s most famous whore,” but this is a title she accepts with grace: Roxana refers to herself as “Man-Woman,” neither male nor female, “something . . . shocking to Nature” in both her relationship with marriage and her overall outlook on life (Defoe, 171 and 156; Maurer, 367). In this essay, I intend to explore the ways in which Defoe challenges traditional gender roles in marriage, paying particular attention to Roxana’s displays feminine deviance in her refusal to marry, her financial management, and her seemingly homoerotic relationship with Amy throughout the novel.

According to literary theorist Shawn Lisa Maurer, “scholars have brought to bear on the novel a wide range of theoretical paradigms and historical contexts, deeply enriching our sense of Defoe’s artistry by illuminating his multifaceted understanding of, and engagement with, the economic, social, political, and religious concerns of the early eighteenth century” (363). However, rather than understanding and engaging with these concerns, Defoe seems to exploit and manipulate them in Roxana. The eponymous protagonist’s first most blatant act of feminine deviance is her erratic behavior within her marriages, or perhaps more accurately, her lack thereof. Roxana gives birth to approximately eleven children, around five of which are born out of wedlock. Despite this, for the majority of the novel she wholeheartedly rejects marriage after her first husband rides into the woods and fails to return. Roxana’s feminine deviant status does not initially emerge from her role as a mistress or lady merchant, but from her refusal to get married after her first marriage goes awry. Her first and perhaps most revealing extramarital affair is with the Landlord, with whom she behaves as a wife, but never truly is one. Amy states that he is “a single Man again, as much as ever” since his legal spouse, “being gone from him, and refusing to lye with him,” has thereby “refused to do the Office of a Wife” (Defoe. 71; Maurer, 376). However, Roxana does not accept his advances initially, as a non-deviant Wife may: when the Landlord moves into Roxana’s home, she initially notes of him that ““that tho’ he was under such Engagements that he cou’d not Marry me, [his Wife and he had been parted, for some Reasons, which make too long a Story to intermix with mine] yet that he wou’d be everything else that a Woman cou’d ask in a Husband” (67).” She initially doubts the morality of sleeping with her landlord, despite the fact that she no longer considers herself married to the brewer. After a party and an offer from Amy to sleep with him to secure their social and financial position, the still-reluctant Roxana agrees to have sex with him, and she accepts his proposal to live as husband and wife. Maurer claims that “By attacking marriage as a form of servitude” and failing to marry in order to “make an ‘honest woman’” of herself, Roxana “both challenges and ominously threatens a developing order based on women’s supposedly inherent difference from men, a difference embodied ‘naturally’ in both their sexual vulnerability and financial dependence” (364). Ultimately, in doing as Maurer claims and adopting a lascivious lifestyle, she is rejecting the pureness of marriage and instead choosing a situation that may defame or dishonor her and her children, which is a significant deviation from other women and female characters of her time.

Likewise, Roxana at first rejects the proposals of the Dutch Merchant seemingly more aggressively, despite the fact that she is pregnant with his child. After her rejecting him, he says to her, “I have been surpriz’d with such a Denial, that no Woman in such Circumstances ever gave to a Man; for certainly it was never known, that any Woman refus’d to marry a Man that had first lain with her, much less a Man that had gotten her with child… yet I must own, there is something in it shocking to Nature, and something very unkind to yourself; but above all, it is unkind to the Child that is yet unborn; who, if we marry, will come into the World with Advantage enough, but if not, is ruin’d before it is born. (Defoe, 156)His response to her refusals explains clearly why her decision is so deviant. First, he addresses her failure to respect for both the patriarchy and the institution of marriage by having sex with a man she is not married to, and he consequently berates her for refusing his proposal after bringing this shame upon herself. Typically, a non-deviant woman would marry the man she slept with to prevent bringing dishonor to her name and her family, but this is not a concern of Roxana’s. Additionally, he points out the fact that she is prioritizing herself over her unborn bastard child, which he finds appalling. This is especially deviant of the 18th-century woman, because traditionally she would prioritize marriage and family over her own desires, while Roxana is doing exactly the opposite. After refusing him several times, Roxana “subsequently rebuffs the offer of her financial advisor… to find her ‘some eminent Merchant’ who, already possessing a ‘flourishing Business, and a flowing Cash,’ would not need her money… enabling her to live ‘like a Queen’” (Defoe, 170). It is both this attitude and her pattern of behavior that expresses feminine deviance.According to Maurer, “Critics agree that Roxana’s downfall has everything to do with her engagement in relations of commerce, broadly defined as accumulation, investment, and the social relations that surround these economic transactions” (363). While her relationships with men and her failure to adhere to societal standards express her feminine deviance, her relationship to money both within and outside of her marriages is yet another example of her departure from traditional 18th-century decorum. As she believes when she is young, she should become wealthy by marrying well, not by exploiting her body and her independence after her first husband leaves her. She attempts to control her family’s finances with her first husband, which fails miserably and is left penniless. However, after he leaves her and she is both sexually and romantically liberated, she allows herself to become her financially liberated by indulging in what men such as the Landlord, the Prince, and the Dutch Merchant offer her and becoming a “kept Mistress” (Defoe, 170). Maurer states that “By shunning the male control of her money mandated within marriage, Roxana calls into question not only the broad contours of patriarchal control over women embodied in… the sexual contract’… but also the more specific model of middle-class marriage, in which men’s position as exclusive breadwinner increasingly limited women’s productive economic role” (364).

Depending on their country of residence, women in the 18th century had minimal, if any, property rights, so her attempt to not only have money but also to control it inner marriage is an act of feminine deviance in itself, but this pattern of behavior within her relationships and on her own throughout the novel is particularly defiant of societal norms. The novel is “vexed by the failure of a system, namely marriage” as well as patriarchal finances, yet Defoe’s investment “in a gender division of labor that militated women’s placement into a domestic sphere increasingly separated from the workplace means that such insolvency of the system itself cannot be acknowledged” (Maurer, 364). However, Roxana represents a different type of woman and fails to adhere to the domestic sphere, so the failure “[is being extirpated] through the destruction of the very woman who attempts to function outside its boundaries” (Maurer, 364). Although “Roxana’s optimistic portrayal of herself as wanting, at the age of fourteen, ‘neither Wit, Beauty, or Money’ anticipates by almost a hundred years Jane Austen’s famous description of the ‘andsome, clever, and rich’ Emma Woodhouse,” her feminine deviance from female characters such as Emma in relation to both money and female relationships is evident to nearly any reader of 18th century literature (Defoe, 7; Maurer, 368). The final way in which Roxana displays feminine deviance is in her relationship with Amy, which is filled with suggestions of homoeroticism throughout the novel.

Literary theorist Ellen Pollak says of the 18th century that, “as sexual objects and reproducers, women were expected to answer to both class and kinship imperatives – but to operate first and foremost as members of a family unit, not as independent productive agents…” and in Roxana, Roxana and Amy are neither a family unit nor independent productive agents, but consistently intertwined individuals (148). While “Men entered into the class-dominated structures of history,” women “remained defined by the kinship patterns of organization … harnessed into the family” (Pollak, 148). Part of both Amy and Roxana’s feminine deviance is their failure to harness themselves to their families, despite the fact that both women have had children and at certain times, one has a husband. Roxana frequently makes statements about Amy that suggest an unusual closeness, such as the fact that they regularly sleep in the same bed, and that she was as “faithful to me…as the Skin to my Back” (Defoe, 25). Likewise, at the end of the novel, Roxana calls her “Amy, who knew my Disease,” which suggests that Amy is aware of Roxana’s sexual deviance or her potential insanity (Defoe, 239). Additionally, the scene in which Amy and the Landlord have sex is particularly suggestive. Roxana narrates that, … Amy came into the Chamber to undress me, and her Master slipt into Bed first; then I began, and told him all that Amy had said about my not being with-Child, and of her being with-Child twice in that time: Ay, Mrs Amy, says he, I believe so too, Come hither, and we’ll try; but Amy did not go… Nay, you Whore, says I, you said, if I wou’d put you to-Bed, you wou’d with all your Heart: and with that, I sat her down, pull’d off her Stockings and Shooes, and all her Cloaths, Piece by Piece, and led her to the Bed to him. (Defoe, 32-33)

According to literary theorist Terry Castle, this scene’s “implications for Roxana’s sexual personality are completely ignored” throughout the rest of the novel, but that it suggests just as much about Roxana’s sexuality as it does the characters having sexual intercourse (82). Here, Roxana seems to have full control over Amy’s sexual agency and despite her reluctance, Amy allows it. Likewise, the way in which Roxana describes stripping Amy’s clothing off suggests a certain familiarity with getting another woman naked, which also points towards a homoerotic relationship between the two women. Roxana may be the “period’s most famous whore” because she calls herself one, in addition to her Amy. Roxana states that “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” (Defoe, 48). This suggests both emotional closeness and sexual similarity, which is the ultimate feminine deviance because she is rebuffing not only the institution of marriage, but also the sexual need for men. Roxana’s feminine deviance implies that there is no marital, financial, or sexual need for men, which ultimately suggests that she is craving a male-less society.

Similarly, Lady Macbeth’s role in Macbeth concludes with her in a “hystericized trance”: Like Roxana, she is attempting to command those around her and therefore maintain her social identity, but she is entirely absent to herself. Because there is no real place for her among the other characters and consequently her social identity is indefinable and her personal identity suffers. Literary theorist Joanna Levin suggests of Lady Macbeth that the hystericized woman emerges as the exemplar of disorderly femininity most in need of proper patriarchal governance, and Roxana fits into a similar mold (45). Roxana’s inability to “remain within the sphere of “proper”—which is to say chaste and dependent—sexual and economic behavior poses a similar threat to emerging eighteenth-century beliefs about women’s proscribed domestic role” supports argument that “what passes as ‘maternal instinct’ may well be a culturally constructed desire [for something else] which is interpreted through a naturalistic vocabulary,” but there is only such vocabulary for Roxana, there is none the novel’s male characters or for Amy (Levin, 45-46). However compelling as a figure for a radical feminine alterity, the unruly, unsatisfied Roxana must not preclude either the non-maternal or the rational woman “whose being she putatively overwhelms, nor obscure the conditions of her own production and reproduction,” (Levin, 46). Only when this deviant mother becomes involved in her daughter’s murder is she returned to the realm of discourse and politics can the damage done in their names be brought to an end. As Maurer states, “Roxana’s attempts to style herself a ‘Man-Woman,’ to enjoy Amazonian independence from male economic and sexual control, necessarily situate her outside the bounds of prescribed femininity, into a category of otherness that, under patriarchy, leads both to her own destruction and to that of the daughter who bears her name” (383).

Works Cited

Castle, Terry J. “‘Amy, Who Knew My Disease’: A Psychosexual Pattern in Defoe’s Roxana.” ELH, vol. 46, no. 1, 1979, pp. 81–96. Web. Accessed via JSTOR.

Defoe, Daniel. Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress. 1724. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Levin, Joanna. “Lady Macbeth and the Daemonologie of Hysteria,” ELH, vol. 69, no. 1, 2002, pp. 21-55. Web. Accessed via Project MUSE.

Maurer, S. L. “‘I wou’d be a Man-Woman’: Roxana ‘s Amazonian Threat to the Ideology of Marriage.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 46 no. 3, 2004, pp. 363-386. Web. Accessed via Project MUSE.

Pollak, Ellen. “Gender and Fiction in Moll Flanders and Roxana.” The Cambridge Companion to Daniel Defoe, by John Richetti, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 139–156.