Roxana, the English Captivity Narrative, and the Myth of English Empire
The following abstract is for a paper presented at the 2009 meeting of MWASECS.
My paper explores the influence of English captivity narratives -- particularly narratives of Mediterranean encounters with the Ottoman Empire -- on the plot and thematic structure of Daniel Defoe’s Roxana. While traditionally paired with Moll Flanders, the imperial and global concerns of Roxana place it in greater affinity with Robinson Crusoe and Captain Singleton. In fact, I propose that Roxana represents Defoe’s most honest and thorough engagement with his concerns about the inadequacies and limitations that the English exhibited as they came into contact with global empires, and as they attempted to build one of their own. By drawing on the tropes and themes of English captivity narratives, Roxana subverts the myth of English imperial destiny that informs Defoe’s earlier novels, and even casts doubt on the possibility of articulating a myth of English imperialism that is not inherently self-defeating.
Traditional accounts of Roxana tend to read the protagonist’s Turkish performance as a sign of an Englishwoman’s mastery of the East, a view which anachronistically superimposes Saidean theories of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Orientalism on an early eighteenth-century text. Robert Markley’s insightful work on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe novels (which he suggests are compensatory narratives for a fledgling British Empire as it confronts the powerful empires of the Far East) is a better starting point for analyzing Defoe’s understanding of England’s relationship with the East.1 In Roxana, Defoe sets aside compensatory narratives of English power, and instead styles his novel on captivity narratives to reveal the vulnerability of Englishness as it encounters powerful Others. The relationship between Roxana and Roxolana, the European woman who became a harem slave and then sultana of the Ottoman Empire, suggests Defoe’s fears that Europeans might easily become too much like the imperial peoples they encounter abroad -- a fear justified by seventeenth-century accounts of Englishmen who, captured by Ottomans, created successful lives for themselves in an imperial and Islamic environment.
I will investigate the differences between Defoe’s presentation of English contact with cultural Others in Robinson Crusoe and Roxana, highlighting the elisions and protestations that allow Crusoe to claim a consistent Englishness in contrast with Roxana’s more fluid identity. The incongruity of Defoe’s conception of Englishness with his characterization of successful imperialists causes him to question whether the English can become a powerful empire without ceasing to be English. Ultimately, Roxana undermines the very sort of English imperial myth-making to which both Defoe and captivity narrative writers (who often celebrated their “triumph” over their Ottoman captors) contributed extensively. The novel reveals this myth-making project to be a Scheherazadean endeavor, a mere attempt to weave stories of English power to ward off an acknowledgement of an obvious English inferiority on the global stage.