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defoe & shelley - intertexuality & originality

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Defoe's Dishonesty and Shelley's Passivity:

Intertextuality and Originality

Every thing must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase, and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos gave the world an elephant to support it, but they made the elephant stand upon a tortoise. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void.


--Mary Shelley





Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are famous for being famous. Both titles are instantly recognizable, both ‘heroes’ have, as Virginia Woolf said of Crusoe, assumed a “semi-historical significance.” [1] The texts, however, have their own claim to fame; for while Defoe is often credited with writing one of the first English novels, Shelley was perhaps the first to combine science-fiction with the gothic, a fusion which resulted in a unique and enduring work. Both authors were breaking new ground, and in a way, creating a (sub)genre of their own.

This originality might at first seem to be the only thing these two very different authors share. Somewhat paradoxically, however, they also seem to share an unoriginality; a compulsive dishonesty, or passivity, which led both writers to copy others extensively, absorbing what they had copied, after slightly altering it, into their own text.

To some extent, this is the inevitable situation Barthes describes: "The ‘realist’ author never places ‘reality’ as the origin of his discourse, but only and always, as far back as can be traced, an already written real, a prospective code, along which we discern, as far as the eye can see, only a succession of copies." [2] Thus, in direct forms, such as allusion, and in less obvious, sometimes sub-conscious forms, every text echoes and interweaves an infinite number of others. In Defoe and Shelley’s cases however, this intertexuality seems to be particularly interesting precisely because it brings together an inherently ‘unoriginal’ feature of writing, with texts which are often described as innovative and original, raising questions about value, creativity, and context.

Defoe’s Dishonesty

Defoe’s publications, from poetry to political tracts to prose works, number in the hundreds. The fact that he was so prolific, as well as the notoriously short period of time he took to complete his work, could be seen to offer support to the ‘dishonesty’ argument. Ernest Bernbaum, for example, foreseeing that “originals will ultimately be found for all of his longer narratives” [3] suggests that exploitation of these originals accounts, at least in part, for Defoe’s productivity.

Although critics have questioned the accuracy of this and similar arguments, explorations of the context of Defoe’s novel almost inevitably lead to what J. Paul Hunter termed ‘the Selkirk conjecture.’ This is perhaps unsurprising, for Alexander Selkirk’s story is arguably the most cited ‘original’ for Robinson Crusoe, and as such is often a useful starting point to wider debates on topics like genre distinction, and the text’s place in the non-fictional world of travel narratives.

One of Defoe’s characteristic techniques, in fact, was to pass off his fictions as true, as autobiographical accounts. Thus, Robinson Crusoe is ‘written by himself’. In this, Defoe seemed to have aspired to the contemporary authority of the writers of travel guides, who experienced what they related and offered an account of their wanderings, ostensibly for the reader’s edification. This practice of Defoe’s may have cemented the idea of his dishonesty, and led to the search for parallels with contemporary works such as Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of…Ceylon and William Dampier’s A New Voyage Around the World.

However, as Hunter observes, such attempts to trace Defoe’s ‘borrowings’ have led some critics into “reconstruct[ing] on the basis of conjecture the events which inspired Robinson Crusoe and also those which effected its ultimate form.” [4] Significantly, almost the same words could be applied to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Shelley’s Passivity

The immediate events which led up to Frankenstein’s ‘birth’ have been much recounted. In a sense, the anecdotal beginning serves as a useful introduction, in the same way as citing Selkirk’s story could be construed as an attempt to find out, if not the ‘original’, then at least how the text came to be. How, in fact, the author discovers the story.

This was the question Shelley was "so very frequently" asked: “How I – then a young girl – came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea.” Her answer, in the introduction to the 1831 edition, begins with her childish scribbles and waking dreams; her desire to "prove [her]self worthy of her parentage". She then goes on to the summer of 1816, and speaks of the rainy evenings, the reading of ghost stories, and the challenge set by Byron. “I busied myself to think of a story” she says, and “the idea…broke in upon me.” Between the first sentence and the second, Shelley records her dream; a dream inspired, it seems, by conversations to which she was a “devout but nearly silent listener.” The night Frankenstein was born, the topic had been the 'principle of life.'

Whether or not we owe Frankenstein’s existence to this fact is a question which can hardly be answered. As Marilyn Butler points out, Shelley was writing at a time of scientific revolution, so it is no surprise that her novel should contain such a wide range of contemporary “scientific news”: from electricity, mesmerism and magnetism to vivisection and polar exploration [5]. Yet the days leading up to her conceiving of the idea - reading ghost stories, and listening to two poets discussing current scientific debates - certainly seem to have afforded the author with ‘material’ out of which to invent. Some such as Mario Praz took this to indicate that all Shelley did was “provide a passive reflection of some of the wild fantasies which were living in the air around her.” [6]

Originals and Originality

In a sense, Shelley’s work relied on and was made possible through a reflection of what was happening around her, as Defoe’s ‘strange and surprizing’ untrue true story borrowed from, and perhaps found inspiration in what was happening around him. The question is: how far is a creative method which seems to rely on altering and merging various sources at odds with the idea of an innovative original work?

Quoting Mario Praz’s statement, Ellen Moers counters it with the opinion that “passive reflections… do not produce original works.” [7]This seems to sum up the argument: for while it is a truth probably universally acknowledged that a work of literature which merely reflects or borrows from an original cannot itself be original; it is at the same time clear that no work can come to exist alone, without sources.

The question of intertextuality, of the unending picture of a picture, seems unanswerable. In such a hall of mirrors, how far can we follow the infinite “succession of copies”? And how far do these copies undermine a text’s originality? Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein may not provide an answer, but the supposed dishonesty or passivity of their authors makes these texts an important part of the question: securely within the original camp, and yet full of reflections and borrowings, Defoe and Shelley’s texts are ideal for an investigation into intertextuality and originality.

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[1] Roland Barthes, S/Z, 1975
[2] Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader, 1932
[3] Quoted in Arthur W. Secord, Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe, 1924
[4] Paul Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim, 1966
[5] Marilyn Butler, Frankenstien and Radical Science, 1993
[6] Quoted in Ellen Moers, Female Gothic: the Monster’s Mother, 1976
[7] Ibid

written: 2007