Defoe's Dishonesty and Shelley's
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.
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.”  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.
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."  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 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”  suggests that exploitation of these originals accounts, at least in part, for Defoe’s productivity.
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
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.”  Significantly, almost the same words could be applied to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
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
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 . 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.” 
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?
Mario Praz’s statement, Ellen Moers counters it with the opinion that “passive reflections… do not produce
original works.” 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
 Roland Barthes, S/Z, 1975
 Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader, 1932
 Quoted in Arthur W. Secord, Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe, 1924
 Paul Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim, 1966
 Marilyn Butler, Frankenstien and Radical Science, 1993
 Quoted in Ellen Moers, Female Gothic: the Monster’s Mother, 1976