Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea

The Irony of Daniel Defoe’s Argument’s Success vs. Mary Astell’s

Posted by: Patricia Niculas

Both Daniel Defoe’s Roxana and Mary Astell’s Some Reflections Upon Marriage dissect the idea of marriage and propose their objections from a woman’s perspective. While both Mary Astell’s Some Reflections Upon Marriage and Daniel Defoe’s Roxana were written from a female perspective, Roxana, as a work of Defoe, was written by a male author impersonating a woman. Ironically, I find that Defoe’s objections and argument against marriage are more effective than Mary Astell’s.

“While a woman [is] single,…she [has] the full command of what she [has]…and [does].”

“While a woman [is] single,…she [has] the full command of what she [has]…and [does].”

Long story short, Roxana has to respond to a marriage proposal from the man she’s been sleeping with. Like any person who doesn’t understand the reasoning behind something, he asks for her reasoning so he can try to dissuade her fears and objections.

She admits she “loved him to an extraordinary degree”, but marrying, in her case, meant “giving up [her] liberty” (Defoe 2426). He then tries to refute by promising not to touch a single penny of her estate, except when (or if) she gave her consent. While she appreciates his unexpected vow, she realizes agreeing to such a marriage would “[always be] a foundation of unkindness between [them], and render [them] suspect[s] one to another”(Defoe 2427).

While Defoe negated her “principal objection”, she still had no intention of marrying him and therefore had to come up with new reasons. She claims that: a woman is “a free agent” and “born free”, “she could manage herself suitably”, and marrying at the time – because of the laws of matrimony – resulted in becoming, at best, an upper servant. The laws of the time period were especially restrictive for women. More specifically, marrying, for a woman, meant “giving up liberty, estate, authority, and everything to the man”(2427). Even with her earlier objections, Roxana’s problem is rooted in the laws of matrimony, which enable and place the power in the man’s hands, rather than the couple as one.

  • Natasha Bedingfield’s Single echoes Roxana’s argument 3 centuries later. “I’m not waitin’ around for a man to save me / (cause I’m happy where I am) / Don’t depend on a guy to validate me  / I don’t need to be anyone’s baby /(Is that so hard to understand?) / No, I don’t need another half to make me whole.” -Natasha Bedingfield
An accurate description of Mary Astell’s narrator

An accurate description of Mary Astell’s narrator

On the other hand, Some Reflections Upon Marriage, whether purposely done or not, takes low stabs at the men. While discussing marriage, she claims men not only engage imprudently, but they are also as easily persuaded as a leaf blowing  in the wind: “he, who only or chiefly chose for beauty, will in a little time find the same reason for another choice”. She labels men as “vicious”, “foolish”, and “brute[s]” (Astell 2422-23).

Paralleling her descriptions of the men, Astell/Roxana claims that women, if they were allowed to be educated, would “by [their] wiser conduct…reach such exactness of judgment, such clearness and strength, such purity and elevation of mind – and the list goes on an on(2423). By creating such a stark gap between the sexes and labeling the men as beasts, she loses her ethos – her credibility. Instead of accomplishing what she set out to do – contending for the education of women – she just ends up sounding like a bitter woman who, yes, was deeply hurt by a man, but never got over it.

It’s ironic that Defoe was more effective in addressing this issue than Astell, but it goes to show that, emotion usually gets the best of us and ends up hurting our argument. Had Mary Astell made the same claims but removed her emotional pleas from it, she would’ve been more effective in contending for the education and equality of women in a patriarchal society.  Defoe, being removed from the subject, was better able to express his disapproval of the unfair treatment of women.

  • Astell, Mary. “Some Reflections Upon Marriage.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblat. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 2421-424. Print.
  • Bedingfield,Natasha.  “Single”.
  • Defoe, Daniel. “Roxana.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblat. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 2425-431. Print.

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This entry was posted on November 29, 2015 by in Daniel Defoe, Roxana.
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