“Now I was become…a Woman of Business”: The Unstable Ontology of Value in Daniel De-foe’s Roxana
Critical discussions of Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724) typically approach the text with the intent of deciphering eighteenth-century English attitudes towards the socio-political agency of the objectified feminine subject, or salvaging fragments of proto-feminist rhetoric in Defoe’s writing. Such argumentation converges on the novel's chronologising of the eponymous protagonist’s own reflections on her position in society, as well as her alleged prostitution, mediated through Defoe’s masculine authorship. Accordingly, much critical attention has been paid to the diegetic and narratological treatment of Roxana’s body. In this essay, however, I argue that the corporeality of Roxana’s sexuality, as it is conveyed through Defoe’s writing, is in fact a conceptual red herring that obfuscates the reality of her business. Instead, I propose that the true object of Roxana’s trade, in her commodification of herself, is her image—an immaterial concept imbued with objective value. In proposing the above, I infer that the novel is rather the culmination of Defoe’s inquiry into the ontology of value and an expression of his (and the general English public’s) anxieties thereof. In the pages that follow, I read Defoe's Roxana in the context of an English credit economy still troubled by the burst of the South Sea Bubble in 1721 and, by comparing Defoe’s fiction to his criticism of credit in his Review of the State of the British Nation (1704–1713) and An Essay Upon Publick Credit &c. (1710), thus finally suggest that the moral agenda of the text addresses an increasingly unstable concept of ‘value’—in all senses of the word—more so than it does appropriate femininity. I conclude by hypothesising that the text's greater feminist potential lies in its subversion of conventionally Cartesian or humanist ascriptions of value.