Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress

Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Does the book present marriage in a positive or negative way? Explain.

    Defoe's novel offers a complex portrayal of marriage, particularly in terms of what it means for women. The status of being a wife or widow confers social legitimacy; Amy and Roxana are careful to present themselves as either married women or widows when they move locations or create new identities. It can also be a clear path to financial gain; Roxana misrepresents her relationship to the Jeweller so that she can secure wealth and property. Later, the possibility of the Prince marrying her represents an opportunity for her to secure great wealth and a title. There are even hints that marriage can provide a woman with happiness and contentment if she marries someone she loves, such as when she finally marries the Merchant. However, marriage also leaves a woman extremely vulnerable. All of Roxana's difficulties have their root in the Brewer's foolishness and incompetence, but she has no recourse. She also cannot legally dissolve the marriage, and while she does misrepresent her status later on, it is also because she cannot escape from her first marriage until the Brewer dies. Roxana's staunch rejection of marriage reflects her suspicions that she will be economically vulnerable and lack agency and control if she gets married.

  2. 2

    Compare and contrast the characters of Roxana and Amy.

    Amy functions as a sort of double, or foil character for Roxana. Roxana initially has education, status, and wealth to distinguish her from her servant; part of what is worrying about her financial insecurity is that she might end up in a working class position herself, eliminating the class difference between herself and Amy. However, Amy's lower-class position gives her a cunning and pragmatic outlook; she is more realistic and more willing to take risks. Amy can also move more fluidly in different social situations, and Roxana often relies on her assistance as the two of them carry out their schemes. Roxana is very concerned with making sure that Amy never surpasses her on moral grounds, perhaps because she is always afraid that she will lose all of her money, and end up in a similar economic situation. Thus, after Roxana feels morally compromised by sleeping with a man to whom she is not married, she insists on Amy doing the same. Amy also functions as a sort of evil instigator, who often suggests and tempts Roxana to do things that Roxana at least claims she would never have come up with herself. For example, Amy is the first one to suggest that Roxana start having an affair with the Landlord/Jeweller, and Amy also notably suggests that they kill Susan to avoid having their identities uncovered.

  3. 3

    Why does Roxana eventually agree to marry the Dutch Merchant?

    When the Dutch Merchant is initially wooing Roxana during their time together in Holland, she is adamant that she will not marry him. The Merchant has shown himself to be extremely loyal and trustworthy; he also makes it clear that he does not intend to take over Roxana's money, and that he is willing to have her remain autonomous. Nonetheless, Roxana is too worried about losing her independence, and even the news that she is pregnant with their child doesn't change her mind. When the Merchant and Roxana cross paths again in London, she has had the opportunity to build up her fortune beyond her wildest dreams, and is no longer insecure about losing control of her finances. Roxana by this time is also older and lonelier; she knows she is approaching an age where men are less likely to seek her out as their mistress, and being back in England has made her reflect on her past (by doing things such as seeking out her eldest children). These factors make the idea of an affectionate marriage with a man she loves and trusts much more appealing.

  4. 4

    Very few of the characters in the book are named or described physically in great detail. How does the author develop the characters without any potentially identifying information?

    Only Roxana and her maids Amy and Isabel are named. In fact the name "Roxana", which is not the narrator's real name, is taken as a Turkish or Persian name. "Roxana" is a reference to Les Lettres Persanes or The Persian Letters, which was an epistolary novel in French that featured a beautiful but unfaithful young wife named Roxana who betrays her absentee husband. This reference to another novel evokes the image not only of youth and beauty but of a young and unwilling wife who resists the artificial restrictions of the seraglio and who reacts to her husband's ongoing absence by initiating a sexual affair with another man. By making use of the Persian Letters reference, Defoe takes advantage of the associations of the name, leading the reader to imbue the narrator with characteristics similar to that of the original Roxana. These characteristics include intelligence, literacy, subterfuge, and advanced skills in lying and deception.

    Everyone else in the novel is described only by their occupation, their religion, and their relationship to Roxana. She makes reference to "my husband" and also to the ship's captain, a Jewish businessman, her Quaker landlady, and other people that move into and out of her small and mobile world. Her various "gentlemen" lovers and supporters are not named, although from time to time the narrator provides a noble title such as "Lord ----" or "Earl ----". These noble titles are not necessarily earned: Roxana's last husband has a habit of purchasing these titles, and the estates connected to them.

    Not having a physical description or a name allows Roxana's various lovers to become fairly interchangeable. Although she provides an occasional bit of conversation or describes a man's actions, words, or expressed opinions, the fact that none of the men in her life have names heightens the way she views them as fungible. This rather unusual perspective, for a woman in Defoe's era, helps to develop the main character.

    Defoe develops characters in this novel not in terms of how they appear, but in terms of what they do. He allows them to develop through their words and actions, and does not permit himself the shortcut of using physical features as a shortcut for moral or personality traits.

  5. 5

    Why does Defoe leave Susan's fate ambiguous?

    Notably, Defoe's text does not confirm whether or not Susan has actually been murdered, and breaks off abruptly. Later editions often added more plot and provided alternative endings in order to "flesh out" this inconclusive ending. There are strong hints that Amy murdered Susan: Susan has disappeared, cannot be located, and the last time she was seen, she was with a woman who matches Amy's description. Notably, when Amy joins Roxana in Holland, she will also not provide Roxana with reassuring promises that she is not guilty. However, there is no explicit confirmation that Susan has been murdered. The lack of conclusive information possibly reflects Roxana's guilt and psychological trauma. She cannot accept or articulate the almost certain reality that her daughter has been murdered in order for her to maintain her wealth and status. The actual crime has already been displaced through Roxana's insistence that Amy was the one to suggest the murder, and by not fully admitting that it actually happened, Roxana avoids fully confronting her moral collapse and guilt.