The twin aims of 18th Century writers were habitually stated to be to entertain readers and to improve them. Compare Gulliver’s Travels and One of Moll Flanders and Joseph Andrews, seeking to describe the author’s balance between these two imperatives and how far, if at all, they succeed in unifying them

The twin aims of 18th Century writers were habitually stated to be to entertain readers and to improve them. Compare Gulliver’s Travels and One of Moll Flanders and Joseph Andrews, seeking to describe the author’s balance between these two imperatives and how far, if at all, they succeed in unifying them.

Since the Renaissance, the twin aims of literature were popularly held to be the advancement of the reader’s learning, and to provide entertainment. Art, in painting and literature, was held to reflect both the unity and beauty of the natural world, and a spiritual or moral significance. Sir. Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet wrote:

“Poetry (literature) is an art of imitation… a speaking picture to teach and delight.'(1.)

The importance of achieving these aims in prose fiction in the Eighteenth century are reflected in the opening prefaces of many contemporary works of literature.

In Daniel Defoe’s novel “Moll Flanders,’ we are informed that the author’s intention is to warn society of the perils of an amoral life, and to demonstrate the validity of repentance in attaining redemption – both from society and God. In Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,’ we are informed at the end of the novel, that it is the author’s aim to “inform, not to amuse.’

Upon reading these works, however, it can be seen that their chief basis is one of humour, and particularly – of satire, we even find many modern features of the more popular novel at work, including sensationalism, lewdness and often explicit sexual reference.

Certainly, the reading public of the early eighteenth century demanded some kind of incorporation of both elements, especially since social and political commentary was severely restricted – often, as in the case of Defoe, resulting in harsh fines and even imprisonment.

If the task of Eighteenth century writers was to provide some kind of forum for debate, (more usually in the form of propaganda for the respective factional groups the writer supported,) it was also to provide an entertaining, but not over-literary source of pleasure for the reading public. Occasionally, as in the case of Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,’ the intended audience was primarily the governing classes: aristocrats and the landed squirarchy – those who would elect and occupy seats in the parliaments. Both Swift and Defoe, however were read by a wide spectrum of society, especially by the trade-based middle classes of London. London was in fact, the main centre of literary and cultural life in Britain at this time, and it is not surprising therefore that this is the main setting of “Moll Flanders.’

London was a virtual cess-pit for the labouring classes, and with its open sewers, crowded housing and ascendency of the gin problem, could in many respects claim more affinity with the pessimistic engravings of Hogarth than the neo-classical splendour of a recently erected St. Pauls. The plague years, 1666-8 saw a three-quarters reduction in the city’s population. It is not surprising, that Defoe, who frequently flaunted convention to attack urban problems, should appeal for an awareness of social conditions in his novels.

Moll’s frequent poverty induces her to a life of crime, in this Defoe seems to address those who are in a position to change society, whilst illustrating the social problems of London for the reader; the novel provides entertainment through presentation of Moll in a succession of cliff-hanger situations, where she is faced with poverty and destitution:

” But my own distress silenced all these reflections, and the prospect of my own starving, which grew very day more frightful to me, hardened my heart by degrees.’ (2)

Defoe’s other main moral emphasis is on the plight of the individual faced with moral dilemmas to sustain him/herself in a hard environment. Moll’s fall to crime and eventual punishment illustrates the consequences of succumbing to an amoral life. Hell is seen in terms of the abysmal conditions of Newgate prison, and in the prospect of a slow, public death; alongside this moralizing process, we witness the brutality of a merciless penal system, again, although the novelist’s tone pleads for social awareness, he also uses the situation as a climax, a sensational turning point that will decide the fate of the protagonist. Because of Defoe’s sympathetic presentation of Moll, we are able to empathize with Moll’s inner tension and suffering, but also to take a morbid pleasure in her situation:

“I was harnessed between the dreadful Apprehensions of death and terror, of my conscience reproaching me with my past horrible life.'(3)

Redemption is possible through the individual’s repentance, Moll will be saved; not only is this a moral point, affirming the validity of repentance to Christ, but it also serves as a safety valve to relieve the anxiety of the reader that Moll will survive:

“The good minister whose interest, thou’ strange to me, had obtained me the reprieve…'(4.)

Moll’s sensational, sensual lifestyle is seen in her constant escapades with various criminal organizations, in her numerous romantic and sexual liaisons with men, and in her constant reversal from security to the edge of survival, and destitution. This is seen repeatedly in her narrow escapes from the law, and acquisition of gentlemen to support her in times of crisis; Moll’s escape after her house-breaking accomplices are caught illustrates this:

“…thus, I had a second escape, for they were convicted and both hanged… I now began to be very wary, after having so narrowly escaped a scouring.’ (5.)

Moll Flanders is also instructive (perhaps even seditious,) and entertaining through its presentation of social satire. The governing classes are seen in particularly humorous terms, seen in the episode when the “Baronet’ Moll robs and flirts, actually gives her money:

“He told me he could trust me… and putting his hand into his pocket gave me five guineas.’ (6.)

The plot of “Moll Flanders’ is also humorous, Moll’s succession of husbands and children are implausible and absurd. The fact that Moll is so different from her fellow criminals, retaining her early decorum and manners – which she uses to deceive people, also seems implausible and unrealistic. Perhaps the most unrealistic element is in the way her children are taken away by others. Moll always seems to justify her lack of parental concern for her children, which is also slightly disconcerting. Moll contemplates her own incredible and amoral past:

“One that has lain with two brothers, and has had three children by her own brother! …born in Newgate, whose mother is a whore and now a transported thief; one that has lain with thirteen men…’ (7.)

Isolated episodes in the novel also add to the novel’s humour – Moll, after stealing a horse has to leave the animal at an inn with a note for the owner:

“All the remedy we had of this unlucky adventure was to go and set up the horse at an inn…’ (8.)

Swift’s entertaining qualities lie more in satire and literary devices than Defoe, perhaps, because his target audience was largely of the governing class and classically educated in society. With Defoe, entertainment and instruction are linked through the realistic, pseudo-autobiographical narrative of Moll. Her narrative is one of experience, with the outcome of her life rooted in past occurances; her particularised character, with its moral conscience, and use of explicit, concise language constantly emphasises an authenticity and intimacy with the reader. It is this sense of particularised realism that both enables us to laugh with and at Moll, and share her emotions when in distress or excitement as a plausible individual.

This particularised portrayal also enables the reader to empathasise with Moll’s condition in contemporary London, also portrayed in particularised topographical detail. Swift’s approach to entertainment and instruction is somewhat different, his central character, “Gulliver’ is reminiscent of earlier Renaissance literature in his presentation as a generalist, and symbolic character. Gulliver rarely debates his options, and is unlike Moll in narrative tone or style. Gulliver’s aim is to inform the reader in the discoveries he has made, allowing him/her to come to their own conclusions on these experiences. The main vehicle of instruction in the book is satire, and this is also the main source of entertainment. From this perspective, Swift’s satirical discourse seems to unite both aims of writing tightly together, each complementing the other.

The humorous often contains some kind of satirical undertone, and one of the the best examples of this entertaining/instructive satire is that on factionalism; the appointment of courtiers through a test of physical skill and the allocating of ribbons as if for a contest, suggests a parody of contemporary European politics, where patronage would often be symbolised by the awarding of ceremonial garters; although this satire is particular, and applies to the courts of Willliam, Anne and George I, it is also general in its criticism of the nature of any despotic, or patronage-ridden society:

“You will see few great persons around court who are not adorned with these girdles.’ (9.)

Humour combines with satire in this portrayal of European politics. From Gulliver’s perspective, particular and general satire is united in the portrayal of factions who appear all the same to Gulliver from his height. Parties are driven by the greed of interests, rather than ethics. The egg-conflict, perhaps satirising the schism in religion between Protestant and Catholic is ridiculous and irrelevant; Gulliver does not judge this conflict, but leaves this to the reader. This conflict is extended to that between Lilliput and Blefuscu. Concord and rejection of this factionalism, is seen in Gulliver’s destruction of the invasion fleet, but unwillingness to utterly destroy Blefuscu:

“I would never be the instrument of bringing a brave and free people into slavery.’ (10.)

Similarly, in narrative technique, entertainment and instruction combine. This is particularly seen in the form of Gulliver’s travels as a travel journal, with Gulliver narrating his adventures. As a parody of this kind of pro-imperial, expansionist and often exaggerated writing, Gulliver discusses utterly fantastic cultures and races which could not possibly exist. Gulliver is also presented as an unsound narrator, whose authority we cannot rely upon in the travel-writing tradition; our disinclination to support Gulliver’s decisions adds to this loss of narrative strength, and is seen in Gulliver’s acceptance of authority without question:

“I swore and subscribed to these articles with great cheerfulness and content…’ (11.)

Gulliver, Swift’s main focus of criticism, emphasises epistemology and the importance of comparison, rather than the popular 18th Century empiricism of Locke; in this way, Swift exposes the limits of rationalism as an affirmation of Western superiority:

“Nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison’ (12.)

Size is an indication of morality, as well as a source of humour. Gulliver’s relative size to the races he encounters is a satirical device by which the culture of Gulliver is compared to others. Brobdignag looks down on Gulliver, perhaps because of moral superiority; Gulliver however, does not like what he see when viewing humanity at such magnified quarters (breasts, coarse skin etc.) Devoid of supposed European beauty and pretensions, these people appear ugly, satirising the self-beleif and perceptions of the Enlightenment:

“I could not forbear, lest the reader might think these creatures actually deformed…’ (13.)

Swift highlights the difference between our material reality and spiritual / ethical pretensions, particularly relevant to the 18th Century psyche; he satirizes the artificial separation of mind and body prevalent in 18th Century philosophy (especially in that of Descartes’ “Cartesian Duality.’) Swift exposes the bestiality of man, his unexalted place in natural order when deprived of his own self-assertive culture.

This is reflected in Gulliver’s constant discussion of the need to “unburthen’ himself, and in the detailed toilet arrangements in Lilliput, to prevent sanitary disaster. The humorous dousing of the palace fire by Gulliver also suggests the necessity of practical, sometimes unproprietous acts to achieve the common good – as opposed to the intrigues and rhetoric of courtly protocol, the cause of so many European conflicts:

“The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by my labouring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine…’ (14.)

This scene has connotations of political necessity for philosophers, to concentrate of the material problems of 18th Century life, and perhaps even the need for practical reform in 18th Century sanitary health, a major problem of contemporary London. This emphasis on social reform is seen in the dreadful conditions of the Balnibarian and Laputan peoples, who live in squalor as result of a poorly maintained, inefficient country. These absurd images suggest a parody of the poverty found in contemporary Britain, and possibly, in Swift’s Ireland.

“The houses were strangely built, and most of them out of repair. The people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags.’ (23.)

The break-down of eighteenth century rationalism, and an appeal to common sense is also seen in a humorous context in the Laputan Academy, the scholars dismiss Gulliver as an exception to nature, they will not revise their systems of thought to explain him, but call him a ‘lusus naturae,’ or ‘freak of nature’ – satirizing 18th Century science:

“A wonderful solution to all difficulties, to the unspeakable advancement of human knowledge’ (15.)

Gulliver has a new perspective after his stay with the Brobdingnagians, he views the people he sees as small:

“I thought them the most contemptible creatures I ever beheld…’ (16.)

This physical perspective is seen in his attempt to pick his daughter up between finger and thumb, and in his shouting as he did in Brobdingnag. Gulliver does not, however gain a new philosophical perspective. His foolishness in laughing at the stature of his countrymen, compared to the Brobdingnagians, suggests the true absurdity of Gulliver’s own 18th Century psyche. The disorientation of Gulliver in size also seems to satirize the 18th Century literary culture of hyperbole (in Brobdingnag) and meiosis (in Lilliput.)

The most interesting discussion on reason and its limitations is seen in Gulliver’s encounter with the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, each polar opposites of reason and savagery. The Houyhnhnms’ is an Illiterate culture, perhaps lacking imagination. They are portrayed as a passionless contrast to the Yahoos, one of whom embraces Gulliver whilst swiming. The Houyhnhnms love their species as whole, rather than wives or children etc, and like the philosophical deists, they also lack religion. This sterile portrayal indicates the limits and constraints of reason, and empiricism:
“I remember it was with extreme difficulty that I was able to make my master understand the word opinion.’ (17.)

Gulliver learns the Houyhnhnm language, but this lacks words associated with the drives of a mercantile and imperialistic system, their aesthetic purity reflected in language makes it hard for Gulliver to discuss his own country:

“Power, government, war, law, punishment and a thousand other things had no terms.’ (18.)

Rejected by The Houyhnhnms, Gulliver must reconcile himself with the excramental vision, he can never be a Houyhnhnm, but must reconcile with his inner Yahoo self; he must accept the limitations of the ideal, and accept the physical, again a suggestion to philosophers. The Portuguese captain who saves Gulliver is an image of warmth and humanity, but Gulliver is sullen in this encounter, comparing the men he sees to an ideal from which he has been rejected, the comment is typically humorous:

“I was ready to faint at the very smell of him and his men.’ (19.)

The Houyhnhnms are both comic and serious – their role in the novel is to give a final rejection of the absolutist eighteenth century psyche, and promote a balance between reason and sense – or as Gulliver suggests, between reason and opinion. As throughout the novel, we are unsure whether the Houyhnhnms are supposed to reflect human absurdity in the pretence of rationalism, or the dangers of rationalism as a de-humanising and ironically, beastial product of a mind lacking the creative impulse, in fact, one devoid of free will.

Instruction and Entertainment are therefore both central issues to the novels. In Moll Flanders, the main form of entertainment is sensationalism and melodrama, its self-proclaimed improving aim, to instruct society in the virtues of repentance and morality, and the dangers of an amoral life. Although the novel has a satirical undertone which sometimes even questions this naive, polarized morality, and is particularly apparent as a social critique. The main link between instruction and entertainment here, is the particular realism and authenticity of Moll.

In Gulliver’s Travels, the primary form of entertainment and instruction is satire, which unifies both aspects of the novel, each complementing the other. In “Moll Flanders,’ the forms of entertainment and instruction reside in the shocking sensationalism of Moll’s life, in humour, and in social satire. The links between Moll’s struggle to attain security despite social inequality and inadequate social provision is reflected in satire on social values and hypocrisy, in the melodramatic consequences of Moll’s entering a world of crime, and in the sensuous and absurd affairs she enters for financial security.

Moll’s repentance, possibly a comment upon the virtues of morality, is sensationalized in the prospective death sentence, which also highlights the ethical harshness and brutality of the penal system. The status of Moll as a penniless woman, for whom society provided little choice other than to live an amoral life, provides a damning satire on social conditions, whilst sensationalizing the amoral life Moll is driven to lead as a result of her narrow choices. Similarly, the role of money in a mercantile society is both a social satire and added variable to Moll’s melodramatic dilemmas.

Both novels attain a balance in entertainment and instruction through their respective styles, although a few inconsistencies are apparent.

In Moll, we see almost an allegorical, generalized tale, of the redemption of a sinner through repentance. This black and white, purely moral perspective, does not allow for consideration of either Moll’s amorality by choice, or the social conditions, explicitly satirized by Defoe, that drove her to crime.

This aspect of the novel, the disjointed conflict between the generalist, almost ideal surface allegory of Moll Flanders, and a particularized satire which portrays Moll sympathetically, seems to dissemble the twin aims of instruction and entertainment, and instead emphasizes a subversive social critique of Moll’s brutal environment, under the guise and support of the initial two. From the perspective that I have outlined, it could be argued that to the intelligent reader, the aims of instruction and entertainment reflect a parody of the perspective the novel seeks to uphold, namely, the validity of the sinner’s repentance to society and established religion. Perhaps the most crucial argument in support of this social-critique perspective, is Moll’s constant admittance that her prayers and repentance are simply another means of deceit for survival:

“…there was not a word of sincere repentance in it all.’ (20.)

Similarly, Moll refuses to believe that her past life was one of sin, but rather of necessity:

“I never brought myself to any sense of my being a miserable sinner…’ (21.)

The fact that Moll is now landed and comfortable has reversed this opinion – she affirms that she “was indeed,’ “a miserable sinner.’ (22.)

The implication, as throughout Moll’s life, is that money buys morality, and that the poor you are, the less moral you can affort to be.

There is clearly a problem here between the surface morality of Defoe, and Moll’s amorality; Defoe, more than Swift leans toward the more radical social critique as the ultimate aim of the novel, whilst Swift seeks to expose established tenets of thinking through a satirical approach.

In Swift’s case, a fine balance is achieved between the imperatives of improvement/ instruction and entertainment, they tend to become indistinguishable in his satirical approach.

For Defoe, however, the satire is more complicated, with the true moral of Moll’s predicament, being the tragic consequences of a life under a harsh, brutal social order.

In conclusion, I think it has to be said, that Swift’s achievement is a union of the aims of improvement and entertainment, the results of which aptly suit his style, which attacks disparity and disunity, and which supports the unambiguous, paternalist and oligarchic survival of the landed elite and subject peasant – a heiarchial system without social, cultural or economic ambiguities, where everyone ought to know his/ her place. Swift’s novel is utopian and rooted in a rapidly disappearing social tradition – one which saw the modern age as a threat, whether it be in the form of Descartes’ empiricism, or Locke’s early social contract. The unity of the novel’s aims reflects this Renaissance appeal to unity and order in society.

In Defoe, with his presentation of the slums and degeneracy of London, we are presented with a less unified work, and one which contains inner contradictions that do not convince us of the author’s supposed intent. That this is a pleasure novel, is in part unmistakable, but that it does not take its subject at face value is also apparent. The partly obscured, but obvious social critique seems only thinly disguised beneath the concealing veil of satire. This novel does not attain the unity of Swift, because to do so would sacrifice the realism of uncertainty and disproportion, seen in the injustices and inequalities of contemporary society.

But Defoe does complement the realistic particular portrayal of Moll with her own authentic satirical narrative. Defoe’s balance between instruction and entertainment is therefore questionable, but whilst it does not possess the same unity of purpose found in Swift’s work, the two aims work within the sub-currents of Defoe’s writing to produce additional moral truths alongside those suggested in the preface. The novel does balance the two aims of instruction and entertainment, but perhaps with a slight emphasis on moral questions.


Daniel Defoe A Critical Study, James Sutherland, Harvard – 1971.
Defoe – The Critical Heritage, Pat Rogers, Routledge – 1972.
Fancy and the Imagination, (The Critical Idiom,) R.L. Brett, Methuen 1969.
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970.
Jonathan Swift A Critical Introduction, Denis Donoghue, Cambridge – 1969.
Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.
The Rise Of The Novel, Ian Watt, Perigrine – 1970.


(1.) R.L. Brett, Fancy and the Imagination, (The Critical Idion,) Methuen 1969. (P.10)
(2.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.188.)
(3.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.273.)
(4.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(289.)
(5.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(205.)
(6.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.233.)
(7.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.178.)
(8.) Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, Wordsworth Classics – 1997.(P.250.)
(9.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.75)
(10.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.89.)
(11.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.80.)
(12.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.125)
(13.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.131)
(14.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P. 92)
(15.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.143)
(16.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (Pp.189-90.)
(17.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.315.)
(18.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P 291.)
(19.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970. (P.335-6)
(20.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970 (P.278.)
(21.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970 (P. 279.)
(22.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970 (P. 279.)
(23.) Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, Penguin – 1970 (P. 219.)