Close Reading of Family Instructor Essay

Submitted By lapfeiffer
Words: 1200
Pages: 5

The Family Instructor is rife with tension between form and content. Despite the text’s insistence that one of the first steps toward making any family truly Christian is to throw out all its members’ plays, Defoe persistently seems to think of The Family Instructor as itself a play. Near the end of its preface, he writes, “The whole work being design’d both to divert and instruct, the Author has endeavoured to adapt it as much as possible to both those Uses, from whence some have called it a Religious Play.” And, lest it seem that only “some” readers—and not the writer himself— have deemed the text a play, Defoe makes clear in the Preface’s concluding moments that he is perfectly comfortable with such a designation: “As to its being called a Play, be it called so if they please, it must be confest, some Parts of it are too much acted in many Families among us: The Author wishes that either all our Plays were as useful for the Improvement and Entertainment of the World, or that they were less encouraged.” Although Defoe claims that The Family Instructor’s theatrical form is intended to serve “the Improvement and Entertainment of the World,” I want to argue that what we see in its concluding moments is a text whose course has been determined not by its desire to bring about the world’s “Improvement,” but instead by its theatrical form. The Family Instructor’s first seven dialogues are all written in theatrical form: their action takes place entirely in characters’ spoken words, and the characters’ movements and motivations are explained by bracketed statements that look like stage directions. Defoe worked to make the dialogues theatrical, consciously maintaining a distinction between their action and his notes’ analysis. Indeed, in his notes on the First Dialogue, Defoe explains that, “These Notes are not design’d to talk over again the whole Subject of every Discourse . . . but where the Case is particular, a Word may be said, which in the Dialogues would have been digressing too long, and have made it tedious” (39). None of this makes these dialogues feel particularly play-like, however. We are aware that the dialogues are set in particular portions of the house—the garden, the bedroom, etc.—but the scenery is not an important aspect of the text, serving merely as a backdrop to the characters’ conversations. The characters’ words are set up as dialogue, but what is said trumps any semblance of fidelity to actual speaking practices—the character of the father, for instance, is wont to prattle on to his young son for nearly a full page, after which the boy responds in a way that demonstrates he has been paying attention to the entirety of the father’s speech. No, it is only in the Eighth Dialogue that The Family Instructor becomes a play. The fact that The Family Instructor’s climax involves a deception plot provides clear evidence that it is this text’s theatricality that structures its conclusion. How many comedies, having spent their first few acts building up tension, resolve that tension by testing the hero’s character through a deception? Indeed, even the means through which the eldest sister and brother carry out their deception plot—a laughably foolish lying maid—is a standard element of the theatre. Surely many other plays contain exchanges like this: Mistress. Pru. Maid. Madam. Mist. Here, take the Key of my Chamber, and stay in it till somebody comes to look for me from my Mother. Maid. What Answer shall I give them, Madam? Mist. Tell them my Brother and I are gone out together; you may say, you suppose we are gone to the Park. Maid. Shall I say, Madam, that you said you were gone to the Park? Mist. No, no; say you do not know whither we are gone, but that you suppose we are gone thither; do not we use to go thither, you Fool you? Maid. If they should be very inquisitive, they may ask me what Reason I have to