"Roxana" stands unique among Daniel Defoe's work in that it ends a tragedy. The work is a lot more than that, however. "Roxana" dispenses with the formalities associated with many texts and paints sex as a commodity from the very get-go. Roxana ends up a tragedy not so much because of what transpires at the end of the novel, but because Roxana herself cannot deal with her decision to prostitute herself: Roxana is a tragic figure because at the end she cannot reconcile her morals, her guilt and the fact that although she has been able to achieve wealth through her actions, through social upward mobility has eluded her, partly through her own eyes. In fact, her reliance on her beauty and body compound this desire for social upward mobility, and eventually result in a sort of manic race to delude not only her daughter, newest Dutch husband and society as to her past, but herself as well, the coup de grace of vanity.
"Roxana" even begins with the narrator effusing a surprising awareness of her social status and infusing the work with an unerring picture that its protagonist is an aspiring social climber: "London, a large and gay City, took with me mighty well, who, from my being a Child, lov'd a Crowd, and to see a great many fine Folks." (5)
Roxana constantly argues for being better than she actually "is." She is a Frenchwoman, but protests several times even in the first few pages that hers are English mannerisms, not at all French. In fact, she insists that she speaks in a perfect English accent as well, completely devoid of the French influence that "marred" the first 10 years of her life.
For instance, "I went to English schools, and being young, I learnt the English tongue perfectly well, and with all the customs of the English young-women; so that I retained nothing of the French, but the speech; nor did I so much as keep any remains of the French language tagg'd to my way of speaking, as most Foreigners do, but spoke what we call natural English, as if I had been born here." (6)
In that passage, Roxana "doth protest" that she is someone whom she truly is not several times. The most telling turn of phrase is, most definitely, "what we call natural English." Not only does Roxana falsely infuse herself into a culture as a native when she is not, she assigns herself a certain status: She gives herself the status of one who is so ensconced in a society as to be able to point out the outsiders -- the foreigners -- and assign terms to her group of natives.
For Roxana, this is part keeping up appearances, and part fooling herself. This is key foreshadowing, as she uses that same ability to fool herself to convince herself several pages onwards that she is correct -- or at least, without option -- in sleeping with the landlord for rent money and much more.
"Roxana" waxes tragic because Roxana fails to heed her maid Amy's moralistic ramblings on prostitution early in the novel. Roxana recoils from the sheer thought of selling herself to her landlord for rent and a comfortable existence when Amy interposes the fact that she is truly not prostituting herself if she does it for her very survival -- and her children's very survival.
At first, this thought process rings hollow with Roxana: "Why, madam, says Amy, I hope you won't deny him, if he should offer it."
"What d'ye mean by that, Hussy, said I? No, I'd starve first."
"I hope not, Madam, I hope you would be wiser; I'm sure if he will set you up, as he talks of, you ought to deny him nothing; and you will starve if you do not consent; that's certain."
"What, consent to lye with him for bread? Amy, said I, how can you talk so?"
"Nay, Madam, says Amy, I don't think you wou'd for any thing else; it would not be lawful for any thing else, but for bread, Madam; why nobody can starve, there's no bearing that, I'm sure."
"Ay, says I, but if he would give me an estate to live on, he should not lye with me I assure you." (28)
But in fact, that is exactly what the landlord does: Through what can best be described as "fuzzy law," he justifies the fact that both he and Roxana are married. He claims that in situations such as theirs where the spouses are away indeterminably, it is entirely legal to perform adultery and cohabitate. He is not even shy about introducing the fact that he is a man of means and she is a woman without.
These persuasions actually do sway Roxana. The interesting observation is, had not the landlord and Amy so diligently argued for the necessity, morality and legality of this act of prostitution, surely Roxana would have done so herself. She wants to lye with the landlord, and sees it not only as a way out, but a not-very-despicable way out either, truth be told.
Roxana convinces herself that what she is doing is correct. She in fact implores Amy to stop talking and persuading lest she change her mind, which is already made up before she lies with the landlord. Here, Roxana treads the fine line between mistress and Whore. One of the most impressive qualities of Roxana is that though she takes pains to convince herself that what she is doing is correct -- morally, ethically, practically, legally and societally -- she never hides the fact that what she is doing is prostituting herself. Even though we as readers can easily make a case for her being a mistress or even a wife to some of the gentlemen with whom she lays, she herself never makes that case; Roxana is a strange dichotomy of one who acts like a mistress, has children like a mistress, lives life like a mistress, has the social aspirations of at least a mistress but much more like a wife, but is fully convinced that she is a whore.
Indeed, Roxana actually begins to fall for the men who are, technically, her Johns. She establishes that she is very much taken in by the landlord's generosity. However, even that is partly a sham, a sham on herself: Roxana qualifies her "love" for the landlord by observing that one of the reasons she is so enamored of him is that he has bestowed all of this wealth and these gifts upon her without desiring anything else in return.
Of course, it is patently obvious to all concerned -- Amy, the reader and even Roxana herself -- that the landlord desires more than just friendly companionship. Even whilst the landlord kisses her and makes verbal love to her, Roxana persists in her "belief" that his motives are pure. This "belief" is not so much a belief, but a crutch for Roxana as she persuades herself that what she is doing will not only benefit her materially, but ascribe to her socially-climbing aspirations as well.
Take the following critical passage: "I answered, that within those two limitations, I was sure I ought to deny him nothing, and I should think myself not ungrateful only, but very unjust, if I shou'd; so he said no more, but I observ'd he kiss'd me more, and took me in his arms in a kind of familiar way, more than usual, and which once or twice put me in mind of my maid Amy's words; and yet, I must acknowledge, I was so overcome with his goodness to me in those many kind things he had done, that I not only was easie at what he did, and made no resistance, but was inclin'd to do the like, whatever he had offer'd to do." (35)
Here, Roxana is willing to reciprocate her landlord's advances, and even desires the physical contact tantamount to adultery. However, she is careful to plead, both to herself and to her reader, that she only feels this readiness because of her landlord's unerring kindness to her. She couches her readiness to prostitute herself in terms of power to benefit a benefactor.
The end result of this is a power game: Roxana understands fully her power over men: She knows that because of her beauty, she is able to turn situations from where men may lord power over her -- since she is utterly broke, and they have money and the means to create a comfortable life for her -- to situations in which she is the one who wields the power. After all, if she refuses the men, or does not like their terms, she can simply move on to another who will sign onto her list of qualifications and requirements before she loves them.
In other words, Roxana needs this sham -- this charade -- to preserve the authenticity of her feelings towards the…