Devilish Thoughts: Satanic Persuasion in the Eighteenth-Century Novel

Mira Sengupta Zaman, Fordham University


Based on the historical consensus that the concept of the devil expires against the forces of Enlightenment rationalism, few historians or literary scholars have attended to the devil of eighteenth-century literature, especially in the era’s budding genre, the novel. Compared to early modern works, literature of the Enlightenment seldomly features the devil in his traditional horned, winged form and even more rarely as a distinct person or character. Devilish Thoughts argues, however, that there is a distinct sense in which the devil survives in some of the age’s most popular English novels. Rather than depicting the devil’s identity, novelists Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Jane Austen shift attention to what I call satanic persuasion, the process by which people become corrupted by false, evil, or sinful ideas. Even where the devil does not appear himself, he remains “alive” in scenes of satanic persuasion, where the human mind becomes the site of conflict and corruption. This dissertation tracks the arc of this trope across five novels: Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), and Roxana (1724), Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), and Jane Austen’s Emma (181). Moving the devil from the realm of empirical reality to the uncertain territory of the imagination, these novelists neither guarantee the devil’s presence nor efface it entirely. Navigating this liminal space, novelists mark a new territory of English novelistic practice that extends the legacy of early modern devil literature and theology, but readjusts its focus to the threat of evil persuasions inside the mind. The trope of satanic persuasion serves as an important narrative and rhetorical apparatus for novelists to advance their own serious moral investigations into the nature and origin of evil. Critical events in these novels’ plots often depend on whether a character has succumbed to or resisted a demonic or evil influence. Whether the devil can disrupt free will or be used as a valid explanatory mechanism for evil becomes crucial in examining how and why characters are persuaded to sin, sometimes against their own will. For these reasons, Devilish Thoughts argues that the devil deserves his own reckoning in eighteenth-century studies.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Zaman, Mira Sengupta, "Devilish Thoughts: Satanic Persuasion in the Eighteenth-Century Novel" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13427425.