The Autobiographical and Epistolary Narrative Styles: Advantages and Disadvantages

There are many writing styles. While most readers are familiar with the omniscient, third person narrator, not too many readers of modern works are familiar with autobiographical or, specially, epistolary novels. These two styles were widely used in England during the eighteenth century, when the novel as a genre was starting to be developed. Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister seems to be one of the first, if not the first, epistolary tale, while Daniel Defoe seems to be one of the most notable autobiographical novel writers of the eighteenth century. However, when originally published, Defoe’s works were seen as authentic autobiographies edited by him instead of being seen as fictional works written entirely by him.
When people think of the term ‘autobiography’ they tend to think of purely factual historical first person narratives – a biography told by the person who actually lived. However, “autobiographies are obviously artificial representations of lives” (Adams 466). Autobiographies are written years, or sometimes even decades, after the events described in them take place. This allows the author to digest the events, see how they fit within a larger frame of reference in his or her life, and sometimes find excuses for the seemingly ‘bad’ deeds they might have done. Since the authors of autobiographies possibly romanticize themselves, make themselves seem more noble than they are, it is very possible that “the self that is the center of all autobiographical narrative is necessarily a fictive structure” (Adams 460). Jay suggests that in an autobiography, the subject “I” is not a given, but an invention: a fictitious, exaggerated self representation of the author. He states that “the self can only exist as a representation” (1046). This is one of the biggest disadvantages of the autobiography–the reader is exposed only to one version of the truth: the author’s version. The reader, while made aware of the actions of other characters within a self-centered context, is never acquainted with what goes on in the mind of the other characters. This flaw becomes even more of an Achilles’ heel in the autobiographical novel. While the events of the narrator’s life are recounted, there is no pretense of neutrality or even exact truth.
An autobiographical novel is a fictional work which focuses on the life events of a specific character or narrator. The events portrayed in these fictional works may loosely be based on certain events in the life of the author, or someone known by the author. The literary technique is distinguished from an autobiography or memoir by the stipulation of being fiction. If the novel revolves around the life of the author it is possible to obtain a manuscript resembling an autobiography. However, since the manuscript is a novel and not an autobiography per-se, it is possible that the reader may be treated to purely fictional accounts of events that never took place. When the story is based on real life events, as is the case with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, names and locations are often changed and events are recreated to make them more dramatic. However, it is possible that the story will still bears some resemblance to that of the author or the person who inspired the tale, as is the case with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which was inspired by the Scottish sailor Alexander Silkirk. Silkirk was a young man, 28 years of age, when after a series of attacks by the Spanish he feared that his ship would sink and asked to be put down in the nearest island, the island of Mas a Tierra, now called Robinson Crusoe Island, which is 400 miles off the coast of Chile (BBC). Even though Silkirk was stranded only for four years, Crusoe’s tale depicts him as being stranded for twenty seven, and although Silkirk can never become fully adapted to society again, Crusoe seems to returns to society as the perfect Englishman. One thing they have in common, however, is that both Crusoe and Silkirk return great men. While Crusoe had investments working on his favor both in England and in the colonies, Selkirk re-embarked on his career as a privateer after being rescued and within a year he was master of the ship that rescued him. In 1712 he returned to Scotland £800 richer (BBC). Both the narrative of Robinson Crusoe and the real-life story of Alexander Silkirk revolve around a young man who becomes stranded on an island, survives against all odds, and returns to his land triumphant, dressed in gold and lace.
This problem of reality versus fiction, when combined with the problem of self-representation, makes for loss of credibility on the author’s part – the reader cannot distinguish between what is fact and what is fiction, so he or she takes the entire work as fiction. When the autobiographical novel author is writing about someone else, whether it is an entirely fictional character or one based on a person, this problem becomes one of gargantuan proportions; now the reader is treated to a third person’s interpretation of someone else – an interpretation which is then exaggerated and immortalized in a novel. This can be seen in The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Etc. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums (1722) by Daniel Defoe. In this tale Moll Flanders, a completely fictional character depicted by Defoe, is constantly aiming to be a respecatble woman of means. Every ‘bad’ deed that Moll does is ‘justified’ by her being all alone, and not having a single soul in the world to count as a friend. Her ‘virtue’ comes across when she accidentally marries her brother and finds out about it. She runs away because she cannot stand an incestuous relationship, even if her mother and she are the only ones who know about her husband-brother. Since the story does not come from a real Moll, but from Defoe’s imagination, even though it was originaly advertised as the actual story of Moll edited by Daniel Defoe, it makes the readers’ perception of the characters somewhat distorted. The readers think they are reading an actual memoir edited by a respectable man, when they are in actuallity reading fiction. This results in the author’s loss of credibility
Another disadvantage of the autobiographical novel is that, since the story revolves around the life of one character, the reader is only made aware of only one side of the story. In Moll Flanders the reader never knows what Moll’s husbands are thinking, except through their interactions with Moll. Of course, this interaction ‘took place’ decades ago, as ‘Moll’ is ‘writing’ in her old age, after she has become a ‘respectable lady’ who is living out her life ‘in penitence’. It is possible that ‘Moll’ wrote edited versions of the events so that she would not seem as detestable a person as she would have seemed if the events would have been penned exactly as they happened. Of course, this is a flaw that afflicts actual autobiographies more than autobiographical novels, but if the reader is to suspend disbelief he or she has to assume that the ‘memoirs’ were, in fact, written by an elderly Moll instead of by Daniel Defoe. Similarly, in Robinson Crusoe we only get one side of the story – Crusoe’s version. This is mostly evident in Robinson’s relationship with Friday. Crusoe’s initial description of ‘his man Friday’ feels more like the apraisal of an article rather than a description of a human being. Crusoe talks about Friday as being ‘perfectly well made’ and ‘well shaped’ before focusing on his more human aspects. However, we are never made aware of Friday’s thoughts, except, perhaps, in the conversation between Friday and ‘Master’ in Chapter XV. If Friday really thought of Robinson as his master, then this might be taken as Friday’s interpretation of the conversation. However, since this is an autobiographical narrative, it is more likely that this is Robinson’s take on their conversation, one where he is master.
On the other hand, the main benefit of the autobiographical novel is that the reader is allowed to fully know the character and understand his or her motives. Since the audience is reading the personal projection of the author (whether it is a fictional author like Moll Flanders or otherwise is irrelevant) they are allowed to fully sink into the speaker’s psyche. This is noticeable in Moll Flanders. This novel often causes the reader to question if doing something immoral out of necessity is really immoral at all. Her wicked deeds are told in a way to make the reader have compassion with her, even when she intentionally harms and takes advantage of the kindest people. The readers find themselves in the shoes of the speaker, allowing for greater empathy and self-identification with the character than with the epistolary novel.
One argument for using the epistolary form is that it can add greater realism to the story, chiefly because it mimics real life. It is thus able to demonstrate differing points of view without having to use the omniscient narrator. In the exchange of letters the readers are treated to an inside view to the character’s thoughts. However, sometimes “narrators of epistolary fiction are somewhat untrustworthy or biased” (Answers Online). In this aspect, the epistolary style is like a double-edged sword: while the epistolary style in itself adds to the realism of the story, it is possible that the characters themselves are exaggerating themselves, just as one writing an autobiography would. This can be seen in Clarissa (1748, adapted into a movie by the BBC in 1991) by Samuel Richardson, a novel which was revised several times before and after publishing. In this novel there is an exaggeration of Clarissa’s virtues and of Lovelace’s evil intent. This exaggeration of Clarissa’s virtues and Lovelace’s evil can take away from the realism of the tale. Another disadvantage of the epistolary tale is the possibility of the writer not being fully knowledgeable of the characters which he revolves the story around. This is extremely evident in Richardson’s Pamela. In letter IV, Pamela praises herself to no end. Since this letter is supposed to come from a humble girl, this does not seem believable at all. In this letter, and many of the following letters, Pamela makes statements like “He [Mr. B] said, I was vastly improved, and had a good share of prudence, and sense above my years; and that it would be pity, that what was my merit should be my misfortune” (Gutenberg). Once again, this may be an exaggeration of Mr. B’s actual words, and the fact that Pamela is praising herself and telling her parents at the same time that “though this may look too vain to be repeated by me; yet are you not rejoiced, as well as I?” (Gutenberg). She, humble, virtuous Pamela, is admitting to being vain. Another set of letters that take away from the readers’ belief of the story starts in letter X, where Pamela tells her parents that Mr. B is a detestable person, but that she is willing to stay because she must finish a waistcoat. In letter XI, Pamela writes to her parents about an attempted kiss from Mr. B to Pamela. Two letters later, the parents reply:

Our hearts bleed for your distress, and the temptations you are exposed to. You have our hourly prayers; and we would have you flee this evil great house and man, if you find he renews his attempts. (Gutenberg).

In other words, “dear child, it’s ok for you to stay in this man’s house even though he is attempting to rob you of your only worth: your virginity. But if he tries again you get on right back home.” Although Richardson had four daughters, he seems to not be entirely aware of the teenage female behavior. It is possible that Richardson thought that daughters told their parents everything and never omitted anything, when this is obviously not the case. It also seems that he was not entirely familiar with the behavior of a parent who is told that his daughters are living with a potential rapist. Whatever stance the parent might take, ‘come home if he tries to rape you again’ is not one of them. This results in incredible letters which steal from the realism of the epistolary novel.
However, there is one good thing that can be said for the epistolary form: unlike in the autobiographical narrative, the characters in epistolary novels write about the events right after they take place. Although they may find excuses to justify the events, they do not know what the outcome of these events will be. These outcomes are revealed in later letters. The outcome of said events may be negative, in which case the characters may find themselves going back to write about previous events. In the end, all of this leads to the prevention of a complete analysis of the events and their outcomes, which may stop the characters from twisting facts to make themselves look more romanticized than they are.
In the later half of the 18th century the epistolary form was subject to much ridicule, resulting in a number of parodies. The most notable example of these was Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1741), written as a parody of Pamela.
In conclusion, both the autobiographical novel and the epistolary tale have strengths and weaknesses; advantages and disadvantages. It is possible that a novel that mixes both of these styles might make a better work than a novel that only uses one or the other. If both styles are used, it is possible that the autobiographical narratives may cover for some of the weaknesses in the epistolary style, and vice versa. In the end, it is up to the writer to exploit the advantages and minimize the disadvantages of each style.


“Alexander Selkirk – the Real Robinson Crusoe?.” BBC. British Broadcasting Corporation. 21 Apr 2007 .

“Autobiographical Novel.” Answers. 21 Apr 2007 .

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New Edition. Modern Library, 2001.

Dow-Adams, Timothy. “Introduction: Life Writing and Light Writing.” Modern Fiction Studies 40.3(1994): 459-492.

“epistolary novel.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 21 Apr. 2007 .

Gurkin, Janet. “The Letter Book as a Literary Institution.” Yale French Studies 71(1986): 17-62.

Jay, Paul. “Being in the Text: Autobiography and the Problem of Subject.” MLN 97.5(1982): 1045-1063.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa: Or The History of a Young Woman. Penguin Classics, 1986.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded. New Edition. USA: Oxford
University Press, 2001.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on March 5, 2010, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I just like the approach you took with this topic. It’s not typical that you simply find a subject so to the point and enlightening.

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