Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Introduction to the Author :  

Daniel Defoe was born in 1660 in London, England. He became a merchant and participated in several failing businesses, facing bankruptcy and aggressive creditors. He was also a prolific political pamphleteer which landed him in prison for slander. Late in life he turned his pen to fiction and wrote Robinson Crusoe, one of the most widely read and influential novels of all time. Defoe died in 1731.  

Early Life

Daniel Foe, born circa 1660, was the son of James Foe, a London butcher. Daniel later changed his name to Daniel Defoe, wanting to sound more gentlemanly.   Defoe graduated from an academy at Newington Green, run by the Reverend Charles Morton. Not long after, in 1683, he went into business, having given up an earlier intent on becoming a dissenting minister. He travelled often, selling such goods as wine and wool, but was rarely out of debt. He went bankrupt in 1692 (paying his debts for nearly a decade thereafter), and by 1703, decided to leave the business industry altogether.  

Acclaimed Writer

Having always been interested in politics, Defoe published his first literary piece, a political pamphlet, in 1683. He continued to write political works, working as a journalist, until the early 1700s. Many of Defoe’s works during this period targeted support for King William III, also known as “William Henry of Orange.” Some of his most popular works include The True-Born Englishman, which shed light on racial prejudice in England following attacks on William for being a foreigner; and the Review, a periodical that was published from 1704 to 1713, during the reign of Queen Anne, King William II’s successor. Political opponents of Defoe’s repeatedly had him imprisoned for his writing in 1713.   Defoe took a new literary path in 1719, around the age of 59, when he published Robinson Crusoe, a fiction novel based on several short essays that he had composed over the years. A handful of novels followed soon after—often with rogues and criminals as lead characters—including Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, Captain Singleton, Journal of the Plague Year and his last major fiction piece, Roxana (1724).   In the mid-1720s, Defoe returned to writing editorial pieces, focusing on such subjects as morality, politics and the breakdown of social order in England. Some of his later works include Everybody’s Business is Nobody’s Business (1725); the nonfiction essay “Conjugal Lewdness: or, Matrimonial Whoredom” (1727); and a follow-up piece to the”Conjugal Lewdness” essay, entitled “A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed.”    

Death and Legacy

Defoe died on April 24, 1731. While little is known about Daniel Defoe’s personal life—largely due to a lack of documentation—Defoe is remembered today as a prolific journalist and author, and has been lauded for his hundreds of fiction and nonfiction works, from political pamphlets to other journalistic pieces, to fantasy-filled novels. The characters that Defoe created in his fiction books have been brought to life countless times over the years, in editorial works, as well as stage and screen productions.  

    Introduction to the Novel :  

Considered one of the great English novels, Defoe’s book follows Moll Flanders as she struggles to avoid the deadly poverty of 17th-century England. From a prison-birth to final prosperity, Moll reckons love, theft and prostitution in terms of profit and loss and emerges as an extraordinary character. This vivid saga of an irresistible and notorious heroine – her high misdemeanours and delinquencies, her varied careers as a prostitute, a charming and faithful wife, a thief, and a convict – endures today as one of the liveliest, most candid records of a woman’s progress through the hypercritical labyrinth of society ever recorded.  

  Moll Flanders, published in 1722, was one of the earliest English novels (the earliest is probably Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, published in 1688). Like many early novels, it is told in the first person as a narrative, and is presented as a truthful account, since at that time the idea of a long, realistic work of fiction was still new. It is not only an extremely entertaining and action-packed story, but also gives a valuable and lively picture of 17th century society. Although Moll is an exceptional character because of her ingenuity and extraordinary life, the problems that Moll faces are firmly rooted in her society.

    As the daughter of a transported convict, she begins life at a great disadvantage: she lacks the support system of family and friends which all children need, and which was particularly necessary for women, since their access to employment was limited. Without any system to protect them, the children of convicts are thrown into the world with no training in any trade and no prospects other than starvation or the same life of crime that ended so badly for their parents. Moll herself was very lucky to be taken in: the parish (the area served by one church) were under no obligation to take care of penniless children who were not born there, or had no other particular claim to charity: “I was not a parish charge upon this or that part of the town by law.”  

  When Moll is a young girl, she is forced to go into service as a maid because she would not be able to make a living sewing and spinning. Maids were paid very little, but at least they were fed and clothed. The fact that women were not able to support themselves legally (the assumption being that their husbands or father would contribute to their support from their higher wages) always underlies Moll’s decisions: she really needs to get married. When she is widowed at the age of 48, she is too old to hope to marry again, and has little choice but to embark on a life of crime.

    In the 17th century, crime (at least thievery) really paid, because labour was very cheap and things were very expensive. Before the era of industrialization, the production of objects took an immense amount of labour: a piece of cloth could be the result of many hours of work, though stealing it might only take a minute. Even though labour was very cheap, the sheer amount of it which was required to make an object added up to make theft a profitable line of business. For example, the governess bought a lady’s watch that Moll stole for 20 guineas, presumably less than it was worth, since it was stolen; 20 guineas would have supported one of Moll’s children for 4 years. It would be by no means easy for Moll to make a living doing honest work, but she grows rich rapidly as a pickpocket. The emphasis on cloth underscores the fact that the production of cloth was a very important part of the 17th and 18th century English economy.

    Theft was not the only illegal occupation open to women. In the 17th and 18th centuries, prostitution was widespread in London. This was probably the result of a social system in which poor women could hardly make an honest living, and completely lost their reputations if they were seduced, thus making it almost impossible to get an honest job. A “fallen woman” had little choice but to remain on the ground. Also, men could not engage in extramarital sex with respectable women, and commonly married late.     Theft and prostitution were not without their risks, however: a thief could be transported or hanged for stealing a watch or a length of cloth. At the very least, they could expect to spend several weeks in Newgate Prison, a lively but hellish place.

    Transportation to Virginia was considered a terrible punishment, even though transported convicts could eventually hope to be freed and settle their own land. The difference between colonial America as viewed by Americans, and as viewed by the colonizing English, is worth noticing. We are in the 17th century, long before any breath of revolution: Virginia is simply a place where good money can be made raising tobacco.

    Prostitutes could not defend themselves well from infection or pregnancy. Syphilis was probably introduced into Europe from the Americas, in exchange for small pox and a host of other diseases. It appeared in Naples in 1493, and ravaged its way through Europe, known generally as the French Pox, except in France where it was called the Naples Disease. It was treated in a variety of harmful and ineffective ways, including the use of mercury, a dangerous poison. Some people argued that it could not be sexually transmitted because so many monks had it! But by the time of Moll Flanders, there was apparently little doubt that it was a venereal disease. It appears commonly in 18th century engravings as a punishment suffered by lustful sinners, weakening aristocratic families when infected children were born. Pregnant prostitutes might be chased from parish to parish since the authorities would not want to have to take charge of the unwanted infant. They could take refuge in houses like that of Moll’s governess, who had presumably bribed the parish so they wouldn’t bother her. Unwanted children could be given to country families to be taken care of, along with a sum of money. However these children were often neglected, and in any case rates of child mortality were very high. Many of Moll’s many children quietly disappear, presumably fallen prey to illness. Perhaps because of the high rates of child mortality, some mothers guarded against becoming too attached to their children. Other familial ties were less strong also: people married for money rather than for love.

  Despite all these difficulties and dangers, the picture Defoe gives of 17th century England is not altogether black. Its inhabitants seem to enjoy themselves quite a bit whenever they have a little money. Although the gaiety is rather frenetic, and pleasure is rarely without attendant dangers, there seems to be no doubt in Moll’s mind that life is well worth having. Perhaps the spice of danger is what gives Moll Flanders, and the society it represents, such a vivid and intensely alive quality.

        Major Themes

I. Greed 

The major recurrent theme in the novel is that of greed — a greed which leads Moll to prostitution, thievery, and moral disintegration. Moll sees people as commodities — her relationships with them as business transactions. Although she is in love with the eldest brother, she has few qualms about taking money from him. She then accepts a bribe from him to marry his brother Robin. She easily consigns her children to the care of their grandparents and considers herself lucky. “My two children were, indeed, taken happily off of my hands by my husband’s father and mother, . . .” She chooses husbands on the basis of their affluence or social class. When the first one dies she muses, “I had preserved the elder brother’s bonds to me to pay me £500, which he offered me for my consent to marry his brother; and this, with what I saved of the money he formerly gave me and about as much more by my husband, left me a widow with about £1200 in my pocket.” She takes money for prostitution. She steals from children and from people in distress. And only when she is too old to do otherwise does she repent.

  It appears that Defoe consciously manipulates the reader to view Moll as a covetous individual. The terms he uses in the novel are very often economic, with direct recordings of Moll’s business and criminal transactions. In journalistic fashion, Defoe itemizes the booty of Moll’s first criminal venture: ” . . . I found there was a suit of childbed-linen in it, very good and almost new, the lace very fine; there was a silvery porringer of a pint, a small silver mug and six spoons, with some other linen, a good smock, and three silk handkerchiefs, and in the mug, in a paper, 18s.6d, in money.”

  In fact, at nearly any point in the book, the reader is able to approximate what is Moll’s economic standing. Unfortunately, our knowledge of her inner life suffers. Kenneth Rexroth notes, “Moll Flanders has no interior life at all, and the material facts with which her character is constructed do not increase her individuality. They are chosen as facets of her typicality.”  

Defoe, in the Preface, insists that he is writing the book as a moral lesson to “give the history of a moral life repented….” But Moll seems to flourish in her life of crime and actually the lesson we learn is that to survive one must fight with the weapons one has. Defoe was writing in a new, capitalistically oriented England. To have played the genteel lady would have meant a life of poverty for Moll. This was a decision which the social environment of the day forced on many people; Moll Flanders can be considered a good example of the criminal of that time who is forced into a life of crime by social conditions which leave few other alternatives. We cannot, thus, consider them too harshly for they are protagonists in the constant battle for survival which society imposes on the poor.  

  II. Vanity

  An important theme of Moll Flanders is that vanity is the force that prevails over virtue. It is vanity that determines Moll’s behaviour in the first part of the book. Moll’s vanity facilitates her seduction by the elder brother. It is also a strong motif which runs through Moll’s five marriages and numerous lovers. It is a factor which precipitates her decision to steal rather than remain poor and exist only by the honest labour of her needle. In fact all her actions are in some way linked to her vanity.  

  III. Repentance

  The theme of repentance is a recurring one in Moll Flanders. She constantly entertains the desire to repent. Lacking true moral persuasion these repentances are, until the end, half-hearted and insincere. She lacks moral strength; her moral fibre is quickly overcome on several occasions by the slightest pressures or inducements. Her will at times seems to be completely enslaved. Her first repentance comes when Robin asks her to marry him: “I was now in a dreadful condition indeed, and now I repented heartily my easiness with the eldest brother; not from any reflection of conscience, for I was a stranger to those things, but I could not think of being a whore to one brother and a wife to the other.”

  Actually, Moll’s repentance seems more like regret for having underestimated her chances for a better arrangement.   It is evident as the book unfolds that Moll has not been “led astray.” She has very shrewdly calculated the course of her life. Throughout the story Moll considers or reflects on the path her life is taking. The occasion of Robin’s marriage proposal causes Moll to say to the elder brother, “Upon serious consideration, for indeed now I began to consider things very seriously, and never till now I resolved to tell him of it.” Again Moll considers what to do when she realizes she is not as bad as the people living in the Mint. She says, “I was not wicked enough for such fellows as these yet. On the contrary, I began to consider here very seriously what I had to do; how things stood with me, and what course I ought to take.”

  When the gentleman at Bath rejects any further contact with Moll, she reports “I cast about innumerable ways for my future state of life, and began to consider very seriously what I should do, but nothing offered.”

After her Lancashire husband leaves and Moll is back in London alone she says that “here being perfectly alone, I had leisure to sit down and reflect seriously upon the last seven months’ ramble I had made, . . .” After she is delivered of another baby and receives a letter from her London bank clerk saying he wants to see her again Moll is “exceedingly surprised at the news, and began now seriously to reflect on my present circumstances, . . .” She appears to reproach herself just before she marries him: “Then it occurred to me, ‘What an abominable creature am I! and how is this innocent gentleman going to be abused by me!’ How little does he think, that having divorced a whore, he is throwing himself into the arms of another!”   Nevertheless, she marries him and after his death begins her criminal career. As can be noted, many of her partial repentances dissipate into further scheming. Ironically Moll’s energies are too consumed in manoeuvring herself out of a bad situation to worry seriously about saving her soul.   When Moll is first committed to Newgate she makes the following statement: “Then I repented heartily of all my life past, but that repentance yielded me no satisfaction, no peace, no, not in the least, because, as I said to myself, it was repenting after the power of further sinning was taken away. I seemed not to mourn that I had committed such crimes, and for the fact, as it was an offense against God and my neighbour, but that I was to be punished for it. I was penitent, as I thought, not that I had sinned, but that I was to suffer and this took away all the comforts of my repentance in my own thoughts.”

  This passage clearly shows another shallow repentance by Moll. She fears not for her spiritual state but for her physical being.   Even during her stay in Newgate, Moll does not appear to really repent until quite some time after her talk with the pastor. And perhaps even then Moll is really worried about being hanged. The very fact that she insists on securing her inheritance shows how the possession of earthly goods has much more meaning to Moll than the acquisition of spiritual well-being. In fact, we see a meaningful contrast between Moll’s character and that of the governess, a former crook who seemingly has truly repented.   Note that the tears Moll weeps from time to time are merely an emotional release rather than a sign of true repentance, for even after the shedding her heart quickly hardens against her victims and she continues their victimization. This is shown, for example, when she steals the bundle from the burning house. Whatever regret Moll has is weak indeed: “with all my sense of its being cruel and inhuman, I could never find in my heart to make any restitution.”

    IV. Hardening 

The question as to whether Moll ever really becomes a hardened criminal is an interesting one. We have seen that, motivated by greed, she has been able to commit the crassest of criminal acts. But Defoe still reveals to us sentimental aspects of Moll’s personality that we cannot ignore. To say that she is a thief with a soul is to credit her with more depth than Defoe really shows us. We never really see Moll’s inner life that completely. Yet it is evident that Defoe meant us to sympathize with Moll; and we are able to sympathize with her because he portrays her as a very likeable woman, who, despite her thieving and prostitution, is well-liked by her contemporaries, and seems to like them as well.

  Defoe uses irony ingeniously in the passages telling us of Moll’s thoughts during her various crimes. He often portrays her as moralistic; for example, when she steals the necklace from the child in Aldersgate Street, she feels she is actually doing the child a favour: “The thought of this booty put out all the thoughts of the first, and the reflections I had made wore quickly off; poverty, as I have said, hardened my heart, and my own necessities made me regardless of anything. The last affair left no great concern upon me, for as I did the poor child no harm, I only said to myself, I had given the parents a reproof for their negligence in leaving the poor little lamb to come home by itself, and it would teach them to take more care of it another time.” Defoe didn’t want us to condone the action and condemn the parents. Through ironic humour he gives us insight into Moll’s attempts to rationalize her felonies.

    Frequently Moll feels remorse — but it is a hollow remorse, for it neither leads her to curtail the particular crime she is bemoaning, nor does it prompt her to offer restitution. This is shown in her robbery of a woman whose house is on fire: “This was the greatest and the worst prize that ever I was concerned in; for indeed, though, as I have said above, I was hardened now beyond the power of all reflection in other cases, yet it really touched me to the very soul when I looked into this treasure, to think of the poor disconsolate gentlewoman who had lost so much by the fire. . . .”

    Moll is shown as most compassionate in her relationships with her various lovers and husbands. She seems to truly love the elder brother. And when she marries his brother Robin, poor Robin never learns of the affair. Her second spouse is a rake, but she treats him well and helps him escape from his creditors. She nurses her men when they are sick and loves them when they are well. Her relationship with Jemmy seems to be full of love and compassion. Moll is in Newgate, under sentence of death, but when she learns Jemmy is there too her remorse and sense of guilt are genuine. “I was overwhelmed with grief for him; my own case gave me no disturbance compared to this, and I loaded myself with peproaches on his account.” Moll is an ambivalent character. She is a criminal — but a sympathetic one. Her life of crime is constantly coloured by her good humour, compassion and sense of loyalty.

    Moll Flanders as a Spiritual Autobiography

  One of the major themes within the book, and a popular area of scholarly research regarding its writer Daniel Defoe, is that of spiritual autobiography. Spiritual autobiography is defined as “a genre of non-fiction prose that dominated Protestant writing during the seventeenth century, particularly in England, particularly that of dissenters”. Books within this genre follow a pattern of shallow repentances, followed by a fall back into sin, and eventually culminating in a conversion experience that has a profound impact on the course of their life from that point moving forward. The two scholars to first analyze the pattern of spiritual autobiography in Defoe’s works, publishing within the same year, were George A. Starr and J. Paul Hunter.   George Starr’s book, titled Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography, analyses the pattern of spiritual autobiography, and how it is found in Defoe’s books. His focus in the book is primarily on Robinson Crusoe, as that is Defoe’s book that follows the clearest pattern of spiritual autobiography. He does discuss Moll Flanders at length, stating that the disconnectedness of the events in the book can be attributed to the book’s spiritual autobiographical nature. He examines the pattern of spiritual autobiography in these events, with the beginning of her fall into sin being a direct results of her vanity prevailing over her virtue. Moll’s “abortive repentances” are highlighted, such as her “repentance” after marrying the bank clerk. However, Moll is unable to break the pattern of sin that she falls into, one of habitual sin, in which one sin leads to another. Starr describes this gradual process as “hardening”, and points to it as what makes up the basic pattern of her spiritual development. In examining her conversion experience, Starr highlights her motive as being “the reunion with her Lancashire husband, and the news that she is to be tried at the next Session, caused her ‘wretched boldness of spirit’ to abate. ‘I began to think,’ she says, ‘and to think indeed is one real advance from hell to heaven”. The final culmination of her repentance then comes the morning after this moment, when reflecting on the words of the minister that she confessed her sins to. Starr’s main criticism of the book as a work of spiritual autobiography stems from the fact that only part, and not all, of Moll’s actions contain spiritual significance. The overall pattern is consistent, but does not cover all sections, with some of those other sections focusing in more on social issues/social commentary.  

Character of Foll Flanders 

Moll’s most salient characteristics are her ingenuity, energy, and determination to survive and do well. She is willing to sacrifice moral principles in order to prosper, but does not appear to be extraordinarily wicked: when her continued prosperity seems secure, she can be an exemplary wife, sober and virtuous. She is beautiful, clever, and talented, and her education is better than those of most girls of her class, since she learned the lessons of the young ladies she served as a maid. Her manners are generally good and she has clean habits, enabling her to pass as a lady if she chooses. She rarely lets herself despair, believing that drooping under the weight of misfortune doubles it. She has a great amount of self control, and in particular is able to keep important secrets from people close to her for long periods of time. She is an excellent actress, and can take on different characters as easily as changing her clothes, but prefers to appear as a lady. Although she marries for money several times, she is capable of deep affection, and devotes a great deal of time, money, and effort to saving her Lancashire husband. Her affection for her children is not terribly strong, however. There are some things she refuses to do, such as having abortions or being a streetwalker. She is a very cautious thief, never engaging in violence or house-breaking, and never revealing more about herself than necessary. Her religious principles vary depending on her circumstances: she is fairly tolerant of different sects, and usually does not seem to think about God much. She is very fervent for a while in Newgate, but that wears off as her circumstances improve – however, she is never an atheist.

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  1. Monica Bhattacharya

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