Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders.
(by David Blewett)
A Moral Fable
The title page of the original edition of the novel emphasizes the scandalous nature of the protagonist's life. Her life resembles the fictional rogue biographies and the account of the lives of condemned criminals popular at the time. In his Preface Defoe however presents the novel as a moral fable, suggesting that if Moll is capable of spiritual redemption, then no one is beyond the merciful intervention of divine providence. Defoe recommends his book 'to those who know how to read it' and urges the reader to attend to 'the end of the writer' rather than to 'the life of the person written of', that is to the moral rather than to the fable.
Like Robinson Crusoe (1719), the novel may be seen as a spiritual autobiography, i.e. a fictional version of the way in which many Puritan writers interpreted their lives as a pattern of sin, repentance, conversion and redemption. Defoe, himself of Puritan belief, was among the last writers for whom old systems of beliefs and traditions still survived relatively intact. It was taken for granted that life on earth was a subject to sudden changes of fortune, that the devil was a real and potent enemy and that there was a higher form of existence which human beings could aspire to. Human life was then perceived as a pilgrim's progress towards either damnation or conversion from sin and salvation.
Through the character of Moll, Defoe especially criticizes what he calls 'matrimonial whoredom', that is marrying for financial gain rather than for love. Moll's besetting sin is however pride, the chief of the seven deadly sins. It is first her vanity that makes her fall to the flattery of the devil in the form of her elder brother who seduces her. When she loses her beauty with age, her pride shifts its focus from her appearance to her skills as a thief. Even if she does occasionally suffer from remorse, this happens only in the times of plenty and when is short of money, she easily falls to her old criminal ways again. Moll's repentance is not genuine until she faces the gallows.
All the time she is well aware of the viciousness of her behaviour, she deliberately chooses her criminal career though she could support herself by her skill as a weaver.
A Formal Amalgam
The shape of the novel is concave, i.e. Molly is finally returned to Newgate where she was born and where she experiences a spiritual rebirth. This structure copies the moral history of mankind as it is told in the Bible: the man goes from the first sin in the Garden through a variety of experimental wickedness until he achieves moral regeneration, by the intervention of divine providence. Being put to Newgate, which to Moll is a place beyond redemption, like hell, she first goes through a spiritual death to achieve a spiritual rebirth.
Moll first gives the account of her life to a clergyman who is sent to her at Newgate. The first version of her story takes the form of confession, the second version is rendered as a moral instruction. There arises a tension between Moll as the young sinner who is blind to her fate and Moll as the older penitent who already knows how the story ends. Here is the chief source of irony in the novel, resting upon a complicity and duplicity.
The novel gives the impression of an often rambling, episodic progression of events. It contains some of the aspects of a picaresque novel. The picaresque narrative emerged in the 16th century Spain as a realistic account of the life of an unconscionable rough, picaro, who by his wits survives through a series of loosely connected adventures and who often satirizes the society around him. Defoe's novel uses satire and verbal irony, it features a low-born protagonist, a protean ability at disguise, a sense of the uncertainty of life exemplified in a series of adventures, social and spatial mobility, and finally the opting for survival over personal integrity.
Puns and Allusions
Moll Flanders is the protagonist's nickname and its deliberate choice suggests the nature of its bearer. A 'Moll' implies a woman of ill repute. A 'Flanders' bears double connotation, suggesting the protagonist's dual career as a whore and thief. Women of Flanders were at the time reputed as the best prostitutes. Since the Middle Ages Flemish women had also been renowned for their cloth-making abilities, especially for the Flanders lace. The importation of Flanders lace to England was then prohibited to protect the home market. Moll delivers tips on illegal import to a customs officer in exchange for a share of the reward, hence 'Moll Flanders'.
Alluding to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Moll becomes for several years a mistress of a man she meets at Bath. By the birth of her illegitimate child with this man, she is assisted by several respectable Wives of Bath.
Childhood: Moll, daughter of a female felon, is abandoned by her mother when she is six months old. She is adopted by a group of gypsies who leave her when she is three years. Moll is then brought up in Essex in the house of a nurse who provides and keeps a school for orphan children. Moll refuses to go to service, claiming she wants to become a gentlewoman, meaning a woman with an income of her own. The nurse dies when Moll is fourteen. Until the age of seventeen or eighteen Moll goes through several households as a servant and picks up education in music, dance and languages.
Seduction and First Marriage: When she serves as a maid in an aristocratic family, an elder brother seduces Moll, who is at the time known as Betty. The naive Betty relies on his promise of marriage in future when he gets to inherit the estate. The younger brother Robin falls sincerely in love with Betty and proposes to her. The elder brother presses her to accept the proposal. He talks her into the marriage and bribes her for keeping their affair secret, as he had bribed her before for her affections. Though loving the elder brother, Betty marries the younger one. Her husband dies after five years. Betty is relieved to leave their two children with his parents.
Second Marriage: Betty moves to London and marries for affection. With her husband, a linen-draper, they briefly lead an extravagant and expensive way of life. The husband flees from his debtors and leaves Betty alone, as their only child had died. Betty moves to Mind, a London quarter famous for its houses of ill fame, and adopts the name of Mrs Flanders.
Third Marriage to her Brother: Posing as a widow, Moll marries again, this time for money. After the marriage she finds out that her husband is poor and that he also believed her to be rich before he married her. They move to Virginia to work at the plantation of the husband's mother. From her mother-in-law, a former thief and whore, now a repentant, Moll learns the circumstances which lead her to the revelation that her mother-in-law is her own mother and her husband is her own brother. Moll is estranged from her husband-brother. Despite her mother's pressure to leave things as they are, Moll returns to England, leaving her two children behind.
Mistress in Bath: Moll lives in Bath where she is maintained as a mistress by a man married to a mentally ill woman. She gives birth to three more children, out of whom only one boy survives. The man goes through a severe illness, repents his sins and breaks off the liaison with Moll. He offers her to take care for their son, which Moll accepts.
Fourth Marriage to Jemmy: Moll puts into a bank the money she derived from her this relationship. In a bank she gets acquainted with a honest clerk, married to a woman who makes him a cuckold. Moll manipulates the clerk into asking for divorce from his wife so that he could marry her. She keeps this option in reserve and leaves London for the North where she prospects another candidate for a husband. She eventually marries the man from the North only to find out after marriage that her husband is poor, in contrary to what she believed him to be. Both she and her husband were tricked into the marriage by a woman who persuaded each of them individually that their chosen partner was a person of fortune. Though they like each other, they part and Moll's husband, Jemy, gives her leave to marry again if she chooses.
Fifth Marriage to a Clerk: Moll has been keeping correspondence with the clerk all the time. When she finds out she is pregnant with Jemy, she seeks help from a woman who runs a prospering business in providing shelter and assistance to women who have reasons to give birth to their children secretly. Though Moll refuses the offer of the nurse, as the woman calls herself, to help her miscarry, she disposes of her son who goes to a foster home in exchange for annual fee from Moll. Moll marries the clerk, gives him two children and lives with him for five years until his death.
Thief: Moll, now fifty, connects herself to the nurse again, takes lodgings in her house and becomes a thief. She uses various inventive tricks and a word spreads about her superior skills. People call her Moll Flanders. Moll sees many of her fellow thieves hang but she always manages to escape. After twelve years, Moll is captured and put to Newgate. Out of self-pity and fear of gallows, she converts and repents her sins. In prison she accidentally meets her Lancashire husband, Jemy the highwayman, and feels sorry for having herself contributed to his present condition. Moll is first sentenced to death, but a kind priest helps her to achieve a reprieve and finally she is transported as a felon to America.
Planter and Gentlewoman: With the help of Moll's stolen hoard, Moll and Jemy establish themselves as rich planters in New England. Moll connects herself to her son Humphry who welcomes her affectionately and offers to manage for her the plantations she inherited from her mother. After eight years, when Moll is seventy, she and Jemy remove to England where they are to live as gentry.
The whole novel, from the author's Preface to the last word of Moll's story, may be read as a satire. Though both the author and his narrator Moll claim to present the tale as a moral instruction, the very nature of the story denies such effect. Moll's only claim to virtue is based on her supposed conversion and genuine repentance. But even if her repentance was actually sincere, it is heavily undermined by the fact that she converts only when she faces the prospect of gallows. When she escapes from death, Moll immediately returns to her practise of deceit.
Though Moll's conduct after her release from Newgate is not illegal, it is obviously highly immoral. Her conversion does not include confession: in the court of justice she is tried for a single case of theft and she fails to confess to any of her other crimes. On the ship bound to America she hides from Jemy the actual value of her property, keeping a bulk of fortune in reserve just for herself. Later in America she seeks out her son whom she had with her brother-husband for the sole purpose of finding out what she inherited from her mother.
The character of Moll, the unemotional creature driven by sheer self-interest, may be seen as a highly discomforting personification of vice rewarded. Though she herself does not show any pure affection to anyone, she evokes surprisingly sympathetic feelings in other people. The kind priest is strangely not at all shocked by Moll's confession to her criminal life, but quite on the contrary he pleads for her release. Moll's son Humphry does not feel any bitterness to the mother who left him, but again he embraces her most affectionately and offers his full support. Moll not only succeeds in escaping her punishment, she even ends up as a wealthy gentlewoman, living in happiness and leisure ever after.
AuthorDaniel Defoe. (1660 - 1731).
Full TitleThe Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders.
First PublishedLondon: W. Chetwood and T. Edling, 1722.
Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. (1722). London: Penguin, 1989.
Blewett, David. "Introduction to Moll Flanders". Moll Flanders. London: Penguin, 1989.