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Moll Flanders | Study Guide

Daniel Defoe

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Moll Flanders | Author's Preface | Summary



Defoe begins by telling readers they will have to form their own opinions about the truth of Moll Flanders's story: "The world is so taken up ... with novels and romances, that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine." He explains his role was only to edit the woman's (Moll Flanders's) vulgar writings and to make them inoffensive and fit to be read. For the same reason, he explains, he left out some of the more wicked parts, although in order to be truthful, he had to describe some of them after all. He suggests readers will be more pleased "with the moral than the fable," and he encourages readers to put the episodes of Moll Flanders's life to good use: "All the exploits of this lady of fame, in her depredations upon mankind, stand as so many warnings to honest people to beware of them." Moll's exploits as a thief, for example, can teach readers to avoid them. This alone justified publishing the book. Defoe explains that two books—one describing the life of Moll Flanders's governess, and the other describing the life of her criminal husband—are too long to be included. He also explains Moll's life story is not complete because it would have to include her death, and no person can tell the story of their own death. Therefore, the story ends at a point when Moll's life has become agreeable, while the telling has become less and less eloquent.


The Author's Preface is Defoe's tongue-in-cheek justification for writing a novel. At the time, the genre was still relatively new and not necessarily considered highbrow literature. In fact, some scholars mark Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as the first example of realistic fiction. As an excuse, he claims the first-person narrator is a real woman who calls herself Moll Flanders to conceal her famously scandalous identity, reducing the author's role to cleaning up the subject's language: "The pen employed finishing her story ... has had no little difficulty to put it into a dress fit to be seen and ... read." When first published, the novel did not even list Defoe as the writer.

In the 17th century, highbrow literature consisted of poems and classical plays, in which noble men and women dealt with issues of love, religion, and war in poetic language. The realistic story of a lowly criminal like Moll Flanders was considered both improper and radical. To be taken seriously, Defoe assures readers he edited the story so that the main character does not come across as vile and uneducated as her upbringing might suggest. He goes on to explain that for the same reason, the most shocking episodes have been left out, and he claims the episodes that did make it into the book were not told to be scandalous, but to educate the reader. Defoe claims that, like many plays of his day, this book can be useful to the reader. He offers several examples of episodes that show how to avoid the net of a criminal character like Moll Flanders, thus pointing readers to prudent and moral conduct. He also argues for the validity of publishing a novel that deals with an immoral, wicked, and outrageous character.

Defoe's humorous justifications for writing and publishing the supposed true story of Moll Flanders is modeled upon his earlier novel, Robinson Crusoe, which was also presented as a true story told by the main character.

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