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Moll Flanders | Context

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17th-Century England and America

Moll Flanders takes place in England (mostly London) and America (mostly Virginia) in the second half of the 17th century. At the time London was a center of trade and industry, stimulating growing capitalism (an economic system characterized by private industry) and with it the power of the emerging bourgeoisie, or middle class. London was booming, its population growing to 630,000 by 1715, an enormous number at the time. In fact, other than Paris, London was the largest European city.

However, trade—and hence economic rise—remained primarily the privilege of men, since women did not have the legal rights in most cases to conduct business, a fact that informs much of Moll's predicament throughout the novel. Born out of wedlock to a woman convicted of a crime, Moll represents a 17th-century lower-class woman. Lacking financial independence, these women were often forced to attach themselves to men for economic survival.

The fast growth of the city brought with it the growth of crime. City streets were frequented by pickpockets, while country roads were often targeted by highwaymen, who forced their victims at gunpoint to hand over valuables. The absence of an organized police force meant it was up to the victim to bring the case to the constable—usually a wealthy, and sometimes corrupt, parish holder—and the courts. Hence, crime often paid—that is, until a criminal was caught and tried. Punishment was harsh: even non-violent crime was often punished by death, or transportation to the colonies.

Colonization—the practice of acquiring foreign lands, populating the lands with settlers, and exploiting native people and resources for the economic gain of the mother country—began in the late 16th century and continued into the 20th century, affecting many regions in the world, America among them. In the late 17th century the colonies were a place for adventurers, free-thinking entrepreneurs, religious outcasts, and criminals. In the novel, Moll Flanders travels to Virginia twice, first as the wife of a prosperous landowner, and second as a criminal who serves time as an indentured servant in the colonies in lieu of a death sentence.

The Role of Women in 17th-Century England

Although published in 1722, Defoe's Moll Flanders takes place in the 17th century. England in this era was a class-based society, meaning upward social mobility through education or hard work was difficult. It was also a patriarchal society dominated by men. As a result, women were mostly legally dependent on the men in their lives—their fathers, brothers, or husbands. Women were bound by coverture, which meant that after marriage a woman gave up all her property and legal rights—formerly held by her father or brother—to her husband, essentially becoming one with him in a legal sense. This meant economic stability, but also complete dependence. Higher education was available only to men, and most professions were restricted to men. Consequently, women had to look toward marriage as a means of economic stability and survival.

In the 18th century some boarding schools for women were established. However, these schools were mostly meant for the upper classes and taught writing, music, and sometimes foreign languages, rather than subjects that would enable students to earn an independent living. Women in this era were supposed to run the household. For upper- and middle-class women, this meant handling servants. For lower-class women, this meant becoming a servant—a fate Moll Flanders desperately wants to avoid. Instead, she wants to be a gentlewoman—in other words, an independent woman. However, life as an independent (i.e., unmarried) woman was extraordinarily difficult, as the only respectable professions other than servant were seamstress, washerwoman, or midwife. Intent on avoiding this fate all her life, Moll continually strives to attach herself to men of means. While she describes herself as a whore, the term cannot be confused with its modern interpretation of a prostitute. Instead, Moll was a kept woman, engaging in sexual relations with men outside marriage to guarantee her financial security.

Pregnancy and childbirth—both constant companions in a woman's life at the time—carried extraordinary hazards. Many women died in childbirth, and many infants were stillborn or died in infancy. Readers may find Moll's seemingly unemotional and callous attitude towards her children offensive—she readily abandons every one of them, leaving them to be raised by the father's family and servants, or even strangers. However, as a single woman, she had no means to support them. In the harsh context of economic insecurity, close familial relationships are viewed as a luxury of the rich.

Literary Traditions

Defoe has often been called the father of the novel, mostly for his literary contributions Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, and Moll Flanders, published in 1722. When in the Author's Preface Defoe distinguishes Moll Flanders from "novels and romances," and calls it instead a "private history," he stresses the truth-value that has since become a defining characteristic of realistic fiction. At the time, novels were adventure stories set in faraway lands, recounting tall tales such as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, published in 1726, only four years after Moll Flanders. As a fictional memoir, Moll Flanders draws on the genre of the confessional, telling the often-scandalous stories of real-life criminals confessing their crimes. Remorse, as well as an attempt at justification, characterized many of these stories. Similarly, Moll repeatedly claims repentance and continually justifies her actions by economic necessity.

At the same time, the novel draws on the tradition of the picaresque, made famous by Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, published in 1605 and 1615, and Hans Jacob Christoph von Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus, published in 1669. A story of an unlikely hero, usually of humble birth, the picaresque follows an outsider as he drifts from milieu to milieu in an effort to fit into a society that rejects him. Changing and often questionable moral convictions come with the territory, as the hero is forced to adapt to constantly evolving circumstances to survive. Born on the fringes of respectable society in Newgate prison and growing up a virtual orphan, Moll goes through repeated ups and downs as she fights for economic survival, claiming that her opportunism, her repeated marriages and affairs, and her criminal activities are justified by the disadvantaged position of unmarried women at the time.

The growing literacy rate of the middle class in the 18th century created a greater need for reading materials that did not exclusively deal with the life of the aristocracy or upper classes, explaining the popularity of realistic novels such as Moll Flanders. Writing novels became a potentially lucrative profession in this era.
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