Moll Flanders | Study Guide

Daniel Defoe

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Moll Flanders | Section 1 | Summary



Moll Flanders introduces herself as a criminal so well-known she cannot admit her true name because it might be dangerous to her or her family. When her mother was pregnant with Moll, she stole three pieces of cloth, was caught and sentenced to death. Due to her pregnancy, her sentence was deferred and reduced. Moll becomes motherless at six months old when her mother is sent to the colonies. She recalls little of her early years but knows she spent time with gypsies. At age three she ends up in Colchester, yet it is not clear whether the gypsies left her there or whether she ran away. In Colchester Moll lives with the local nurse and teacher at the expense of the parish. Five years later the local police suggest Moll become a maid, but she is not interested in housework and wants to become a gentlewoman instead. She convinces the nurse she should stay with her. In exchange, she would work hard and give her all the money she earns. The nurse agrees, although she considers Moll's desire to become a gentlewoman ridiculous. When she tells the mayor about it, his wife comes by to visit, suggesting Moll could indeed become a gentlewoman.

When Moll turns 10 the parish authorities decide she should stay with the nurse and help run the school. When Moll is 14 the nurse dies and Moll finds herself suddenly homeless. A wealthy woman in town asks Moll to come live with her and her daughters. Despite her lowly birth as the daughter of a lower-class criminal, Moll grows up like the daughter of a wealthy family, and she receives "all the advantages of education that [she] could have had if [she] had been as much a gentlewoman as they were with whom [she] lived." She even considers herself luckier than the daughters of her benefactor, because she is "handsomer than any of them."


The opening paragraph of the novel transports the reader immediately into a milieu unusual for literature at the time. Moll Flanders is born among the lower classes, the daughter of a thief. Moll's mother is only spared because she is pregnant. Yet her mother's death sentence still makes Moll an orphan when her mother is sent to the colonies. Moll laments the disadvantages of being a motherless child in a country that does not properly provide for orphans. It is clear she will have to fend for herself and be self-sufficient if she wishes to survive in the harsh world of the lower classes.

She becomes self-sufficient at an early age. As a three-year-old Moll leaves the band of gypsies who took care of her and seeks kinship with people more like her. At age 10 her independent spirit becomes obvious when she resists becoming a servant, the usual path of a girl with humble beginnings. Instead, Moll wants to become a gentlewoman. Although the entire town misunderstands her and believes she wants to become a lady, nothing could be further from the truth: to Moll, being a gentlewoman "was to be able to work for [herself], and get enough to keep [her] without ... going to service." Moll does not want to live a life of leisure—she wants to be an independent and self-determined working woman.

Moll's determination earns her the respect of several ladies in town, and when the nurse Moll lives with dies, one of them takes her in, offering her a life of upper-class privilege. Moll learns to read and write, speak French, and play music. In short, she receives an education she never would have had access to as her mother's daughter. Her humble birth notwithstanding, the first stage of Moll's journey has taken a positive turn: "I not only had the reputation of living in a very good family ... but I had the character too of a ... and virtuous young woman." Moll's story thus far seems to prove that despite lowly beginnings, an individual's path is determined by perseverance and character.

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