Moll Flanders | Study Guide

Daniel Defoe

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Moll Flanders | Section 3 | Summary



Moll is looking for a new husband "with a tolerable fortune in [her] pocket." Her goal is to marry well: "I was resolved now to be married or nothing, and to be well married or not at all." She marries a draper—a cloth salesman—whom she believes to be a good catch. However, it turns out her husband enjoys living beyond his means. For a little while they live a life of luxury, spending his money and almost all of hers, until there are so many creditors after him he has to leave England—and his wife—never to return.

Not only is Moll now poorer than after her first marriage—"I could hardly muster up £500"—his creditors are now after her. She goes underground, assumes a new name—Moll Flanders—and claims to be a widow, effectively leaving her past behind. Living among unsavory characters at the Mint, she befriends the widow of a captain, whom she lives with for six months until her friend makes a successful marriage. While there she meets a young woman who was left by her suitor, a captain, because she dared ask questions about his background. Moll encourages her to stand up for herself. Spreading a rumor that the captain may not be marriage material, other women reject him. He comes back to her and, after a little while, they get married.

Because Moll is poor, her prospects of marriage are slim. The rumor mill worked so well that the two women decide to use this ruse to help Moll get a husband as well. With the help of the captain, they spread the rumor that Moll has £1500 to her name. Soon several suitors are interested, among them a plantation owner from Virginia. Moll tricks him into promising he would marry her even if she were penniless. He is true to his word, and they get married and move to Virginia to live on his plantation with his widowed mother. Moll bears two children, and is pregnant with a third, when she begins to suspect her mother-in-law is actually her own mother. She keeps this a secret, but cannot bear the thought that she is living in an incestuous relationship—her husband is her half-brother—and asks to return to England. Not knowing her secret, her husband refuses to let her go. Moll reveals the truth to her mother-in-law, who urges her to keep this a secret, promising to take care of her financially in her will. Moll's marriage deteriorates, and after two years she finally tells her husband the truth. He tries to commit suicide twice, and finally agrees to let her go. Moll returns to England, once again leaving a past behind.


With some money in her pocket and a dose of wisdom due to her expertise as a wife and a mistress, Moll resolves to never again find herself at the short end of the stick. Marriage has become a business proposal for her: "Marriages were here the consequences of politic schemes, for forming interests, carrying on business, and that love had no share ... in the matter." However, she falls for a man who enjoys spending money more than making it, and she ends up with nothing—worse, even, because this husband runs off to escape his creditors, leaving her with his debts. As a married woman with no money, Moll has no honorable prospects: "I was a widow bewitched, I had a husband and no husband, and I could not pretend to marry again." Divorce was expensive and difficult at the time, and it could not be initiated by women. Moll has no choice but to go underground, assume a new name, and pretend to be a widow.

Reiterating and illustrating the disadvantageous situation of women in society at the time, Moll explains: "Money only made a woman agreeable ... it was requisite for a whore to be handsome ... but ... for a wife ... the money was the thing." This section turns the notion of what it means to be a lady upside down. It seems the education Moll received in her adopted family prepared her better for the life of a whore than that of a respected wife. She has little money to her name, and hence no prospects of a proper marriage. But accepting a proposal from among the unsavory characters at the Mint is not her idea of a future: "Nothing but misery and starving was before me."

Without a man, a woman at the time was powerless, and even trickery seemed an acceptable means to find a husband. Moll's sense of pride and independence is rattled that "the market ran very unhappily on the men's side," and women seem to have no chance but to wait to be picked by a man—any man. Moll feels women should have a say in whom they marry. She rebels and encourages others to do so as well. Not only does she help her friend get her captain back, she applies cunning and wits to get a proposal from a respectable man—a plantation owner from Virginia—despite the fact she is not what society would have considered a good catch.

And yet, Moll is not without morals. When she learns that her third husband, the plantation owner from Virginia, is actually her half-brother, she cannot remain married to him. Although she helped shape what seems to be a rather happy family life with her husband, his mother, and two children, she withdraws. Her husband's refusal to let her go illustrates again that women at the time were at the complete mercy of the men in their lives. Moll has no choice but to quickly look for ways out of the situation. She wants to return to England and leave her family.

Although it is quite understandable she does not want to be the wife of her half-brother, Moll's willingness to leave her children behind suggests that her behavior is not motivated by motherly instincts. In fact, this is the second time she leaves her children behind. Moll does not consider her relationships to other people when making decisions, which is to say she is not a mother—or a wife, or a daughter—first, but solely herself. Yet again, Moll pushes aside "that cheat called love." While this may seem uncaring and lonely, it was likely the only practical course of action for a woman at the time. Unable to remain in an incestuous relationship, Moll cannot possibly take her children with her to raise them by herself. Separated from the head of the household, a single mother and her children would have been forced to live on the fringes of society at the time.

The idea of unwitting incest could easily be the subject of a classical tragedy exploring the notions of fate. Although Moll lives under an assumed name, which symbolizes her desire to leave her past—humble beginnings and two marriages—behind, she cannot escape her history.

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