Moll Flanders | Study Guide

Daniel Defoe

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Moll Flanders | Section 7 | Summary



Finding herself nearly destitute after having lived frugally for two years, Moll goes out one night and happening upon an unattended package, she steals it. "A time of distress is a time of dreadful temptation," she warns, explaining that her initiation into a life of crime was due to necessity. Moll contacts her old governess, hoping to find honest work, but the governess can only offer her work as a prostitute. Moll balks at the suggestion. Moll steals a necklace from a child and valuables from a house on fire, slowly sinking further into a life of crime. She meets other criminals and begins to learn the trade: "Three sorts of crafts ... shoplifting, stealing of shop-books and pocket-books, and taking off gold watches." She becomes better than her teachers and rises to considerable fame. She claims that "one of the greatest dangers I was now in was that I was too well-known among the trade," and begins to worry that her comrades may turn her in out of envy. Nonetheless, she enjoys the life of crime and does not stop when several of her comrades are caught and sent to Newgate prison. Instead, she begins to work under several disguises. Her disguise as a man saves her on one occasion when she narrowly escapes to her governess's house, throws off her disguise, and truthfully tells the police no man escaped into their house. Even when her partner is caught, he can only give up the male name by which he knows her. Moll leaves town for a while, but when she hears her partner in a crime is executed, she returns to London and resolves never to work with a partner again.

When Moll robs a man she spends the night with, her governess realizes she knows the man, an aristocrat who used her services, and arranges for Moll to meet him to apologize. This begins a year-long affair, during which the aristocrat takes care of Moll financially. Yet, when the affair ends, Moll promptly returns to her life of crime. When she is wrongly accused of committing a crime, her governess suggests she sue the store owner. Moll does so and receives a considerable amount of money. She continues her criminal activity and becomes more and more adept at her cons. Everything seems to go her way, despite several close calls. Eventually, she is caught stealing fabric from someone's home, put in front of a judge, and sent to Newgate prison, the very prison where she was born.


Moll is at the end of her wits. Too old to find another husband or lover to take care of her, she slowly sinks into a life of crime. At first she only commits crimes of opportunity and is tormented by fear of being discovered and by pangs of conscience. But, she claims, "Poverty ... hardened my heart, and my own necessities made me regardless of anything." Survival is paramount; financial security becomes the end that justifies all means, even a life of crime. Moll is critical of her behavior, but always claims she was too destitute to resist the temptation. Yet again, she states that although she committed wicked crimes, she is not wicked herself. She quite literally claims the devil made her do it: "The devil, who began, by the help of ... irresistible poverty, to push me into his wickedness, brought me ... to a height beyond the common rate."

True to her spirit of independence and self-reliance—characteristics that have always guided her—Moll learns the tricks of the trade until she surpasses her teachers. She prefers to work alone, and refrains from sharing much of herself with her fellow criminals, thus avoiding possible detection. They don't know her real name and nothing of her background. While this is likely prudent behavior for a criminal, it leaves her utterly alone, with no confidant other than her governess, the only lasting relationship in this period of her life. At her behest and under her guidance, Moll becomes a master criminal who, despite close calls, seems nearly invincible. Eventually, necessity alone does not drive Moll to continue her life of crime. Moll admits, "Poverty brought me into the mire, so avarice kept me in, till there was no going back." She falls prey to the sins a life of crime entails, yet enjoys it nonetheless. She feels pride in her successes, greedily goes back for more, arrogantly believes she cannot be caught, and selfishly lets others pay for her crimes.

Although there were numerous opportunities for her to end her life of crime during many periods of relative wealth, Moll does not. In the end, she gets caught and is sent to Newgate, the very prison where she was born. Now that it is too late, she laments her decisions. Moll seems more critical of herself for not getting out before she got caught than for committing the crimes themselves. In short, had the life of crime continued to pay, Moll might very well have kept living it. As she herself admits, "It was repenting after the power of further sinning was taken away."

This is the longest section in the novel, and it offers many detailed descriptions of Moll's criminal life—her slow descent from crimes of opportunity, to pick-pocketing, to carefully planned robberies, and to increasingly sophisticated schemes. These adventurous and enjoyable instances of criminal activity—many of them suspenseful close calls—are offered less as thrilling reading material, although they undoubtedly are, and more as supposed education for readers so that they may guard themselves against such criminals, and ultimately as a warning to those who might think crime pays.

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