Moll Flanders | Study Guide

Daniel Defoe

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Moll Flanders | Section 8 | Summary



At first "the horrors of that dismal place"—Newgate prison—drive Moll to regret her criminal activities. Sleepless nights, and fellow inmates' mockery and glee that a famous criminal has been brought to justice, torment her. And yet, after a while, the place rubs off on her, and like the other inmates, Moll becomes "a mere Newgate-bird, as wicked and as outrageous as any of them." She laments the loss of her "habit and custom of good breeding and manners," more than the damnation of her soul.

Jemy, the one husband she loved, has become a highwayman and shows up a prisoner as well. She is relieved he does not recognize her, as she feels responsible for his descent into crime, given that he spent his last dime courting her, a woman he believed was rich. Regret washes over Moll, and she confides to her governess, who tries to have her released from prison, but to no avail. Moll's trial date is set and she pleads not guilty, but she is found guilty and sentenced to death. The governess sends a priest, and now, facing inevitable death, Moll reveals, "I hid nothing from him, and he in return exhorted me to a sincere repentance." The priest also manages to negotiate a last-minute suspension of her execution. From her cell on death row, Moll hears the unmistakable and horrifying toll of the bell that announces an execution, listens in horror to the wailing of those scheduled to die that day, and breaks down in tears, mourning their passing, yet grateful for having been spared. The priest manages to have her sentence reduced to transportation to America. Moll's governess visits, telling her she will find ways to support her in exile. In the three months she remains in prison prior to transportation, Moll visits Jemy in prison and learns about his years as a highwayman and that he has come into considerable money. Still in love with him, Moll urges him to try and have his sentence reduced as well. With little evidence against him, he succeeds.


Painted in emotionally vivid colors, this section is meant to have a strong impact on the reader. Moll describes the conditions at Newgate prison as "an emblem of hell itself." She denounces the inhuman conditions as well as the harsh sentences for relatively benign crimes. Moll knows she will likely face a death sentence for stealing cloth, the only crime for which there is any evidence against her. Her disgust at the conditions, and her fear of death are almost palpable. Moll assures the reader that nobody can imagine the misery of the place unless they have been through it, and it seems almost inconceivable that people learn to adjust and accept the fate that awaits them. And yet, in time, the place rubs off on her: "I became as naturally pleased and easy with the place as if indeed I had been borne there." Of course, she was born there, which suggests perhaps Moll never had a chance to escape her fate after all. Although she regrets her criminal activities, Moll admits, "I seemed not to mourn that I had committed such crimes ... but I mourned that I was to be punished for it." Given her superficial repentance, it gives her no satisfaction and no relief. Her perfunctory regret is mirrored in the prison chaplain's hypocrisy, who is "preaching confession and repentance ... in the morning, and ... drunk with brandy and spirits by noon."

Although comparing Newgate to hell clearly evokes images of eternal judgment, the novel suggests the harsh realities of prison life make any attempt at true repentance—God's forgiveness—impossible. Moll claims, "I neither had a heart to ask God's mercy, nor indeed to think of it." It is not her life of crime outside prison, but her life within it that turns Moll into a hardened criminal: "I degenerated into stone." Economic necessity turned her into a whore and a thief outside prison, and survival instincts turn her into a "Newgate-bird" inside. The novel illustrates that behavior and character cannot be judged per se, but must always be seen in light of its circumstance. Seen in this light, missteps become understandable, and notions of good and evil become relative. Hence Moll's escape from a death sentence and prison becomes an acceptable resolution to the novel.

The section also suggests that even those guilty of questionable conduct abide by a moral code. Moll's governess—a thief and pawnbroker—proves her loyalty and trustworthiness: she stands by Moll in times of need. Although she has nothing to gain from helping Moll through this difficult period, she sticks by her, proving to be far more than a fair-weather friend or partner in crime. Unlike many of the other minor characters, she is a steady force in Moll's life, taking on the role of the mother Moll never quite had.

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