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Moll Flanders | Study Guide

Daniel Defoe

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Moll Flanders | Themes



Moll Flanders begins life in prison, as the daughter of a convicted felon. Her mother is deported to the colonies as soon as Moll has been weaned, and Moll grows up an orphan. Consequently, she is forced to rely on herself. Her self-sufficiency shows right from the start—at the tender age of three she runs away from the gypsies who had taken her under their wings, and at age 10 she refuses to become a servant or go into service, which would have been the natural course of life for lower-class girls. Instead, she wants "to be able to work for [herself] and get enough to keep [her] without ... going to service." At the time, women had few options to earn their keep: wife, mistress, servant, and criminal. With only one goal in mind—financial stability—Moll tries them all. Everything and everyone is viewed through the prism of economic survival and valued accordingly. Realizing she was given "all the gifts of nature"—beauty and sex appeal— and that her allure attracts men of social standing, Moll discards her earlier plan to work for a living and enters the marriage market instead. She ascribes monetary value to future lovers and husbands, even to herself, and calls herself "a widow with about £1200 in my pocket" after her first husband dies. She continues to take stock of her assets at the end of every relationship, and does so for good reason. At the time, common law prescribed that the woman's property became the husband's in marriage. Naturally, the wealthier the woman, the better her marriage prospects: "If a young woman [has] beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty ... yet if she [has] not money, she's nobody."

In the burgeoning capitalist society of 17th- and 18th-century England, money and property were more important than class, and a woman had to situate herself within society as a commodity. Hence the monetary value of a woman mattered more than education, intelligence, and charm. When her first lover gives her money, Moll begins to see all her relationships as a means to guarantee financial security: "I was more confounded with the money than I was before with the love." Profit and the financial stability that comes with it become the driving force of Moll's life. Sex becomes her currency, while love is the luxury of the rich. The moment Moll finds herself alone, she looks for a new man of means who can provide for her. While this seems callous and opportunistic, the novel argues that as a woman of humble birth, she has little choice, for "nothing but money now recommends a woman."

This point is made clear when Moll's first lover, the older son of her wealthy adoptive family, makes her his mistress, leading her on with a promise to marry her but never intending to follow through because he is waiting for a wife of higher social standing. However, having lost her virginity believing he would make good on his promise, Moll has no choice but to marry the younger brother in order to maintain social respectability. This first marriage—a union born out of practical considerations rather than love—begins a long string of relationships guided by pragmatism. Moll repeatedly exchanges sex and companionship for economic stability. Describing her relationship as the mistress of the married gentleman in Bath, for example, she admits: "I ... let him lie with me ... because I wanted his help ... and I knew of no other way of securing him." Love does not feature in the exchange: "I had been tricked once by that cheat called love, but the game was over." Even her life of crime is viewed not in terms of right or wrong, legal or illegal, but in terms of financial stability and profit margins: "As poverty brought me into the mire, so avarice kept me in it, till there was no going back."

Moral Ambiguity

Defoe's novel Moll Flanders is modeled after confession stories. A criminal tells her story as a warning to others, proving that crime does not pay, is morally reprehensible, and erodes the soul. In the Author's Preface, Defoe calls Moll "a woman debauched from her youth," who describes "her vicious practices." And yet, in the rest of the novel, supposedly narrated by Moll herself, the circumstances of her debauchery seem to provide justification for her behavior. Moll explains that the circumstances of her prison birth as the daughter of a convicted felon put her at a serious disadvantage, from which she fought to recover her entire life. Things could have turned out differently, she claims, had she "not been left a poor desolate girl, without friends, without clothes, without help or helper ... as was [her] fate." As a woman without financial means or social standing, Moll had to be resourceful to survive. Her marriages, affairs, lies, and crimes are explained as sins of necessity. She relates, "Had I happened to meet with a sober, good husband, I should have been as faithful and true a wife to him as virtue itself could have formed."

Defoe does not condone Moll's behavior—after all, she could have tried to work as a servant or as a seamstress instead of looking for men to support her desire to advance in society—but he does not condemn it, either. Instead, the novel illustrates that behavior is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, but must be understood in context. When Moll's circumstance is bad, so is she: "As poverty brought me into it, so fear of poverty kept me in it." When Moll's circumstance is good, so is she. In periods of financial stability, Moll is faithful to her husband or lover. Of her marriage to her banker husband she says, "I seemed landed in a safe harbor, after the stormy voyage of life past was at an end." Never does she leave a man of her own accord to seek a better deal. Although she uses trickery and smarts to convince men to marry her, she never openly lies or deceives them. Moll seems to have her own moral compass, and she never steps over the line: "I would have been glad to miscarry, but I could never ... entertain so much as a thought to taking anything to make me miscarry." She permits herself to use circumstances to her own advantage and reacts to change with foresight, but she never actively creates circumstances for her own benefit.

In short, Moll is a product of her time and her place in society. Morality, like love, is the privilege of the rich. Born poor and without a stable support system, Moll cannot afford the high moral ground. The repeated comments suggesting the reader judge for himself are meant to show empathy toward Moll's plight, and to conclude that in the same situation, anyone would have done the same thing.

Punishment and Redemption

The penal code in 17th- and 18th-century England was unforgiving. Even non-violent crimes incurred the death penalty or transportation to the colonies—the latter a fate considered only little better than death. The conditions in the prisons were unsanitary, degrading, and downright dangerous, often turning new inmates into hardened criminals. The fact that Moll had been born there seems to suggest that perhaps she never had a chance to escape her fate after all. She was born poor and of low social standing, and the novel implies that she had very little recourse other than becoming somebody's wife or mistress, and then turning to a life of crime when her beauty faded. Thus being a victim of circumstance, perhaps Moll is right "not to mourn that [she] had committed such crimes ... but to mourn that [she] was to be punished for it." Facing death for a non-violent crime, particularly one committed out of necessity, seems so extreme that the very validity of punishment is called into question. And indeed, Defoe allows his heroine to escape. A minister steps in, assures her a benevolent God will forgive her if she confesses and repents, and arranges for her sentence to be reduced to transportation.

Redemption is a major theme throughout the novel. At the end of every relationship, Moll seems to pause, take stock, and consider her past steps, acknowledging their wickedness and expressing the desire to repent. And yet, she gives in to circumstance time and again: "There are temptations ... not in the power of human nature to resist ... so poverty is ... the worst of all snares." Yet again, like love and morality, Moll seems to argue that true repentance is a privilege she cannot afford, or only afford fleetingly when she is financially secure: "I ... wept over the remembrance of past follies, and the ... extravagances of a wicked life, and sometimes ... flattered myself that I ... sincerely repented." Similarly, in prison she admits that "it was repenting after the power of further sinning was taken away." In an extraordinary gesture of honesty, Moll repeatedly reveals the opportunist nature of her desire for atonement. Is the reader supposed to assume that Moll's remorse is particular to her as an extraordinary sinner? Or does her honesty suggest that those who fail to question the quality of their remorse are hypocrites? The novel seems to entertain the thought that the stance of repentance required by a true Christian is mere lip service by those who can afford not to offend the law and/or moral code.

The novel ends with Moll and Jemy returning to England in relative wealth, a period of her life Moll herself calls "the most advantageous to myself, and the most instructive to others." Despite a humble birth and a life of crime, Moll attains a state of economic and domestic bliss. Moll once again professes "sincere penitence" for her past wickedness. However, it is never quite clear whether Moll's repentance is sincere, or whether her regret is but a narrative stance she has to take in order for her story to be acceptable reading material in the early 18th century.

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