The novel is about the realistic experiences of a woman in the underworld of 18th century London. She is anonymous, Moll Flanders being a pseudonym which she adopts when she needs an alternative identity for her criminal life.
She has no family, having been abandoned by her own mother - a transported felon, and her upbringing, education, social position and material well - being are all constantly precarious.
She lives in a hostile, urban world, which allows for no weakness. Social position and wealth are the dominant factors for survival. She has neither and her life is a struggle to achieve both.
She is clever and persevering, always alert to opportunity and she survives and becomes rich, although after a life fraught with difficulty, much of it of her own making.
Defoe's novel gives us a clear sense of daily life and the anxieties attendant on economic and social uncertainty and he displays a clear understanding of female specifics, in a criminal world.
Defoe himself was an 'outsider'. A Londoner who often had to live by his wits, pursued by creditors and spending time in Newgate prison for debt. His own honesty was at times rather dubious.
He writes accurate social history in a fictional form. The social details in 'Moll Flanders' are very accurate, even those set in Virginia and the novel is also politically and economically structured.
The themes of the novel, in part, are transgression, repentance and redemption, which are to be expected, given Defoe's Dissenting background. Moll's fortunes do not prosper in the 'Babylon' of London, but in Virginia, in the 'New' world. Perhaps Defoe was suggesting, like his Puritan forefathers, that the 'New' world offered a 'new' chance. There was a general consensus that the transportation of criminals was a means of reform (The Transportation Act was passed in 1718). It was thought that by removing habitual criminals from their past and assigning them regenerative work, they could become 'renewed' and 'productive' citizens. There was some resistance from the colonial settlers, especially in Virginia, but ultimately many thousands of convicted felons did populate the American seaboard and went onto become 'Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution'.
Perhaps Defoe did intend to influence public opinion with regard to the issue of transportation, with this novel, intending it as a rhetorical statement or endorsement of transportation. Certainly Moll and her Lancashire husband Jemmy do become prosperous and 'reformed' after their years in Virginia, returning home rich and respectable. Whether or not Moll's sentiments are sincere remains, like so much of the novel, an enigma.
Defoe innovated a form of writing that was, like its title, 'new'. Fictional writing had been very stylised, but Defoe created a well - crafted, energetic prose style that owed much to his career as a journalist. He had written descriptive, allegorical, illustrative material for publication for many years before he turned to writing for entertainment. He knew how important it was for his readers to have characters whose first person accounts sounded authentic, reared as they had been on sensational records of famous criminals and astonishing 'true - life' adventures.
All of Defoe's major fictions are written as autobiographies, with the central character telling the story and in a style which makes it sound like fact.
'Moll Flanders' was written late in his career and is entirely unique, drawing on previous accounts of female rogues, but with a heroine who is, in her own words 'the greatest artist of my time'.
Moll rises from abject poverty and anonymity to wealth and security and it is interesting to speculate just how much her account would have provided hope for those from the dispossessed lower social order who were literate enough to read her story. In addition, of course, they would also have been provided with vicarious thrills at her exploits both in and out of bed and prison.
Her character is deeper than previous ones in Defoe's books. She questions the meaning of rank and privilege and the economic workings of her world, as well as interrogating herself about her motives and her understanding of them.
Defoe seems to have intended Moll to affect the reader in many ways:
The mature narrator (the story is told in retrospect by the aged Moll) contrasts sharply with the na´ve young girl at the start of the novel. As the narrative progresses we see how Moll sometimes distances herself from the events - as a young girl aspiring to be a 'gentlewoman' and as a young woman playing off the two brothers in the Colchester family, for example. At other times she is very close to events and loses that detachment, for example when her Bath lover is unwilling to marry her or when she wants to murder the little girl with the gold necklace.
Her life events are vivid because her responses are real and therefore credible. Even when the improbable happens and she finds out her Virginia husband is in fact her own brother, her reaction is credible and therefore we respond naturally as readers, putting aside our own disbelief because Moll's narrative is so convincing.
Moll likes handsome gentlemanly men, but will settle for less, when expedient. In her life nothing is certain, it is a constant battle for survival in a world which is hostile and takes no account of poverty or feminine gender. She is quite prepared to ditch men, or to accept that men ditch her and she survives because she can adapt and change. When she turns to crime there is often a glimpse of a genuine coldness of heart, but it is not to be wondered at, given the circumstances she finds herself in, time after time. Her treatment of her numerous children is something which modern readers may find difficult to accept, but it is important to remember that the world in which Moll lived was one which was totally foreign to that of the 21st century. Her abandonment of her offspring may have been , and indeed probably was, the only practical solution to ensure that they would have at least a slim chance of survival. Better a foster parent, however inadequate, than starvation with a penniless mother.
It has been suggested that Defoe creates 'men characters in women's clothing' and we may see something of that in Moll. She is sometimes very unfeminine and indeed spends some time cross-dressing to pursue her criminal career more effectively. It must be remembered, though, that she lived in a society where women were deprived of control over their property and Moll is often 'ruined' because the men I her life are inadequate or greedy. If a man destroyed his wife's security, she had little power to change the situation. It is no surprise that Moll seeks to make the best of a bad situation as often as she can. Dressing up as a man seems to be a sensible solution and so it proves to be, until she gets tired of it.
Defoe believed that women were capable and strong. Society deprived them of education and the opportunity to control their own affairs. Moll seems to be a creation designed to alert Defoe's readers to a serious social injustice.
Defoe's central character, then, is a woman who is marginalised and isolated, with few friends and no family. Her criminal background is an inevitable consequence of a series of misfortunes and the loss of her greatest assets - youth and good looks. Her life is always uncertain, she often has to re-invent herself and from her earliest years has serious social aspirations towards affluence and gentility.
Unfortunately, she is doomed never to be able to achieve her ambitions by virtue of 'right' i.e. birth/social standing, so we know that she will have to make her own chances. She does this by deliberate manipulation of men when she is young and later by a series of skilful alliances with 'mothers' (older women) who show her the ropes, whether for marriage, childbirth, prostitution or crime.
Defoe never allows Moll to form close or lasting friendships, except with her 'governess'. This is especially true with regard to her many children, all of whom are farmed out or abandoned to a series of professional foster parents. Perhaps Defoe does this quite deliberately, to emphasise the theme of isolation and also to make his central character more resilient and resourceful. After all the point of the novel is the sensational progress of a woman to the gallows and beyond, so it would have made much less interesting reading for his public if she had been a virtuous mother or a faithful wife. Moll never has the good fortune to form a relationship which promises long-term security until she is quite elderly, when she and Jemmy are reunited.
Defoe creates a world in which people are commodities and social advancement depends on shrewd and calculated behaviour. If marriage for a woman is the only guarantee of security, then marriage to a rich man is ideal. If not, then mistress to one, with a careful amassing of 'portable property', will do. This of course only works for young attractive women. Moll is lucky enough to have the credentials for attracting men, but the men she attracts are either unsuitable, unscrupulous or unavailable. Occasionally they are closely related, or quickly dead. As she grows older, she is less able to play the marriage market and so turns to an alternative source of 'security' in theft. Ironically, this security is the most insecure of paths and she is caught.
In one sense, Moll is the product of a Puritan society turned to worldly zeal. She is the supreme tradeswoman, always ready to draw up an account or evaluate each experience in terms of profit and loss. Hers is a forceful life, dedicated to competitive enterprise, whether marriage or crime or whoring.
She is the embodiment of thrift, good management and industry, but cleverly presented as the antithesis of these Puritan values. Her thrift is often the result of wrong doing or disastrous liaisons, her good management is totally self centred and her industry is devoted to finding suitably eligible (wealthy) men to keep her in the style she desires. Later the industry is concentrated on becoming the best thief in London. In fact Moll is often perverse and very acquisitive and in strict Puritan terms she is lost to God because of her false worship of wealth, power and success.
Of course Defoe would be well aware that Moll was merely a fictional embodiment of many so-called Puritans who, in real life professed a faith which was often belied by greed and sharp dealing - lost, just the same as Moll, because they worshipped false gods. He is careful, though, not to moralise openly, being a shrewd judge of likely public backlash if he did so. As in many other areas, he leaves the readers to make the connections and the judgements for themselves.
Moll is driven by the need for security. Property is the only thing which will keep her afloat in a very commercial society. She constantly seeks enough wealth (or a wealthy husband) to free her from the threat of poverty, destitution and a life of crime.
However, she eventually becomes fascinated by the quest itself, the management of marriages, the temptations of crime. Even when she has money, she still cannot resist the temptation to keep on stealing, because she enjoys the experience.
Her basic ambition to 'be a gentlewoman' is the force which drives her on to constantly seek the means to rise up the social ladder.
She is an ambiguous character, torn between worldliness and devotion, constantly presenting conflicting faces to the reader. Like the Puritan faith itself, Moll is a series of contradictions. She has genuine motives and a true desire to be better than her origins, but the struggle for wealth corrupts her so that she is, eventually in danger of being truly lost.
She is always torn between conflicting desires and impulses, but she is also energetic and surprisingly innocent, despite her adventures and her chosen lifestyle as a master criminal. Defoe shows us the two sides of her character in constant opposition. On the one hand, she can be thrifty, cold and efficient and on the other, reckless, excited and bold. She is never dull. Again, Defoe makes no moral judgement, but leaves the reader to make his own.
The novel is structured so that we see a series of parodies of tragic situations, which often become almost bizarre in their comic absurdity. Moll sometimes behaves insensitively, or even in a completely callous way, but Defoe's heroine in never contemptible, eagerly thrusting from one experience to the next. The novel has a deep intensity of experience. Moll's emotions, too are mixed and unstable, but she always recognises and articulates them, even if she does not show complete understanding of them.
Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope