Critical Essays Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders Daniel Defoe

English novel, originally titled The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders.

The following entry provides a selection of contemporary criticism on Defoe's novel Moll Flanders (1721). See also Robinson Crusoe Criticism.

Moll Flanders is a central text in the English canon and has inspired debate and analysis on issues such as Christian moral virtue, capitalism, legal reform, and feminism. Part of the reason for the novel's importance is its extraordinarily vivid and compelling female protagonist. Through her, Defoe creates a novel uniquely fascinating among his works for both readers and critics alike. The ambiguity of the novel's themes and the implications of the text fostered a vigorous debate in the first decades of the twentieth century, and critics continue to advance new perspectives on Moll Flanders in light of recent literary theory.

Biographical Information

Defoe was born in North London in 1660. His father was a butcher and candle merchant. He attended an academy for “Dissenters” from the Church of England—Defoe's family was Presbyterian—in order to prepare for a life as a minister. However, after three years he left the academy and entered the merchant world, marrying the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Defoe's ambition eventually resulted in enormous debt which haunted him all his life, and he took refuge from debt collectors in Whitefriars, where thieves and prostitutes hid from the police. He then secured a position in a brick factory. It was at this time that he became politically active and began to publish his first essays. By the turn of the century, Defoe's political activity had intensified, and after the death of King William he published a satire of Tory leaders entitled The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702) that outraged the government and lead to Defoe's arrest for seditious libel. He was sent to the pillory and served six months in jail before he was pardoned by Queen Anne. Troubled by lingering financial problems, and perhaps feeling betrayed by his allies in the Whig party, Defoe then began a political career with the Tory government, becoming the sole writer of the propagandist journal The Review (1704-1713). His political activity shifted with the collapse of the Tory government in 1714; by 1716 he was working as a secret agent for the Whigs, and continued to do so for fifteen years. Meanwhile, the years 1719 to 1724 marked the most prolific time in Defoe's career. It was during this period that he published all of his best-known novels, including Robinson Crusoe (1719-20) and Moll Flanders. Defoe continued to write novels, histories, handbooks, and essays until his death in 1731.

Plot and Major Characters

Moll Flanders is the story of a woman's life told in the first person. Moll is born in the London prison of Newgate and given to gypsies, who leave her at the age of three in the hands of the Parish at Colchester, England. After growing up in the house of a poor nurse, Moll comes under the care of a rich family and falls in love with the elder of two brothers in the household. At the same time, the younger brother falls in love with Moll and eventually she marries him, an experience that leaves her forever disillusioned with love. After the death of her husband five years later, Moll marries a “Gentleman-Tradesman” who goes into debt and leaves the country. Moll then marries a sea captain and sails with him to Virginia. She finds, however, that her mother-in-law is actually her own mother, and lives in incest with her husband/brother until she eventually manages to travel to Bath, England. Here she begins an affair with a married gentleman that continues for six years before he finally leaves her, promising to take care of their only child. At this point, Moll becomes informally engaged to a married accountant pending his divorce, but in the meantime marries another gentleman in Lancashire who, it turns out, is not able to support her. She subsequently marries the accountant and lives with him until his death five years later. Moll supports herself for two years, until she is reduced to poverty and, in desperation, turns to a life of crime. Growing accustomed to thievery, she becomes a master criminal until she is caught and imprisoned at Newgate, where she finds her Lancashire husband, who by this point has become an infamous robber. They both avoid the death sentence, Moll because she is penitent of her former life, and are transported to America, where Moll accumulates a fortune and lives to an old age.

Major Themes

The issues central to Moll Flanders are broad and complex, ranging from the psychology of the protagonist to the social and political order under which she lives. The form of the novel itself is primarily that of a criminal autobiography, and the ways in which Defoe works within and deviates from this tradition is seen as significant by many critics. Critics are also frequently drawn to Moll's constant struggle to accumulate wealth, which they believe reveals Defoe's deep interest in the themes of capitalism and mercantilism. The text also contains many observations and arguments about specific political issues ranging from legal reform to marriage laws to the living conditions of street criminals in London. Many critics find these issues relevant to this day. Critics dispute the degree of irony in Defoe's portrayal of Moll and frequently argue about the presence or absence of a moral order in the novel. Nevertheless, they largely agree that Moll is an iconic figure who represents the struggle of women for autonomy in a patriarchal world.

Critical Reception

Moll Flanders has not always been deemed worthy of critical interest. Because it was frequently pirated, literary historians believe the novel was an immediate success with the reading public, although Defoe was not regarded as a serious artist during his lifetime. Only with Sir Walter Scott's commentary in 1810 did Defoe's novels begin to be analyzed as works of high merit. Nevertheless, Scott summarily dismissed Moll Flanders as a novel not “entirely fit for good society.” In fact, critics uniformly considered the novel as second-rate until well into the twentieth century, when Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster began to praise the work. Since then, the novel's reputation has soared, and today it is widely considered a classic. Feminist critics, while sometimes hesitant to embrace the novel because of its ambiguous degree of irony, have written frequently about the male-female power struggle in the book. Other critics have commented on the Marxist elements of the novel, its relation to Postmodernist theories of language, and its place in the history of British Imperial propaganda.

As the novel’s full original title suggests, the heroine of Moll Flanders is perhaps the world’s best-known female picaro. Ever since it was first published in 1722, Moll Flanders has entertained the reading public with its lusty, energetic tale of a seventeenth century adventurer and manipulator. The book is so convincingly written and contains such a wealth of intimate detail that many readers have assumed the story is true biography. Daniel Defoe himself rather coyly suggested as much, perhaps because he feared such a scandalous story could not be published or would not be popular if it was known to be a work of the imagination.

In this as in his other great novels, such as Robinson Crusoe (1719) and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Defoe achieves his realistic effect by incorporating a wealth of authentic detail. Having been a pamphleteer and journalist much of his life, Defoe knew well how concrete facts and specific examples build plausibility. He has Moll relate her remarkable story simply, thoroughly, and with candor. She is literal-minded and bothers little with description or metaphor. (In his preface, Defoe claims to have cleaned up the language and omitted some of the more “vicious part of her life”; thus Moll’s sexual adventures are related in curious, sometimes amusing circumlocutions.) Moll sticks mainly to the stark realities of her life except for passages in which she moralizes about her misdeeds.

Despite the verisimilitude, however, the novel has a problem of tone that frequently puzzles modern readers and has stirred a lively controversy among critics. The question may be stated thus: Is the story full of conscious irony, or is it told in utter sincerity? If the former is the case, most scholars agree that Moll Flanders is a masterwork of social commentary and of fictional art. If the latter, there are lapses in the author’s moral scheme.

The problem centers more on Moll’s attitude than on her actions. Given her situation—that of a woman of no status but with large ambitions—her behavior is entirely plausible. In her childhood, Moll is dependent for her survival on the whims and kindnesses of strangers. By the time she is eight years old, she is already determined to be a “gentlewoman”—an ambition very nearly impossible for a woman to fulfill in seventeenth century England when she has neither family nor, more important, money. Moll is quick to recognize the value of money in assuring not only one’s physical security but also one’s place in the world—and she aims for a comfortable place. Money thus becomes her goal and eventually her god. To attain it, she uses whatever means are at hand; as a beautiful woman, she finds sex the handiest means available. When, after a number of marriages and other less legitimate alliances, sex is no longer a salable commodity, she turns to thieving and rapidly becomes a master of the trade.

Readers know from other of Defoe’s writings that the author sympathized with the plight of women in his society; education and most...

(The entire section is 1266 words.)

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