The Fortunes & Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders &c.
Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and dies a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums . . .
Original title page for Moll Flanders
The character of Moll Flanders has traditionally baffled critics.
Is she an ironic character? Is she truly penitent? How may her inconsistencies be justified? Critics have asserted there is irony in Moll Flanders
but it is not in the book; that is, we--as readers--may appreciate irony in Moll's character but Defoe does not provide it. What may be easier to demonstrate, then, is that "Defoe's attitude toward Moll is consistent, even if Moll herself, ironically or otherwise, is not" (James 203). Whatever the critics propose, for readers, Moll emerges as irascible, vibrant, and wonderfully complex. Moll also shows the limited choices for a woman of her time. Moll Flanders
, as the description from Defoe's original title page suggests, is a novel written in the confessional mode. As readers of this type of work, our role is akin to that of a priest: we listen to the confessions and tacitly provide understanding or forgiveness. To elicit our sympathy, Defoe places Moll in an environment not only hostile but enticing, a world, he would have us believe, that tempts and lures an otherwise virtuous individual into a life of crime.
Moll’s world, ostensibly mimetic, is really portrayed with great selectivity. Many characters—even those as important as her first lover—are not even named; settings are often depicted as just “a house” or “the street.” What does loom large on Moll’s horizon is money. Again and again, Moll focuses on money and the material; early on, she defines herself in terms of her net worth.
Moll’s indoctrination into a materialistic world starts in childhood. Orphaned, Moll is raised by an elderly woman who feels amused pity for Moll’s desires to become a “gentlewoman” and let Molls live with her rather than go into service. The ladies of the town, curious about the “little gentlewoman,” visit her and soon begin to give Moll gifts of money and fine clothes. When Moll’s elderly guardian dies, one of the families that had shown an interest in Moll takes her into their home. Though poor, Moll describes how she receives an education equivalent to that of a gentlewoman. By a twist in circumstances, Moll gets an early “taste of genteel living” (9) far above her actual station.
Although Moll describes herself initially as “very sober, modest, and virtuous” (12), she is led into a liaison with the eldest brother in the household. His dominance soon takes hold, and Moll describes his tactics in terms of lures
: “he began with that unhappy snare to all women, viz. taking notice upon all occasions how pretty I was” or “After he had thus baited his hook” (13). Though Moll admits her strong passion for the elder brother, her stronger passion soon becomes clear. After an initial episode of kissing, the brother gives Moll money. Moll’s reaction is telling: “I was more confused with the money than I was before with the love, and began to be so elevated that I scarce knew the ground I stood on” (17). On a subsequent occasion, he gives Moll a “handful of gold” (18), and its glittering reality becomes the dominant image in Moll’s landscape: “As for the gold, I spent whole hours in looking upon it; I told [and yes, this is the right word:] the guineas over and over a thousand times a day” (19).
To gain Moll’s complete surrender, the brother offers her a silk purse with a hundred guineas in it and the promise of one hundred guineas annually until he marries her. With irony intended or unintended, Moll’s passion and greed gain equal footing: “My colour came and went, at the sight of the purse and with the fire of the proposal together” (22), and Moll succumbs to his advances.
Significantly, money and attendant material possessions are foregrounded while the rest of Moll’s setting recedes into the background. The elder brother—as we could predict—does not marry Moll and her reluctant marriage to the younger brother, done only out of financial necessity, receives a rapid narration. Molls tells us there is little worth describing, “…I lived with this husband, only to observe that I had two children by him, and that at the end of five years he died” (51). Typically, Moll assesses her present situation in terms of money, a description more graphic and several lines longer, than that of her five years of marriage.
Moll’s early adventures set up her pattern of behavior. Despite her professed good intentions, when push comes to shove, Moll consistently acts out of self-interest. Moll’s hostile world tempts her with material gain, she succumbs, eventually has some type of downfall, and then defines her outcome in terms of her current net worth. Moll’s patterned conduct puts the reader in an interesting situation. Moll may momentarily hesitate and try to rationalize a forthcoming seduction or theft, but we never doubt the outcome.
However, in a society that would otherwise provide little choice for an unattached woman, Moll’s ability to silence any internal qualms greatly increases her freedom of movement. While we might find her attempts at rationalization or short fits of morality funny, Moll Flanders is a complex character. Ultimately, she is not simply funny nor simply tragic, but fully realized and equipped with powers of resourcefulness and self-preservation that might have been admired in a man.