Summary of the Novel
Moll Flanders tells the story of a beautiful, smart, and self-interested woman who strives to escape the poverty and servitude dictated by the lowly circumstances of her birth. Despite a complete lack of material resources, Moll becomes determined at a very early age to transform herself into a “gentlewoman.” She proceeds to acquire a level of education and refinement far beyond her social station and expertly exploits her skills, as well as her physical charms, to procure a series of husbands. The most shocking of all of Moll’s many misalliances is her relationship with her third husband, with whom she lives with for a brief but happy period in Virginia until she learns that he is actually her brother.
None of Moll’s many marriages fulfills her material ambitions. When her youth and beauty fade, she chooses the only other road to wealth she can discern, a life of crime. She soon becomes an expert in her new career and, as reports of her criminal exploits circulate throughout England, she is nicknamed ‘Moll Flanders’ by her underworld associates. This label understandably irritates her. ‘Moll’ was used to denote a female criminal, while ‘Flanders’ was associated both with Flemish cloth, a favorite target for thieves, and also with Flemish prostitutes, who were supposed at the time to be the best in the profession. Moll does not, however, supply the reader with any other name. Instead, she emphasizes that the number and gravity of the offenses she has committed make it impossible for her to reveal her true identity.
By taking cover under this alias and employing a variety of disguises, Moll manages to avoid arrest for many years. During this period, she associates mainly with her “governess,” a midwife who had helped her through one of her many pregnancies. The governess turns out to be both a loyal friend and an excellent connection to buyers of stolen property. She not only helps Moll reap handsome profits from her crimes, she also alerts Moll when opportunities for thievery arise. With the aid of her cunning but faithful friend, Moll gradually becomes the richest and most notorious thief in England.
Moll eventually grows careless of her safety and, as she herself had predicted many times, she is captured and returned to the place of her birth, Newgate Prison. Consumed by fear of execution, she prays with a prison minister and seemingly repents for her sins. Thanks to the minister’s intervention, Moll’s death sentence is reduced to transportation to the colony of Virginia. Before her departure to America, Moll meets up again with her favorite husband, Jemy, a highway robber, and persuades him to join her on her journey.
In America, Moll finds her brother-husband, blind and demented, living with one of their sons. Because she hopes to get hold of a legacy left to her by her mother, Moll informs her son of the unnatural relationship which led to his birth. Moll’s son is delighted to be reunited with his mother. After he secures her inheritance, he showers her with kindness and presents. Moll and Jemy soon become wealthy planters and, after spending several years in Maryland, they return to England to live out the rest of their lives in repentance and prosperity.
The Life and Work of Daniel Defoe
Born in London in 1660, Daniel Defoe became one of the most productive and versatile writers in British history. His works included, along with novels such as Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, hundreds of political tracts and pamphlets, books on history, economics, and geography, as well as guides to family living and business success. For many years, Defoe single-handedly produced his own newspaper, the Review, which dealt with topics ranging from the social implications of crime to the scientific aspects of astrology.
Despite his remarkable energy, Defoe never escaped the economic insecurity that characterized his early life. Because his father, James Foe, a butcher and candlemaker, dissented from the teachings of the Church of England, the family was denied access to established business and political circles and faced constant economic distress. In an effort to procure a better life for their son, Defoe’s parents sent him to study at Newington Green, a well-known school for religious dissenters, where they hoped he would prepare for a career as a Presbyterian minister. However, in 1679, after five years of study, Defoe left school to try his hand in the clothing trade.
Thanks in part to a large dowry (£3,700) he received upon marrying Mary Tuffley in 1684, Defoe became a relatively prosperous tradesman for nearly a decade. Around this time, he began to sign himself as de Foe or Defoe, an alteration that lent his family name a somewhat aristocratic air. Unfortunately, when war with France broke out in 1692, Defoe’s business suffered major losses. He was forced into bankruptcy and narrowly escaped imprisonment for debt. While slowly paying off his creditors, he managed to invest in a small tile factory. However, even though his writings on trade display great insight into the principles of modern commerce, he failed to achieve his own economic success.
While pursuing his business interests, Defoe served as a secret agent and propagandist for William of Orange, a Protestant who occupied the throne from 1688 until 1702. Defoe produced a steady stream of pamphlets in support of the King’s policies. However, rather than establishing himself as an advocate for the Whigs, the more progressive party in eighteenth–century British politics, or aligning himself with the Tories, who tended toward more conservative views, Defoe alienated influential leaders on both sides. Soon after Queen Anne succeeded William, Defoe was charged with high crimes and misdemeanors for writing The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, a satire on religious intolerance. He spent three months in Newgate Prison where, with his usual resourcefulness, he seized the opportunity to explore the social and psychological characteristics of his fellow inmates.
Defoe’s incarceration destroyed the last remnants of his small fortune. In order to save his family from complete destitution, he struck a deal with a powerful politician and agreed to write the Review in support of the policies of the Tory government. A few years later, when the Whigs came to power, Defoe quickly switched to their party line. From then on, it became clear that Defoe was willing to write for anyone who would pay him for his service. While generally known as a Tory, he secretly authored dozens of pro-Whig tracts and pamphlets, a practice which allowed him to sustain himself as a political journalist, but placed him in constant danger of exposure and arrest.
In late middle age, Defoe turned to novel writing. His first and most famous novel, Robinson Crusoe, was published in 1719 and, over the next three years, he produced two more great works of fiction, Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year. The familiarity of Defoe’s characters, the clarity of his prose, and the riveting adventures described in his stories made his work both accessible and appealing to a new segment of the reading public, the expanding middle class. Though critics have often faulted him for his tendency to dwell on vulgar subjects, the way his narratives explore the psychological motivations of unified and believable characters has earned him a widely accepted reputation as the first authentic novelist.
Many of Defoe’s works, both fiction and nonfiction, were popular in his time. His literary accomplishments did not, however, protect him from his creditors. During the final years of his life, Defoe attempted to evade the demands of debt collectors by hiding out in a boarding house in Ropemaker’s Alley in London. He died there, harried until the end, in 1731.
Estimated Reading Time
Reading Moll Flanders should take approximately ten hours. Because characters sometimes appear and disappear rather quickly within the novel, the best way to read the story is to make notes and compare them to summaries and analyses contained in this study guide. Moll Flanders is not divided into separate chapters. The divisions defined in this guide are designed to maximize your understanding of the characters and the sequence of events. Study questions appear at the end of every section. You can rely on these, as well as the chapter summaries and analyses, to delineate the most significant themes and topics addressed in Defoe’s work.