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.
During Defoe’s lifetime, commercial development transformed the social, economic, and political structure of Great Britain. The founding of the Bank of England, the rise of the stock market, and the growth of huge trading companies between the 1690’s and 1730’s laid the financial groundwork for the subsequent evolution of the British empire. As Defoe observed in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, crowds of eager investors poured into London hoping to strike it rich in Exchange Alley, the side street in which stock-jobbers (later known as brokers) plied their trade. Reflecting on the feverish speculation in stocks and the craze for financial schemes that characterized this period, Defoe concluded that British society had entered what he termed the “Projecting Age.”
This new commercial spirit pervades Defoe’s work. In his economic pamphlets, such as Giving Alms No Charity (1704) and The Complete English Tradesman (1732), Defoe defended the pursuit of economic self-interest both as an individual right and as an exercise of personal responsibility. Against the aristocratic notion that property should be gained and maintained mainly through inheritance, he argued that access to riches ought to be determined by the ability of individuals to plan carefully, work diligently, and take full advantage of every opportunity to accumulate additional wealth. In light of these assertions, Defoe has often been singled out as one of the cardinal spokesmen for modern capitalism, that is, an economic system in which the fate of individuals is controlled by their capacity to respond to market forces, rather than dictated strictly by their social class.
While Defoe seemed to celebrate economic self-interest in many of his essays, his novels and other occasional writings explore the irrational aspects of the pursuit of private gain. In Robinson Crusoe, for example, the protagonist, a man shipwrecked alone on a desert island, keeps an account book in which he carefully balances the positive elements of his situation against the negative aspects of his fate. Despite his isolation from the rest of society, Crusoe behaves as if he were living under the financial pressures of life in London, and he constantly reduces his destiny to entirely economic terms. On the basis of this purely materialistic mode of thinking, the character of Robinson Crusoe has often been interpreted as a model of modern commercial consciousness.
Likewise, in Moll Flanders and a somewhat similar novel, Roxanna, the title characters constantly calculate financial gains and losses. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, however, these two characters are not merely materialistic. Instead, Moll Flanders and Roxanna both commit terrible crimes in their efforts to satisfy their avarice and ambition; moreover, both are so consumed by greed that neither comprehends the consequences of her depraved behavior. Thus, despite his frequently optimistic comments on commercial progress, Defoe seems to have shared at least some of the anti-commercial sentiments expressed by many of the moralists of his day. The portraits of moral corruption presented in Moll Flanders and Roxanna illustrate that, like many other writers in eighteenth century Britain, including Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Henry Fielding, Defoe worried that increasing economic competition would cause individuals to become so intent on getting and spending that they would no longer be able to distinguish between good and evil.
In keeping with the sense of moral confusion inspired by commercial development, the reading public in this period developed a near obsession with the exploits of ingenious criminals, especially those who managed to amass great wealth. Thus, like Henry Fielding, Defoe wrote an account of the career of Jonathan Wild, one of the richest and most colorful criminals of the age. Wild’s cunning schemes and daring capers became objects of widespread fascination, not only because they were creative and audacious, but because they seemed to exemplify the slick intelligence required to achieve commercial success. The methods Wild used to con his victims were accordingly likened both to those of stockbrokers who lured in investors with talk of easy money and to those of politicians who lined their own pockets while pretending to serve the interests of their country.
That Defoe published his biography of Wild soon after he wrote Moll Flanders makes a great deal of sense. In both works, Defoe was attempting to exploit popular interest in criminal behavior and also to explore the increasingly slippery nature of property-ownership. The explosive growth of the stock market during the first few decades of the eighteenth century enabled entrepreneurs to found companies, build places of business, hire workers, and carry out projects merely by promising investors attractive returns. This new system of production, trade, and profit-making meant not only that fortunes could be made overnight, but that wealth could evaporate just as quickly if investor confidence faltered, a purely psychological and often wildly unpredictable event.
Given this degree of uncertainty, many eighteenth–century social observers concluded that the success or failure of individuals depended not so much on their moral integrity as on the way they presented themselves to society. Social status thus seemed to hinge not on what individuals actually did, but only on the way their actions were perceived. Throughout Moll Flanders, the heroine and the rest of the characters accordingly worry only about appearances; rather than questioning whether their actions are truly good or truly bad, they are troubled only about the way their actions are or might be received. Moreover, since just about all of the characters in the novel adopt this shallow mentality, Defoe’s message seems to be that indifference toward morality is not the fault of individuals, but a symptom of the superficial mindset of modern commercial society. Clearly, even though Defoe’s critique of commercial competition was originally inspired by historical developments in eighteenth–century Britain, his insight into the moral emptiness of material ambition remains relevant in the present day.
Master List of Characters
Moll Flanders—the main character and narrator of the novel; Nicknamed Moll Flanders by her confederates in crime, she spends her life striving to escape from poverty and servitude. After a series of brief and unfortunate marriages, Moll becomes one of the most famous and successful criminals in England.
Moll’s Mother— After giving birth to Moll in Newgate Prison, Moll’s mother, a petty thief, is transported to the colonies. She and Moll are reunited many years later when Moll travels to America.
The Nurse—a kind and hard-working seamstress and teacher; Moll lives with the nurse from early childhood until age fourteen.
The Elder Brother—the eldest son in a wealthy family that takes Moll in during her adolescence; An irresponsible and dishonest character, the Elder Brother seduces Moll by preying on her pride and vanity.
Robin—the earnest younger son in Moll’s wealthy “foster family”; Robin falls in love with Moll and asks her to marry him even though she is destitute. Although Moll is in love with his older brother, she accepts Robin’s proposal. Robin dies five years into their marriage.
The Draper—Moll’s second husband; A spendthrift gentleman, the Draper advises Moll to regard him as if he were dead and flees to France to escape from debt collectors.
Moll’s Brother—Moll’s third husband; Unaware of their blood relationship, Moll marries her brother, who takes her to Virginia to live on a plantation with his mother. When Moll realizes that her mother-in-law is actually her own mother, she leaves her brother-husband to return to England. Many years later, when she re-encounters her brother in America, he is too blind and demented to heed her return.
Jemy—Moll’s fourth husband; While courting Moll, Jemy pretends that he is rich because he thinks that she is wealthy. Although both are surprised when they discover their mutual poverty, they truly love each other. Jemy spends a month with Moll, then heads off to Ireland, because he is in trouble with the law and hopes to make his fortune outside England. He and Moll are reunited years later in Newgate Prison.
The Banker—Moll’s fifth husband; A quiet and sensible man, the Banker divorces his promiscuous wife in order to marry Moll. The marriage lasts five years until he sickens and dies after making a bad investment.
The Gentleman of Bath—a generous married man who provides for Moll, first as a friend, then as a lover; After living with Moll for six years, he becomes ill while visiting his wife’s relatives. When he recovers, he ends his affair with Moll in order to save his marriage and his soul.
The Governess—a midwife, pawnbroker, and thief who takes care of Moll during one of her pregnancies and later helps her dispose of stolen goods; The Governess lives off the wickedness of others and pushes Moll to commit many crimes, but she also stands by her friend in times of trouble.
Moll’s Son—Born of her marriage to her brother, Moll’s son grows up in America and becomes a wealthy planter. When Moll is nearing old age, she and her loving son are reunited in Virginia.
The Sea Captain’s Lady—After Moll takes refuge in the Mint, a part of London customarily designated as a refuge for debtors, she helps the Sea Captain’s Lady secure a husband. The Sea Captain’s Lady returns the favor by helping Moll to find an apparently wealthy suitor.
The Baronet—Moll spends a night on the town with the Baronet and, when he falls into a drunken stupor, she robs him. Later, after she manages to make him pay her to return his possessions, they carry on an affair for about a year.
The Wealthy Matrons—a group of women who give Moll work and clothes during her childhood.
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.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
If Moll Flanders is Defoe’s most highly regarded fictional narrative, Moll Flanders is probably Defoe’s most memorable narrator, with her compelling account of a life spent largely in attempts to survive in a society hostile to unattached women.
Born to and abandoned by a convicted felon, Moll Flanders is reared first by Gypsies and then as a ward of the parish of Colchester. At fourteen, she is hired as a servant to a kind family who educates her along with their daughters. Moll, believing she is loved, loses her virtue to the oldest son, who later pays her to marry the youngest son, Robin. Widowed after five years, Moll is married four more times, to a draper who spends all of her money, to a sea captain...
(The entire section is 833 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
When her mother is transported to the American colonies as a felon, eighteen-month-old Moll Flanders is left without family or friends to care for her. For a time, she is befriended by a band of gypsies, who desert her in Colchester. There the child is a charge of the parish. Becoming a favorite of the wife and daughters of the mayor, Moll receives gentle treatment and much attention and flattery.
At the age of fourteen, Moll Flanders is again left without a home. When her indulgent instructor dies, she is taken in service by a kindly woman of means, and she receives instruction along with the daughters of the family. Moll is superior to these daughters in all but wealth. During her residence there, she loses her virtue...
(The entire section is 1036 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Preface and Parts 1-2
Preface - Moll Becomes a “Gentlewoman”
In his brief introduction, Defoe pretends that he is presenting the reader not with a work of fiction, but with a somewhat sanitized version of Moll Flanders’ memoirs of her life of crime. While acknowledging that many aspects of Moll’s history are lewd and vulgar, Defoe contends that he could not purge the manuscript of these defects without damaging the authenticity of her story. He accordingly apologizes for placing so many sordid and immoral incidents before the public. However, he emphasizes that, while he did his best to clean up the offensive language Moll herself employed when she wrote down her recollections, he was driven to leave in many...
(The entire section is 1990 words.)
Parts 3-4 - Moll’s Early Adventures in Marriage
Part Three: The Draper
The Draper: Moll’s second husband
The Linen Draper: Moll’s landlord after the death of her first husband
The Linen Draper’s sister: the woman who introduces Moll to her second husband
Vowing to find a rich husband before her savings ran out, Moll took a room in the home of a linen-draper. She soon discovered that the linen-draper desired her to become his mistress, but she decided to hold out for a man who would take her as his wife. Moll turned to the linen-draper’s sister, a somewhat dissolute woman of wide acquaintance, to help her locate a suitable catch. The linen-draper’s sister introduced Moll to a...
(The entire section is 2270 words.)
Parts 5-7 - Moll’s Later Adventures In and Out of Marriage
Part Five: A Sinful Affair
The Landlady: a woman who keeps a boarding house at Bath
The Gentleman of Bath: a married man who takes care of Moll
When Moll arrived back in England after a storm-tossed journey, she lost track of much of the cargo she had arranged to have delivered and, being forced to wait for it to arrive at its proper destination, she decided to spend some time in the resort town of Bath. In keeping with the highly social atmosphere of Bath, she met a great many fast-living people, but soon found herself spending too freely, a habit she likens to “bleeding to death.” During the off-season, she managed to relocate to cheaper...
(The entire section is 3251 words.)
Parts 8-10 - Adventures in Crime
Part Eight: Early Success
After the banker died, Moll sold most of her possessions and took rooms in a cheap boarding house. She managed to live there for about a year by stretching out her savings, but she came perilously close to complete impoverishment. In her misery, she took to reciting a prayer, “Give me not poverty lest I steal.” Despite her appeals to God, she was soon subjected to a temptation that she found impossible to resist.
While wandering around the city, she passed a shop and spied a white bundle lying on a stool. Realizing that nobody in the shop was watching, she snatched the bundle without attracting notice from any of the clerks. After she arrived home and found...
(The entire section is 3335 words.)
Parts 11-14 - Repentance and Prosperity
Part Eleven: Newgate Prison
The minister: a clergyman who visits Moll in prison and convinces her to repent
When Moll first came to Newgate and found herself trapped in the noise, stench, filth, and gloom of the place, she was filled with terror. The complete disorder she encountered, along with the utterly depraved characters she saw drinking and playing cards in the wretched rooms, convinced her that she had truly descended into hell. Gradually, however, as she reflected on how long she had expected to be placed there and saw how many of the inmates had likewise been expecting her arrival, she began to adjust to her new home.
As horrible as Newgate...
(The entire section is 3691 words.)