Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Colchester. Town in southeastern England’s Essex district, in which Moll’s narrative begins by moving quickly through her early years. After being orphaned, she is taken into a home in Colchester in which she first is seduced by one brother and then married by the other, in a loveless relationship.
*London. England’s capital city and mercantile center, to which Moll goes after her husband dies. Now wiser about the ways of the world, she schemes to make a rich match for herself, only to connect with a gentleman-tradesman who proves to be as much a fraud as she is. Moll takes a greater hand in determining her own fate in London, where, as she learns, everything is business.
After having brief relationships with men in the countryside, Moll returns to London on her own and becomes a prostitute and a thief. The bulk of the book concerns her second sojourn in London, where, from her point of view as a storyteller, she is near to full-bloom.
*Virginia. British North American colony where Moll lives for eight years with her third husband, a gentleman-planter whom she marries after her second marriage fails. She is initially content in this new situation, but when she is given reason to believe that she may have a blood-relationship to her husband, she is aghast at the possibility of having committed incest and returns to England on her own....
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The American Colonies and the English Economy
In the novel, Moll sails to Virginia twice: first as the wife of a plantation owner, and second as a convicted criminal sentenced to serve time as a slave. In the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, Virginia was an English colony, evidence of expanding English overseas interests in the name of trade and political power. Settled in the early 1600s, Virginia was a thriving and important complement to England’s economy by the early 1700s.
During this period, wealth came progressively more from merchants’ capital, creating a powerful and prosperous business class. Business was booming in England, fostering an attitude that there was lots of money to be made. England’s major manufactured export product during this period was cloth, which, along with other manufactured goods, was shipped to the American colonies in exchange for an increasingly valuable commodity, tobacco.
The Role of Women
While the philosophy of the eighteenth century Enlightenment period addressed such issues as individual liberties, social welfare, economic liberty, and education, these concerns did not translate into major changes for women between the late 1600s and early 1700s. In fact, there are indications that the status of women declined during this period; in 1600, more than two-thirds of the businesses in London were reported to be owned by women, but by the end of the...
(The entire section is 573 words.)
Preface and Parts 1-2: Questions and Answers
1. Where was Moll born?
2. What happened to Moll’s mother?
3. How does Moll spend the first three years of her life?
4. Where does Moll live during most of her childhood?
5. What was Moll’s driving ambition while she was growing up?
6. What does Moll identify as her worst failing?
7. What impressed Moll most during her affair with the elder brother?
8. Why did Moll marry Robin, her first husband?
9. How long were Moll and Robin married?
10. What happened to the children Moll had with Robin?
1. Moll was born in Newgate Prison in London, England.
2. Moll’s mother was sentenced to death by hanging after being convicted for petty theft. However, after she ‘pled her belly,’ that is, let prison authorities know that she was pregnant, her sentence was reduced to transportation to the American colonies.
3. After Moll’s mother was shipped off to the colonies, Moll was taken by gypsies from Newgate Prison. She traveled about with them until she somehow managed to escape when she was three years old.
4. Moll lived with a school mistress to whom she refers as ‘nurse.’ The nurse cared for Moll until she was fourteen years old.
5. Moll wished to become an independent “gentlewoman.”
6. Moll names vanity as her downfall.
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Parts 3-4 - Moll’s Early Adventures in Marriage: Questions and Answers
1. What was Moll’s reaction to Robin’s death?
2. What attracted Moll to the draper?
3. Why did Moll part with the draper?
4. Where did Moll go to live after the draper left her?
5. Where was Moll’s third husband’s estate?
6. What did Moll’s mother display as a sign of her past?
7. What did Moll’s mother advise Moll to do after Moll revealed the true relationship between her husband and herself?
8. What was Moll’s third husband’s reaction to the news that he had married his own half-sister?
9. How many children did Moll have with her husband-brother?
10. Where did Moll go after she resolved to end her relationship with her husband-brother?
1. After Robin died, Moll resolved to find a rich husband right away.
2. Moll liked the draper because he lived lavishly, kept many servants, and drove a fancy coach.
3. Moll and the draper were forced to part when he was taken to debtor’s prison. They said their final goodbyes just before he fled to France.
4. After the draper left her, Moll went to live in the Mint, a customary haven for fugitives and debtors.
5. Moll’s third husband’s estate was located in the colony of Virginia.
6. Moll’s mother showed her daughter the brand she had received after she had been convicted of petty...
(The entire section is 325 words.)
Parts 5-7 - Moll’s Later Adventures In and Out of Marriage: Questions and Answers
1. What distinguished Moll’s affair with the gentleman of Bath from her previous relationships?
2. How did Moll view her relationship with the gentleman of Bath?
3. How did Moll meet Jemy, her fourth husband?
4. What distinguished Moll’s relationship with Jemy from her previous relationships?
5. Why did Jemy leave Moll?
6. What did Moll do after Jemy left her?
7. What convinced Moll to place herself in the care of the governess?
8. How does Moll describe her efforts to manipulate the banker?
9. How many children did Moll have with the banker?
10. How old was Moll when the banker died?
1. Moll carried on her relationship with the gentleman of Bath even though she knew that he would never take her as his wife.
2. During her affair with the gentleman of Bath, Moll thought of herself as a ‘whore,’ but she enjoyed the money and security he provided her.
3. Moll was introduced to Jemy, her fourth husband, by a Lancashire woman who made Moll believe that Jemy was a wealthy aristocrat.
4. In contrast to her feelings about her previous husbands, Moll loved Jemy more than any man she had ever met before.
5. Moll and Jemy parted when he went off to make his fortune in Ireland.
6. After Jemy left her, Moll resolved to renew her relationship with...
(The entire section is 303 words.)
Parts 8-10- Adventures in Crime: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Moll take up stealing?
2. What did Moll do when she moved into the governess’ house?
3. Who was Moll’s most significant partner in crime?
4. What was Moll’s specialty as a thief?
5. Who does Moll blame most often for her misdeeds?
6. Who was the famous thief who taught Moll how to be a pickpocket?
7. Where did Moll meet the baronet?
8. What significant act did Moll perform while she was waiting to receive the baronet?
9. What was Moll’s most irrational criminal act?
10. Where was Moll taken after she was captured?
1. Moll says that fear of starvation forced her to steal, but she admits that she engaged in criminal acts long before genuine poverty had arrived at her door. Indeed, Moll acknowledges greed as the most consistent inspiration for her crimes.
2. When Moll first moved in with the governess, she took in needlework, a sign that somewhere deep in her soul, she wished that she could make an honest living.
3. After Moll made it clear that she was willing to make a living by stealing, the governess became her most important partner in crime.
4. Even during the earliest stages of her career, Moll’s specialized in stealing watches from ladies’ sides.
5. Moll sometimes blames her victims for presenting themselves as easy targets,...
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Parts 11-14- Repentance and Prosperity: Questions and Answers
1. What was Moll’s view of Newgate Prison after she had been there for a while?
2. What finally inspired Moll to repent of her life of crime?
3. When Moll’s sentence of death was lifted, what alternative sentence did she receive?
4. What did Moll manage to take with her on her second voyage to Virginia?
5. What happened to Moll and Jemy when they first arrived in America?
6. Which of her relatives did Moll encounter upon her return to Virginia?
7. Where did Moll and Jemy buy land after they arrived in Virginia?
8. What did Moll receive from the governess after she and Jemy moved to their new home?
9. How long was Moll’s second stay in America?
10. Where do Moll and Jemy live out their old age?
1. At first, Moll was horrified by the dismal conditions in Newgate Prison, but, after a time, she began to find Newgate not only tolerable but almost agreeable.
2. Moll became a penitent after she heard a minister describe the benefits she would derive from repentance. Defoe leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not she had truly been saved.
3. Like her mother had been, Moll was sentenced to several years of indentured servitude in America.
4. Moll somehow managed to take a trunk full of gold, silver, jewelry, and fine linen with her on the prison ship....
(The entire section is 453 words.)
Moll Flanders is considered an example of a picaresque novel. These novels usually employ a first-person narrator recounting the adventures of a scoundrel or low-class adventurer who moves from place to place and from one social environment to another in an effort to survive. The construction of these novels, like that of Moll Flanders, is typically episodic, and the hero or heroine is a cynical and amoral rascal who lives by his or her wits.
Defoe did not use chapter or section divisions to break up the work. The action moves chronologically, though, and is divided into close to one hundred different episodes. Defoe covers long periods of time with sweeping statements, as when Moll refers to her first marriage by saying, “It concerns the story in hand very little to enter into the farther particulars of the family, . . . for the five years I liv’d with this husband.”
Defoe begins the novel with a preface in which he claims that the story is more of a “private history” than a novel. He urges the reader to be more interested in the parts where Moll is remorseful about her crimes than in the crimes themselves, and he recommends the book “as a work from every part of which something may be learned.”
Defoe wrote the novel in the first person, with Moll telling the story of her life. This form brings Moll close to readers, as if she...
(The entire section is 592 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1700s: London’s population reaches 550,000, up from 450,000 in 1660. Despite losing as many as 100,000 citizens to the Great Plague in 1665, and the destruction of much of the city in 1666 during the three-day Great Fire, London is now the largest city in Europe. Rebuilding London after the Great Fire takes place quickly and haphazardly.
Today: London now boasts about seven million people within its six hundred and twenty square miles and is still the largest city in Europe. Major historical buildings, such as the Royal Opera House and the British Museum, are being renovated.
1700s: Middle- and upper-class English women have more economic options than lower-class women; however, women are increasingly excluded from productive work as their social status increases. Opportunities in areas such as teaching are growing, but trade guilds and apprenticeships exclude women in large numbers while some formerly female professions, such as midwifery, are being crowded out by new male health-care professionals.
Today: Women make up 45 percent of the workforce in the United Kingdom, and Britain employs more women than any other European country. Not only are women found in positions throughout government, education, medicine, business, and other professions, but they account for about 35 percent of new business ventures.
1700s: Black slaves comprise 24 percent of the Virginia colony’s...
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Topics for Further Study
Create a time line showing the major political, religious, social, scientific, and cultural events that occurred while Moll Flanders and Daniel Defoe lived (the late 1600s through the early 1700s).
Elizabeth Frye was an English prison reform activist who lived from 1780 to 1845. She especially worked to improve conditions for female prisoners at Newgate Prison. Investigate the prison reform movement in England and find out its history. Were there any prison reformers working during the time Moll Flanders was in Newgate? What were the typical conditions at a prison such as Newgate?
Syphilis and other venereal diseases were common in London during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Research the prevalence of these diseases and how it compares to their current prevalence in London and in the United States. Examine how venereal diseases were treated during the time of Moll Flanders and how this compares to current treatments.
Choose an episode from Moll Flanders that you especially like, and write a script for a soap opera featuring the episode. Update the characters, setting, and events as you think appropriate to a present-day story.
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In 1965, Paramount adapted Moll Flanders as a film entitled The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, starring Kim Novak and Richard Johnson, and directed by Terence Young. It is available as a video in VHS format.
In 1996, Robin Wright, Morgan Freeman, and Stockard Channing starred in a big-screen version of the novel titled simply Moll Flanders, produced by MGM and directed by Pen Densham. It is available on MGM Video in VHS or DVD format.
In 1975, the British Broadcasting Corporation produced Moll Flanders for the television screen, in two episodes.
In 1981, Granada Television (U.K.) produced a four-part television version entitled Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders, starring Alex Kingston as Moll Flanders and directed by David Atwood. It is available as a videotape in VHS format from Anchor Bay Entertainment.
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What Do I Read Next?
The setting is London in the 1750s in Paula Allardyce’s novel Miss Philadelphia Smith (1977). This romantic novel looks at class differences on a London street that is divided between the odd-numbered houses of the wealthy and the even-numbered houses of the middle-class. Philadelphia Smith lives in an even-numbered cottage and attracts the attention of a wealthy rake whose family lives on the odd-numbered side of the street.
Jack Sheppard, written by William Harrison Ainsworth in 1839, is a novel that, like Moll Flanders, greatly romanticizes crime and criminals. In what is considered one of the “Newgate novels,” named for the famous English prison, Ainsworth tells the story of Sheppard, a real-life burglar and jail-breaker.
Soldiers of Fortune (1962), by Peter Bourne, gives a profile of the colonists of Virginia as they make the hard trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Their stories and others offer a panorama of English history and America’s first colonists.
Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724) is Daniel Defoe’s last and darkest novel. It is the purported autobiography of a woman, the mistress of rich and powerful men, who has traded her virtue for survival and then for fame and fortune.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Anonymous, Review in The Flying Post; or, Weekly Medley, March 1, 1729.
Backscheider, Paula R., “Daniel Defoe,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 101: British Prose Writers, 1660–1800, First Series, edited by Donald T. Siebert, Gale Research, 1991, pp. 103–26.
Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, W. W. Norton and Co., 1973.
Fielding, Penelope, “Moll Flanders,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., Vol. 3, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 1719–20.
Forster, E. M., Aspects of the Novel, Harcourt, Brace, 1927, pp. 56–63.
Kelly, Edward H., Foreword, in Moll Flanders, W. W. Norton and Co., 1973, pp. vii–ix.
Novak, Maximillian E., “Daniel Defoe,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 39: British Novelists, 1660–1800, Part 1: A–L, edited by Martin C. Battestin, Gale Research, 1985, pp. 143–66.
Richetti, John J., “Daniel Defoe,” in Twayne’s English Authors Series, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
Roscoe, W. C., “Defoe as a Novelist,” in National Review, Vol. 3, No. 6, October 1856, pp. 380–410.
Stephen, Leslie, “Defoe’s Novels,” in Hours in a Library, Vol. 1, rev. ed., G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894 (and reprinted by Putnam’s, 1899), pp. 1–46.
Watt, Ian, “Defoe as Novelist: Moll...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Backscheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation. Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 1986. Provides biographical data and critical interpretations of Defoe’s novels, placing emphasis on his innovative point of view.
Bell, Ian A. Defoe’s Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. Studies the elements of Defoe’s writing style and characters. Discusses the problem of morality in Moll Flanders.
Boardman, Michael M. Defoe and the Use of Narrative. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985. Discusses Daniel Defoe’s narrative technique. Focuses on how Defoe structures his stories.
Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. A good version of the original text.
Novak, Maximillian. Realism, Myth and History in Defoe’s Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. An excellent starting place. Discusses the author’s use of realistic characters, such as Moll Flanders, and discusses how Defoe overcomes the myth of female inferiority by having Moll succeed in realistic situations.
Richetti, John J. Daniel Defoe. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Examines Defoe’s process of writing and plot development.
Starr, G. A. Defoe and Causitry. Princeton,...
(The entire section is 199 words.)