In "Moll Flanders," why are ladies amused by Moll's desire to be a "gentlewoman?"

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In a poignant scene early in the novel, Moll, who was born in prison and is poor, learns from her nurse that now that she is eight, she will be put out to service. This means she will have to become a servant in somebody's household. This idea frightens her, and she starts to cry. When her nurse asks why she is sobbing, Moll says:

. . . if I can't do it they will beat me, and the maids will beat me to make me do great work, and I am but a little girl and I can't do it.

The nurse then asks, mockingly, if she wants to become a gentlewoman. Moll says yes, and the "old gentlewoman" laughs at her and asks her how she is going to accomplish that feat? She is laughed at by the nurse and others because she is so poor and has no connections to help her out. She needs to start supporting herself, because in that society, nobody felt obligated to feed even a child of eight who could go to work. Moll would liked to have a life she was not born to—that is laughable to others in her class-based society, but Moll will not be one to accept her fate without fighting back as hard as she can.

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The ladies are amused because they know that being a gentlewoman is something to which you're born, not something to which you aspire. Even in such a rigidly hierarchical society as the one portrayed by Defoe in Moll Flanders, it's possible to become more socially respectable. But there are limits. To most people, including the ladies who sneer at Moll's aspirations, if you're not born into the nobility then you'll never truly be one of the social elite.

Moll comes from a very humble background, and so her chances of achieving her social ambitions are remote to say the least. To make matters worse, Moll is also a common criminal, a thief and a prostitute. This puts her at the very bottom of the heap as far as 18th-century society is concerned. The very idea of Moll's wishing to become a gentlewoman is simply too ridiculous for words, which is why the ladies find her such a source of amusement.

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Social status in eighteenth-century England was fixed for the most part, meaning that if one were born in the gentry class or the aristocracy, they would most likely stay there. By the same token, a peasant would never rise to a higher class than the one into which he or she was born. Since Moll was born to a thief in Newgate Prison, the fact that she believes she could ever become a "gentlewoman" is laughable to ladies of the upper classes.

This kind of social stratification is often unfamiliar to contemporary American audiences, since our culture generally believes that a person can raise their social status by gaining weath, working hard, marrying a higher class, etc.

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