Daniel Defoe’s novel The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, commonly referenced as simply Moll Flanders, tells the story of a woman born in Newgate Prison – her mother having been convicted of petty theft – determined to rise above her lot in life in the rigid society of Great Britain. Moll, a term associated with the girlfriends of gangsters, may seem to be condemned to a life of poverty and servitude at the behest of others, but she is smart and committed to extricating herself from the otherwise inevitable morass into which she was born. Unfortunately, the only real avenue available to a woman of the lower caste is crime or prostitution – the profession from which her surname, Flanders, is derived. Defoe’s protagonist/narrator chooses to remain anonymous given the sordid details of her life, so she remains somewhat content to be known by the moniker of Moll Flanders (“this famous Moll Flanders, as she calls herself”).
Defoe’s narrator, Moll, is unabashed in her accounting of her life; she did what she had to do, even though she would turn repentant in her later years. Defoe, however, makes his protagonist an accomplished thief and trader in stolen goods. In his prologue, he notes that his creation is hardly a model for others, and, indeed, issues a warning to the reader to beware such characters of nefarious reputation:
“All the exploits of this lady of fame, in her depredations upon mankind, stand as so many warnings to honest people to beware of them, intimating to them by what methods innocent people are drawn in, plundered and robbed, and by consequence how to avoid them. Her robbing a little innocent child, dressed fine by the vanity of the mother, to go to the dancing-school, is a good memento to such people hereafter, as is likewise her picking the gold watch from the young lady's side in the Park.”
Moll has been hardened by the environment in which she grew up and in which she must function as an adult. Sentiment rarely figures into her calculations, as when she describes one particular encounter with a young man who, driven by lust but affected by certain inhibitions, somewhat forcefully engages her in what could generously be called "a one-night stand" that ends with the consummation of what he has determined was a business arrangement:
“I did indeed case sometimes with myself what young master aimed at, but thought of nothing but the fine words and the gold; whether he intended to marry me, or not to marry me, seemed a matter of no great consequence to me . . .”
Defoe is interested in Moll’s proficiency in trading her body for wealth, and her series of sexual encounters and marriages are all executed in the interest of social advancement. It is her prowess as a thief, however, that constitutes the “criminal” element of Moll’s life. It is as an accomplished thief that she earns her reputation for professionalism among England’s criminal class. The crime to which Defoe’s novel most clearly refers, though, is the extent to which Moll used men’s attraction to and affection for her to reap what financial rewards she could before invariably moving on – encounters and relationships with men who could love her but not satisfy her. Describing one such relationship, Moll notes her moral ambivalence regarding one such target of opportunity:
“. . .he took it as I meant it, that is, to let him think I was inclined to go on with him, as indeed I had all the reason in the world to do, for he was the best-humoured, merry sort of a fellow that I ever met with, and I often reflected on myself how doubly criminal it was to deceive such a man; but that necessity, which pressed me to a settlement suitable to my condition, was my authority for it; and certainly his affection to me, and the goodness of his temper, however they might argue against using him ill, yet they strongly argued to me that he would better take the disappointment than some fiery-tempered wretch, who might have nothing to recommend him but those passions which would serve only to make a woman miserable all her days.”
Moll succeeds, at least temporarily, in rationalizing her duplicitous behavior. After all, men have for thousands of years exploited women for sexual gratification, so why shouldn’t Moll turn the tables, so to speak? Defoe is interested in the criminal underworld comprised of thieves and prostitutes. In Moll, he essentially has both.