What is the significance of disguise in Moll Flanders?
In Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, Moll’s erotic and economic successes would appear to hinge on her talent for disguise and self-presentation. The virtues of being incognito are crucial. Moll can never tell people who she is because of the risk that she would be hanged as a thief. Still, thieving is a form of artistry in this book, a creative activity. For Moll, the desire to steal verges on the pathological. Some have argued that disguise is the modus operandi of modern urban life. Most of our relationships are secondary, and we tend to keep our “histories” hidden. Like Moll, we find virtue in invisibility.
In contemplating a marriage to yet another lover, Moll lists her own transgressions but promises, “I will make him amends if possible by what he shall see for the cheats and abuses that I put upon him which he does not see.” This is a statement of Moll’s ethics, and it’s a form of bookkeeping. She knows that her past is checkered, but she will try to live in such a way that makes up for that checkered past. With this bookkeeping, the novel creates a dialectic between what is hidden and internal and what is public, our words and actions in relationships with others.
Although disguise is part of this book and we tend to think of disguise as fake, in fact, the novel is stunningly honest, taking the measure of who we are over time.