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 indecent details, not by any will of his own, but by his sacred commitment to truth.
The highly ironic stance Defoe takes in his short introduction sets the tone for the entire work. By protesting too vigorously against those who might mistake the book for a piece of immoral entertainment, he emphasizes that it is racy enough to excite the lowest desires. Thus, by strongly condemning anyone who might derive some depraved pleasure from Moll’s sordid history, he effectively invites people to read her story for precisely that reason.
Part One: Moll’s Early Life
The Nurse: the woman who cares for Moll during her childhood
The Wealthy Matrons: the rich women who help Moll during her childhood
The Elder Brother: the eldest son in a wealthy family that takes Moll in during her adolescence
Robin: the younger son in Moll’s “foster family”
Moll Flanders, the narrator of the novel, begins her revelation of her life history by stressing that “Moll Flanders” is not her real name, but a nickname invented by her criminal associates. Though she admits that there is no excuse for the terrible sins she has committed, she observes that her life of crime seemed almost predetermined by the circumstances of her birth in Newgate Prison, the most ghastly jail in all of England. Moll observes that her mother, a petty thief, was transported to the colonies a few months after giving birth, an event which allowed Moll to fall into the hands of gypsies until she somehow managed to escape when she was three years old.
Moll recalls being placed in the care of a poor but decent woman to whom she refers as “nurse.” The nurse, who ran a school for local girls, not only taught Moll how to read and sew, she took great pains to make sure that Moll learned how to be polite and well-mannered. When Moll turned eight, the town authorities suggested that she be removed from her nurse’s care and placed into household service. Utterly determined to avoid this fate, Moll attempted to convince her nurse to keep her by declaring that she would learn how to support herself by doing needlework. In making her case to the nurse, Moll declared that she would make enough money, not only to pay for her room and board, but to provide herself with the resources required to become a “gentlewoman.”
Moll could not understand why her nurse and the wealthy
matrons of the town found her ambition to become a gentlewoman highly amusing. Whereas these women knew that true gentility required high birth and a substantial fortune, Moll believed that the term “gentlewoman” applied to any woman who earned enough money to avoid household service. The rich women of the town found Moll’s aspirations so entertaining that they not only arranged for her to remain with her nurse, they also paid her generously for her needlework, gave her pretty clothes, and allowed her to associate with their own daughters. As she became a favorite among these women and acquainted with girls far above her social station, Moll became increasingly convinced that her superior beauty, charm, and manners would carry her to a lofty position.
Soon after Moll turned fourteen, her nurse died, leaving her, it seemed, to fend for herself sooner than she had expected. However, the...
(The entire section is 1,990 words.)