As the novel’s full original title suggests, the heroine of Moll Flanders is perhaps the world’s best-known female picaro. Ever since it was first published in 1722, Moll Flanders has entertained the reading public with its lusty, energetic tale of a seventeenth century adventurer and manipulator. The book is so convincingly written and contains such a wealth of intimate detail that many readers have assumed the story is true biography. Daniel Defoe himself rather coyly suggested as much, perhaps because he feared such a scandalous story could not be published or would not be popular if it was known to be a work of the imagination.
In this as in his other great novels, such as Robinson Crusoe (1719) and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Defoe achieves his realistic effect by incorporating a wealth of authentic detail. Having been a pamphleteer and journalist much of his life, Defoe knew well how concrete facts and specific examples build plausibility. He has Moll relate her remarkable story simply, thoroughly, and with candor. She is literal-minded and bothers little with description or metaphor. (In his preface, Defoe claims to have cleaned up the language and omitted some of the more “vicious part of her life”; thus Moll’s sexual adventures are related in curious, sometimes amusing circumlocutions.) Moll sticks mainly to the stark realities of her life except for passages in which she moralizes about her misdeeds.
Despite the verisimilitude, however, the novel has a problem of tone that frequently puzzles modern readers and has stirred a lively controversy among critics. The question may be stated thus: Is the story full of conscious irony, or is it told in utter sincerity? If the former is the case, most scholars agree that Moll Flanders is a masterwork of social commentary and of fictional art. If the latter, there are lapses in the author’s moral scheme.
The problem centers more on Moll’s attitude than on her actions. Given her situation—that of a woman of no status but with large ambitions—her behavior is entirely plausible. In her childhood, Moll is dependent for her survival on the whims and kindnesses of strangers. By the time she is eight years old, she is already determined to be a “gentlewoman”—an ambition very nearly impossible for a woman to fulfill in seventeenth century England when she has neither family nor, more important, money. Moll is quick to recognize the value of money in assuring not only one’s physical security but also one’s place in the world—and she aims for a comfortable place. Money thus becomes her goal and eventually her god. To attain it, she uses whatever means are at hand; as a beautiful woman, she finds sex the handiest means available. When, after a number of marriages and other less legitimate alliances, sex is no longer a salable commodity, she turns to thieving and rapidly becomes a master of the trade.
Readers know from other of Defoe’s writings that the author sympathized with the plight of women in his society; education and most trades (except the oldest profession) were closed to them. For the most part, a woman was entirely dependent for her welfare on her husband or other men in her life. As a hardheaded pragmatist who finds herself in straitened circumstances, Moll is much akin to Becky Sharp of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848, serial; 1848, book) and Scarlett O’Hara of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936); all three use their ingenuity to survive in a hostile world, and although readers do not entirely condone their behavior, they can understand it.
After Moll has acted, however, she reflects; it is this reflection that poses a problem. For convenience, she marries the younger brother of the man who first seduced her. After he dies, she remarks, “He had been really a very good husband to me, and we lived very agreeably together,” but then she quickly complains that because he had not had time to acquire much wealth, she was...
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