Critical Evaluation

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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 Daniel Defoe himself rather coyly suggested as much, perhaps because he feared such a scandalous story could not be published or would not be popular if it was known to be a work of the imagination.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...

(This entire section contains 1266 words.)

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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 “not much mended by the match.” Another five-year marriage also ends in her widowhood; she wastes not a word in grieving the husband who has given her “an uninterrupted course of ease and content” but laments the loss of his money at excessive length. Soon afterward, she steals a gold necklace from a child and admits that she was tempted to kill the child to prevent any outcry. She rationalizes that “I only thought I had given the parents a just reproof of their negligence in leaving the poor lamb to come home by itself, and it would teach them to take more care another time.”

These recollections are told from the point of view of a seventy-year-old woman. Moll spends a good deal of time explaining that poverty and fear of poverty drove her to all her wickedness, yet she never admits that even when she is relatively secure, she keeps on scheming and thieving. Like many other entrepreneurs, she has come to find excitement and fulfillment in the turning of a profit, the successful clinching of a deal, the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. Although she repents her flagrant sins—deception, thieving, whoring—she apparently never recognizes the sin of her spirit in basing all human relationships on their monetary worth. Furthermore, although she closes her account by declaring that she and her husband are “resolved to spend the remainder of our years in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived,” they are now free from want, partly because of an inheritance but also because of the proceeds from her years as a thief. Readers see no indication that penitence goes any deeper than a rather gratified feeling that she has made peace with her Maker (a peace made, by the way, in Newgate prison while Moll was under sentence of death). There is no evidence that she intends to make restitution of stolen goods or apply herself in positive good works to offset some of her wicked deeds.

The question, then, is whether Defoe expects readers to see the irony in what one critic has called Moll’s moral “muddle” or whether he is so outraged at what poverty and the lack of opportunity can do that he himself fails to see the lapses in her moral system. A few clues are presented from Defoe’s life, but they are contradictory. Like Moll, Defoe was frequently haunted by poverty and spent months in the hell of Newgate. His steadfast stand as a Dissenter (which made him a lifelong outsider in English society), his humane views of the treatment of the poor and of women, his dogged and successful efforts to pay every penny of a 17,000 bankruptcy—all give evidence of a man of high and stern principles. On the other hand, he worked for the Tories and then for the Whigs, writing with passion and conviction on both sides of controversial issues, and in his numerous business ventures he was not above swindling others (even his own mother-in-law). His own dreams of status are attested by his love for trade—“the whore I doated on”—and his addition of “De” to his name (his father was James Foe) to provide a touch of gentility.

Critics have not resolved the debate over morality and irony in Moll Flanders. Few, however, will dispute that the novel offers a fascinating account. It has held the attention of readers for centuries. Virginia Woolf called Moll Flanders one of the “few English novels which we can call indisputably great.”


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Moll Flanders