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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

When Moll Flanders was published in 1722, most reactions to it focused on one of two points: which of the numerous infamous female pickpockets of the day Defoe was writing about when he created Moll, or the base nature of the story itself. On the latter count, a famous anonymous couplet, appearing in a 1729 edition of The Flying Post; or Weekly Medley, indicated that only members of the lower classes were reading Defoe’s hugely popular book:

Down in the kitchen, honest Dick and Doll Are studying Colonel Jack and Flanders Moll.

However, many have pointed out that, given the popularity of the work, more than just servants were buying copies of the novel. As to its reception and popularity, Maximillian Novak points out in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Although there were numerous chapbook versions of Moll Flanders, it was not the kind of work that was sufficiently ‘polite’ or proper for either the eighteenth or for most of the nineteenth century.”

According to Edward H. Kelly in his foreword to the Norton Critical Edition of Moll Flanders, “the novel was often dismissed by nineteenthcentury critics and biographers as unimportant, ‘secondary,’ or immoral.” Two critics of the nineteenth century found little to like about Defoe and his Moll Flanders. W. C. Roscoe in an 1856 issue of the National Review condemns Defoe for writing with little imagination and with too few attempts to delve into the interiors of his characters. Roscoe charges that Defoe “abides in the concrete; he has no analytical perception whatever. Never was there a man to whom a yellow primrose was less or anything more than a yellow primrose.” Specifically about Moll, Roscoe writes, “We must use our own insight and judgment if we wish to know what really was the interior character of Moll Flanders, just as we must have done had we met her in life—not altogether a pleasant sort of person.” Leslie Stephen, writing in his book Hours in a Library, picks up on Roscoe’s sentiments, writing that Defoe accumulates merely facts in many of his novels, and that the story of Moll Flanders should not claim “any higher interest than that which belongs to the ordinary police report, given with infinite fulness and vivacity of detail.”

Twentieth-century critics are considerably kinder to Defoe, possibly because of the passing of the Victorian Age and the introduction of less rigid concepts about the inclusion of sex and antisocial behavior in literature. Virginia Woolf was the daughter of the critic Leslie Stephen, and her impressions of Moll Flanders could not have been more different than her father’s. In The Common Reader , Woolf praises Defoe’s “peculiar genius” for creating a complicated “woman of her own account.” And she directly confronts her father’s earlier charge that Defoe was a writer little...

(The entire section is 712 words.)