Moll's Soul Versus Her Social and Economic Success
In Defoe’s Moll Flanders, mind-boggling things happen to the book’s heroine: events align to create amazing coincidences; consequences that might prove pesky in future episodes simply disappear; the heroine freely employs disguises and changes her name; and, though numerous trials and tribulations befall her, the heroine still rises above the fray to become a success. Sound familiar?
Give Moll a different set of clothes and move her to an anonymous mid-sized American city, and you have the basis for a character in a hugely successful soap opera. Defoe’s novel, an enormously popular success in eighteenth-century England, is a story with a two-faceted appeal—the story of the spunky girl that audiences love to hate. On one hand, she is wicked and participates in activities no self-respecting woman would ever dream of; but, on the other hand, she ultimately achieves independence, finds happiness with her one true love, and lives out her final days in spiritual accomplishment.
Why would Defoe, a man raised on the tenets of conservative Protestantism, write such a book? Was it really, as his narrator claims in the preface, “a work from every part of which something may be learned, and some just and religious inference is drawn”? Or is it a story less concerned with the spiritual and moral saving of Moll’s soul and more with her financial recovery and ultimate success?
The same features that drew readers to Moll Flanders three hundred years ago still draw viewers to similar stories on television. And similar to the denials many people make today that they never watch such popular television shows as Dallas or All My Children, many made claims in the eighteenth century that Defoe’s work was vulgar and lewd, and therefore not fit reading for honorable men and women. But someone was reading and enjoying Moll Flanders’s exploits, just as viewers today still enjoy stories of remarkable coincidence and lusty heroines, stories filled with lessons of romantic and financial success built on (not necessarily legal or ethical) hard work and audacity.
Even the most casual reading of Moll Flanders reveals a romantic world where nearly everything ultimately works in the heroine’s favor. First are the series of remarkable coincidences that occur around Moll—some positive, some not so positive, but all placed in a way that turns the tide of events ultimately to Moll’s benefit. Moll, through trickery, catches a husband whom she discovers later to be her half-brother. While this is, indeed, horrible news, and Moll is appropriately shocked, this ugly chapter of her life plants the seeds for her successful return to America—a return whose punishment aspect is muted considerably by Moll’s ability to buy her and Jemy’s way out of servitude. Would she really so happily consider traveling to Virginia after her death sentence commutation if she were not hoping to take possession of whatever valuable inheritance her mother had promised her? When she urges Jemy to seek a reprieve of his death sentence and join her in America, she assures him that death would be much worse than moving to Virginia, for “you do not know the place so well as I do.”
Moll’s relationship with Jemy is filled with a series of even more coincidences, all paving the way to her eventual financial and romantic success with him. A number of years after she and Jemy have separated (because of their impoverished situations), Moll is freshly married again when she just happens to look out a window. She sees Jemy, who later leaves in a hurry, obviously due to his criminal occupation. When a mob comes by the next day, looking for Jemy as one of the highwaymen who recently robbed a coach, Moll vouches for him, swearing that he is an upstanding gentleman and not a villain. The next time she sees him is years later when they both just happen to be at Newgate Prison at the same time. She is able to persuade him to sail to America with her, primarily because she saved his life...
(The entire section is 9,920 words.)