Moll Flanders Daniel Defoe
English novel, originally titled The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders.
The following entry provides a selection of contemporary criticism on Defoe's novel Moll Flanders (1721). See also Robinson Crusoe Criticism.
Moll Flanders is a central text in the English canon and has inspired debate and analysis on issues such as Christian moral virtue, capitalism, legal reform, and feminism. Part of the reason for the novel's importance is its extraordinarily vivid and compelling female protagonist. Through her, Defoe creates a novel uniquely fascinating among his works for both readers and critics alike. The ambiguity of the novel's themes and the implications of the text fostered a vigorous debate in the first decades of the twentieth century, and critics continue to advance new perspectives on Moll Flanders in light of recent literary theory.
Defoe was born in North London in 1660. His father was a butcher and candle merchant. He attended an academy for “Dissenters” from the Church of England—Defoe's family was Presbyterian—in order to prepare for a life as a minister. However, after three years he left the academy and entered the merchant world, marrying the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Defoe's ambition eventually resulted in enormous debt which haunted him all his life, and he took refuge from debt collectors in Whitefriars, where thieves and prostitutes hid from the police. He then secured a position in a brick factory. It was at this time that he became politically active and began to publish his first essays. By the turn of the century, Defoe's political activity had intensified, and after the death of King William he published a satire of Tory leaders entitled The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702) that outraged the government and lead to Defoe's arrest for seditious libel. He was sent to the pillory and served six months in jail before he was pardoned by Queen Anne. Troubled by lingering financial problems, and perhaps feeling betrayed by his allies in the Whig party, Defoe then began a political career with the Tory government, becoming the sole writer of the propagandist journal The Review (1704-1713). His political activity shifted with the collapse of the Tory government in 1714; by 1716 he was working as a secret agent for the Whigs, and continued to do so for fifteen years. Meanwhile, the years 1719 to 1724 marked the most prolific time in Defoe's career. It was during this period that he published all of his best-known novels, including Robinson Crusoe (1719-20) and Moll Flanders. Defoe continued to write novels, histories, handbooks, and essays until his death in 1731.
Plot and Major Characters
Moll Flanders is the story of a woman's life told in the first person. Moll is born in the London prison of Newgate and given to gypsies, who leave her at the age of three in the hands of the Parish at Colchester, England. After growing up in the house of a poor nurse, Moll comes under the care of a rich family and falls in love with the elder of two brothers in the household. At the same time, the younger brother falls in love with Moll and eventually she marries him, an experience that leaves her forever disillusioned with love. After the death of her husband five years later, Moll marries a “Gentleman-Tradesman” who goes into debt and leaves the country. Moll then marries a sea captain and sails with him to Virginia. She finds, however, that her mother-in-law is actually her own mother, and lives in incest with her husband/brother until she eventually manages to travel to Bath, England. Here she begins an affair with a married gentleman that continues for six years before he finally leaves her, promising to take care of their only child. At this point, Moll becomes informally engaged to a married accountant pending his divorce, but in the meantime marries another gentleman in Lancashire who, it turns out, is not able to support her. She subsequently marries the accountant and lives with him until his death five years later. Moll supports herself for two years, until she is reduced to poverty and, in desperation, turns to a life of crime. Growing accustomed to thievery, she becomes a master criminal until she is caught and imprisoned at Newgate, where she finds her Lancashire husband, who by this point has become an infamous robber. They both avoid the death sentence, Moll because she is penitent of her former life, and are transported to America, where Moll accumulates a fortune and lives to an old age.
The issues central to Moll Flanders are broad and complex, ranging from the psychology of the protagonist to the social and political order under which she lives. The form of the novel itself is primarily that of a criminal autobiography, and the ways in which Defoe works within and deviates from this tradition is seen as significant by many critics. Critics are also frequently drawn to Moll's constant struggle to accumulate wealth, which they believe reveals Defoe's deep interest in the themes of capitalism and mercantilism. The text also contains many observations and arguments about specific political issues ranging from legal reform to marriage laws to the living conditions of street criminals in London. Many critics find these issues relevant to this day. Critics dispute the degree of irony in Defoe's portrayal of Moll and frequently argue about the presence or absence of a moral order in the novel. Nevertheless, they largely agree that Moll is an iconic figure who represents the struggle of women for autonomy in a patriarchal world.
Moll Flanders has not always been deemed worthy of critical interest. Because it was frequently pirated, literary historians believe the novel was an immediate success with the reading public, although Defoe was not regarded as a serious artist during his lifetime. Only with Sir Walter Scott's commentary in 1810 did Defoe's novels begin to be analyzed as works of high merit. Nevertheless, Scott summarily dismissed Moll Flanders as a novel not “entirely fit for good society.” In fact, critics uniformly considered the novel as second-rate until well into the twentieth century, when Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster began to praise the work. Since then, the novel's reputation has soared, and today it is widely considered a classic. Feminist critics, while sometimes hesitant to embrace the novel because of its ambiguous degree of irony, have written frequently about the male-female power struggle in the book. Other critics have commented on the Marxist elements of the novel, its relation to Postmodernist theories of language, and its place in the history of British Imperial propaganda.