(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

An Essay upon Projects (essay) 1697

The True-Born Englishman (poetry) 1701

The Shortest Way with the Dissenters; or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church (essay) 1702

A Hymn to the Pillory (poetry) 1703

An Essay on the Regulation of the Press (essay) 1704

The Storm; or, A Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which Happened in the Late Dreadful Tempest, Both by Sea and Land (nonfiction) 1704

A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal, the Next Day After Her Death, to One Mrs. Bargrave, at Canterbury, the 8th of September, 1705 (essay) 1705

Jure Divino (poetry) 1706

The History of the Union of Great Britain (history) 1709

The Family Instructor (handbook) 1715

A Vindication of the Press; or, An Essay on the Usefulness of Writing, On Criticism, and the Qualification of Authors (essay) 1718

*The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years All Alone, in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River Oroonoque (novel) 1719

*The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: Being the Second and Last Part of His Life; and the Strange...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Lois A. Chaber (essay date March 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Chaber, Lois A. “Matriarchal Mirror: Women and Capital in Moll Flanders.PMLA 97, no. 2 (March 1982): 212-26.

[In the following essay, Chaber explicates some of the Marxist and matriarchal themes of Defoe's novel.]


Moll Flanders' escape through London streets after her first theft is an image of breathless flight through a maze, which Terence Martin sees as an objective correlative for Moll's confused psychology. These literally tortuous streets, however, exemplify what Raymond Williams calls the “forced labyrinths and alleys of the poor,” created by speculative builders exploiting the overcrowded.1 As an...

(The entire section is 10495 words.)

Ellen Pollak (essay date spring 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pollak, Ellen. “Moll Flanders, Incest, and the Structure of Exchange.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Imagination 30, no. 1 (spring 1989): 3-21.

[In this essay, Pollak explores the role of incest in Moll's struggle for financial, linguistic, and sexual autonomy.]

In many ways, Moll Flanders is a literary character who moves impressively and resiliently outside the constraints of familial, and especially maternal, obligation.1 Her story, however, reminds us that there are dangers attendant upon being or believing oneself outside the family. Like the story of Sophocles's Oedipus, another memorable literary figure whom circumstance early...

(The entire section is 8117 words.)

Larry L. Langford (essay date fall 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Langford, Larry L. “Retelling Moll's Story: The Editor's Preface to Moll Flanders.The Journal of Narrative Technique 22, no. 3 (fall 1992): 164-79.

[In the following essay, Langford discusses how the editor's preface to Moll Flanders should affect the reading of the novel.]

Who is speaking me? Am I a phantom too? To what order do I belong? And you: who are you?

J. M. Coetzee, Foe


Since Ian Watt declared Moll Flanders an ironic object but not a work of irony (130), criticism of the novel has largely focused on Defoe's attitude...

(The entire section is 8391 words.)

Steven C. Michael (essay date summer 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Michael, Steven C. “Thinking Parables: What Moll Flanders Does Not Say.” ELH 63, no. 2 (summer 1996): 367-95.

[In the essay that follows, Michael examines the “apparent absence of a moral center” in Moll Flanders, and applies the work of several Postmodern theorists to demonstrate the ways in which Moll's language is a form of capital.]

By 1644, rhetoric in England was still as deadly a weapon as the recent introduction of gunpowder and artillery. In book 5 of Paradise Lost, the debate between Abdiel and Satan anticipates the clash of sword and artillery in book 6, and it is certainly no accident that Abdiel finds it “naught but...

(The entire section is 13120 words.)

Michael F. Suarez (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Suarez, Michael F. “The Shortest Way to Heaven? Moll Flanders' Repentance Reconsidered.” In 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, Vol. 3, edited by Kevin L. Cope, pp. 3-28. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1997.

[In the following essay, Suarez argues that Defoe stresses the insincerity of Moll's repentance with deliberate irony.]

The proper habit of repentance is not fine linen, or any delicate array … but sackcloth and ashes.

—Robert Parsons (1680)

The reader of Moll Flanders (1722) must confront the “memorandums” of a seventy-year-old...

(The entire section is 8489 words.)

Beth Swan (essay date October 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Swan, Beth. “Moll Flanders: The Felon as Lawyer.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 11, no. 1 (October 1998): 33-48.

[In the following essay, Swan places Moll's trial at Newgate into context as a didactic comment on legal reform, highlighting the role of “judicial discourse” in Moll's narrative.]

Moll Flanders draws the reader into the narrative of her criminal life by way of her language. Her characteristic discourse, special pleading, is clearly appropriate to her attempts at self-vindication. But it also derives meaning from her status as convicted felon. Moll, the narrator, is also a woman with a “record,” inscribed in the annals of the Old Bailey and...

(The entire section is 7067 words.)

Thomas Grant Olson (essay date summer 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Olson, Thomas Grant. “Reading and Righting Moll Flanders.SEL 41, no. 3 (summer 2001): 467-81.

[In the following essay, Olson explores the relationship between language and kinship taboos in Defoe's novel.]

Kinship laws, which govern the system of combinations in mating, correspond to linguistic laws governing the combinations of words in a sentence or letters in a word … [I]ncest is bad grammar.

—Maud Ellmann

The connection between the rules that govern kinship and grammar offers a critical reader of Moll Flanders a tool to understand the connection between...

(The entire section is 6270 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Blewett, David. “Changing Attitudes toward Marriage in the Time of Defoe: The Case of Moll Flanders.” Huntington Library Quarterly 44, no. 2 (spring 1981): 77-88.

Uses Moll Flanders to argue that Defoe believed in the need for love in marriage.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, 146 p.

Collection of essays that provides a useful variety of criticism on Defoe's novel.

Butler, Mary. “‘Onomaphobia’ and Personal Identity in Moll Flanders.Studies in the Novel 22, no. 4 (winter 1990): 377-91.


(The entire section is 695 words.)