Summary of the Novel
Moll Flanders tells the story of a beautiful, smart, and self-interested woman who strives to escape the poverty and servitude dictated by the lowly circumstances of her birth. Despite a complete lack of material resources, Moll becomes determined at a very early age to transform herself into a “gentlewoman.” She proceeds to acquire a level of education and refinement far beyond her social station and expertly exploits her skills, as well as her physical charms, to procure a series of husbands. The most shocking of all of Moll’s many misalliances is her relationship with her third husband, with whom she lives with for a brief but happy period in Virginia until she learns that he is actually her brother.
None of Moll’s many marriages fulfills her material ambitions. When her youth and beauty fade, she chooses the only other road to wealth she can discern, a life of crime. She soon becomes an expert in her new career and, as reports of her criminal exploits circulate throughout England, she is nicknamed ‘Moll Flanders’ by her underworld associates. This label understandably irritates her. ‘Moll’ was used to denote a female criminal, while ‘Flanders’ was associated both with Flemish cloth, a favorite target for thieves, and also with Flemish prostitutes, who were supposed at the time to be the best in the profession. Moll does not, however, supply the reader with any other name. Instead, she emphasizes that the number and gravity of the offenses she has committed make it impossible for her to reveal her true identity.
By taking cover under this alias and employing a variety of disguises, Moll manages to avoid arrest for many years. During this period, she associates mainly with her “governess,” a midwife who had helped her through one of her many pregnancies. The governess turns out to be both a loyal friend and an excellent connection to buyers of stolen property. She not only helps Moll reap handsome profits from her crimes, she also alerts Moll when opportunities for thievery arise. With the aid of her cunning but faithful friend, Moll gradually becomes the richest and most notorious thief in England.
Moll eventually grows careless of her safety and, as she herself had predicted many times, she is captured and returned to the place of her birth, Newgate Prison. Consumed by fear of execution, she prays with a prison minister and seemingly repents for her sins. Thanks to the minister’s intervention, Moll’s death sentence is reduced to transportation to the colony of Virginia. Before her departure to America, Moll meets up again with her favorite husband, Jemy, a highway robber, and persuades him to join her on her journey.
In America, Moll finds her brother-husband, blind and demented, living with one of their sons. Because she hopes to get hold of a legacy left to her by her mother, Moll informs her son of the unnatural relationship which led to his birth. Moll’s son is delighted to be reunited with his mother. After he secures her inheritance, he showers her with kindness and presents. Moll and Jemy soon become wealthy planters and, after spending several years in Maryland, they return to England to live out the rest of their lives in repentance and prosperity.
The Life and Work of Daniel Defoe
Born in London in 1660, Daniel Defoe became one of the most productive and versatile writers in British history. His works included, along with novels such as Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, hundreds of political tracts and pamphlets, books on history, economics, and geography, as well as guides to family living and business success. For many years, Defoe single-handedly produced his own newspaper, the Review, which dealt with topics ranging from the social implications of crime to the scientific aspects of astrology.
Despite his remarkable energy, Defoe never escaped the economic insecurity that characterized his early life. Because his father, James Foe, a butcher and candlemaker, dissented...
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