The complete title of this eponymous work brings the essence of this classical work: “The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, & C. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother) Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rick, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent.”
A man is a product of exploitation and betrayals endured throughout his lifetime. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders explores the trials and tribulations of the protagonist Moll Flanders. As we embark in the shoes of the proponent, we come across three major themes: a sociological novel, moral and spiritual regeneration and thirdly, the rise of individualism. Through the above mentioned themes, Defoe does a brilliant job at mesmerizing the readers by painting emotions red and blue thus actively making the reader to pause and introspect at constant intervals as this classical 17th century piece encompasses all ages and its message continues to be relevant even in the 21st century.
The novel lacks an organic plot and runs without chapters. The only unity keeping the events together is that all the incidents revolve around the heroine. The novel may be divided roughly into five sections. Set in the 17th century British society, Moll Flanders is the fictional name given to the protagonist. The first part begins with the birth of Moll as “a poor desolate Girl without Friends, without Cloaths, without Help or Helper in the World”. Owing to this unfortunate fate, she is taken in by a nurse until the age of fourteen. She goes on to live in the care of a rich family where she becomes an accomplished woman and receives formal education, learns music and to speak French. At seventeen, she is seduced by the elder son of the family, who on the pretext of marring her, gifts her gold and money in exchange for their sexual encounters “every Year, till I Marry you.”
Soon, the youngest son in the house Robert proposes Moll for marriage. Compelled by circumstances and much against her own will, she settles with Robert. The second phase starts when their marriage is short-lived to five years as Robert dies. A young widow at 24, mother of two with only £1200 in her pocket, Moll is left desolate in the world again and victim to her crumbling circumstances. Her children are taken away from her in laws. Thus follows a period of whoredom and several successive marriages which all end miserably in which she has been the wife to five husbands and mistress to several men. Moll is forty-eight by this stage.
Pondering over her despicable condition, Moll realizes that “Marriages were here the Consequences of politick Schemes for forming Interests, and carrying on Business, and that Love had no Share, or but very little in the Matter.” The third phase depicts her as a pick-pocket which lasts for several years. Moll shares endless accounts of her picaresque adventures as a criminal. Dexterous and careful, she acquires the name Moll Flanders.
Ultimately, sin must be punished, thus here begins the fourth stage of Moll’s life which is the darkest phase of her life as a prisoner in Newgate prison. She loses her sanity and ultimately reconciliates with God by genuine penitence over her misdeeds. Upon her spiritual regeneration, the fifth and final stage of Moll’s life is depicted where she moves to Virginia with her Lancashire husband. With their honest labour and hard work, they become prosperous and retire there. The last phase displays Moll’s spiritual maturity.
Let us discuss some major underlying themes in this classical work which makes it commendable and worth our time to read this work:
A Sociological Novel
Moll Flanders is considered to be one of the earliest sociological novels of its time. As a newly emerging form of art, Defoe used the story of Moll to showcase various social evils afflicting all social classes. The author displays the immortal side of Moll in order to promote morality in the audience. His purpose is to bring a social reform as he explicitly puts it in his preface: “All the Exploits of this Lady of Fame, in her Depredations upon Mankind stands as so many warnings to honest People to beware of them, intimating to them by what Methods innocent People are drawn in, plunder’d and robb’d, and by Consequence how to avoid them.” The horrors and hypocrisies of society, imbalanced power and gender relations have been explored to a great degree as the book is filled with eye-opening instances which are relevant in today’s time.
In the beginning of the story, Moll speaks of countries like France where orphaned and abandoned children are taken under the care of the government; however such system is missing in her country. When children are exposed to such distressing conditions at an early age, they are exploited and tormented body and soul. This is clearly visible today through various inequalities, child labor, flesh trade, begging, and so on.
Moll’s social economic conditions depict how the legislation was governed by draconian laws. For instance, her mother was unjustly imprisoned for a petty crime and as a form of punishment, she was shipped to America. When Moll is imprisoned in Newgate prison, we witness how many prisoners were hanged for petty offences after speedy trials. Moll’s partners in crime were also hanged. Similarly in present scenario, the big offenders get away with their crimes while the poor are subject to torture for small crimes.
The novel sheds light on matrimonial alliances as a material transaction to add status to the man’s wealth while a woman with no money is miserable as evident in these lines spoken by a woman of high class: “…for the Market is against our Sex just now; and if a young Woman have Beauty, Birth, Breeding, Wit, Sense, Manners, Modesty, and all these to an Extreme; yet if she have not Money, she’s no Body, she had as good want them all, for nothing by Money now recommends a Woman; the Men play the Game all into their own Hands.” This clearly projects how virtues and character are given a backseat while a person’s true class is measured by wealth, status and class: “…consider what it will be to Marry a Gentleman of a good Family, in good Circumstances, and with the Consent of the whole House, and to enjoy all that the World can give you: And what on the other Hand, to be sunk into the dark Circumstances of a Woman that has lost her Reputation.” In other words, money and property guarantees good prospects to find a suitable husband, which is again evident in the dowry system practiced in some places today.
Moral and Spiritual Regeneration
The narration is replete with moral notions and repentance which every person realizes in their life time. The heroine pauses at many instances and provides a running commentary to exhort the readers about how our situations and circumstances can compel us to take a life of evil practices. Suitable inferences can be made in the novel. In one instance when Moll is forced to marry the younger brother Robert instead of the man she loves, she figures she will become a prostitute to the elder if she marries Robert and so she questions his integrity: “…if I have been perswaded to believe that I am really, and in the Essence of the Thing your Wife, shall I now give the Lye to all those Arguments, and call myself your Whore, or Mistress, which is the same thing? And will you Transfer me to your brother? Can you Transfer my Affection? Can you bid me cease loving you, and bid me love him?” The moral dilemma running in Moll’s head brings out the drastic moral consequences of her actions and the dilemmas women often encounter through their lives when making decisions for their own future.
In another instance, Moll leaves her mother-in-law and husband when she finds out she has been living with her own brother and mother with two surviving children for eight years. “…it was certain that my Life was very uneasie for me; for I liv’d, as I have said, but in the worst sort of Whoredom, and as I cou’d expect no Good of it, so really no good Issue came of it, and all my seeming Prosperity wore off and ended in Misery and Destruction.” Though she discovered her biological mother after years, she also comes to terms with her moral uneasiness: “…my Mother’s Opinion and mine were quite different from one another, and indeed inconsistent with one another…This Proposal did not agree at all with my Judgment of the thing, tho’ it was very fair and kind in my Mother, but my Thoughts run quite another way.” Hence, she decides to leave her family and moves back to England.
It is often seen through repeated instances that Moll is a victim of her circumstances and she questions her own decisions: “Then it occurr’d to me what an abominable Creature am I! And how is this innocent Gentleman going to be abus’d by me!…Well, if I must be his Wife, if it please God to give me Grace, I’ll be a true Wife to him, and love him suitably to the strange Excess of his Passion for me.” In this manner, the protagonist is able to win the reader’s sympathy by putting us in her own shoes. These situations are similar to the ones that fall on our live as well, and the choices we make depend on our circumstances as well.
“As the publishing this Account of my Life is for the sake of the just Moral of every part of it, and for Instruction, Caution, Warning and Improvement to every Reader, so this will not pass I hope for an unnecessary Digression concerning some People being oblig’d to disclose the greatest Secrets either of their own or other Peoples Affairs.” Through these lines, Moll urges us lead a life of self-restraint and sobriety. Moll Flanders is a story of moral degradation and cruelty which ultimately leads to moral recovery.
Rise of Individualism
Written in the picaresque tradition, Moll defies social conventions, smashes social stigmas and stereotypes against ostracized women and upholds an iconic image of the “ruined woman”. She uses her painful experiences as a lesson and transforms herself as a sobbing helpless woman into a self-reliant and self-made woman when she utters these lines: “On the contrary, the Women have ten Thousand times the more Reason to be wary and backward, by how much the hazard of being betray’d is the greater; and would the Ladies consider this, and act the wary Part, they would discover every Cheat that offer’d; for, in short, the Lives of very few Men now a-Days will bear a Character; and if the Ladies do but make a little Enquiry, they will be able to distinguish the Men and deliver themselves.” Her message can be taken as a clarion call to womanhood to inquire about the man’s character before giving into his wishes.
Towards the end, Moll and her husband retire to America to spend their remaining years in freedom and peace: “I thought our mutual Misfortunes had been such, as were sufficient to Reconcile us both to quitting this part of the World, and living where no Body could upbraid us with what was past, or we be in any dread of a Prison, and without the Agonies of a condemn’d Hole to drive us to it, where we should look back on all our past Disasters with infinite Satisfaction, when we should consider that our Enemies should entirely forget us, and that we should live as new People in a new World, no Body having any thing to say to us, or we to them.” These lines explain the current disposition of mankind who desires to live their lives in peace and ease.
Several other themes which run through the novel are various social malpractices such as illegal abortions, brothels run under the guise of hospitals, Governesses who stir temptations in innocent women like Moll to run criminal activities, rampant bribery, horrifying conditions of prisons as described by Moll as an “emblem of hell itself”, etc. The social conditions in England during Defoe’s time make the reader wonder that they are very alike to the depressing situations which are evident in the modern world today.
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) distinguished himself as a voluminous and prolific writer of the 18th century. Having written over 400 works, including pamphlets, journals and articles, Defoe through his didactic style of writing imparts moral lessons to his readers. This style of writing was carried forward by other eminent writers such as Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne. Some of his other chief works include: Robinson Crusoe (1719); A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and Roxana (1724).
A classic work is that kind of art which has not finished what it has to say, similarly the legacy of Moll Flanders is not limited to the novel itself, but has been adapted into films and television series in order to reinvent itself to the modern audience by filmmakers such as David Attwood and Pen Densham. It was also adapted by Jennifer LeBlanc for her theatrical audience proving to be a massive hit.
“That Men chose Mistresses indeed be the gust of their Affection, and it was requisite to a Whore to be Handsome, well shap’d, have a good Mien, and a graceful Behaviour; but that for a Wife, no Deformity would shock the Fancy, no ill Qualities, the Judgement; the Money was the thing; the Portion was neither crooked or Monstrous, but the Money was always agreeable, whatever the Wife was.”
“A Woman’s ne’er so ruin’d but she can
Revenge herself on her undoer, Man.”
“…a Woman should never be kept for a Mistress, that had Money to keep her self.”
“It is said by the ill-natured World, of our Sex, that if we are set on a thing, it is impossible to turn us from our Resolution.”
“…that they who do those things never talk of them; or that they who talk of such things never do them.”
“…to be Friendless is the worst Condition.”
“I wish all those Women who consent to the disposing their Children out of the way, as it is call’d for Decency sake, would consider that ‘tis only a contriv’d Method for Murther; that is to say, a killing their Children with safety.”
“…a handsome Face, be the Relief to my Necessities, and Beauty be a Pimp to Vice.”
“Let ‘em remember that a time of Distress is a time of dreadful Temptation, and all the Strength to resist is taken away; Poverty presses, the Soul is made Desperate by Distress, and what can be done?”
“I seem’d not to Mourn that I had committed such Crimes…but I mourn’d that I was to be punish’d for it; I was a Penitent as I thought, not that I had sinn’d, but that I was to suffer, and this took away all the Comfort, and even the hope of my Repentance in my own Thoughts.”