Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders

Oh, what to say about Moll Flanders? As a Victorianist, I’m mostly just shocked that Moll didn’t have to die or go to a mental asylum in order to resolve her subversiveness. She just has to “repent,” and she’s allowed to repent with money and a husband and a measure of security. I mean, she keeps passing for a lady / Angel of the House and then proves time after time that she’s a “Monster,” either by robbing the man with whom she’s just frolicked, or marrying a highwayman when a perfectly upstanding banker has practically begged for her hand. Any self-respecting Victorian author would’ve killed her off. But, of course, the eighteenth century was a much different time.

My Victorianist reaction aside, I was extremely amused by Moll Flanders (there I go accidentally mis-paraphrasing Queen Victoria)…



Okay. I think I’ve got it out of my system now. No more weird Victorian commentary.

Moll Flanders amused me because of Moll’s disingenuousness. (Not to mention the intentional bigamy and accidental incest and her flippant attitude toward her children.) Possibly the archetypal “hooker with a heart of gold,” Moll narrates her life story with a seemingly never ending supply of self-justifications.  She’s a thief and a prostitute, but it’s all okay because she did it out of necessity, not a genuine love of vice (all evidence to the contrary be d—-d).

All of the critics who mention the work comment on the fact that this “novel” is sort of just another criminal biography, albeit a mostly fictionalized one. They also mention that Moll is extremely masculine (that is, her sense of interiority demonstrates a masculine sensibility).

Watt stresses Defoe’s use of Moll as a model of economic independence, which I think stresses particularly well with Lynch’s discussion of the ways in which character both characterization and the moral character of protagonists) correlate with the economic and technological discourses of the day. Moll makes an impression. Despite the fact that we never know her real name, and despite the fact that we only ever see her in a series of disguises (even, I would argue, in her supposedly penitent narration of the text), Moll feels like a real character, an original; her identity is powerful and unmistakable.

I think Defoe does some important work with class / status in terms of place. That is, Moll’s class and status are not fixed. Her “ruin” is not really ruin. She can go somewhere new and take on a new identity. She can go to the American colonies and become something like gentry. Others’ perception of her “honor,” then, changes with her place and situation. More notably, her own perception of her honor changes with place and situation, too. With her banker husband, for example, she convinces herself that she is an upstanding citizen.

This is equally important in terms of the Poor. Defoe’s tale doesn’t require readers to think of the poor and/or criminals as innately immoral (though Moll is a bit of a snob). Rather, it correlates “immorality” with economic need.

Watt, Ian. “Defoe as Novelist: Moll Flanders.” The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U California P, 1957. 93-134. Print.

Although Watt dances on the edge of arguments based on authorial intent throughout this chapter, I found parts of it interesting and illuminating. Namely, Watt’s argument that economic individualism is part of what differentiates Moll Flanders from picaresques and criminal biographies:

It is because her crimes…are rooted in the dynamics of economic individualism that Moll Flanders is essentially different from the protagonists of the picaresque novel. The picaro happens to have a real historical basis–the breakdown of the feudal social order–but this is not the point of his adventures; he is not so much a complete individual personality whose actual life experiences are significant in themselves as [he is] a literary convention for the presentation of a satiric variety of observations and comedic episodes. Defoe, on the other hand, presents his whores, pirates, highwaymen, shoplifters, and adventurers as ordinary people who are normal products of their environment, victims of circumstances which anyone might have experienced and which provoke exactly the same moral conflicts between means and ends as those faced by other members of society. (94)

Other things I noted in the margins of Watt’s chapter on Defoe:

1. Defoe uses a screenwriting technique of scene and sequel, in which we have brief periods of action followed by even briefer periods of introspection and exposition.

2. Defoe’s work highlights a connection between affect and the vernacular. His dialogue is a sort of meta-examination of the ways in which language works not only to communicate with, but to affect auditors.

3. There is also a connection between Defoe’s use of plain language and enlightenment pragmatism.

I was particularly interested in Watt’s discussion of POV (he argues that Defoe’s use of POV is rudimentary, that it is limited because it is inflexible. I agree. It doesn’t have the nuance of later novelistic POV) and his critique of Molls penitence (which, when placed in the context of Defoe’s economic focus, makes sense. Moll’s penitence is complete when she is well to do because her “sin” doesn’t originate in her so much as in her circumstance. Therefore, while the logic of her repentance doesn’t seem sincere or even all that sound to modern readers, from an economic perspective it makes complete sense.)

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