Essay on Moll Flanders

Extract B: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

 

Moll Flanders is an 18th century novel situated in Britain and Virginia; it depicts autobiographically the life and misfortunes of the eponymous heroine of its title. With themes including love, adultery, incest and theft it was very explicit and experimental for the era in which it was written.

As the first person narrative of Moll Flanders is laid out, it is evident that one of the key themes within the novel is morality[1]. It is obvious Moll is money motivated; avarice is her perpetual longing and desire. During the course of the novel many of Moll’s actions make the reader question if she is a good person or not, it is evident that everything she does is primarily for self-benefit. ‘Thus my pride, not my principle, my money, not my virtue, kept me honest’[2] this portrays her character accurately as it states what she inherently values, in her true nature.

As it is stated in the third paragraph which works as foreshadowing, ‘My mother was convicted of felony for a certain petty theft scarce worth naming’[3] this is a reflection of crime and punishment in the 18th century as theft for a loaf of bread commonly ended if caught with a public hanging. I feel the protagonist is very unemotional throughout the novel, this was a tool Defoe incorporated to expand the plot.

‘My two children were, indeed taken happily off my hands by my husband’s father and mother’[4] hitherto conveying her detached narrative voice, there is no emotion other than happiness, she shows no signs of sadness at the parting of her children[5]. This also mirrors society in the 18th century as it was common to see children abandoned on the streets; unusually this carried a much lighter sentence in comparison with theft. Defoe intentionally created a character that lacked emotion to convey various aspects of society in more depth, Defoe focused more on the story as it developed through the protagonist’s life, rather than how she felt after each event. This was to give the reader a greater insight into 18th century society from different angles in society; it was a social critique.[6]

Surprisingly taking into account everything Moll does throughout her life, she never experiences any serious consequences[7], also she is unaffected by the majority of things that happen to her. As Defoe represented 18th century society in the narrative, it also relates and depicts part of his own life as he was imprisoned in Newgate just like Moll. Defoe has incorporated some of his own experience into the novel[8].

Therefore I feel Defoe made such a vast storyline in order to convey what life was like in various aspects of 18th century life. As the 18th century saw the rise of the novel[9], it was a cultural product that carried value at the time. Defoe does this by representing class structures and hierarchies through the characters, this fluctuates throughout the narrative. Thus making the protagonist exempt from being an emotional character, ‘I confess I was not suitably affected with the loss of my husband.’[10] By doing this Defoe can create a plot that can convey a lot of different themes without the protagonist dwelling on them, thus effectively making the readers come to their own conclusions.

As sexuality is a prevalent theme within the text it is apparent that Moll uses sex as currency; it is Moll’s ticket to high culture, material, her general well-being and physical comfort. This is her main weapon of deceit, maintaining her material desires, thus also keeping her away from entering the world of work, the stereotypical path laid out for women in 18th century society[11].

In every stage of her life portrayed in the novel, Moll always manages to utilise her sociological circumstances by some form which can mainly be described as cunning and often dishonest. When she was young she used her beauty as a weapon, thus achieving what she desired, money and comfortable living. She states she has an ‘abundance of admirers’[12]. When she is older but still with her looks, the codes and conventions in society have changed with regards to matrimonial relationships, therefore she deceives men with the notion that she is a woman of fortune. As she loses her looks when she grows older her devious tendencies turn to crime, she steals for material avarice and physical comfort. Her actions convey a non-stereotypical view of women in an 18th century patriarchal society, thus we are given a more acute portrayal of how women acted, rather than viewing them objectively.

From a Marxist perspective Defoe manages to represent many classes within the hierarchy of 18th century London through one female character’s story living in a patriarchal society. It would suggest Moll has the sociological tools to adhere to codes and conventions in high and low class society, as we see her in low and high class circumstances throughout the novel. Also through a Marxist perspective looking at material and the means of production, Moll steals linen as it is of high value, this links with the bourgeois and Defoe’s critique of modes of production, as Flanders was a place where linen was made it is evident this was a key theme within the text. Lois A. Chamber wrote in Matriarchal Mirror: Women and capital in Moll Flanders ‘Defoe in Moll Flanders also criticised the world of trade and commerce in which he himself had failed to prosper.’[13] This also conveys Moll Flanders was a social critique as it relates to experiences in Defoe’s personal life.

Another main aspect of Moll’s character is how she desires money more than love, this is not the case with her Lancashire husband, yet this is ironic as he is the only man who deceives her, they share certain devious qualities. Many of her marriages have been for material and comfort, her marriage with the younger brother was based entirely on necessity and money. ‘I had preserved the elder brother’s bonds to me, to pay £500, which he offered me for my consent to marry his brother’[14] subsequently it was money over love that is intrinsically valued[15].

‘Vanity is the perfection of a fop.’[16] This was inevitably where her naivety was first taken advantage of and corruption first entered her life. Because she was vain she fell into the trap of her first love that without her realising the elder brother used her as a prostitute, giving her money that she marvelled at, hence succumbing to his desires[17].

This lesson was learnt after she realised the elder brother had paid her off; he was one of the two men she actually loved. Thus after realising she was used, Moll grew wise of men’s acquisitions[18]. This also relates to Moll and the elder brother deviously intoxicating the younger brother so he would not realise that she in fact was not a virgin. Thus she was married to the younger brother for five years for comfort and sustainability, she was not particularly fond of him and bared him two children, the only man she loved at this point was the elder brother.

The language used is fairly honest, unemotional, and without shame.  ‘I committed adultery and incest with him every day in my desires’[19] there is no sign of shame or embarrassment it is purely on the surface and accurately portrayed from her perspective. It is not explicit or vulgar at any time; Defoe does not use much descriptive lexis in a lot of sections that could have been looked at in more depth. ‘Modesty forbids me to reveal the secrets of the marriage bed’[20] this shows her politeness, dignity at this point, yet it also shows that there was an element of censorship in 18th century writing as Defoe could be arrested for writing that was deemed illegal at the time[21].

The style of the novel is inherently unique in the sense of the various spectrums of society one character can delve deeply into; she is entwined with people of all classes in many counties of Britain. The first person narrative makes the story appear true, however it is only written from one perspective. With such an eventful story it is effective that it takes the shape of an autobiography, when written chronologically the character is easy to decipher as we see how she moves through classes and society. As this was one of the earliest British novels there are no chapters, so it feels like it has been told as one autobiographical entry, this is governed by its first person narrative.

On the whole I feel Moll Flanders is a novel ahead of its time, through what it conveys and exposes about life in 18th century London. I also feel the way Defoe represents women contradicts the sociological values and moral codes of the 18th century patriarchal society, in the sense that women are given agency within the text rather than being viewed as symbols of society with only an objective purpose. Therefore this contradicts the ideological viewpoints that were valued at the time, by exposing them accurately through the portrayal of one character that fluctuated through high and low class belief systems.

Word count: 1650

 

 

 

Bibliography

  1. A. Chamber, Lois, Matriarchal Mirror: Women and capital in Moll Flanders, PMLA, Vol.97, No.2, March 1982, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462188
  2. Azim, Firdous, The Colonial rise of the Novel : From Aphra Benn to Charlotte Bronte , London, Routledge, 1993
  3.   C. Michael, Steven Thinking parables: “What Moll Flanders” does not say, ELH, Vol 63, No.2, summer 1996, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30030225
  4. Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993
  5. Gervitz Bloom, Karen, Life After Death: Widows And The English Novel, Defoe To Austen, New Jersey, Associated University Presses, 2010
  6. L. Koonce, Howard, Moll’s Muddle: Defoe’s use of irony in Moll Flanders, Elh, Vol 30, No.4, Dec 1963, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2871910

[1] C. Michael, Steven, Thinking parables: “What Moll Flanders” does not say, ELH, Vol 63, No.2, summer 1996, pages 367 – 395, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30030225, [30/10/12]

[2] Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993, page 55

[3] Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993, page 2

[4] Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993, page 53

[5] L. Koonce, Howard, Moll’s Muddle: Defoe’s use of irony in Moll Flanders, Elh, Vol 30, No.4, Dec 1963, Pages 377-379 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2871910 [30/10/12]

[6] A. Chamber, Lois, Matriarchal Mirror: Women and capital in Moll Flanders, PMLA, Vol.97, No.2, March 1982, pages 212 – 226, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462188 [30/10/12]

[7]  C. Michael, Steven, Thinking parables: “What Moll Flanders” does not say, ELH, Vol 63, No.2, summer 1996, pages 367 – 395, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30030225, [30/10/12]

[8]  A. Chamber, Lois, Matriarchal Mirror: Women and capital in Moll Flanders, PMLA, Vol.97, No.2, March 1982, pages 212 – 226, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462188 [30/10/12]

[9] Azim, Firdous, The Colonial rise of the Novel : From Aphra Benn to Charlotte Bronte , London, Routledge, 1993, pages 25-26

[10] Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993, page 53

[11] A. Chamber, Lois, Matriarchal Mirror: Women and capital in Moll Flanders, PMLA, Vol.97, No.2, March 1982, pages 212 – 226, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462188 [30/10/12]

[12] Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993, page 54

[13] A. Chamber, Lois, Matriarchal Mirror: Women and capital in Moll Flanders, PMLA, Vol.97, No.2, March 1982, pages 212 – 226, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462188 [30/10/12]

[14] Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993, page 53

[15] A. Chamber, Lois, Matriarchal Mirror: Women and capital in Moll Flanders, PMLA, Vol.97, No.2, March 1982, pages 212 – 226, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462188 [30/10/12]

[16] Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993, page 56

[17] A. Chamber, Lois, Matriarchal Mirror: Women and capital in Moll Flanders, PMLA, Vol.97, No.2, March 1982, pages 212 – 226, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462188 [30/10/12]

[18] A. Chamber, Lois, Matriarchal Mirror: Women and capital in Moll Flanders, PMLA, Vol.97, No.2, March 1982, pages 212 – 226, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462188 [30/10/12]

[19] Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993, page 53

[20] Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders, Hertfordshire, Wordsworths editions limited, 1993, page 52

[21],  C. Michael, Steven Thinking parables: “What Moll Flanders” does not say, ELH, Vol 63, No.2, summer 1996, pages 367 – 395, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30030225, [30/10/12]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s