by Daniel Defoe
This book is chock-full of pseudonyms and fake identities. Even the title character's name, Moll Flanders, is a fake. And we never find out what that is, even though we spend a whole novel getting to know her. But to be fair, we've been warned:
The author is here supposed to be writing her own history, and in the very beginning of her account she gives the reasons why she thinks fit to conceal her true name, after which there is no occasion to say any more about that. (Preface, 2)
Right off the bat, then, we know that Moll is going to be a bit hard to pin down, and her namelessness is a big part of that Teflon personality. She'll tell us why she's keeping her name a secret, but she's taking the secret itself to the grave.
One thing we do know about Moll is that she credits her fellow criminals for her new name of Moll Flanders:
These were they that gave me the name of Moll Flanders; for it was no more of affinity with my real name or with any of the name I had ever gone by, than black is of kin to white, except that once, as before, I called myself Mrs. Flanders; when I sheltered myself in the Mint; but that these rogues never knew, nor could I ever learn how they came to give me the name, or what the occasion of it was. (821)
As many critics have pointed out, the name "Moll" is slang for "prostitute." Yep, her name seems quite fitting, given her past behavior, so Moll goes ahead and takes it on as yet another kind of disguise. It's as good a name as any for a woman who protects her name at all costs, and tells us right up front that we won't ever learn it.
Of course Moll is not the only person in this book whose name we never learn. Many of the other characters, including several of her husbands, don't have names, and when we do hear names for characters, they are often super generic, like Betty, Robin/Robert, or James. But why all this secrecy? We can understand why Moll, a notorious criminal, would want to protect her name, but would it hurt to give us the real names of say, her husbands? Or the midwife?
We could approach this lack of names in two ways. First, we could say that the novel proves that we don't need names to get to know the people in this story. These people become fully characterized in spite of the fact that we don't know what they're called.
But you could also totally argue that because so many of the book's characters don't have real names, we never get to know them and we can never really trust any of them. So what's it going to be Shmoopers? Which side of the fence do you fall on?
In a book where so many of the characters aren't even described by name, Moll often just uses their profession or situation in the place of their name. So we have the gentleman, the midwife, the nurse, the landlady, the banker, and the thief… and so on.
The problem is, certain people lie about what they do, which means in a sense they're also lying, then, about who they are. For instance, Moll's description of the Lancashire husband tells us what he should be like, or at least what he presents himself as:
He had, to give him his due, the appearance of an extraordinary fine gentleman; he was tall, well-shaped, and had an extraordinary address; talked as naturally of his park and his stables, of his horses, his gamekeepers, his woods, his tenants, and his servants, as if we had been in the mansion-house. (548)
The key, of course, is that the Lancashire man appears to be a gentleman. That's what he looks like, but it turns out that's totally not what he is. He may be a nice guy, but he's also a fraud, and he's definitely no gentleman, in the rich and upper class sense of the word.
Of course this is just one example of many more. Can you think of any other characters in the book who come to be known by their supposed occupation or position, which later proves to be a fraud?