by Daniel Defoe
Moll Flanders is the ultimate trickster. We spend four hundred pages with her and learn a bunch of intimate details about her life, including her romantic relationships, her sex life, and the status of her bank account, but we never learn her real name. We know almost everything and at the same time absolutely nothing. The more Moll tells us, the more she keeps to herself. By the end, we know that she was a born in prison, had five husbands, became a criminal, and then redeemed herself. But still, we're left wondering, just who is this girl? And if you're curious about all this trickery, check out our Theme sections on "Identity," "Authorship," and "Criminality," and then come back here to read more about Moll.
Like just about any heroine of a rags-to-riches story (see our section on "Booker's Plot" for more on this), Moll is really, really, ridiculously good looking. And it's lucky she is, because if she'd been a little more plain and a little less clever, she probably would never have been able to work her way out of the servant class, given the era she lived in.
So our leading lady is good-looking, clever, and ready to look out for number one. Those are not bad qualities to have. But this also makes her a bit of a threat. Sure, she would be great to have on your team, but Moll is not one you would want to go up against in, say the Hunger Games. She's had a rough-and-tumble life, and her number one priority is her own survival. That means that our girl is not afraid to step on some toes in order to make sure she's good to go.
Pretty on the outside, of course, doesn't necessarily mean pretty on the inside. Honestly, our heroine is a bit conceited. Consider how she compares herself to the other girls in the Colchester family:
I was apparently handsomer than any of them; secondly, I was better shaped; and, thirdly, I sang better […] in all which you will, I hope, allow me to say, I do not speak my own conceit of myself, but the opinion of all that knew the family. (57)
Oh no, Moll, you don't sound conceited at all.
That's other thing to keep in mind about Moll. She is always ready with an excuse. Here, she seems to be saying, hey, I didn't say I was pretty. Everyone else did, so that means I'm not conceited at all. It's just a fact: I'm pretty. Of course she has the raw data to back it up, too, and she's careful to provide an argument with an organized list of reasons for why she's better than the rest of the women in that house.
She argues for her own superiority in several other places in the book, too, saying that she "put[s] no small value upon [her]self" (228) and that she loves hearing compliments:
I had with all these the common vanity of my sex, viz. that being really taken for very handsome, or, if you please, for a great beauty, I very well knew it, and had as good an opinion of myself as anybody else could have of me; and particularly I loved to hear anybody speak of it, which could not but happen to me sometimes, and was a great satisfaction to me. (58)
While Moll says that in thinking pretty highly of her beauty she's not really different from any other woman she knows – her vanity is "common," after all – she "love[s hearing]" that she's "a great beauty" and finds that a "great satisfaction." This makes her more human in a way, at least. Who doesn't like to receive compliments or be told about the astounding heights of attractiveness they've reached? So while we can fault her for her arrogance, we also have to admire her for her honesty. And in a character known for her trickery and deceit, moments of honesty should be cherished.
The Serial Monogamist
Moll loves men. A lot. She loves to be involved in relationship, but as we'll see, her reasons for that involvement aren't always of the gushy, romantic variety. Whatever the case, she racks up a list of suitors faster than you can say, "marry me." And understanding that quality is at the heart of understanding her character.
At first, Moll seems like a deep believer in love. As a young teenager, she falls hard for the older brother of the house she's living in. But pretty soon, that bubble is burst, and it doesn't take long for her to come to the conclusion that romances are really just a fine cloak for business transactions (for more on this, see our Theme sections on "Wealth" and "Marriage"). Having a man in your life, according to Moll, gives you stability, and for a woman in England at this time, stability was pretty important.
She says early on that having financial security is one of the defining characteristics of her life: "I was not willing to be without money, whatever might happen" (572). Of course women back then found it difficult to make money on their own. So it quickly becomes clear that for a young, pretty woman in Moll's position, the best way to achieve financial stability is to get married – again and again and again. If your husband dies, you had better find another one quick, or you'll be left penniless and on the streets. Get married and stay married. That's Moll's motto.
Of course if marriage doesn't work, then another good option is to become someone's mistress, and if all else fails, become a prostitute. In a way, once real love is taken out of the equation, all these different kinds of relationships amount to the same old thing for Moll. She gives the man in question sex and companionship, and he gives her money, in various forms. It's just the terms of each agreement that change slightly, from time to time, man to man.
We know that love has fallen out of the picture when Moll starts to make statements like this one: "I loved nothing in the world better than fine clothes" (420). Even when she does seem to really love someone, like the Lancashire husband, she still never, ever puts love before money. If the money's not there, the relationship goes kaput, and it's on to the next guy with deep pockets.
In manipulating men into one relationship after the other, Moll's aptitude for deceptive, even criminal activity is already evident. Just take a look at this passage, in which she justifies fooling yet another poor dupe into thinking she might have more money than she does:
[…] whether he was in jest or in earnest, he had declared he took me without any regard to my portion, and, whether I was in jest or in earnest, I had declared myself to be very poor; so that, in a word, I had him fast both ways; and though he might say afterwards he was cheated, yet he could never say that I had cheated him. (298)
Moll is usually at least one step ahead of the guy she's involved with, and takes pains to make sure that she won't be the one to blame for a failed relationship. That way, when the guy in question finds out that Moll has no money, he can't be mad at her. It's apparent above, and more generally, that she seems satisfied her conscience is clear. But Shmoop isn't so sure. Tell us, what do you think?
But is there a way in which we might also think of Moll as, in a weird way, loyal? Towards the end of the novel she ends up with the one man she loved most all along, her Lancashire husband, and we're pretty confident that this one is going to stick. Of course, the pair also happens to get rich, and we know that in Moll's world, money is what makes for lasting relationships. So in the end, we can't quite be sure that she sticks with her Lancashire man because of circumstances or real affection.
Plus, there's the fact that she has, in one way or another, ditched four other husbands and abandoned countless children who seem to just disappear altogether from the storyline. But our narrator, and Moll herself don't seem too broken up about it, so maybe we shouldn't be either. It's not like any of those husbands were real catches. Can you blame her for wanting to move on? And on? And on?
The Petty Criminal
We'll go out on a limb here and say that Moll is a criminal from the start, even when she doesn't realize she is up to no good. Even from an early age, she manipulates people without even being aware of it. For example, when she wants to convince her nurse not to make her become a servant, she makes pouty faces, cries, and – bam! – the nurse relents. It's a classic move for a kid who wants to get her way, but still Moll won't admit she had ulterior motives: "I had no policy in all this; you may easily see it was all nature; but it was joined with so much innocence and so much passion" (32). Innocent? Hardly.
Still, Moll assures us that she didn't set out to be a criminal on purpose. Despite the fact that she's been doing some shady deeds for a long time already (like committing bigamy, having sex out of wedlock, and misleading her suitors), when she moves from prostitution to thievery, she is quick to point out that it's not her fault. In fact, she describes her first theft as something she committed almost unconsciously and out of total desperation:
I am very sure I had no manner of design in my head when I went out; I neither knew nor considered where to go, or on what business; but as the devil carried me out and laid his bait for me, so he brought me, to be sure, to the place, for I knew not whither I was going or what I did. (742)
Oh so it was the devil who did it? Sure, Moll. And this comes after all the other ways she claims she wasn't at fault: she "was distracted and raving," pursued by a "spirit," "doing [she] did not know what," she "had no manner of design," and "knew not whither [she] was going or what [she] did." Between this explanation and the one she gave about why deceiving her potential husband wouldn't make her blameworthy, our Moll would make for a pretty good lawyer. Or try to marry one. Whichever came first.
This "unconscious" stealing doesn't last long, though, and pretty soon Moll's on her way to becoming a hardened criminal. Someone who's quite good at lying suddenly has no problem taking gold watches from little kids, or contemplating, however briefly, murder. Welcome to the dark side of Moll Flanders.
Just look at the way she reacts to the news of a former criminal partner's death: "at last [the midwife] sent me the joyful news that he was hanged, which was the best news to me that I had heard a great while" (840). Wait, what? It's probably fair to say that usually people don't call the information that a former co-worker has been hanged "joyful news." Moll, where's your heart?
So what does Moll Flanders the criminal tell us about Moll Flanders the person? For one thing, it absolutely confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that she'll do just about anything to survive. But it also tells us something about what a tough spot she's in. Her life doesn't start out so bad. Sure, there was that whole love triangle with two brothers problem, but hey, she was young. And she ends up marrying the younger brother, which led her to a pretty comfortable life. Things only start to go bad when she becomes a widow, and that tells us what's really going on.
It's not that Moll is a bad seed. It's that she is a woman caught up in a society in which women can't really help themselves. Without a husband, Moll comes dangerously close to losing everything. Theft is one of the very few ways she can hang on to what she has left.
Do you think Moll is ever really, truly sorry for her crimes? Or is it all just lip service? Notice that all her apologies come after the fact. She often swears that she would have gotten her act together sooner if only she had known how tough things would get. We all know what they say about hindsight being twenty-twenty, but in Moll's case, we can't help but wonder if she knew what she was doing all along, and felt a-okay about it the whole time.
Before getting sent to Newgate, Moll felt bad about her actions sometimes, but not bad enough to (1) stop stealing all together or (2) return any of the things she made off with. Even when she feels like she really screwed someone over, she manages to get over it faster than a pickpocket lifts a wallet:
I confess the inhumanity of this action moved me very much, and made me relent exceedingly, and tears stood in my eyes upon that subject; but with all my sense of its being cruel and inhuman, I could never find in my heart to make any restitution. (798)
Moll might cry over what she did to someone, or call herself "inhuman[e]," but she never "make[s] any restitution" to most of the people she stole from. This woman, as we've learned, looks forward, not backward, and before she can do anything about whatever guilt she feels, she is on to the next scheme for racking up the riches.
Maybe she can't find the time to feel guilty. She's just too busy. That is, at least, until she winds up in prison, and faces her imminent death:
I seemed not to mourn that I had committed such crimes, and for the fact as it was an offence against God and my neighbour, but I mourned that I was to be punished for it. I was a penitent, as I thought, not that I had sinned, but that I was to suffer, and this took away all the comfort, and even the hope of my repentance in my own thoughts. (1020)
But even here, Moll is most upset about the fact that she is going "to be punished" for what she has done, not the fact that she has been doing all those terrible things in the first place. Plus she is in prison, and if that's not rock bottom, well then we don't know what is. Of course she's feeling bad. It's not until she has counsel from the prison chaplain that it seems like she might be feeling genuine remorse, which she demonstrates with some serious theatrics.
We have to take that penitence with a grain of salt, though, since the end result of it all is that – you guessed it –the chaplain, who turns out to be a big softy, feels bad for our girl, and gets her death sentence changed to plain old exile. That's a lot easier to swallow, and Moll's full-on gut-wrenching remorse chills out a bit after that.
When she states at the end of the book that she and her husband "resolve to spend the remainder of our years in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived" (1227), we can believe her or not, as we choose. But she'll be repenting from the comfort of her wealthy estate, not from some cold cell in Newgate prison (or worse). Both she and her husband get to feel bad about it all at their leisure, and not worry about, say, food or shelter while they do so. Without fear of punishment or execution, their penitence is of the safe, comfortable variety.
What Do You Make of Her?
From all our descriptions of her, you might think we can't stand the woman. But we confess: Shmoop kind of loves Moll, despite her less than appealing qualities. And we're betting you do a bit, too. One of the truly remarkable things about this novel is that Daniel Defoe has managed to make a sketchy woman of low moral standards into a heroine we root for. We see Moll for all her faults, but we end up forgiving a fair amount of them because it's clear from the get-go that she doesn't have a lot of options. Our affections are tested most when she spirals out of control into a life of crime, but even then, we know that she is facing desperate times. That makes us a bit more willing than usual to forgive her desperate measures.Timeline