The shadow of Newgate Prison looms over the book Moll Flanders just as the real building must have loomed over surrounding London. Moll starts her life in that cold place, and she comes pretty close to ending it there, too. The prison is mentioned nearly forty times over the course of the book, more than any other place or even any other character's name.
And, in case you were wondering if Newgate is just another one of Moll's fictions, rest assured. Newgate is a very real, very terrible place (or at least it used to be) where many of London's most common criminals were left to rot or sent to die during the seventeenth century. If you're curious, you can read even more about its real-life history.
But in the novel, it's more than just a place. Because it's the spot where Moll has to spend the most time reforming and repenting her sins, Newgate is where she attempts to change into the kind of person she wants to be. It's where she's called "Moll Flanders" more than anywhere, and where she comes closest to admitting her identity as an infamous thief. It's where her whole life begins to change course from its downward spiral. In other words, if we don't get to know the real Moll at Newgate, well then there's not much hope that we'll ever meet her.
When Moll first arrives at Newgate, her crimes having finally caught up with her, here's how she describes it:
I looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place. I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.
Moll is trapped in what sounds like a nightmare. Just look at the words she uses: horrors, dismal, hellish, clamour, stench, nastiness. And of course, being prison and all, Newgate is a place where there is, quite literally, no escape. Here, Moll can't con her way out of her cell. She can't pretend to be a gentlewoman. She can't flee from her life of crime. She, and we readers, have to face facts. Soon, we see a change in our girl after she spends a good chunk of time in prison:
It was now that, for the first time, I felt any real signs of repentance. I now began to look back upon my past life with abhorrence, and having a kind of view into the other side of time, and things of life, as I believe they do with everybody at such a time, began to look with a different aspect, and quite another shape, than they did before.
Could it be that Newgate represents a wakeup call for Moll? She seems to finally be coming to terms with all the bad she has done.
Nevertheless, she's still Moll Flanders, and if she can make her life a little easier, she will. Even in prison, Moll manages to get more liberties than most of her inmates: she gets to visit her husband, she convinces the chaplain to believe her sob story, and she gets her death sentence turned into mere exile. In general, she gets all kinds of special treatment. So, even though being in a prison like Newgate is pretty horrifying, if anyone can handle it, and maybe even turn it into a decent situation, it's someone like Moll Flanders.