Study Guide

Moll Flanders Criminality

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All the exploits of this lady of fame, in her depredations upon mankind, stand as so many warnings to honest people to beware of them, intimating to them by what methods innocent people are drawn in, plundered and robbed, and by consequence how to avoid them. ("Preface," 14)

Defoe can get away with describing the many crimes and ill deeds of his heroine by presenting them as moral "warnings." So what at first seems like a rather explicit romp through London's seedy underbelly becomes an instructive moral parable. But Shmoop is not convinced. Do you really think Defoe intended this book to teach good behavior? Or is he just buying himself an out?

I have been told that in one of our neighbour nations, whether it be in France or where else I know not, they have an order from the king, that when any criminal is condemned, either to die, or to the galleys, or to be transported, if they leave any children, as such are generally unprovided for, by the poverty or forfeiture of their parents, so they are immediately taken into the care of the Government, and put into a hospital called the House of Orphans, where they are bred up, clothed, fed, taught, and when fit to go out, are placed out to trades or to services, so as to be well able to provide for themselves by an honest, industrious behaviour. (3)

Sneaky Defoe is using the discussion of the treatment of criminals as a way to criticize England in comparison to its age-old enemy, France. France treats people like Moll better, and if she'd been born there she might have had less of a problem avoiding crime herself as an adult. So right off the bat, we're feeling a little less inclined to blame Moll for all her bad behavior.

We had, after this, frequent opportunities to repeat our crime – chiefly by his contrivance – especially at home, when his mother and the young ladies went abroad a-visiting, which he watched so narrowly as never to miss; knowing always beforehand when they went out, and then failed not to catch me all alone, and securely enough; so that we took our fill of our wicked pleasure for near half a year; and yet, which was the most to my satisfaction, I was not with child. (97)

Moll's first "crime" wouldn't be called that by today's standards. All she is doing is having sex with her boyfriend. Considering who the guy in question is, though, we'd probably call this an error in judgment. But according to the standards of Moll's society, sex prior to marriage might as well be illegal because it ruins your reputation for life.

[…] in short, I committed adultery and incest with him every day in my desires, which, without doubt, was as effectually criminal in the nature of the guilt as if I had actually done it… (226)

Moll raises an important point here about the distinctions between criminal thoughts and criminal actions. Obviously the outcome of thinking about stealing and the outcome of stealing itself are two very different things. But can the same be said about adultery? What about incest?

But it is none of my talent to preach; these men were too wicked, even for me. There was something horrid and absurd in their way of sinning, for it was all a force even upon themselves; they did not only act against conscience, but against nature […] (244)

There are different classes of criminals, too, and Moll has her pride. She finds some of the people around her to be "too wicked" and clarifies that she's not as wicked as these men are, because they spend their money on whores rather than on their own families. But hey, Moll, what about <em>your</em> kids? Where are they?

I often reflected on myself how doubly criminal it was to deceive such a man; but that necessity, which pressed me to a settlement suitable to my condition, was my authority for it; and certainly his affection to me, and the goodness of his temper, however they might argue against using him ill, yet they strongly argued to me that he would better take the disappointment than some fiery-tempered wretch, who might have nothing to recommend him but those passions which would serve only to make a woman miserable all her days. (297)

Even though Moll thinks that what she's doing is twice as bad as usual, that doesn't stop her. Honestly, our girl can talk herself into almost anything. And because she needs this guy's money, she misleads him even more.

If ever I had a grain of true repentance for a vicious and abominable life for twenty-four years past, it was then. On, what a felicity is it to mankind, said I to myself, that they cannot see into the hearts of one another! How happy had it been for me if I had been wife to a man of so much honesty, and so much affection from the beginning! (705)

Being with someone who's really "honest" is what makes Moll feel bad about doing so many illegal things up to this point in her life. Perhaps because she has been acting so dishonestly, she feels somehow inferior to this guy, who is so obviously a good person. But of course this doesn't stop Moll from going right ahead with her dishonest plans, so we'll have to take this "grain of true repentance" with a grain of something else – salt.

Oh let none read this part without seriously reflecting on the circumstances of a desolate state, and how they would grapple with mere want of friends and want of bread; it will certainly make them think not of sparing what they have only, but of looking up to heaven for support, and of the wise man's prayer, "Give me not poverty, lest I steal." (741)

Moll breaks the fourth wall and talks right to us. That's how much she wants her rationalization of her actions to be understood. She wants it to seem like she had no other choice but to become more criminal than ever, and even cites the Bible to back herself up. We can't help thinking Moll wouldn't be out of place in a courtroom.

And thus I was entered a complete thief, hardened to the pitch above all the reflections of conscience or modesty, and to a degree which I must acknowledge I never thought possible in me. (779)

Our Moll claims to be totally surprised by her new identity as a thief. Of course we readers see it coming as soon as Moll is born into Newgate, or perhaps even as soon as we read the title. But why is Moll so surprised? It's not like she has been an emblem of moral virtue so far.

I was carried to Newgate. That horrid place! My very blood chills at the mention of its name; the place where so many of my comrades had been locked up, and from whence they went to the fatal tree; the place where my mother suffered so deeply, where I was brought into the world, and from whence I expected no redemption but by an infamous death: to conclude, the place that had so long expected me, and which with so much art and success I had so long avoided. (1017)

Ugh, not Newgate again. The yucky place in which Moll started her life is now the yucky place in which she believes she will end it. Now she shares the reader's understanding that Moll was always destined to return to the prison. We're just amazed that she has avoided it for this long.

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