Study Guide

Moll Flanders Identity

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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)

The person writing this is, of course, Daniel Defoe, the book's real author. But in a strange twist, he writes the Preface as a character version of himself, and then tells us that the book's actual narrator is a completely different person who goes by Moll Flanders. Right off the bat, we've got a serious identity crisis on our hands. But then, by shifting the focus to why Moll Flanders never says what her real name is, Defoe distracts us from the question of just who wrote the book and whether it's true. Thanks a lot, Mr. Sneaky.

My true name is so well known in the records or registers at Newgate, and in the Old Bailey, and there are some things of such consequence still depending there, relating to my particular conduct, that it is not be expected I should set my name or the account of my family to this work; perhaps, after my death, it may be better known; at present it would not be proper, no not though a general pardon should be issued, even without exceptions and reserve of persons or crimes. (1)

Oh Moll, how <em>convenient</em>. Go right ahead and tell us all your excuses for keeping your name to yourself. Meanwhile, we'll be searching the prison records at Newgate for some juicy scoop on your real identity. All your excuses are all talk, anyways. We think you just might be hiding something else, too.

This is too near the first hours of my life for me to relate anything of myself but by hearsay; it is enough to mention, that as I was born in such an unhappy place, I had no parish to have recourse to for my nourishment in my infancy; nor can I give the least account how I was kept alive, other than that, as I have been told, some relation of my mother's took me away for a while as a nurse, but at whose expense, or by whose direction, I know nothing at all of it. (7)

Moll bypasses a detailed description of the early years of her life through a series of negatives: "unhappy," "no parish," "nor can I give the least account," "I know nothing at all of it." Nothing and nobody. No wonder she invents an identity for herself.

[…] my condition was very odd, for though I had no child (I had had one by my gentleman draper, but it was buried), yet I was a widow bewitched; I had a husband and no husband, and I could not pretend to marry again, though I knew well enough my husband would never see England any more, if he lived fifty years. […] the first thing I did was to go quite out of my knowledge, and go by another name. This I did effectually, for I went into the Mint too, took lodgings in a very private place, dressed up in the habit of a widow, and called myself Mrs. Flanders. (239-40)

Moll doesn't like where her current life has dropped her, so she simply reboots, moving to a new area where she can become someone else entirely. This sounds like a great idea until you realize that it sends Moll off on a downward spiral of fake identities, thievery, and running away from her problems. Whenever things are going really badly, Moll will just become someone else, somewhere else. Never mind the folks she leaves behind.

I resolved, therefore, as to the state of my present circumstances, that it was absolutely necessary to change my station, and make a new appearance in some other place where I was not known, and even to pass by another name if I found occasion. (279)

Moll gives herself a brand spanking new blank slate. But do you really think she'll be able to escape her past?

[…] let any one judge what must be the anguish of my mind, when I came to reflect that this was certainly no more or less than my own mother, and I had now had two children, and was big with another by my own brother, and lay with him still every night.

I was now the most unhappy of all women in the world. Oh! had the story never been told me, all had been well; it had been no crime to have lain with my husband, since as to his being my relation I had known nothing of it. (334-335)

This just goes to show: it pays to do a little Googling before you marry a guy. But seventeenth century England lacked the wonders of modern technology, so Moll has to dive right into marriage blind. The end result? She winds up marrying her own brother. Never mind the ick factor. What's really problematic here is that it means Moll will soon be all alone and penniless all over again.

I must let you know now in calmness and in kindness, but with affliction enough, that I am your own sister, and you my own brother, and that we are both the children of our mother now alive, and in the house, who is convinced of the truth of it, in a manner not to be denied or contradicted. (390)

This is a rare moment of honesty for our Moll. Plus this is probably a moment when being honest really stings, because the truth is so very revolting. But Shmoop has to be honest, too. We think she might be telling the truth here because she has absolutely no other choice. So while honesty is the best policy, for Moll, it's only a matter of necessity. And here it's <em>very</em> necessary.

I gave him a direction how to write to me, though still I reserved the grand secret, and never broke my resolution, which was not to let him ever know my true name, who I was, or where to be found; he likewise let me know how to write a letter to him, so that, he said, he would be sure to receive it. (613)

Moll can't even tell her Lancashire man, with whom she comes closest to true love, her real name. If she can't tell him, who can she tell? And if she keeps her real name a secret for so long, do you think it's possible she'll reach a point when her real name no longer matters? At some point, doesn't she just <em>become</em> Moll Flanders completely?

These were they [criminals] 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)

Moll's most well-known identity, which lends itself to the title of her book, isn't one she chose for herself. And it's not even close to her real name, whatever that may be. The more she emphasizes this, the more we think she's not a huge fan of her new identity.

I told him I fared the worse for being taken in the prison for one Moll Flanders, who was a famous successful thief, that all of them had heard of, but none of them had ever seen; but that, as he knew well, was none of my name. (1099)

While her fake identities have been a blessing for the most part, enabling her to move around London committing crimes without suspicion, once she is caught, being known as Moll Flanders is just about the worst thing possible. Her fellow thieves resent her, and law enforcement sees her as nothing but a legendary criminal. It seems Moll doesn't think she is such a thing, but based on her actions, we're siding with the police on this one.

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