Study Guide

Moll Flanders Morality and Ethics

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Morality and Ethics

What is left 'tis hoped will not offend the chastest reader or the modest hearer; and as the best use is made even of the worst story, the moral 'tis hoped will keep the reader serious, even where the story might incline him to be otherwise. (Preface 5)

Here Defoe balances out all the lewd and immoral things that will be conveyed in his "story" by assuring us that he left the worst of it out. Plus, what he does include has an instructional purpose. But do you believe him? Do you think the story, which seems entertaining and light at times, is really there to teach readers a lesson in morals?

In a word, as the whole relation is carefully garbled of all the levity and looseness that was in it, so it all applied, and with the utmost care, to virtuous and religious uses. None can, without being guilty of manifest injustice, cast any reproach upon it, or upon our design in publishing it. (Preface 10)

Could Defoe have been worried about how his book would be received by upstanding English readers? Well, that might explain why he feels the need to include this disclaimer to make sure his readers know that the book is not harmful, so long as we readers are not guilty of "manifest injustice." Perhaps he's just covering his bases for when the book banners come knocking.

Her application to a sober life and industrious management at last in Virginia, with her transported spouse, is a story fruitful of instruction to all the unfortunate creatures who are obliged to seek their re-establishment abroad […] letting them know that diligence and application have their due encouragement, even in the remotest parts of the world, and that no case can be so low […] but that an unwearied industry will go a great way to deliver us from it, will in time raise the meanest creature to appear again the world, and give him a new case for his life. (Preface 16)

Of course for this novel to be taken as a moral tale, we have to believe the author when he says that Moll has applied herself "to a sober life." And we have to be convinced of Moll's sincere regret to believe that she deserves to be given "a new case for [her] life." After reading the whole novel, though, we can't help but wonder if Defoe is just having a bit of a laugh. It all depends on whether or not you buy Moll's redemption in the end.

But that which was worth all the rest, she bred them up very religiously, being herself a very sober, pious woman, very house-wifely and clean, and very mannerly, and with good behaviour. So that in a word, expecting a plain diet, coarse lodging, and mean clothes, we were brought up as mannerly and as genteelly as if we had been at the dancing-school. (13)

Could this woman <em>be</em> any more moral? Seriously, this nurse is too good to be true. Moll practically falls over herself in explaining just how moral and "pious" her upbringing was, as if to free her nurse from any future blame for the criminal path Moll ends up taking. Nope, that was all Moll's doing.

[…] for though I had no great scruples of conscience, as I have said, to struggle with, yet I could not think of being a whore to one brother and a wife to the other. (104)

Even the unscrupulous have to draw the line somewhere, and even Moll has her limits, which include not having relationships with two brothers at once. Well, that's a start.

Then he cajoled with his brother, and persuaded him what service he had done him, and how he had brought his mother to consent, which, though true, was not indeed done to serve him, but to serve himself; but thus diligently did he cheat him, and had the thanks of a faithful friend for shifting off his whore into his brother's arms for a wife. So certainly does interest banish all manner of affection, and so naturally do men give up honour and justice, humanity, and even Christianity, to secure themselves. (221)

This older brother sounds like a class-A jerk. He puts his own desires and needs above all other things, including any love he might have felt for Moll. Of course our distaste for his behavior makes us question Moll's later treatment of men. Is she any better than this brother?

Thus my pride, not my principle, my money, not my virtue, kept me honest; though, as it proved, I found I had much better have been sold by my she-comrade to her brother, than have sold myself as I did to a tradesman that was rake, gentleman, shopkeeper, and beggar, all together. (232)

Although the reasoning behind Moll's virtuous behavior is "not [her virtue]" but her "pride," the outcome is the same: Moll acts just as virtuously as she would have if her true modesty were really the reason for rejecting this man. Too bad her virtue isn't rewarded, but punished.

In the meantime, as I was but too sure of the fact, I lived therefore in open avowed incest and whoredom, and all under the appearance of an honest wife; and though I was not much touched with the crime of it, yet the action had something in it shocking to nature, and made my husband, as he thought himself, even nauseous to me. (338)

Moll stresses that the actual sin and the guilty feeling that comes with it far outdoes any outside "appearance" of respectability and "honest[y]." But people only judge what they can see or measure, so no one understands what she's going through or what would make her feel so terrible.

I was struck with this letter as with a thousand wounds, such as I cannot describe; the reproaches of my own conscience were such as I cannot express, for I was not blind to my own crime; and I reflected that I might with less offence have continued with my brother, and lived with him as a wife, since there was no crime in our marriage on that score, neither of us knowing it. (467)

Here's the interesting part: Moll says that it would have been less offensive for her to continue being married to her brother as long as they both are in the dark about their being related. But still, she would have been married to her brother. Yuck. The only thing that's changed is the fact that she is now aware of it. So the sin only becomes a real sin when she becomes aware of it.

This was a strange testimony of the growing vice of the age, and such a one, that as bad as I had been myself, it shocked my very senses. I began to nauseate the place I was in and, about all, the wicked practice; and yet I must say that I never saw, or do I believe there was to be seen, the least indecency in the house the whole time I was there. (657)

Have you noticed that whenever Moll feels like something is really immoral or bad, she feels sick to her stomach? She doesn't need the appearance of "indecency" to know it's there. It's her knowledge of the potential immorality that makes her uncomfortable.

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