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Moll Flanders

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders is a 1722 novel by Daniel Defoe.

Defoe wrote this after his work as a journalist and pamphleteer. By 1722, Defoe had become recognized as a novelist, with the success of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. His political work was tapering off at this point, due to the fall of both Whig and Tory party leaders with whom he had been associated; Robert Walpole was beginning his rise, and Defoe was never fully at home with the Walpole group.

Defoe's Whig views are nevertheless evident in the story of Moll. The full title of the novel tells part of its story:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Etc. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

Plot summary

Moll's mother is a convict who is given a reprieve by "pleading her belly," a reference to the custom of staying the executions of pregnant criminals. Moll is raised until adolescence by a good foster mother, gets attached to a household as a servant where she is loved by both of the sons, marries one son and has children, is widowed, leaves her children to the care of in-laws, and begins honing the skill of passing herself off as a fortuned widow to attract a man who will marry her and provide her with security.

The first time she does this, her husband goes bankrupt and leaves her on her own with his blessing to do the best she can and assume he is dead. The second time, she makes a match that leads her to Virginia with a good man who introduces her to his mother. After two children, Moll begins to discern that her mother-in-law is her biological mother, which means her husband is her brother. She flees back to England and goes to live in The Mint to hide from debtors.

Again she returns to her con skills and makes a match with a man from Lancashire who turns out to be a gentleman without means who has been conning her (falling for her con that she is a wealthy widow). Alas, these two truly fall in love, but part anyway because they have not a penny to live on if they stay together.

Moll resorts to another conned beau, a banker, who marries her then dies in financial ruin after five years. Truly desperate now, she begins a career of artful thievery, which, by employing her wits, beauty, charm, and feminity, brings her the financial security she always sought. Downside: she is caught, and sent to Newgate Prison.

Here, she is counseled by a man of the cloth who leads her to repentance and enlightenment. At the same time, she reunites with her soul-mate, her "Lancashire husband," who is also jailed. The two are sent to Maryland to avoid hanging, and happily are together. Once in the colonies, she learns her mother has left her a plantation and her own son is alive, as is her brother (husband).

She carefully introduces herself to her son who welcomes her with open arms. At last, her life of conniving and desperation seems to be over. Her wits now employed toward business and good sense, she establishes a successful farm with her Lancashire husband, and the two retire in prosperity.

Major themes

The story is believed by some to be a tale of capitalism due to the numerous allusions to money, contracts, and other currency-related items. Everything, including people, has a monetary value. This gives the reader a feeling of Moll's calculating personality.

Moll Flanders often causes the reader to question if doing something amoral out of necessity is really amoral at all.

Literary significance & criticism

The tale has been called picaresque and a morality tale, and in truth it is both. As a picaresque, Moll is a lower class character who travels among the wealthy and exposes their vanity and shallowness. However, as a morality tale the novel can be read two different ways. On the one hand, the story of Moll could be classically tragic: she possesses a single fault of hubris in that she wishes to be a lady — a station she was not entitled to — and commits adultery, prostitution, child neglect, and incest in an effort to rise to this station, only to be brought to confession, forgiveness, and a "proper" life in the middle class. On the other hand, it could also be read as a woman whose crime is self-reliance and lack of Christian obedience, who therefore commits crimes out of sinful willfulness, to whom prosperity as well as peace come only with confession, redemption, and subjugation to the Divine. Thus, the novel explores both contemporary 18th century conservative and liberal ideologies.

Defoe himself was a noted Puritan. His views are unambiguous, in that he believes and writes for hard work, devotion, and the work of providence as grace. There is some debate, however, as to whether Defoe intended Moll as an entirely sympathetic character. The novel, devoting many pages to crime and sin and very few to repentance or even remorse, leads the reader to question Moll's desire for forgiveness. She is therefore an ambivalent character. Some have even speculated that Defoe intended the book partially as a titillating moneymaker. These arguments often allude to Defoe's preface, in which he mentions "lewd ideas" and "immodest terms" that could lead the audience to read the work for scandalous entertainment instead of moral value.

The novel combines Defoe's interests in conversion narratives with his experience and interest in crime. Moll Flanders was a popular novel, and Defoe's reputation was aided by it. He had earlier written about criminals for various journals, and Moll Flanders increased his cachet as a writer of criminal lives. Soon after the publication of Moll Flanders, he wrote two different lives, of Jack Sheppard, the Cockney housebreaker, in 1724, and a novella length life of Jonathan Wild in 1725. Also in 1724, Defoe returned to the subject of fallen women with an even more salacious Roxana. The life of Moll Cutpurse, who is mentioned in the book, undoubtedly inspired Defoe although she is quite a different character to Moll Flanders.

From the point of view of historians, Moll Flanders is valuable for its information on the life, punishment, and habits of the criminal world. In addition to being one of the few detailed descriptions of life in The Mint, it is also one of the best narratives of life in Newgate prison, the punishments of prostitution (as well as a common prostitute's tale), and the way that America was viewed in the early 18th century. The novel is itself a bit of pro-immigration propaganda, in that it portrays America as a place of peace, religious tolerance (so long as it is dissenting Protestant), and opportunity. In contrast to later depictions (e.g. Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village), Defoe's Puritan depiction is naive. Although Defoe is a biased witness, Moll Flanders has a high value for cultural history.

Selected quotations

…and 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.

From The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, from the works of Daniel Defoe at Project Gutenberg.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

George Sanders and Kim Novak in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders
George Sanders and Kim Novak in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders

There are several movies based on this novel; a search on the IMDb reveals four adaptations:

The 1965 adaptation titled The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders starred Kim Novak as Moll Flanders, Richard Johnson as Jemmy, and Angela Lansbury as Lady Blystone, with George Sanders as the banker, and Lilli Palmer as Dutchy.

A 1975 British TV adaptation, Moll Flanders, aired on BBC starring Julia Foster as Moll and Kenneth Haigh as Jemmy.

A middling adaptation is the 1996 Moll Flanders starring Robin Wright Penn as Moll Flanders and Morgan Freeman as Hibble, with Stockard Channing as Mrs. Allworthy.

A worthy British TV adaptation aired on ITV and PBS in 1996 titled The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders starring Alex Kingston as Moll.

Note that none of the movie adaptations attempt to capture all of the plotting of the novel, though the four hour 1996 mini-series does include most of the salient details. The plot of the theatrical release starring Penn (released in the same year), however, bears no resemblance to the novel apart from the names of the characters and the general setting of early eighteenth century Britain.

External links

  • The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, available freely at Project Gutenberg
  • The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders at the Internet Movie Database (1965 movie)
  • Moll Flanders at the Internet Movie Database (1975 TV movie)
  • Moll Flanders at the Internet Movie Database (1996 movie)
  • The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders at the Internet Movie Database (1996 TV movie)
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