The seventy-year-old Moll Flanders who narrates her own life story considers herself a reformed criminal. But to what degree should her perceived transgressions cause her to actually be understood as such? After all, Defoe’s novel makes it clear that a number of different factors ultimately contributed to the courses of action that his heroine came to regret in her later life, not all of which were truly under her control. Although theft stemming from greed is clearly wrong, the morality of situations like marrying into financial security and misleading lovers about her financial situation may be more ambiguous than Moll presents them. Through his account of Moll Flanders’ violations of the gender-related norms and expectations of her time, Defoe critiques England’s capitalist system and its tendency to disproportionately victimize impoverished women.
Born to a mother who is almost immediately convicted of theft and jailed, Moll is essentially orphaned at six months (10). Adrift, she travels with a group of gypsies, works for a poor woman whom she calls her nurse, and finally is taken in by a prominent and wealthy family. Here, Defoe introduces the reader to Moll Flanders’ underlying theory of learnt identity—to be an orphaned child like Moll is to be a blank slate, with education, both formal and not, as one’s only recourse. In this respect, Moll is lucky. Her nurse is poor, but educated, and raises her “as mannerly and as genteelly as if [she] had been at the dancing-school” (11). Although her connection to this woman will eventually put her in contact with the mayor and other wealthy people, her experience also makes it clear that in the England Defoe describes, financial success does not always correlate with personal merit (14). Furthermore, her disrupted upbringing also deprives her of another standard kind of informal education—the family structure itself. Children in the “default” powerful English family—rich with an unequal gender dynamic—could consult their immediate surroundings as a model of what financial status, gender roles, and family dynamics should look like. Moll’s more transitory childhood, during which she is exposed to manners of living that fail to conform to the standards of the English upper class, provides her which a much shakier moral understanding on which to base her love-, sex-, and money-related actions. For instance, young Moll’s misunderstanding that an industrious sex worker was considered a “gentlewoman” likely wouldn’t have occurred had she been raised in a family where “working” and “gentility”—or “working” and “moral,” for that matter—were contradictory. By distancing Moll from what seems natural and obvious to those with power in her society, Defoe frees her from certain automatic moral restrictions and assumptions, allowing the exploration of how outsider status forces one into certain choices to survive in a capitalist system.
In the world of Moll Flanders, marriage and sex are bound by the same rules as the rest of society—individual merit only matters for those who already have a certain degree of financial status. Although Moll has been raised and educated by a wealthy family due to her beauty and charm, societal norms bar her from marrying into that same degree of wealth, despite being “apparently handsomer than any of them” and “better shaped,” and having “all the gifts of nature, and which all their fortunes could not furnish” (20). However, Moll quickly learns that all her natural talent makes no improvement in her ability to marry well, as the older sister of the family says “the market is against our sex just now…nothing but money now recommends a woman” (22). Finally, Defoe shows Moll becoming aware of the fundamental problem that capitalism poses for poor women. English upper-class society expects a young woman to be moral, wealthy, and a wife. If a woman is born poor, society makes it nearly impossible to earn enough money to become wealthy, or even to survive, by legal and moral means. She also can’t marry into money without coming from money herself, especially because a poor woman marrying for money might as well be a whore, and is therefore immoral. For poor women, the free market truly doesn’t exist. To be wealthy, one must already be wealthy.
Moll’s first transgression against societal expectations for women is her affair with the older son of the wealthy family that helped raise her. Although as a narrator she looks back on the events both repentant and much less naïve, Defoe’s portrayal of her younger self causes the reader to wonder whether she necessarily should feel to blame for her actions. Moll’s narration makes it clear that the older brother, not she, initiated their relationship. One day, when he finds her alone, he tells her he is in love with her (23). Moll describes the event as involuntary on her part, saying “I struggled to get away… and he held me fast, and still kissed me, till he was almost out of breath” (23). Although Moll-as-narrator berates her younger self for not knowing that he wasn’t actually in love with her, it’s also clear to the reader that she wasn’t yet savvy enough to understand that he was merely manipulating her, as she explains that “I had my head full of pride, but, knowing nothing of the wickedness of the times, I had not one thought of my own safety or of my virtue about me” (24). While one could perhaps argue that Moll’s actions were immoral because she shouldn’t have chosen to have sex without being married, the argument breaks down somewhat because of Moll’s firm conviction that she was “really, and in the essence of the thing, [his] wife” (41). Not only has she achieved financial stability because the brother provides for her as if she were his wife, but because he has so completely convinced her that they are in essence already married, she isn’t really knowingly transgressing either—to young Moll, this seems to sufficiently abide by the rules of a moral relationship (30). When the younger brother decides to pursue Moll, the older brother sees his chance to disentangle himself, and says that he won’t sleep with her again due to his “sense of virtue” (56). The unequal distribution of power in their relationship, stemming from their differences in gender and socioeconomic status, allows him to escape the situation without consequences. Moll, however, falls ill and is forced to marry the younger brother in order to avoid being thrown out of the family and left impoverished (and, after the loss of her virginity, essentially seen as immoral and worthless within her community) (58). According to the values of her society and her own retrospective judgment, she is technically at fault despite the manipulation of the older brother, simply because she wanted to have sex with him and did so without being legally married. However, Defoe portrays her in a much more sympathetic manner—she is genuinely in love with the older brother, lacks the information necessary to make the “moral” decision, and is financially unable to choose not to be “a whore to one brother and a wife to the other” (32). As much as Moll might fault herself, Defoe places her in circumstances that make it clear he doesn’t view her or women in her position as deserving of blame.
After this experience, Moll travels to London and gains a new hardened perspective on issues of money and love. Realizing that “marriages were here the consequences of… carrying on business, and that Love had no share, or but very little, in the matter,” she begins to realize that she must either marry for money or fall into poverty (68). Through Defoe’s portrayal of her courtship with her third husband, it becomes that Moll has resigned herself to “the game” of finding a rich husband without being rich herself. Their conversations (or at least those that Moll’s narration sees fit to mention) revolve chiefly around the issue of finances. Although she is careful never to lie to him directly, thus maintaining the feeling of morality, she does say that she knows his love is based “upon supposition, nay, it was upon a full satisfaction, that I was very rich” (79). After asking him whether or not he would still love her if she were poor, she thinks “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” (81). In the end, her deception doesn’t actually cause him harm, and he tells her “he was not disappointed in a wife, and that [she] was all to him that a wife could be” (85). By depicting Moll as able to trick her third husband into thinking she was rich so she could marry him for his money without actually causing him harm, Defoe legitimizes financial necessity as a viable moral defense within the capitalist world of Moll Flanders.
Following her discovery that her new husband is in fact her brother, and the subsequent dissolution of their marriage, Moll goes back to England and meets the man who will become her fourth lover. Defoe uses their relationship to further explain why her actions are excused by her desperate financial status, as well as to differentiate between the strict societal rules that govern sexuality and actual morality. When they first meet, he inquires into her finances and offers help if she ever wants it, finally giving her handfuls of gold despite her protests (112). They become close friends, and stay together in a room in London. Although the master of the house tells them that they can stay in one room together “honestly” because there are two beds separated by a curtain, the man claims that they could even sleep naked in the same bed and he would not “offer [her] the least injury” (115). However, one night when they are both drunk, Moll asked him to have sex with her, and afterwards says she “exchanged the place of friend for that unmusical title of whore” (116). Here, Defoe shows a friendship that has otherwise been a positive force in her life become corrupted by the imposition of sexual “morals.” Although otherwise their relationship remains good, and he continues to support her when she becomes pregnant with his child, her actions are still a source of unnecessary guilt. After finding out that her lover is technically married, Moll defends her actions by saying, “I had the terrible prospect of poverty and starving… as poverty brought me into it, so fear of poverty kept me in it” (120). However, Defoe draws a clear contrast between society’s morality and what is actually right—despite the fact that Moll’s lover’s wife is “as no wife to him,” his feelings of guilt about their relationship cause him to stop supporting Moll and their child on his deathbed (123). Despite the fact that she finds herself in a “deplorable condition, destitute of subsistence,” she accepts this cruel decision and, subscribing to sexist ideals, blames herself for being “a snare,” “principle in the crime,” and “abandoned by Heaven” (124). Defoe uses the situation in which Moll finds herself to critique the misogynistic norms and economic system that force her to be dependent on men to survive yet blame herself when they abandon her.
Throughout Moll Flanders, Defoe uses Moll’s situation to expose the problems of a system that both forces impoverished women to sell their bodies if they wish to survive and adopts social norms that outlaw that lone recourse and punish them with degradation. Although capitalism itself always relies on the deprivation of some to maintain the privilege of others, its inherent violence is exacerbated when gender roles come into play. Poor men have the possibility of manual labor and factory work, among other occupations. Poor women are not only effectively barred from participation in the marriage market, but almost entirely from the labor market as well. Although Moll mentions briefly that she could become a seamstress and “[get] her bread by the help of [her] needle,” she acknowledges that it is unlikely that she would be able to make enough money to support herself, particularly without people in the business world to help her (155). However, while Defoe may not allow Moll to produce goods, he does reveal the way in which capitalism forces the exploitation of women by consistently having her equate herself to a good or a product—referring to the search for a husband as a “market” or her beauty as “stock.” Although he doesn’t make the argument that sex work or the less formal exchange of love/marriage for money are immoral acts, he does imply that when women have no other alternative choices, something is wrong.
If the situation Moll was born into forces her to make the choices she eventually repents, to what degree is she actually to blame? Defoe’s argument that capitalism and sexism intersected to leave her with no option other than ones considered immoral in sex- and love-related situations indicates that she shouldn’t be held responsible for at least some of her “crimes.” After all, she doesn’t intentionally cause harm to any of the men she marries. Even in situations where she knows she misleads men, she does so out of necessity and no real harm comes to them—her third husband doesn’t mind that she has no fortune, and Jemmy is misleading her in the same manner. Defoe also doesn’t show her being punished for what society considers her transgressions against gender norms and sexual morality beyond her own shows of guilt. Rather, he draws a clear distinction between behaviors that are only “morally wrong” because of sexist ideals and need-driven theft, which he views as regrettable effects of systematic gender- and class-based discrimination, and behaviors that are immoral because they cause personal harm or are driven by greed. By using the life of Moll Flanders to justify this classification of what is truly immoral and what is necessary and therefore neutral, Defoe argues against the English system of morality that is firmly rooted in sexism and classism in favor of one that promotes what capitalism ironically professes as its values: personal merit and self-preservation.