“The Men Play the Game All Into Their Own Hands”: Social and Economic Exploitation in Moll Flanders
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.
Defoe’s Uneasy Feminism: The Problem of the ‘Anti-Domestic’ in Moll Flanders
In Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe constructs an image of a woman who is resourceful, self-sufficient, shrewd and independent. His Moll came from nothing, born to a mother imprisoned in Newgate, born to this underworld of contained vice and criminality, within but very much on the fringe of acceptable society. From these base beginnings, Moll is able to navigate her way through the ranks of British society, a figure of liminality both traversing and embodying the fluidity of class distinction in an emerging trade economy. In exploiting sexual and martial relationships for the purpose they serve Moll’s social-climbing quest, the text reduces the people and encounters that are the romantic focal point in earlier libertine works, to an economic or commodity status that highlights Moll’s pragmatism and efficiency. Therefore, Defoe portrays Moll as a proto-feminist character, an individual with ambitious desires who relies on her own abilities to make her mark and attain her goals.This independence and resourcefulness comes at a cost, however, a cost that complicates the early kind of feminist thinking Defoe is fashioning. In demonstrating the qualities that make her a mobile character, unattached, quick-thinking and able to move along the tides of changing circumstances and necessities, Moll contradicts what Nancy Armstrong identifies as the “ideal of womanhood” promoted by popular conduct books of the eighteenth century: that of the domesticated woman. Armstrong argues that this idealized domestic “had to lack the competitive desires and worldly ambitions that consequently belonged – as if by some natural principle – to the male.” This challenge to tradition denotes her bold, courageous individualism, but it is also the source of the most heightened moralizing (or morally ambiguous) moments in the novel. It is these moments that suggest there is something suspicious or unsettling about Moll’s “feminism,” something about her character that is at odds with the prevailing eighteenth-century paradigm of womanhood and moral correctness. An analysis of the ways in which Moll’s feminism is constructed, and a comparison of how these character or plot developments at once propone but then also problematize Moll’s independence and individualism, such as her ability to recover from calamitous situations or marital failures, her treatment of her children, and her entry into hardened world of a street-thief, will evidence the uneasy feminism of Moll Flanders. Ultimately, it is this significant conflict within the narrative that will suggest Defoe’s novel is forwarding a new model of morality, one that attends to the era of an emerging trade economy in England. One of the ways in which Moll’s feminism is thematized in Moll Flanders, is through her characterization as a level-headed pragmatist keenly aware of, and operating in accordance with, the bottom-line. Moll recognizes the importance of money as the key to unlocking success, happiness and stability in life, and uses her cunning and understanding of these economic truths to advance her particular station. She rises through the ranks in order to achieve the kind of elite, glamorous or, ultimately, comfortable life she desires. For Moll, sexual pleasure is on par if not slightly subservient to her desire for material wealth. For example, in her first affair with the elder brother at Colchester, although she is attracted to him for his libertine qualities (i.e., good looks and rakish charms), Moll is as equally attracted to his money. When he makes her a (false) proposal in order to gain her consent to the affair, he complements his pledge by offering Moll a silk purse of one hundred guineas, assuring her that he will continue to provide like this every year until they are married. Moll recalls that, in response, her:Colour came and went, at the Sight of the Purse, and with the fire of his Proposal together; so that I could not say a Word, and he easilyperceiv’d it; so putting the purse into my Bosom, I made no more Resistance to him, but let him just do what he pleas’d (68). Money excites Moll, causing a flush of “colour” to assail her cheeks, violent and intense in the way it appeared and vanished so quickly (the lack of syntactic space between “came” and “went” underscores speed of the physical reaction). The purse (money) is used as a point of sexual contact, and seems to be the factor that woos Moll into submission or acceptance of the “proposal,” moreso (or in addition to) her lust for the elder brother. Moll is also allured by the glamour of class status, as evidenced by her decision to marry the French draper after the death of her first husband (the romantic and honorable, but dull and un-arousing Robin). Moll confesses that, at that time, she adored the spectacle and celebrity of a lavish lifestyle: “I lov’d the company indeed of Men of Mirth and Wit, Men of Gallantry and Figure, and was often entertain’d with such” (104). She most desires a man of “Gallantry” for the distinction he carries, searching for a husband that was a “Gentleman” and who donned a “Sword” (the ultimate mark of the gallant figure) (104). Her want for man, therefore, is only partially motivated by her sexual yearnings, and her need of man extends only so far as to how they can serve her specific money-seeking purposes. She constructs ruses to fool men into believing she possesses a fortune, this fabrication of a dowry being a manipulation necessary (and thus justified by) her particular marriage and self-interested goals. Before embarking on the conquest that will end in her incestuous marriage to her sea-captain brother, Moll recalls that she “resolv’d 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” (122). For the feminist Moll, therefore, men are (for the most part) simply pawns in the “subtle” social-climbing “game” she both wished and found necessary “to play” (124).However, although still reliant upon the security guaranteed by sizable wealth, what Moll wants for herself and her from her husband varies with age, a sign that she acknowledges the value of her marketable wares (i.e., her beauty and youth). After a series of marriages spanning the course of twenty years, an older (sager) Moll reflects that, at this moment, “she was not now the same Woman” as in her past, for she “did not look the better for [her] age” (181). With her physical worth diminishing, it seems that Moll’s ambitions subdue slightly as well, as a realistic reaction to her economic position. It is at this point in the novel that she expresses a desire “to be plac’d in a settled State of Living, and had [she] happen’d to meet with a sober good Husband, [she] should have been as faithful and true a Wife to him as Virtue itself could have form’d” (182). One should also bear in mind that, at this point in the text, Moll is without a husband or marriage prospect, so she is faced with the impending depletion of her security and the “Terror of her approaching Poverty” (182). Her more modest aspirations, therefore, could also be a tactical, sensible response to her changed circumstances. That Moll can adjust her ambitions to correspond with the practical demands of her circumstances, evidences a resourcefulness and hardiness that is another element of her “feminism.” This flexibility (without totally compromising her fundamental belief in the importance of money), marks her as an individual with agency and rationality, rarely someone who is so hysterical or emotional that she cannot recover from a personal tragedy. It is Moll’s resilience that enables her to withstand the hardships of her uncertain situation between husbands, or to bounce back from some of the truly awful, potentially-ruinous events of her lifetime. One such event is her incestuous marriage already mentioned; that is, her union with her husband/brother, the sea captain from Virginia. Once she has settled into comfortable life on the plantation, Moll discovers that her mother-in-law is in fact the biological mother to whom she was born in Newgate, and from whom she was separated. Although this news was shocking to Moll, and brought forth an “Anguish of [her] Mind” (136), she does not devolve into hysterics. Rather, she commits herself to reflect, evaluate, and resolve, “upon the most sedate Consideration” (137), how best to address this dreadful miscarriage of a marital union. The same tactical, shrewd approach that Moll brings to her understanding of, and conduct within, the marriage market, is evidenced in her ability to rationally address and dispatch a truly ridiculous, catastrophic and potentially irreconcilable situation. Her “feminist” qualities, this pragmatism and firm resolution (at first to conceal the revelation from her husband/brother, then to confess when it became too difficult to maintain the marriage pretense), equipped Moll with the ability to survive an incredible hardship, and bounce back from the taint of incest. These positive connotations of the feminism Defoe constructs around his heroine, this ability to easily forget and rebound from tragedy (i.e., not be undone by unmanageable emotions), while productive in that they ensure Moll’s survival as she makes her way up the social ladder, come at a “morally-questionable price.” Specifically, Moll’s individual survival comes at the cost of her traditional domesticity, as illustrated in her treatment and regard for her children. There are several moments in Moll Flanders when Moll simply abandons her children — for example, when she finally departs from her bed of incest in Virginia. After the Robin’s death, Moll is perfectly satisfied, even relieved, with her children being taken “happily off [her] hands” (102). The language here, “off her hands,” implies that at least these (if not all her) children were an encumbrance to Moll, anchoring her to a particular place (Colchester ), thereby prohibiting her from freely moving from city to city, from man to man, in pursuit of her fortune. “Off her hands” also suggests that Moll’s hands, the instruments of a mother’s care, are faulty somehow, incapable of bearing the weight and responsibility of her children. Practical demands and the independence (and solipsism) of individualism would dictate that, indeed, the abandonment of her children was a necessary step for Moll to take, a survival tactic of sorts, in order to support or maintain her enterprising spirit. However, the narrative (or Defoe) questions the “morality” of the compromised “domesticity” by including passages where Moll, curiously, does demonstrate some maternal instinct or regret. After the end of her relationship with the Gentleman from Bath, Moll wonders what will happen to her son, saying “I was greatly perplex’d about my little Boy; it was Death to me to part with the Child, and yet when I considered the Danger of being one time or other left with him to keep without Maintenance to support him, I then resolv’d to leave him where he was” (178). This conflict betrays both an innate affection for the child, and an understanding of circumstance that allows Moll’s “moral” choice to be dictated by sober realism. But, in this case, that necessary choice does not seem to completely pardon or justify the blows to domesticity it entails. In St. Jones hospital, Moll’s pregnancy before marrying the banker is seen as an inconvenience that must be dispatched. At the same time, however, Moll expresses a strong abhorrence for abortion, which the Governess suggests she could induce ( 228). A little earlier in the text, Moll confesses that she would have been “glad to miscarry,” but could never “entertain so much as a thought of endeavouring to Miscarry, or of taking anything to make [her] Miscarry” (219). And when contemplating her imminent parting with her newborn child, Moll cannot imagine this scenario “without Horror” and says, “I wish all those Women who consent to the disposing their Children out of the way, as it is call’d for Decency sake, would consider that ‘tis only a contriv’d Method for Murther; that is to say, a killing their Children with safety” (233). She then goes on for nearly a page about the importance of the affection for a child “plac’d by Nature” in a mother (234). These incongruities, the moments where the text sometimes permits Moll’s disregard for her children, and then passages where a moral conflict or regret is expressed, merit attention, as they evidence the novel (and Defoe’s) anxieties surrounding Moll’s feminism and ardent individualism. It is almost as though the text, or Defoe as the author and the particular period in which he is writing, demand a self-conscious recognition of the novel’s own questionably moral content. The narrative needs to critique its own feminist impulses. The individualism that encourages the flexibility to move from circumstance to circumstance, might also lead to a shallow disregard of one’s children/motherly duties, a disregard which the practical requirements of upward social mobility cannot entirely excuse.Moll’s entry into the world of London’s criminal underground, that is, her career as a thief, is another focal point or source of the novel’s ambivalence towards feminism. On the one hand, thievery provides Moll with a kind of trade in which she takes delight and from which she gleans a sense of pride. She is a rather clever, skilled and crafty pickpocket. I grew the greatest Artist of my time, and work’d myself out of every Danger with such Dexterity, that when several more of my comrades run themselves into Newgate presently, and by thattime they had been Half a Year at the Trade, I had now Practis’d upwards of five Year, and the People at Newgate, did not so much know me; they had heard much of me indeed, and often expected methere, but I always got off, tho’ many times in the extremest Danger. (280)Within this criminal community, Moll is the best (of the worst). She attributes her success to “Dexterity,” which implies an elegance in craftsmanship. Similarly, that she mentions the number of years (five) she has remained out of prison, versus the relative narrow time-frame of freedom experienced by her peer lesser-thieves (one-and-a half years), suggests that she believes she possesses an uncanny ability that distinguishes her from the rest (and has guaranteed her protection). She works best on her own, proving that she need not depend on a man for economic sustenance. In fact, when Moll is paired with a male partner, it is he who acts carelessly and with too much emotion. Upon spotting exposed silks though a shop-window, Moll recalls that “this [sight] the young Fellow was so overjoy’d with, that he could not restrain himself…he swore violently to me that he would have it…I disswaded him a little, but saw there was no remedy, so he run rashly upon it” (282). Here, it seems that the male partner is embodying more feminized qualities, such as impulsivity and fits of excitement, whereas Moll is again portraying the image of someone rational, cautious and practical. As a result of the hysteria by which he is influenced, the male partner is caught stealing and, while both he and Moll are pursued, he is captured while Moll escapes as a result of her cleverness and quick-thinking (dressed a man during this theft, she quickly runs into her Governess’ house, sheds her disguise, dons her customary clothes, and is able to throw her pursuers off her scent). Moll’s success as a pickpocket highlights her ability to fend for herself and “make” her own money. However, it is important to note that this trade, this line of work that she performs so well, is criminal and thus morally questionable. It is an independent career that makes optimal use of Moll’s independence and mobility, but it is a career that keeps her out of the home, thrusts her onto the streets, and thus exposes her to vice and immorality. Her thievery again calls into question Moll’s “maternal” nature, suggesting its dangerous absence in Moll (a void which immoral self-interest can thus fill) when Moll steals a necklace straight of the person of a young dancing girl. In this moment, Moll admits that she briefly considered killing the child, but was in fact “frighted” by her own momentary thought (257) (a moment of moral recognition that could, again, be the text criticizing the blow to domesticity a burgeoning feminism/individualism might exact).. To say that Defoe has constructed a text that positions feminism as “good” and the loss of domesticity as “bad,” is too simple a binary that ignores the dialectical relationship between individualism and kinship roles. Although Moll initially manifests or realizes these individualistic impulses through morally questionable activities — thieving, deception, etc. — this is not to say that Moll Flanders imagines feminism (or compromised domesticity) as leading to bad behavior. Instead, perhaps Defoe is questioning whether a woman in seventeenth or eighteenth-century England could be considered “moral” or “good” if she existed outside the domestic sphere (which Moll does by birth, born to a mother and no mother). Could the eighteenth-century English woman have pluck and tenacity and self-interest, and still be a nice domestic? This question points to or in some ways predicts a common critique of capitalism — that it disrupts the family, and fosters or even requires a kind of freedom, mobility and flexibility that conflict with the qualities of traditional, domestic family life. The question, then, would be how a woman could embody the individualistic, mobile and social-climbing traits associated with capitalism, in a patriarchal society that is structured around the woman’s role as wife and mother? How can an individual like Moll, who possesses this entrepreneurial spirit , direct her ambitions to productive ends in a society that has not yet defined a productive role for the “anti-domestic”? In earlier libertine texts, the options for women in a sexually commodified society were limited — she was either sold into the marriage market, she prostituted, or she became a nun, altogether avoiding the problem of female sexuality. In this context, virtue, itself a commodity, was the marker of whether a woman was “morally good” (a woman of quality) or “morally bankrupt” (a whore). However, as evidenced by the fact that sex is subservient to material concerns in Moll Flanders, or by the way that Moll’s virginity is never under scrutiny or critique, it is clear that the moral code in Defoe is not constructed around the ideal of virtue. Instead, the way a woman earns her living outside the domestic sphere, whether through short-cuts, deception, or honest work (an issue raised by the feminism/domesticity question) is the new morality Defoe seems to be forging in his novel. The outlining of the “costs” to domesticity that Moll’s feminism seems to incur is perhaps Defoe’s critique of the options available to women who want to work; that is, women who desire more than domesticity, a proper gentlewoman’s education or companionate marriage. At the end of the novel, Moll lives happily ever after in a rather traditional way. She is released from Newgate, reunites with her true love Jemmy, and is transported back to America – to Virginia, the site of her incestuous marriage, as part of her reduced sentence. What was once the place of a most vile act, a transgression against nature, now becomes a source of happiness and domestic stability for Moll. She marries Jemmy, a former roguish Highwayman whom she reforms (domesticates) into a husband. She successfully collects her inheritance from her deceased mother’s estate (the rewarding of an inheritance being a convention in “happy-plot-resolutions”). Her maternal qualities are recognized and celebrated, for she reunites with the son she left behind, a son who demonstrates love and devotion for his mother in spite of her initial abandonment. Moll (or the text) describes the reunion in a tender tone, recalling that her son “came not as a Stranger [to her], but as a Son to a Mother, and indeed as a Son, who had never before known what a Mother of his own was” (417). Moll also comments that she perceived her son to be a “Man of Sense,” in this way suggesting that her son was in fact a mirror image of herself, of her “feminist” faculties of reason of rationality. In this case, domesticity and feminism are portrayed as in relation, rather than in opposition to each other.I argue that the reason Moll is able to attain this happy ending despite her “misfortunes” and “questionable morality,” the reason why feminism and domesticity seem to fuse with or complement each other, is that Moll discovers a way to make her own money through hard work: she becomes a successful tobacco farmer. This success, unlike her stint as a thief, is the result of an honest trade that requires diligence rather than deception, toil rather than trickery. She, and Defoe, have found an outlet for Moll’s shrewdness and practicality that supports a trade economy, results in an “honestly-earned” wealth that satisfies Moll’s loftier ambitions, and promotes a stable home life of cooperation and devotion.
Moll Flanders as Moral Heroine
Much of the critical debate surrounding Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders centers around whether the author makes good on the promise he makes in the preface that the story will be morally instructive. For instance, Ira Konigsberg writes that “One of the book’s contradictions that Defoe never resolves is in the conflicting arguments for necessity and morality” (37). This seems to be a misunderstanding; for Defoe, necessity is part of morality and vice versa. It is certainly tempting to view that perspective as an indication of irony, but Defoe was not, contrary to popular opinion, writing an ironic novel. In actuality, he was writing a very realistic novel which expressed not only his own, but much of society’s view that the sixteenth century had seen a tonal shift in morality, moving away from religious values rooted in the Middle Ages toward a value system based on a religious suspicion of indigence and sloth. The moral lesson contained in Moll Flanders is that she is a virtuous example of the new paradigm of the individual that Defoe envisioned as being crucial to maintaining the growth of England that was promised by the emerging economic structure of the 18th century. That Moll Flanders is meant to be seen interpreted as a realistic, moral heroine can be deduced by comparing her economic worldview with that of her creator. In doing so, it becomes obvious that Defoe was creating a fully realized mouthpiece for his own personal theories on the necessity of economic aspiration as a means of moral salvation. Moll says at one point, “marriages were here the consequences of politic schemes, for forming interests, carrying on business, and that love had no share or but very little in the matter” (46). Moll learns this lesson early, and it is a guiding force for her throughout the rest of her life. Defoe himself “defended commercial marriages on the grounds that building a business was more worthy than marrying for lust” (Grassby 305). Many of Moll’s beliefs – and particularly her opinion on the economic importance of marriage – coincide with Defoe’s point of view. Robert Allan Donovan dances around this concept when he writes that “it is possible to regard every detail as relevant to the characterization of Moll and at the same time comformable to Defoe’s ordinary mental processes” (22). Ian Watt, however, is much more explicit, and much closer to the mark: “Defoe’s identification with Moll Flanders was so complete that, despite a few feminine traits, he created a personality that was in essence his own” (115). In Moll, Defoe creates an engaging character who personifies almost every socio-economic theory he expresses in his multitudinous non-fiction writings on the topics of trade and commerce. It seems inconceivable that Defoe would have created a character who so clearly was designed to be a loudspeaker for his economic theories who was not a heroic, admirable, and entirely moral figure. The moral that Defoe provides in Moll Flanders is not that capitalism and commerce are bad for England, but rather the reverse; that, in fact, the pursuit of upward mobility by the middle class is a moral imperative and, furthermore, that the methods of gaining upward mobility are not limited to the “virtuous”. Defoe’s economically-based morality may seem somewhat warped to 20th century readers, making them more likely to interpret the novel ironically, but Defoe was not, in fact, out of step with his contemporaries. 20th century readers were conditioned to read novels about business and commerce as cautionary tales about the unscrupulous behavior of those who will do anything for money, at the expense of any who stand in their way. It may be difficult for those readers to understand the mindset that produced Restoration and 18th century writers who were “favorably inclined toward business, seeing it as a great civilizing force and as a means of attaining both widespread material prosperity and world peace” (Meier 11). The moral world order had gone topsy-turvy between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance: money was now “good”, and poverty was “bad”. “As a result of a new emphasis on economic achievement…indigence was both shameful in itself and presumptive evidence of present wickedness and future damnation” (Watt 95). Moll Flanders is representative of the new mindset that Watt describes. Moll reflects Defoe’s concept that pursuing upward social mobility is tantamount to living morally. “Defoe saw economic success as a special kind of election and was willing to be less concerned about the moral value of the deeds which lead to that success” (Konigsberg 43). Marrying not for love, but for money; earning money as a whore; resorting to thievery when her attractiveness to men begins to fade…these are all justifiable to both Defoe and Moll because nothing could be worse than winding up in Newgate or becoming a beggar. This attitude is exemplified in the text when Moll, having finally wound up in Newgate, becomes so distraught that she seeks penitence, and when she casts herself as physically and spiritually unable to go out in beggar’s garb during her career as a thief. As Watt points out, Defoe’s heroes “would rather steal than beg, and they would lose their own self-respect-and the reader’s-if they did not exhibit this characteristic hubris of economic man” (95). The pride Watt speaks of attaches itself to every action that Moll undertakes. Throughout the novel, Moll sees herself as a gentlewoman, whether she actually is one or not, and pursues every undertaking with an eye towards bettering herself; indeed, she seems to feel that she is somehow owed a better life. Thomas Keith Meier says that Paul Dottin’s description goes even further: “His scrupolosity was based on the old saying ‘the end justifies the means.’ Success, interpreted as material gain, was the keynote of his philosophy and, indeed, of his morality” (81). To put it bluntly, Moll Flanders’ whoring, financial marriages, and even her descent into thievery are all perfectly acceptable means of gaining upward social mobility to both herself and, by extension, Defoe. The novel is indeed morally cohesive, despite criticisms to the contrary: Konigsberg writes that “the morality in the novel is to be taken at face value” (41). On the contrary, every single “immoral” act that Moll perpetrates is completely consistent with the economic morality expressed by Defoe in his non-fiction work. Watt writes that Moll Flanders “is a characteristic product of modern individualism in assuming that she owes it to herself to achieve the highest economic and social rewards, and in using every available method to carry out her resolve…She is even morally pure in her whoring since it is, as she assures us, by necessity and not ‘for the sake of the vice'” (114). Watt’s reading is completely at odds with Konigsberg’s contention that there is a contradiction between necessity and morality. Watt connects necessity to morality, rather than making them separate issues as does Konigsberg. Defoe explicitly expresses this outlook in The Complete English Tradesman, writing that “the needy prostitute is free of guilt and that her lustful customer is wholly responsible for the sin committed” (Meier 87). The unnamed woman-and Moll-became prostitutes entirely out of necessity, and it is this necessity that is the crux of the novel. What, exactly, is Moll needful of? Moll clearly needs more than just enough money to keep her off the street and out of Newgate; she achieved that goal during her career as a thief, yet she still continued plying her trade. Why? Because Moll clearly wanted to rise as high in society as possible, and for Defoe, that meant as high as she wanted to go, because her economic success would eventually contribute to the economic success of the country at large. Defoe felt that everyone should pursue economic individualism, and “regarded birth as irrelevant to the kind of individual one became in society” (Shinagel 123). Defoe even contended that “the son of a mean person furnish’d from heaven with an original fund of wealth, wit, sense, courage, virtue and good humor, and set apart by a liberal education for the service of his country…must be allowd…into the rank of gentleman” (Shinagel 225). Of course, Defoe was referring to males who sought upward mobility. The inaccurately ironic reading of Moll Flanders can be attributed in part to the fact she is a woman attempting upward mobility, and her means are therefore substantially different from that of a man. Because she is clearly meant to be perceived as a hero by the novel’s end, Daniel Defoe wants Moll to succeed in her pursuit of upward social mobility, and because those goals were direct conflict with the attitudes of Defoe’s era, the novel has come to be viewed ironically by those who cannot accept that Defoe could have seriously viewed Moll as a virtuous figure. For the most part, the men in Moll Flanders earn their livelihoods in “respectable” ways: they are gentlemen, tradesmen, plantation owners, bankers, ship captains, businessmen and ministers. True, there are also the occasional thieves, but for the most part the men in Moll’s orbit would be considered respectable even today. Not so, however, the women. Almost without exception, the women that Moll encounters must earn their keep through some manner of debasement: tricking men into marriage, prostituting themselves, pickpocketing, or fencing stolen goods. Moll engages in many of these pursuits, and yet she doesn’t seem to be considered any worse the wear from a moral standpoint. As G.A. Starr writes, “Moll’s world is one in which things are not good or evil, but characteristically good and yet evil” (Richetti 104). It is important, however, to understand that while whoring and thievery may be traditionally “evil” actions, Moll’s ultimate goal is to achieve the good that comes from acquiring economic independence. Moll Flanders is often viewed as unrealistic because the means by which a reasonable woman advanced herself during Defoe’s era are entirely anathema to readers whose vision of the morality of economics does not coincide with Defoe’s. Ian Watt explains this problem when he writes that “We cannot believe that so intelligent a man as Defoe should have viewed either his heroine’s economic attitudes or her pious protestations with anything other than derision. Defoe’s other writings, however, do not support this belief” (127). Defoe’s other writings reveal a man who is quite comfortable with the practice of slavery, and who would unblinkingly side with trade if a dispute arose between trade and religion (Meier 82). In light of this fact, it would be quite surprising if Defoe expressed any discomfort with his heroine’s desire to achieve economic independence. Nevertheless, one cannot help but be troubled by the fact that Moll Flanders is only allowed to pursue her dream of rising in society through increasingly degrading, humiliating means. She begins by trading love for marital security, and eventually begins simply trading sex for money. At her lowest point, she becomes an unrepentant criminal. Defoe seems strangely unconcerned that the only choices that England’s evolving capitalistic system offered women who sought upward mobility were ultimately shaming. As Robert Alan Donovan observes, “If the book teaches a lesson, as Defoe piously assures us, it had nothing to do with the wages of sin; it is a lesson in how to succeed at the confidence game” (26). Moll Flanders is a fictional interpretation of Daniel Defoe’s non-fiction writings on his socio-economic theories, espousing the importance of pursuing upward social mobility. In his non-fiction writings, Daniel Defoe shows himself to be consistently and defiantly in favor of commerce. He also appears convinced that the middle-class person not only could, but should attempt to better themselves: “The attributes of commerce which Defoe repeatedly emphasizes are its service to the state, by making the nation economically powerful; to civilization generally, by encouraging peace and fostering liberty; to all classes of society, by improving their standards of living; and to the businessman in particular, by improving his mind and increasing his social status: all with the approbation of God” (Meier, 40). Moll Flanders must be considered an unimpeachable heroine because she exemplifies this point of view. If everyone followed Moll’s course, the country would become more economically powerful and peaceful; the standard of living would rise considerably, with God’s blessing. In the preface to Moll Flanders, Defoe promises that “there is not a wicked action in any part of it but is first or last rendered unhappy and unfortunate” (vii). By the end of the novel, Moll is quite happy, and very fortunate, raising the question of whether her actions can be considered “wicked”. The novel achieves coherence when compared to Defoe’s oft-stated economic theories; therefore, everything Moll does must be considered not only moral, but admirably so. Moll Flanders is a realistic, unironic heroine who personifies an economic individual who contributed to the evolving capitalistic system which would soon turn England into a dominant world power. Works CitedDefoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Bantam Books: Toronto, 1989.Donovan, Robert Alan. The Shaping Vision: Imagination in the English Novel from Defoe to Dickens. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1966.Grassby, Richard. The Business Community of Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1995.Konigsberg, Ira. Narrative Technique in the English Novel. Archon Books: Hamden, 1985.Meier, Thomas Keith. Defoe and the Defense of Commerce. University of Victoria, 1987.Richetti, John J. Defoe’s Narratives: Situations and Structures. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1975.Shinagel, Michael. Daniel Defoe and the Middle-Class Gentility. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1968.Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1957.