The Power of Moll Flanders’ Name and Clothing in Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe Research Paper

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Nov 11th, 2018

What is the reason for the people’s disguise behind the false names and striking clothes which do not reflect the peculiarities of their personalities? Daniel Defoe is a master of depicting the events close to the reality in his books. That is why his characters often try to hide behind false names in order to present their ‘true’ stories of life.

The female protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders can use the masks better than anyone else because she is used to live in false reality using the false name and changing different clothes which do not help to emphasize her identity, but only hide her real nature. To understand the meaning of the name for the person’s identity and the meaning of the appearance and clothes for being recognized and accepted in society, it is necessary to analyze the relationship between Moll Flanders’ name, her clothing, and her role in the society.

In his article “Moll’s Many-Colored Coat: Veil and Disguise in the Fiction of Defoe”, Karl accentuates the fact that Moll Flanders’ “assumption of so many protean roles, then, is twofold: connected to her desire to be something she apparently is not and to her will to survive in a society in which traditional values have fallen away” (Karl 89).

Thus, can different names and clothes help to become the part of the other social class? The disguise of Moll Flanders’s individuality is her effective way to the recognition in the society because fake names and clothes can become powerful for changing identities and deceiving people.

The peculiarities of Moll Flanders’ name

The origin of Moll Flanders’ name

In his novel, Daniel Defoe presents the story of Moll Flanders as the story of a real woman whose actual name is too common for the public to be reminded once more.

In the preface of the novel the readers are prepared to encounter a series of disguises “where the Names and other Circumstances of the Person are concealed, and on this Account we must be content to leave the Reader to pass his own opinion” (Defoe 3). However, what significance for Moll is hidden in this name? Why does she prefer to hide her individuality behind this common name and a number of others which she takes during her life?

Moll Flanders does not want to focus on her real name because people gave her another name, and Moll asserts, “These were they that gave me the name of Moll Flanders for it was no more of Affinity with my real name, or with any of the names I had ever gone by…I called myself Mrs. Flanders” (Defoe 179).

Thus, now she is known as Moll Flanders. It is possible to notice that Moll Flanders uses aliases in order to hide her real origin as she hides her real appearance under different clothes. Moll Flanders understands that to be accepted in society, it is important to look like the representatives of this society and to present oneself as the part of this or that social class.

This ‘masquerade’ is complicated with the fact that to gain the definite recognition, it is more significant to be associated with the name of the expensive fabric than to reveal the real name which is known to the lowest social classes (Brown). However, it is rather difficult to state clearly the origin of Moll’s name. It is possible to speak about the name of the “very good Flanders-Lace”, and it is possible to refer to the situations in Moll’s life on which she does not want to focus the reader’s attention (Defoe 240).

The role of the name in the society of the 17th – 18th centuries

To understand Moll Flanders’ motivation not to reveal her real name and try to change her aliases regularly, it is necessary to concentrate on the role of name in the society of the 17th – 18th centuries. Names and titles always were considered as indicators of the persons’ ranks and status in the society, especially in the 17th – 18th centuries. Many people were inclined to struggle for achieving or inheriting their titles and name indicators with the help of trials and different legal procedures.

The aristocratic name gave them the chance to take the higher place in the society and that is why to be recognized as a gentleman or a gentlewoman (Simms). In spite of the fact that such situations were rather typical for the society, Moll Flanders chose another way to use the power of names. Moll Flanders was an easy name which could not be recognized in any social class. Thus, the main Moll’s task was not to be considered as a representative of the lowest class.

A neutral name gave her the opportunity to mislead the public according to the question of her origin the aspects of which she wanted to conceal. When it was necessary for Moll to realize her specific and dishonest ideas, she was able to choose any appropriate name for the definite situation. Thus, the issue of ranks and status was overcome because Moll did not see the necessity of being truthful when it is possible to lie effectively.

The highest classes of society were interested for Moll Flanders, and her inclination to change names reflected her idea to become a gentlewoman. However, her vision of this notion differed from the public’s common opinions. Moll Flanders states these differences as the key aspects of her wish to become a gentlewoman.

Thus, “all I understood by being a gentlewoman was to be able to work for myself, and get enough to keep me without that terrible bugbear going to service, whereas they meant to live great, rich and high, and I know not what” (Defoe 13).

Nevertheless, is she sincere while saying these words? The frankness of Moll Flanders’ considerations about her possible positions in society is a rather controversial question because all her activities were always directed toward gaining more and going higher. That is why different name were often used by Moll Flanders as effective and powerful ways to become closer to her desired social roles.

The names of Moll Flanders as a kind of the disguise and ways to change the life

The readers do not know Moll Flanders’ real name. That is why there is the question of her identity as a real figure or just a fictional character and all the sides and faces of this character. The problem of identity becomes one of the most influential for understanding the aspects of Moll’s behavior.

Introducing herself in the first part of the novel, Moll Flanders also accentuates the fact that she has some difficulties with identifying herself by name and as a person. Thus, she is ready to be just “Moll Flanders, so you may give me leave to speak of myself, under that Name till I dare own who I have been, as well as who I am” (Defoe 7).

Moll Flanders is rather uncertain in her perceiving herself as a real person because of a number of ‘masks’ she is used to wear. Simms accentuates that Moll does not know how “to distinguish between the several masks she takes up to address the readers and that the true self which has a name she will not speak is both more and other than the sum total of the articulate parts” (Simms 82).

Moll Flanders is confused by her constant changing masks, and she lost the understanding of her identity during the process. Nevertheless, what is the reason for changing names and life scenarios? Moll states that “it would be 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” (Defoe 76).

That is why she uses any opportunity to be recognized as another person in order to deceive the other people, to steal, to organize provocative situations, to mislead, and to avoid the penalties. If it is useful for her, she is “like a professional actress ready to try any costume and any role” (Simms 87).

The necessity of living such a dangerous life which is full of adventures and fears to be recognized depends on those life conditions which surrounded Moll since her birth. It seems that the story of her mother’s life and her own life story do not leave Moll any chance to live a virtuous life because, in this case, a virtuous life is a poor life. Moll’s survival greatly depends on her ability to take “the advantages of other people’s mistakes” in order to change the conditions of her miserable living and reach her personal goals (Defoe 268).

Moll Flanders considers lies as the main aspect of her life which can help her be successful and hide her real inner world under a number of false names. Moreover, a false name is a powerful way to defend herself and act as another person:

When Moll lies to victims in her criminal career, suppresses aspects of her fortune to men and women she likes and loves in order to protect herself from future exigencies, prevaricates with the reader in her attempts at self-justification, and mispresents herself to herself for a variety of reasons (Simms 84).

‘Moll Flanders’ is a never-dropped mask which can serve for being recognized in society as a gentlewoman, but at the same time, it is a way to conceal being a poor with dishonest reputation or a successful thief.

Thus, Moll states that her name was known to the public, and her task was to create a good reputation for being known as ‘Moll Flanders’. “They all knew me by the name of Moll Flanders, tho’ even some of them rather believ’d I was she, than knew me to be so; my Name was publick among them indeed” (Defoe 222). Moll’s name should be familiar to the public only with positive connotations that is why she does all possible to realize her adventures under the other names not to attract the public’s attention.

The peculiarities of Moll Flanders’ attitude to clothing

The particular features of the clothes of the 17th – 18th centuries and its role in society

Clothing was always considered as an indicator of social status and ranks because its elements were well known to the public and easily recognized. “Over the centuries clothing has been a mark of the social rank of its wearer; it has also been a striking sign of irreversible social and historical transformation” (Stadler 468).

The clothes of the 17th – 18th centuries could be subdivided into groups according to the social classes. The representatives of definite social classes had the opportunity to wear only that kind of clothes which was typical to accentuate their status.

It was also the question of income because poor people were not able to buy linen or lace. In her article, Stadler states that “cloth and clothing not only constitute visible, ‘countable’ signs of wealth, but the garments themselves, in a strictly stratified society, act as costumes that identify condition and status” (Stadler 469). Thus, wearing this or that dress was a result of following traditions and of the public’s wealth.

Moll Flanders also pays much attention to the clothes when she describes the society. The public’s clothing helps her to identify the persons’ positions and act according to her conclusions:

When I came to receive the money, I brought my governess with me, dressed like an old duchess, and a gentleman very well dressed, who we pretended courted me, but I called him cousin, and the lawyer was only to hint privately to him that his gentleman courted the widow (Defoe 208).

One more peculiar feature of the society of the 17th – 18th centuries was the passion of the highest classes to changing dresses for balls and masquerades which originated from the traditions of the street carnivals and festivals. The wish to change the dress in order to reveal the altered appearance and new acquired traits is typical both for the representatives of the lowest and highest social classes. That is why Moll Flanders used this tendency quite effectively to protect herself from revealing her real face.

The reasons for Moll Flanders’ changing clothes

Why does Moll Flanders use every possibility to change her clothes and play a new role? Clothes can help Moll to act as a wife, a thief, a transported felon, and a beggar. Moreover, clothing is Moll’s chance to attract the public’s attention to her person as a gentlewoman.

To become a gentlewoman is the main goal of Moll who tries to avoid the role which is dictated by the social norms for her since the childhood. Moll does not want to serve as the other young women of the same origin and belonging to the same class. That is why, analyzing the situations in Moll’s life, it is possible to note that “by taking her stand, she has set herself against the social expectations of someone of her low birth” (Karl 89).

Social expectations are also that factor which makes Moll Flanders act with breaking all the norms and expectations. The only thing which is interesting for Moll is her possible wealth, and this wish stimulates her to survive and go directly to her aims. “Her desire to rise, even at the expense of danger, anxiety, dread, flirtation with the hangman, is comparable to her “original sin”, her refusal to serve” (Karl 89).

The easiest ways which can help Moll Flanders survive, and which can lead her to the wealth are lying and stealing. Thus, Moll uses her charms and false clothing to help her steal definite expensive items and seduce men. She is rather perfect in her ability to change the clothes and ‘masks’ because she states that “everything looked so innocent and so honest about me, that they treated me civiler than I expected” (Defoe 181).

The social impact and changes of the clothes and appearance as a kind of a disguise

The most frequent roles which Moll Flanders plays when changing the clothing are a rich woman or a gentlewoman and a criminal, a notorious gifted thief. The first role or ‘mask’ gives Moll a lot of benefits and allow her acting in the highest society. However, the second role of a thief is a challenge to the society and because of a lot of risks Moll has to conceal her personality under the protective cover of the other different clothes.

If it is convenient for her to steal being dressed as a beggar, she does it, if it is convenient for her to mislead people in the clothes of a man, she also does it. In the novel Moll states that when she was proposed to dress up as a man in order to be unobserved and effectively do what she thought over she did it because of the obvious advantages of the situation.

Nevertheless, it is rather difficult to find any distinctive causes for her changes of the clothes besides those which were mentioned. The peculiarities of Moll Flanders origin made her perceive the society and surroundings as the field for struggles and use people and chances to achieve her goals even the methods are dishonest.

Speaking about the peculiarities of Moll Flanders’ character, Karl pays attention to the fact that “she is completely survival-oriented, her disguises are an integral part of her personality, indistinguishable from any ‘center’ we might attribute to her” (Karl 95). The act of changing dresses and using new ‘masks’ becomes one of the main aspects of Moll’s life which allow her being recognized as that person she wants to be, but not to reveal her real nature.

The power of Moll Flanders’ changing names and clothes with references to the social context

Is it possible to preserve one’s identity when it is more important to conceal and protect the personality? Moll Flanders is inclined to change the names and clothes with the same easy. Thus, when she uses a new dress for her job, she presents herself with the help of another name and creates a new legend.

Moll plays a new role in which the necessary changes in name and dress make the image more complete. The influential power which is connected with Moll’s ability to alter the clothes and names is her flexibility. However, is it possible to say that this flexibility is a result of Moll’s lack of ‘center’ in her personality and identity? Karl focuses on the fact that “all her energies are concentrated on appearing to be what she is; at the same time, she has to be careful not be exactly what she appears” (Karl 93).

Nevertheless, Moll’s roles, ‘masks’, and names are her effective ways to overcome the social barriers. According to Stadler, when Moll plays the role of “a gentlewoman wearing a ‘good’ dress and a gold watch or when she is disguised as a man, dress functions as a sign of power, as a false sartorial message of apparent integration within the social hierarchies” (Stadler 469).

Dresses can be used as a perfect instrument for manipulating the public’s minds. Moll successfully uses this instrument with her charms in order to hide her real intentions.

Thus, the chic clothing supported with the necessary names emphasizes her status in society which is just a fake role, but performed effectively. The man’s or beggar’s clothing is the best way to conceal Moll’s appearance and deceive people in order to express the talent of stealing expensive things and treasures. Nevertheless, “Moll is the perpetrator and, often, victim of her own farces. Yet she is driven to creating new roles and re-creating new identities” (Karl 90).

The power of the ‘masquerade’ and hiding the real name under the number of pseudonyms influences Moll Flanders’ feeling of identity. She is powerful enough to mislead any person and to gain the reputation in definite circles for advantageous overcoming difficult situations.

However, she lost herself in all those dresses that she wore in order to become richer and more successful. Moll Flanders is confused by a lot of lies which make the base of her life, and these lies in connection with roles, dresses, ‘masks’, and pseudonyms form the great power which rules Moll’s social and personal life.

Works Cited

Brown, Homer O. “The Displaced Self in the Novels of Daniel Defoe”. ELH 38.4 (1971): 562-590. Print.

Defoe, Daniel. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c (Oxford World’s Classics). USA: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Karl, Frederick R. “Moll’s Many-Colored Coat: Veil and Disguise in the Fiction of Defoe”. Studies in the Novel 5 (1973): 86-97. Print.

Simms, Norman. “A Plain Conviction to the Contrary: Moll Flanders’ Name and Other Lies”. Q/W/E/R/T/Y 7 (1997): 79-88. Print.

Stadler, Eva Maria. “Defining the Female Body within Social Space: The Function of Clothes in Some Early Eighteenth-Century Novels”. Proceedings of the XIIth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association 3 (1990): 468-473. Print.

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