on August 23, 2001
Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel, "Moll Flanders," remains a fascinating imaginative work, and is in many ways more interesting than his famous first effort, "Robinson Crusoe." Having seen bits of two recent film adaptations in the last couple of months on television, and being a budding 18th century scholar, I decided it was time I picked up my own copy of "Moll Flanders" and see the actual product on its own terms. A story no less about a castaway and delinquent than "Crusoe," in "Moll Flanders," Defoe attempts to set down the history of a woman with a wild and often desperate life. A character of infinitely more interiority and reflection than Crusoe, Moll gives us through a first person narrative, a look into various stations of life in 18th century England and America.
The novel begins with a tip of the hat to that fine progenitor of the novel, "Don Quixote," a Gines-like acknowledgment that Moll, as the author of her own story, cannot complete that story within the text of the novel, unless people can write when they are deceased. Amusements aside, Moll begins her story as Crusoe begins his, with an immediate acknowledgment of the instability of the modern self - the corruption of her own name. Born in Newgate prison, and having never known her mother, Moll finds herself among gypsies and landed gentry before settling in Colchester for the term of her youth. Here, she founds her sense of social ambition, unusual even for Jane Eyre in the 19th century, as one in which she figures to be a gentlewoman by earning her own living. Various mishaps and misadventures lead her through marriages, whoredom, and thievery as Moll attempts to find her place in the world as a woman of common birth. Early on she learns the lessons that will aid her on her journey, viz., the value of money, quick wit, and a sense of her own sexuality.
While Defoe certainly does not sugar-coat the wrongs of woman in the early 18th century - delving deeply into issues of feminine helplessness before the law, the difficulties of procuring stable employment, and various reproductive issues such as adoption, abortion, and infant mortality - yet he maintains a consistent character of Moll as an extremely strong, adaptive, and resilient female character. The most riveting facet of Moll throughout is her own sense of self-worth and importance, especially in her own history. For instance, while chronicling an encounter with a former lover, Moll tells us that while his adventures are worth their own narrative, this is "my story, not his." Moll's strength in the midst of doubt, desperation, and general loneliness keeps the reader's constant interest and admiration.
Defoe's exploration of inter-gender relationships are worthy of note themselves for the sheer variety of social, economic, and personal situations he includes in the novel. The economic theme stands out among these, and provides a link back to the preoccupations of "Robinson Crusoe." Like Crusoe, Moll is always aware of the value of her personal possessions, and conscious of how to exploit and husband her resources to best advantage. Also like Crusoe, "Moll Flanders" is keenly aware of the possibilities and drawbacks of English colonial ventures in America. Defoe's efforts to link all these themes to the lot of the English prison population, the family unit, and indentured servants and African slaves, are all managed extremely well within the text of the novel. For all this, "Moll Flanders" remains an entertaining, satisfying, relevant novel, and stands for me above "Crusoe" as a work of high literary value.
on November 14, 2000
'Tho the plot, being interesting in the extream, must be confess'd to be well-done, and alike the characters, being well-develop'd, plausible, and even sympathetic ('tho they be theives, felons, bigamists, and worse), must be similarly confess'd, still the writing style, being as it is extreamly archaic as well in spelling, grammar, and syntax, as in punctuation, the modern reader must be foarwarn'd: if he had difficulty with the parsing of this, the principle paragraph of this review, or finds the prospect of reading a story consisting of eight and forty more than two hundreds of pages in a like style daunting, he should give the project up as impracticable.
If, on the other hand, you had no trouble with that paragraph, I daresay that you'll enjoy this book, even if, as the father of the English novel, Defoe had yet to engender the chapter break.
Also it should be pointed out this may well be the first novel in which a male author attempts to write a story in which the lead character is female, and Defoe does a surprisingly good job of it.
I think MOLL FLANDERS is my favorite novel of all time. The novel form was in its infancy at the time MOLL FLANDERS was written. In fact, Defoe is often called "the father of the English novel." Actually, as a novel it's very primitive. Defoe's fiction is usually a first person narrative told by an ambitious person, recounting how he got where he is today. In Moll Flanders, Defoe presents the autobiography of a woman who rises from an ignominious birth in Newgate Prison, and a childhood as a servant. Early on, Moll learns that she is beautiful and that she is attractive to the opposite sex. What's great about the book is its delicious irony. Oh there are times when she gets caught in her own traps, she's a sly one, that Moll. It's very difficult at times to think of Moll as a fictional character. But she is, in fact, the first great female character in English prose. I never cease to be amazed that the book was written by a man. There are moments in the book that I find very moving, like when she realizes that she's no longer pretty enough to attract men without resorting to makeup. "I never had to paint my face before." And of course there's that unsettling surprise she receives toward the end of the novel. This is a great and important book and hardly anyone has read it. I don't know why. I have recommended this book to probably a hundred people. To the best of my knowledge, not a single one of them has taken my advice. It's their loss. I LOVE Moll Flanders.
on March 17, 2008
To fully understand and appreciate Moll Flanders you should have some understanding of the status of fiction at the time Daniel DeFoe was writing and some knowledge about the man himself. As Nancy Springer has indicated, the novel is an example of a "picaresque adventure," a style of writing that was popular at the time. These stories glorified a new kind of hero--the ordinary person, who engaged in a series of often wild and improbable events in exotic places. The picaresque rouge was a rebel against the remains of the feudal system with its hierarchy of human worth. Such novels featured a clever, strong-minded, low-born character who knew how to survive. What DeFoe did differently is to make his character a women and have her adventures take place largely in England.
The novel is also largely autobiographical. DeFoe himself experienced many financial ups and downs, yet he persevered. In fact it wasn't until he was 60 years old that he began writing novels and achieved some measure of fame and financial success. He spent time in Newgate prison and deeply in debt. He was also an outspoken political reformer who wrote more than 250 political pamphlets.
Having said the above, the novel still has its faults. One is that it is written in a continuous manner with no chapter breaks. While DeFoe may have been trying to say that time is continuous and that distinctions (such as hours, days, weeks, etc.) are mere fabrications, still readers like to have books broken down into chapters. A more serious flaw is the lack of names. Apart from her first husband there are virtually no names given to the characters. Even Moll herself is not identified by the title name until well into the book and even this name is not her actual name (which we never learn). Instead characters are identified in some impersonal way (my Lancashire husband, my governess, etc.) The lack of names makes it hard for the reader to engender any sympathy for Moll and the other personages in the book. Also the action is so fast paced that it flashes by like looking through a kaleidoscope, the scenes and action constantly shifting and changing. For example, within the first 100 pages Moll is married five times, has several children, goes to Virginia, finds her mother, etc. There is no time for the reader to reflect on the tragedies that befall her, especially given that they are told in a matter-of-fact manner.
The book can be divided into two parts. The first half deals with Moll's amorous life--her marriages and love affairs. The second part focuses primarily on her criminal activities. Both sections tell the story entirely from Moll's perspective. In many respects Moll is a match for Thackery's Becky Sharp. Both are low-born, both get positions in well-to-do families, both marry one of the sons in the family, both are attractive and quick witted, both scheme to get money and both have various adventures and misadventures. But Vanity Fair is written as a social commentary and Thackery uses the omnipotent story teller to advantage, even having him speak directly to the reader. DeFoe, by comparison, limits himself to having his protagonist say, in effect, now I did this, then I did that, then this happened, etc.
To give DeFoe his due, the book does provide a realistic and detailed account of life in England at that time. His description of Newgate prison is but one example. Perhaps Moll's attitude also reflected the times accurately. It can best be described as "a woman is nothing without a man and to get a man a woman must have money." Thus Moll spends the entire book pursuing both. But one can question how realistic Moll Flanders really is. She has a number of children, but seems to have little regard for them. Perhaps DeFoe, needing to rid Moll of encumbrances such as children in order to engage her in so many adventures, gave her what is an unnatural attitude for a mother. In the end he does reunite her with a son, but we should note that her motivation, at least at first, is financial not familial.
All in all, the book is worth reading, but it is far from great literature.
on January 3, 2000
An eighteenth century novel recounting the life and survival of a strong willed Moll Flanders, a woman who, abandoned as an infant, finds her way to self sufficiency, in a world then dominated by men. Through ingenius schemes she still some how always regains the illusion of imaginary high standing and good reputation throughout it all.
I found Moll Flanders to be resourceful and ingenious in her methods for securing her own survival. The book puts prostitution and premarital sex in a whole new perspective. As one can deduce from this book, life was not so simple for women in the 18th century, especially if they were abandon as children, or even if they husband died and left them without means to exist. Moll takes her position as a dependent woman and finds power in her mind to devise schemes which will allow her a secure lifestyle without compromising her self.
I found Moll to be a woman of character and repute, with self esteem, who made her own way in a world where women had no power, money or choices aside from their dependence upon men.
on September 29, 2007
The only thing I truely like about this tale is the insight to the times of over three hundred years ago. One is really struck by the more things change, the more things stay the same-at least when it comes to the human mind. Other than that, I really found a great majority of the book mind-numbingly dull-especially when when reach the part where our heroine becomed the infamous Moll Flanders. Nearly sixty pages of my edition (c. 1965 Dell Publishing) is devoted repetition of how Moll stole this or another and the innumerable times she'd almost gotten caught. A few incidents would have been fine, but the author seemed really taken by how these thieves scratched out their living. Given how DeFoe spent most of his life in debt, one wonders if his detail account came from of his own experience. Most of what happens to Moll Flanders while she bounced from one extraordinary event to the next stretches the threshold of believablity to the breaking point. This woman popped out so many kids and would just get up and walk away with no thought of the children-until the ONE toward the end of the story. The first half of the book caught and held my attention, but it was down hill from there.
on June 27, 2009
This book helped me to understand the perils of being a poor woman in Seventeenth Century London. The character Moll Flanders was born poor and she had no family to support her, therefore her only ways of survival was to get married, sell her body, become a servant at very low wages. She chose to become a thief, and to always to appear to be something that she was not.
It is almost like a travel book because Moll is always moving from town to town, and from life episode to next episode, across the ocean trying to find a place to be herself and not a fake representation of a good woman.
Sometimes the narrator is too detailed and tells more than I needed to know, but it does seem like a woman is speaking, or writing in a journal, even though the book was actually written by a man. I enjoyed reading the book and felt some sympathy for Moll Flanders because of her struggles, weaknesses, and her ability to endure.
on September 2, 2005
This human portrait of a woman is also an excellent sketch of the living conditions and the social stratification in England in the 18th century: 'the Age is so wicked and the Sex so Debauch'd'.
It shows the immense chasm between a small class of wealthy people and the rest (Swift: a thousand to one). The latter were struggling for sheer survival and praying 'Give me not Poverty, lest I steal' ... to be hanged: 'If I swing by the String, I shall hear the Bell ring, and then there's an End of poor Jenny.'
But both classes intermingled.
As E.J. Burford quotes in his masterful book 'The Synfulle Citie':
Those who were riche were hangid by the Pursse
Those who were poore were hangid by the Necke
Defoe's Moll Flanders: 'the passive Jade thinks of no Pleasure but the Money; and when he is as it were drunk in the Extasies of his wicked Pleasure, her Hands are in his Pockets.'
Defoe paints the poor's religion as fatalism. Moll Flanders is all the time reproaching herself her Course of life, 'a horrid Complication of Wickedness, Whoredom, Adultery, Incest, Lying, Theft', but in the face of death at the gallows, 'I had now neither Remorse or Repentance ... no Thought of Heaven or Hell ... I neither had a Heart to ask God's Mercy.'
Defoe's work is eminently modern, with his psychological insight 'What a Felicity is it to Mankind that they cannot see into the Hearts of one another', and 'Modest men are better Hypocrites';
or, the ravages of alcoholism: 'the Drunk are the Men whom Solomon says, they go like an Ox to the Slaughter, till a Dart strikes through their Liver';
and his feminism: 'the Disadvantage of the Women is a terrible Scandal upon Men', and 'Money only made a Woman agreeable.'
Defoe's appeal to the reader - 'every Branch of my Story may be useful to honest People' - seems to be a smokescreen to circumvent censorship, because ultimately Moll Flanders prospers. This book is a perfect illustration of Bernard
Mandeville's 'Triumph of Private Vices' in his 'Fable of the Bees'.
Although some developments in this story are rather improbable, this superbly ironic and lively text constitutes an immortal portrait of the 'horrid Complication' to be a woman, here personified in Moll Flanders.
Not to be missed.
on September 10, 2010
As many other reviewers have noted, it takes some effort to deal with this books old english style of prose. But, what do you expect? The book was written several hundred years ago! Once you get used to it, this novel is really very interesting and just gets progressively better as it goes on. By the end you cant put it down, you just have to know what happens to Moll. I thought Defoe offered very perceptive insights into human nature in sometimes very amusing passages. The novel has this curious aspect in that throughout the novel Moll displays a deep degree of moral self-awareness but then she has this ability to essentially ignore the impact of her often outrageous behavior. I guess this was Defoe's point. We all have to rationalize our actions to some degree to make our way in an imperfect and often cruel world. You will cheer and abhor her at the same time but at least she wont bore you!
on May 5, 2005
I had read Robinson Crusoe earlier, and enjoyed it. So I looked forward to reading another great classic when I picked up Moll Flanders, also by Daniel Defoe. Unfortunately, it was not as good as I had hoped.
Written in the eighteenth century, Moll Flanders is the story of a woman who is born in England, lives a lamentable life filled with many husbands, relationships outside of marriage with bastard children, a decade or so of shoplifting, a bit of prison time, all with success and happiness only in the last few years.
As with Robinson Crusoe, the book's best feature can be found in its attention to detail. When describing her thieving experiences, for instance, Moll Flanders illustrates exactly how each encounter happened with such exactness that one could easily picture the event.
Unlike Robinson Crusoe, however, this book dragged a bit more and was more difficult to follow. When reading RC, I had previously thought that Defoe's omission of any character's name was a deliberate attempt to characterize Robinson Crusoe's detachment as a character (The ship's captain was always referred to as "The ship's captain," and nobody ever was referred to by their name). I was surprised to find that Defoe does this here, and unfortunately it made it much more confusing. When Moll Flanders refers to a man as "her husband," I always wondered which husband it was, since she had been married many times. Because of this, the men seemed to run together and blend into a generic depiction of a man. Perhaps this was deliberate, too, but it got to me after awhile.
The other problem is that this narrative is much less exciting than with RC, a man who is shipwrecked on a tropical island. Although the bits about the life of crime are more interesting, the beginning portion of her life unwinds at a slow pace.
If people really like Robinson Crusoe, I think they will appreciate Moll Flanders. I think readers should go for Crusoe first and see what they think of it.