Saturday, May 16, 2009

55. Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

May 2007
History: Published in 1722. Defoe wrote this after his work as a journalist and pamphleteer. By 1722, Defoe had become recognised as a novelist, with the success of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. His political work was tapering off at this point, due to the fall of both Whig and Tory party leaders with whom he had been associated. Defoe's Whig views are nevertheless evident in the story of Moll. The true title reveals the entire plot… "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Etc. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest and died a Penitent.”
Plot: Moll's mother is a convict in Newgate Prison who is given a reprieve by "pleading her belly", a reference to the custom of staying the executions of pregnant criminals. Her mother is eventually transported to America and Moll Flanders (which is not her birth name) is raised until adolescence by a good foster mother, and then gets attached to a household as a servant where she is loved by both sons. The elder son convinces her to "act like they were married" in bed, but eventually unwilling to marry her he convinces Moll to marry the younger brother. She then is widowed, leaves her children to the care of in-laws, and begins honing the skill of passing herself off as a fortuned widow to attract a man who will marry her and provide her with security.
The first time she does this, her husband goes bankrupt and flees to the Continent leaving her on her own with his blessing to do the best she can and forget him. The second time, she makes a match that leads her to Virginia with a kind and good man who introduces her to his mother. After two children, Moll learns that her mother-in-law is actually her biological mother, which means her husband is her half-brother. She dissolves their marriage and travels back to England, leaving her two children behind, and goes to live in Bath to seek a new husband.
Again she returns to her con skills and develops a relationship with a man in Bath whose wife is elsewhere confined due to insanity. Their friendship is at first platonic but eventually develops into Moll becoming something of a "kept woman" in London. These two truly fall in love and have a son, but after a severe illness he repents, breaks off the arrangement and commits to his wife.
Moll, now 42, resorts to another beau, a banker, who is still married to an adulterous wife but proposes to her after she entrusts her with her money. While waiting for the banker to divorce his wife Moll pretends to have a great fortune in order to attract another wealthy husband. She becomes involved with some Roman Catholics in Lancashire that try to convert her and she marries one of them, supposedly a rich man. She soon realises he expected to receive a great dowry which she denies having, which leads him to admit that he has cheated her into marriage, lying about having money, which he does not possess. He is in fact a ruined gentleman and discharges her from the marriage but still says she should inherit any money he might ever get. Although now pregnant again, Moll lets the banker believe she is available, hoping her husband returns. Moll's boy is born when the banker's wife commits suicide following the divorce, and she leaves it in the hand of a countrywoman for the sum of £5 a year. Moll marries the banker now, but realises: “what an abominable creature am I! and how is this innocent gentleman going to be abused by me!” She also dislikes being married in an inn at night by the landlord who is also a minister, an hour after she agreed to marry at all. But he dies in financial ruin after five years, when Moll had two more children by him.
Truly desperate now, she begins a career of artful thievery, which, by employing her wits, beauty, charm, and feminity, as well as hard-heartedness and wickedness, brings her the financial security she always sought. Only here, she takes the name of Moll Flanders and is known by it. On the downside, she is even robbing a family in their burning house, then a lover she becomes a mistress to, and is later sent to Newgate Prison. Here, she is led to her repentance. At the same time, she reunites with her soul-mate, her "Lancashire husband", who is also jailed for his robberies (before and after they first met, he acknowledges). She is found guilty of felony, but not burglary, the second accusation; still, the sentence is death anyway. But she convinces a minister of her repentance, and with her Lancashire husband is sent to the Colonies to avoid hanging, and happily are together. Once in the colonies, she learns her mother has left her a plantation and her own son (she had by her brother) is alive, as is her brother (husband).
She carefully introduces herself to her brother and their son, in disguise. With the help of a Quaker, the two found a farm with 50 servants in Maryland. She reveals herself now to her son in Virginia and he gives her her mothers’ inheritance, a farm he will now be her steward for, providing £100 a year for her. In turn, she makes him her heir and gives him a (stolen) golden watch.
At last, her life of conniving and desperation seems to be over. She tells her (Lancashire) husband when her (brother) husband is dead, the entire story, and he is “perfectly easy on that account”. “For, said he, it was no fault of yours, nor of his; it was a mistake impossible to be prevented”. Aged 69 (in 1683), they return to England to live “in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived”.
Review: Set in the 18th century English society, the subject matter of the novel is marriage and the battle of the sexes. In the 18th century, it was not possible for a lady to get a husband without being in possession of landed property or other forms of property. Women were responsible for the payment of their dowry. For this reason, Moll needs to have cash, bonds or landed property in order to get married. Since she is not rich, she pretends to men that she has money so that she can seduce them. But she soon discovers that the men too are all pretenders like she. She is a wife five times and a thief twelve years. There is so much similarity between 18th century English society depicted in the novel and the contemporary times.
One of the themes of the novel is feminism and the place of woman in the society. Defoe tries to argue a case for the women in the society. Moll Flanders represents women who are opposed in the society.
Fate also plays very important role in the novel. Arguably, Moll would have avoided most of her criminal tendencies but for fate.
Defoe also seems to use the novel to criticize the penile system in England. Newgate has become a breeding camp for criminality. The prisoners suffer a great deal and for this reason, they are more hardened rather than being reformed. A place that supposes to be a place of moral regeneration has become a place of moral laxity. Moll Flanders is therefore a subtle critic of the justice system in England.
Another theme in Moll Flanders is love as a cheat. Marriage supposesto be based on love rather than material possession. But love has become the last thing to consider when it comes to the issue of marriage. Moll has to consider the men’s financial capability before considering them for marriage. It is a worse crime to go into marriage without love. Money may give security but not happiness. Sex may give pleasure but not happiness.
Moll Flanders also seems to show that human nature is cyclical. Extreme circumstances demand extreme measures. It could be argued that it is extreme circumstances that make Moll commit the worse crimes in the novel. But all the same, Defoe uses this picaresque as a piece of moral treatise with a high degree of dedication to exhort people to be moral.
Opening Line: “ My true name is so well known in the records or registers at Newgate, and in the Old Bailey, and there are some things of such consequence still depending there, relating to my particular conduct, that it is not be expected I should set my name or the account of my family to this work; perhaps, after my death, it may be better known; at present it would not be known; at present it would not be proper, no not though a general pardon should be issued, even without exceptions and reserves of persons or crimes. “
Closing Line: My husband remained there some time after me to settle our affairs, and at first I intended to go back to him, but at this desire I altered that resolution, and he is come over to England also, where we resolve to spend the remainder of our lives in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived.
Quotes: “ and principally his disturbance was because I could not be persuaded to conceal our relation and live with him as my husband, after I knew he was my brother..”
Rating: mediocre

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