Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe is a fictional autobiography written in 1722. It tells of a woman, under the pseudonym Moll Flanders and her various fortunes and misfortunes in life - from her involvement in prostitution and theft to her many marriages and affairs. The novel, thought to be one of the first crime novels ever written, explores themes of greed and vanity, as well as other immoralities that western society and a person's upbringing might inflict on them - not to mention, many other themes. In this extract, I will explore and analyse Moll Flanders' upbringing and her first marriage.
The first section of this extract is the opening to Defoe's novel. Flanders immediately starts by implying that the name she uses is not her real name, and the reader is directly, but briefly informed that the protagonist does have a history with the law, "My True name is so well known in the records or registers of Negate," (Defoe 1722, p. 9). On the surface, this gives off the impression that the character of Moll Flanders is an honest one and the full title of the novel - The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Etc. Who Was Born in Newgate, and During a Life of Continued 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, Lived Honest & Died a Penitent - tells us that she is eventually repentant for her misdeeds but as we see in this extract she allows herself to "speak of herself under that name [Moll Flanders] till she dare own who she has been, as well as who she is." (Defoe 1722. P. 9) - in other words, she won't tell us her real name in fear of being caught and prosecuted, and as you need on, you find that even though she claims to be remorseful of her past she still won't own up to it and take the punishment she apparently deserves. This first part of the extract is an early indication that Flanders could be an unreliable narrator - she claims to be truly sorry for what she has done in her life, but the evidence in Defoe's writing might prove otherwise.
Others might argue however, that the use of a pseudonym for the protagonist is only to emphasise Defoe's use of Moll to represent a wide number of criminal women at the time - women who's circumstances might not have been entirely to their own fault. It is said that Defoe based the character on many 'Molls' living in 18th Century Britain at the time as well as aspects of his own character (Defoe is said to have spent some time in Newgate in his life).
In the next section of the extract Moll talks about the very early years of her life, and although she does explain that the knowledge that she is giving us is not her first-hand knowledge but second-hand accounts of her very early life as told by others, this is the first part of the extract in which Defoe introduces the idea that society and our upbringing does often have an effect on the way our lives turn out.
At the start of this section Moll lets us know that her mother was sentenced to be hung after being convicted of petty theft - Flanders mentions that it was so petty that is was "scarce worth naming" (Defoe 1722. p. 10); this could be perhaps an indication of Defoe's opinions on crime and punishment at the time - some might suggest that a strong theme of 'nature vs. nurture' is apparent in this section. The fact that Molls mother was involved in a life of crime and that Moll was later born in Newgate prison could lead some to say that the nature in which she was brought up led to her later life in crime.
With regards to structure in this section, there is a lot of repetition. Moll constantly assures us that she "has been told" and that everything she tells us is "hearsay" (Defoe 1722. p. 10). This constant repetition carries on throughout the book (not just repetition of the fact that she doesn't know much about her early childhood, but repetition of other events and explanations too) as well as in this section and gives off the impression that Moll has the strange need to excuse herself. This brings up the question of if she truly is repentant then why does she feel the need to keep making excuses for herself? (she knew nothing of her early childhood, her mother was a criminal too etc.) Why does she feel the need to blame her poor lifestyle on things beyond her control when she knows that what she has done is wrong and claims to be a penitent for it?
In rebuttal to this, some might mention that Defoe was simply attempting to emphasise the harsh conditions that most women who were involved in crime experienced in childhood.
The last section of the extract skips a bit onto when Moll is married to Robin. She starts this section by mentioning that "modesty forbids her to reveal the secrets of her marriage" (Defoe 1722. p. 59) yet she does not hold all modesty in this section - again highlighting the unreliability and moral ambiguity of the protagonist.
This section is really a huge testament to the representation of Molls view on love and family. It is very apparent that her approach to love and relationships is that of a cold, calculating and mechanical one. Just before this section of the extract Moll has an affair with the elder brother (her husband to be's older brother) she mentions that she counts the money that he gives her in order to seduce "over a thousand times a day" (Defoe 1722. p. 50) and later accepts money from him again for consent to marry his brother Robin. Her calculated image of using her body as a commodity doesn't begin in this section, but definitely grows into a stronger part of her persona.
This section especially emulates possibly one of the most important questions brought up by this novel - like many of the social elite of this period, Moll talks a lot about moral questions - but her only discernible motivation in nearly every situation, especially this situation, is greed - her self-serving calculations of her actions and morally troubling choices raises a very big question that came 0with the rise of capitalism in 18th Century Britain - Does the universal pursuit of economic self-interest deprive individuals of the ability/capacity to comprehend the moral consequences of their behaviour?
In conclusion, although Defoe's nouveau crime novel has a monotonous tone throughout - due to repetition - the realistic events makes for an interesting read. The style enhances the apparent vanity and greed of the protagonist, and this brings out the main themes of the social effect of society - the harrowing affects that the rise in capitalism in western society has on mankind.