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Thursday, June 2, 2011

“More than anything else, Moll Flanders is an indictment of the social and moral values of her age.” Do you agree?

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The novel Moll Flanders, written by Daniel Defoe and published in 17, was one of the earliest English Novels. Like many other early English novels, Moll Flanders, is told in the first person as a narrative, and is presented as a truthful account, since at that time (the eighteenth century), the idea of a long, realistic work of fiction was still new. Moll Flanders is an extremely entertaining and action-packed story, but also gives a valuable and lively picture of the Eighteenth Century society. Although Moll is an exceptional character because of her ingenuity and extraordinary life, the problems she faces are firmly rooted in her society. Moll Flanders is indeed and indictment of the social and moral values of her age.


Moll’s life begins at a great disadvantage because she is the daughter of a transported convict. She lacks the support system of family and friends, that is quintessential in the successful upbringing of a child, both mentally and psychologically, and which was particularly necessary for women since their access to employment was limited. Without any system to protect them, the children of convicts are thrust out into an unforgiving and often times cruel world with no training in any trade and no prospects other than starvation or the same life of crime that was the cause of their current situation. Moll herself was very lucky to be taken in. “I was not a parish charge upon this or that part of the town by law.” The parish was under no obligation to take care of poor children who were not born there, or had no other particular claim to charity.


In the eighteenth century, prostitution was widespread in London. This was probably the result of a social system in which poor women could hardly make an honest living, and completely lost their reputations if they were seduced, thus making it almost possible to get an honest job. When Moll learns that her husbands die very quickly, but give her money for having sex with them, she turns to a life of prostitution. This choice however was only made because of her instinct to survive. In the 1800’s, the legal system was not in favourable towards the “fairer sex”. Women would not inherit anything when their husbands died, and Moll had to resort to a life of crime after she no longer looked good enough to make a living as a whore. Moll turned to a life of crime at the age of forty-eight. In the eighteenth century, anyone living a life of crime prospered, because labour was very cheap and things were very expensive. Theft and prostitution were not without their risks; a thief could be transported or hung for stealing a watch or a length of cloth.


Defoe asserts that in the eighteenth century, there was a major obsession with fashion as fashion was often seen as a representation of social standings. Moll’s desire for social advancement was a major factor, if not the primary one, for her to follow a life a crime. Moll Flanders steals primarily cloth. This type of crime was a major social problem in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Moll obtains money for the cloth and buys exceedingly expensive clothes to imitate a higher social rank. English society was highly stratified. M. Dorothy George writes, “It was an age of minute social distinctions, lines were drawn between the artisan and the labourer, the master and journeyman ...often with distinctive dress.” Moll realizes the importance of dressing the part of a lady, having “clothes to set me off.... They entertained me ...but like they thought I had been, namely a widow of great fortune.” The hierarchy extended into all aspects of life. “Society” consisted primarily of the gentry while lower levels merely existed. The highest ranks of society dictated ways of life to the lower ranks. A persons social status required identification by their clothing. Moll dresses genteelly and desires being mistaken for a gentlewoman. Such deceit directs Molls entire life. Moll purposely misleads gentlemen on at least four occasions, and each time she marries well, and higher than her own station. Each gentleman speculates Moll possesses a fortune based upon her dress.


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The episodes of Moll Flanders are carefully, even rigidly, organized to illustrate the loosening of Moll’s moral inhibitions and social ties. Moll retains a crude sense of the natural throughout her career she avoids incest, and prefers not to wear men’s clothes. However, she loses the moral inhibitions that would raise her above mere nature, and eventually she is not moved by the simple social societies that one would expect of “Savages.” She does at first have a limited sense of what is right, although she is not motivated by religion. She has no “great Scruple of Conscience,” but she “could not think of being whore to one Brother, and a Wife to the other.” She sacrifices this instinctive sense of rightness to expedience, and afterward increasingly suppresses her natural responses. Moll feels that sex for pleasure is more shameful than sex for money, but Defoe’s structure modifies her evaluation. Her still having “inclination” reveals that she has not yet suppressed every instinct of nature. The ironies of Moll’s decline suggest a set of values by which to judge her love, community, even respectability. However, Moll loses her moral bearings because of the social standing which she hoped to attain and continually maintain. This socially standing had several characteristics, some of which were, not going into service, socializing, owning fine cloths and jewelry, and having a respectable husband. This was the typical lifestyle that women of that era yearned for. Moll, at first sight may appear to be different from all other women in that era, however in reality, she is no different as she aspires for the same things that the upper-class women feel that they are entitled to. She is bound by the same social restriction as everyone else.


It was these social restrictions that played a fundamental role in the forming of eighteenth century society. By being influenced by these social standards, Moll can then be deemed a member of this said society. Since childhood, Moll always looked towards her external world to provide a structure for her life. Throughout Moll’s trials and tribulations, she makes the best of the difficult world. As Moll can be considered a part of this society, even though she broke some of the unwritten laws, she can be considered an indictment of the social and moral values of her age.


Moll Flanders contains many references to the education that Daniel Defoe receives outside of learning institutions. He, like Moll was also considered a social deviant. Instead of making Moll the sole repository of the wisdom of the book, Defoe allows us to escape her point of view even as she tells the story. The experiences of Daniel Defoe are portrayed in this novel. His unique style of pouring himself into his creations is one of the main reasons Daniel Defoe is considered “The Father of the English Novel.”





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