Moll Flanders: A Second Attempt at Adult Reading

November 2, 2009 at 12:03 am Leave a comment

The World is so taken up of late with Novels and Romances, that it will be hard for a private History to be taken for Genuine

It is enough to tell you, that as some of my worst Comrades, who are out of the Way of doing me Harm, having gone out of the World…know me by the name of Moll Flanders; so you may give me leave to speak of myself, under that Name until I dare own who I have been, as well as who I am.

It’s hard to write about Moll Flanders without rambling on about historical context. I had a whole section written about the history of the novel and female protagonists, but really that’s not all that interesting. What’s more important is that this book reads kind of like a breakneck-speed literary soap opera, filled with long-lost siblings, lovechildren, marriages based on lies and marriages that end up not being marriages at all. Through it all runs the strong narrative voice of one Moll Flanders, whore, bigamist and reformed thief.

Defoe is mimicking the popular criminal biography of his time through Moll’s story. These works chronicled the lives of Newgate residents, and were always full of sex, thievery, death and scandal, though they supposedly taught moral lessons. Moll’s story is no exception, and Defoe tells the reader right up front that Moll will marry five times, once to her own brother, live for twelve years as a whore and a thief for eight before being transported to Virginia. Of course, Moll eventually repents of her “wicked life” and settles down to live honestly.

But Moll’s voice is less penitent and more amused, almost, at the ridiculous things she has done. She’s secured a proposal from one suitor while giving birth to the child of another, robbed a house on fire, single-handedly stolen a trunk from a man’s room in an inn and walked off with someone else’s horse and later had no idea what to do with it. Moll became somewhat of an icon after the publication of this book, a con woman archetype whom many members of the working class admired for her cunning and resourcefulness.

The temptation is to say that Moll seems proud of what she’s done, and how much better she was at her trade than anyone else. She describes her exploits in great detail, seeming to relish the particulars of how she escaped capture and made off with small fortunes in money and merchandise and spending less time talking about her eventual repentance.

But from the distance of two and a half centuries, and with my sketchy knowledge of the criminal biography form, I’m not sure if Defoe is following tradition or making an ironic comment on it through his narrative. Still, the last line where Moll talks about how she repented her wicked life for the rest of her days seems like it would be accompanied by a wink to the reader rather than a penitent bow of the head.

This novel might appeal to a fan of Oliver Twist — Moll reminds me a little bit of Dickens’ Nancy, a basically good person driven to earn a living in a dishonest way. The style is a little bit more quirky than Dickens’, though, as Defoe doesn’t use quotation marks for his dialogue, capitalizes most of his nouns and does not break his story into chapters or sections of any kind.

Once the reader adjusts to this, though, it’s easy to get caught up in Moll’s various adventures. As with The Name of the Rose, I’d recommend borrowing this book before buying, but it’s definitely a quality read.

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