Great Novel No. 4: “Moll Flanders”

The Fortunes And Misfortunes of The Famous Moll Flanders

By Daniel Defoe


The fourth entry in the 100 Great Novels list is, at least in my opinion, a significant improvement over the last one. I can’t help but make the comparison, which is fair since both were written by the same author. Defoe again uses the device of a single central character narrating the story of their life, but now with more variety of characters and situations; and instead of being cut off from civilization on a desert island like Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders (which she tells us is not her real name) gets down into the heart and guts of her own society.

Beginning as an abandoned orphan, she falls deeper and deeper into immorality and crime as a means of making a living. There are two major stages of her life: marrying for money and stealing for money. By the standards of the day the first makes her a whore, since she not only marries multiple times but sometimes with her previous husbands still being alive. When her youth and beauty leave her she turns thievery into a veritable art form and industry, from pickpocketing to burglary. Finally, when all her hope for survival seems lost, she “turns penitent” and attempts to spend her last years picking up the pieces of a broken innocence.

Despite this turn at the end of the story (and it isn’t much of a spoiler since it’s right there on the title page), many have wondered about the truth of Moll’s claim to repentance, seeing her as an unreliable narrator. While it’s clear from Defoe’s other writings what his moral intentions must have been, the debate about how to classify this novel continues. Remembering that the narrator is meant to be Moll in her old age after her turning away from vice, there are moments where she seems to take a kind of delight in recalling some of her escapades and the excitement that goes along with them. There’s also plenty of commentary on the social orders around her, particularly with regards to marriage, almost as a kind of justification for her lifestyle and perhaps even partially shifting the blame for her sins onto the society that forced them. Life becomes an unending struggle to survive by any means necessary.

Another characteristic of the book, and for me its main advantage over Robinson Crusoe, is its strange ability to create a focused narrative out of episodic and random events. The earlier book had problems with meandering into other stories instead of concentrating on the main story, thus creating a sometimes muddy pace at the wrong moments. This book, however, takes the chaos of an entire life story and streamlines it into a steady momentum. More than once Moll gets herself back on track from telling too much of another person’s story, and almost all the numerous children she bears are anonymous, with few having much impact on the narrative. There is even one case of “phantom children” where she marries, gives birth twice (both surviving), and then forgets to tell us what happened to them after her husband dies, apparently only needing to fend for herself.

Finally, a more general note on 18th century literature. Something I’ve noticed about the predominant style of this period is the tendency to write in terms of plot rather than scenes. Action is more often summarized than spelled out, with dialogue kept to a minimum. An 18th century writer is more likely to put in sentences like “We were married the following month and lived very happy in an estate which we had bought out in the country.” A modern writer, on the other hand, would probably spend a total of two chapters describing the wedding, what the guests got up to, and how the couple found the house and bought it as well as a description of the grounds. Seeing an evolution like this is one reason I wanted to take on this reading project.

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