Bruce's Reviews > Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
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Nov 02, 11

Read in November, 2011

The author’s preface is a means of deflecting criticism of the moral tone of this picaresque novel by emphasizing the moral benefit the content may produce in the careful reader. One assumes that it was written tongue in cheek and in the conventions of the times, times in which the novel itself was in low repute and needed such justification for its acceptance.

The impoverished daughter of deceased parents, both of whom were rogues, Moll is raised in an orphanage until she is placed with a kind woman who cares for her until the woman dies, Moll at the time being a young adolescent. Then going to live with a family that has befriended her, she is seduced by the older brother, his younger brother proposing marriage to Moll without being aware of her relationship with his brother. Moll is ever naïve, proud of her beauty and far too credulous, convinced that she wants not to be a servant and too easily convinced by the lies her lover tells her. Material wellbeing is her goal, by which she means independence and physical comfort rather than luxury.

This is a tale of deceptions, of masks and disguises. It explores the personae we construct and then select among for different audiences, not least ourselves. What do we really know of others? What do we really know of ourselves? What are the stories about ourselves that we tell out of shame and expediency, and what are the ways in which we are not honest even with ourselves? What are the ways in which we pretend and justify, balancing those parts of ourselves that we judge acceptable against those that are not, creating a sort of moral balance sheet that enables us to struggle and survive amid the vicissitudes of life? How else could we manage to live at all in a difficult and chaotic world? The deck almost always stacked against her, Moll takes the only paths she can, adapting again and again to circumstances that are usually beyond her control.

Moll looks at circumstances very realistically and finds that she has few alternatives, acting pragmatically rather than on principle, although she often wishes that she did not have to do so. She has few options in 18th century London, and she makes the best she can of her opportunities, limited as they are. The position of an unattached woman without wealth is difficult, and she must live by her wits and her appearance. Moll is a curious mixture of the naïve and the calculating, of virtue and vice, of scrupulousness and opportunism. Her decisions are not always wise, certainly not always socially acceptable, but they are made with sincerity and out of self-preservation, out of a kind of calculating idealism, if that makes sense. In short, she is no cardboard or simplistic character but fully rounded, fully human. Wife five times (once to her own brother), mother, whore, thief, convicted felon, Moll is ever resourceful even when despairing, the ultimate survivor, always honest with herself and candid with the reader, and Defoe is skillfully able to make her an attractive figure who elicits the reader’s sympathies. Defoe’s style throughout is straightforward and journalistic; indeed, I believe there is not a metaphor anywhere in the book. This novel is a powerful commentary on 18th century English society, its classes and their tribulations, especially the plight of poor and uneducated women. It is a delightful book to read.
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message 1: by Jay (new)

Jay Your review brings back memories of my college English lit course. Nice review. If only there was time enough to re-read some of those earlier English novels.


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