‘Moll Flanders’ is a famous novel written by Daniel Defoe in 1722. The full title of this novel is quite long, which is unusual to modern readers, and it gives some insight into the outline of the plot: ‘The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders,Who Was Born In Newgate, and During a Life of Continu’d 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, Liv’d Honest, and Died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums. Despite the fact that the famous novel was written almost three centuries ago, surprisingly, even nowadays, it remains topical from the point of view of moral, virtue, conscience, and, on the contrary, covetousness, and vice. One might reason about the society that has changed, about the roles that contemporary men and women play, and many other things, but when reading this old story, it suddenly turns out that people remain the same all through centuries.
They have the same feeling and emotional experiences; they know what does it mean to love and to hate. However, on no account does this mean that the scenery stays unchanged as well. Moll Flanders’ is a story not only about a woman, but also about the times when this woman lived: it gives a veracious and colourful picture of 17th century society. Moll is neither a typical woman of that time, nor is she typical to our society nowadays. She is an exceptional character – ambiguous, and definitely not the most attractive one. One could only guess why may the writer need to make this woman so low. Moll Flanders is an ‘extreme’ character, and the trick is that actually it works as a ‘litmus-paper’ – indicates, reveals, and exaggerates the features of that time society, and of one particular unit of it – a human being.
The 17th century realia consists of the fact that men rule the world while women remain in the shadow, although it was possible for a woman of the 17th century to have a job. There were many professions, such as a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, that were closed to women. However, they could work as milliners, dyers, shoemakers and embroiderers; some of them worked spinning cloth or in food preparation such as brewers, bakers or confectioners.
It is evident that these enumerated jobs do not require much mental activity – although women could work in some particular fields, they were taught only subjects like writing, music and needlework as it was considered more important for girls to learn ‘accomplishments’ than to study academic subjects. Nevertheless, most of women were housewives, and it was normal to be a mother and a wife, while it was considered quite unusual, strange, and almost impossible for women to be a breadwinner.
Little Moll wanted to be ‘a gentlewoman’, although her understanding of this word was different to what other people meant – ‘Now all this while my good old nurse, Mrs. Mayoress, and all the rest of them did not understand me at all, for they meant one sort of thing by the word gentlewoman, and I meant quite another; for alas! all I understood by being a gentlewoman was to be able to work for myself, and get enough to keep me without that terrible bugbear going to service, whereas they meant to live great, rich and high, and I know not what. ’.
Thus, Moll just wanted to be independent and safe, which was practically unachievable for her as she was a poor little girl, a daughter of a transported convict. Without loving family around them, without any system to protect and support them, the children of criminals were helpless in the face of real life. No wonder this situation often led to the same abyss that previously had devoured their parents. The narrator keeps going back and forth between incompatible explanations, and it is unclear whether Moll is naturally vicious and there were no other destiny for her as only to become a criminal, or was it because of the circumstances, i. . the society. When reading the novel it is difficult not to denounce Moll’s actions, but then the question comes: how would I act in circumstances like this, and with such a background? On the one hand, Moll has many good qualities, such as ingenuity, liveliness, purposefulness, and optimism (she believes that becoming melancholic under a weight of misfortune doubles it). She is beautiful and talented, diligent in her urge to learn good manners and behave like a lady. She is also a good actress, like all genuine women are; she knows when to smile and when to shed tears.
Without all these qualities she would not become rich, would not be allowed in the higher society. Although she marries for money several times, she preserves the ability to love. On the other hand she is of a low moral principles, perfunctory, and self-interested. Having been a lonesome child she does not however care about her own children, which might seem illogical, but it is quite explicable: lacking parental love in childhood often leads to inability to love one’s own children. Her faith in God seems to vanish gradually as soon s she is out of trouble, like it was at the end of the novel when the danger of being executed was passed. And finally, she repents truly only when she gets rich – that is when she finally achieves what she wanted so frantically. Strangely, if we imagine that Moll Flanders were a man, it is possible to say that the story would be absolutely different. The tragic situation is that she has the urges normal and adequate for a man of that time. As mentioned previously, women could work and earn money, but that was not enough to support themselves, to be independent.
The fact that women were not able to provide for themselves explains why does Moll need to get married – it is the simplest (if one can say so), the most usual for women way to be confident of future, and to be safe. Married woman had a support and welfare. That is why when Moll becomes a widow at the age of forty-eight, she has little hope to get married again, and it inclines her to begin a life of a criminal. It would have taken ages of honest labour to get as rich as she becomes soon after becoming a pickpocket.
It seems like the fate itself drives her to crime; however, Moll’s version, that probably lightens torments of her conscience, is that it is the devil who drives her to crime, and there is a number of examples to this in the text: ‘the diligent devil, who resolved I should continue in his service, continually prompted me to go out and take a walk, that is to say, to see if anything would offer in the old way’; ‘Thus the devil, who began, by the help of an irresistible poverty, to push me into this wickedness, brought me on to a height beyond the common rate, even when my necessities were not so great, or the prospect of my misery so terrifying. ’ In spite of her wish to be independent, she does not want, or even cannot take responsibility – it is always something else that makes her do wrong things, like this ‘devil’ who pushes her on the wrong path. I have to admit that this position is quite typical for women even nowadays, thus in the 17th century that was even more marked. One of the messages that Moll Flanders ‘encodes’ in her story is that a woman remains a woman – a weak, fragile, artistic creature that needs to be guided, loved and to be loving. The fact that Moll has degraded only confirms this.