One of the earliest English language novels, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders relates the story of the eponymous (but anonymous) title character, who as a young woman without known family is taken in during adolescence by a wealthy family whose matriarch has taken a shine to Moll. From there many adventures and misadventures follow her attempts to make a better–wealthier–life for herself. It is a first-person narrative, and remarkable for both the voice and agency it gives to a woman and a relatively poor one at that. It purports to be an autobiographical narrative, in the style of Defoe’s earlier Robinson Crusoe, as well as a story of spiritual redemption: after a life of deceit and crime, mostly thievery (and bigamy, though Moll seems not to count that among her sins, which I assume means that marriage was much more informally contracted and enforced in the 18th century than in subsequent eras), Moll finally lands in prison with the likelihood of execution looming before her. It is her repentance–which she claims as sincere and the minister meeting with her believes and convinces the judiciary of–that saves her from the gallows and sends her to the Colonies (Virginia, in this case).
I’m not convinced.
Moll is a classic unreliable narrator. Granted, anyone telling their life story is bound to get some things not quite right–memories can play tricks–but Moll is open about her lies and deceit as she makes her way through life. From her first relationship with the eldest son of her foster family to her post-jail life with her final husband, she doesn’t just keep secrets, she constantly lies to do so. Although there is not particular reason for her to lie to her reader, especially in a spiritual redemption story, her history of deception leaves a nagging suspicion in the back of the mind–how do we know she is not lying now? That she didn’t fake redemption to save her skin? After all, even after gaining her freedom, she still lies and seems to have no compunction with doing so. If this is the case, Moll has performed quite the coup: the end of the story, after years of tragedy and suffering–for no matter her own character flaws and crimes, we cannot deny that she has incredibly bad luck–is almost fairy-tale like in the arrival of happiness and wealth. Which gives me pause in my doubts. Would a writer such as Defoe, in that era, really reward an unrighteous character? From what I know of the times, probably not. It is more likely I apply my morality (truthfulness and honesty) to a time and place unlike my own.
Yet at the same time, Moll profits from her crimes–money that enables her New World life (buying out her servitude contract) comes from her life of thievery. This also seems in conflict with expected “Puritan” morality. So what is Defoe really saying–it’s OK to reward a life of sin financially as long as you’ve confessed it? This may not be an unreasonable thought; rewarding confession and repentance are surely more encouraging to the errant than punishing the repentant. Or does Defoe rather primarily intend it as a critique of the society that in a sense forces Moll–and so many others, men as well as women–into the crimes she initially commits for mere survival? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of approaching the novel from a 21st century perspective, especially when I don’t have a full context for the social/cultural/religious setting. There is definitely a critique going on, though, and that may outweigh concerns of morality in rewarding Moll–not for repentance but survival.
There really is so much to dig into in Moll Flanders, so many ways to approach or think about. I didn’t find it the easiest novel to get through–there is a complete lack of chapter or section divisions, combined with a steady first-person narrative in a more archaic style, without even conversation to break it up–but there is plenty to it, both in events and elements to consider. It is unlike most other novels (all?) I’ve yet read, but perhaps a wider contextual understanding (of the society/culture/history, as well as literature) would even further reward my understanding. Reading paths for future consideration…