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The Role of Motherhood in Moll Flanders
In Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, there is no true development of maternal feelings over the course of the novel. At times throughout the story, what appear to be maternal feelings are really overshadowed by either guilt or a hidden motive. It is quite evident that Defoe is out to show that maternal feelings in Moll’s orbit were not very strong, as can be seen in the many “mothers” that come into play throughout the novel. Moll’s guilt and discomfort seem to be what save her children each time. We never see the “unconditional love” of a mother with child that many authors have shown in their novels. Instead, we see a conditional love, which is dependent on wealth and security.
Moll and Robin, Moll’s first husband, were married for five years, until Robin’s death; Moll had two children by him. She never really loved him, and never ceased longing for his older brother. However, she still had children with him. It seems that her lack of feelings for her husband were also similar to her feelings about the product between them (the children), because after her husband dies, the Mayor and his lady eventually “took the children off [Moll's] hands, leaving [her] a pretty widow with 1200 guineas.” If Moll had any attachment to these children, she would have thought of ways to continue to raise them. She did have 1200 guineas, and it took only 5 guineas a year to support them. Instead, she took the easy way out and gave the children away, due to her lack of feelings for them and the fact that she was trying to be remarried. Moll passes over certain periods very quickly: the five years of her marriage take less than a page to describe, and the description of the situation with her children is only a few sentences. We never really hear about her children, or what childbirth was like, or anything domestic. Moll’s lack of attachment to her children is rather striking: it appears that children are only an unwanted charge for an attractive widow with no steady income. She is, however, careful to find homes for them, which show that there are at least some basic human feelings of guilt.
Later in the novel, after Moll marries again, the details of her mother-in-law’s story convinced Moll, to her horror, that her mother-in-law is also her true mother. Her maternal feelings for her children were slighted by the fact that their father was her brother. Moll had by this time had two children by her own brother, and was pregnant with a third. She did not tell anyone of her horrible discovery, but was terribly oppressed by it; also, she was afraid that if she told, she would be divorced without being believed, and left helpless far from her native land. Thus she lived for three more years, but without having any more children (she refused to sleep with her husband). Her relationship with him deteriorated drastically, and she requested to go to England. He was angry, and asked how she could stand to abandon her children (she did not want to see them ever again), and threatened to have her put in a madhouse. Finally she told him that she knew something which meant that their marriage was not lawful. This shows how she let her feelings about their marriage overpower her maternal feelings for her own children.
The mother of Moll and her brother also seems to be more motivated by regard for conventions than anything else: she would actually prefer to have her children continue cohabiting, than risk the scandal of separation. Also, she shows no joy upon the discovery of her long lost daughter, which is very strange. Thus Moll is motivated by a sort of instinctive natural morality, her husband/brother by a more religious
sense of guilt and sacrifice, and their mother by a concern for keeping up appearances. Even in the short description of the feelings of the mother-in-law, Defoe shows once again how maternal feelings are easily overshadowed at this time in society. It would be interesting to know where Moll found out about her origins, given the fact that she ran away from the gypsies at the age of three. It hardly seems likely that at that age she would remember her mother’s fate and the crime for which she had been transported, her name, and so on. Defoe never explains this, probably for the good reason that he could not. Moll went on to have a relationship with the gentleman at Bath, who incidentally, was married, but his wife was insane, so Moll provided much-needed companionship. They lived together for six years, and Moll bore three children, but only the first one survived. Again, there is no real discussion about what her feelings were when she lost her first two children (if any). Again, here we can see that Moll’s maternal feelings have in no way evolved from the beginning of the novel.
With the dry romance that follows, Defoe mocks Moll’s lover’s lack of paternal feelings as well her own lack of maternal feelings. After Moll’s lover got ill and “repented” from his relationship with Moll, she asked him for 50 guineas to travel back to Virginia, and left him the child to bring up: though she was “very fond of the boy,” she was not sure she would be able to maintain him. His insistence on sleeping chastely in her bed to demonstrate his great respect for her virtue, and his coldness to her after his illness, deeply contrast with each other. A genuine attachment would not be dissolved by a fright, causing the man to consciously leave his companion of six years and the mother of his child without an income: if he were truly good, or at least had any paternal feelings, he would continue to support her.
Later in the novel, money and social norms overshadow Moll’s maternal feelings. Moll claims that she wants very much to get married to a “sober, good husband,” and be a “faithfull and true wife.” After being left by her next husband, James (due to finances), Moll remembered her husband fondly, but her “pleasure was very much lessened when [she] found some time after that [she] was really with child.” This was very difficult, since she had no friends and no visible husband. The people where Moll lodged noticed her pregnancy and became rather unfriendly. Moll became ill and melancholy, but did not miscarry – although she would have been glad to, she would not try to on purpose. We see here that she would not voluntarily abort the child on her own, out of feelings of guilt, but would not mind if it died naturally. Finally the woman of the house introduced her to an extraordinary midwife. The midwife offered Moll the choice of three levels of service, all covering, three months lodging and board, a nurse and use of linen for the birth, a minister, god-fathers, and a clerk for the christening, a supper for the christening, her midwife fees, and the service of a maid. Moll chose the least expensive, which came out to a little more than 13 guineas. Her want to conserve her money is overshadowed by her feelings for her child and her want for it to be in the best care. Although at this point James seems to be a husband that she is very “fond of,” these feelings in no way trickle down to her child. Moll was more worried about what people would think of her being pregnant than the actual care of the baby.
I found the next section to be very strange, because it seems that Moll herself does not have the affection to take care of her child. About a month after Moll’s child was born, the other gentleman wrote again and said that, not only had the divorce come through, but also his estranged wife had committed suicide, thus (unquestionably) freeing him to marry again. Moll discussed the matter with her governess: she had to solve the problem of what to do with her baby. At first she did not want to put the child out to nurse, fearing that an unrelated woman would not have the necessary affection to take care of the child correctly. Her governess convinced her that by paying a little extra money each year, she would be able to assure herself of the child’s well-being: the foster parents would be motivated by the money to take care of the baby tenderly. (This was an alternative to paying the foster family a lump sum, which Moll feared would make them want to get rid of the child as soon as possible.) Thus Moll gave the baby to a countrywoman, along with 10 guineas down and the promise of 5 more each year, if it continued in good health. It seems, however, that she did this out of obligation and fear of guilt if she did anything else. She did not consider taking the child with her, most likely because of how society (and the gentleman) would look at her. Also, the governess’ suggestion that ordinary loving human relationships can be replaced by business contracts without any damage is profoundly disturbing. Even Moll shivers and turns pale, naturally enough, when she has this conversation with her: “She asked me if she had not been careful and tender to me in my lying in, as if I had been her own child. I told her I owned she had. ‘Well, my dear,’ says she, ‘and when you are gone, what are you to me? And what would it be to me if you were to be hanged? … Yes, yes, child,’ says she, ‘fear it not; how were we nursed ourselves? Are you sure you was nursed up by your own mother? and yet you are fat and fair, child…” Her hypnotic speech and uncanny knowledge are almost convincing, but, like Moll, we do not want to succumb to that way of thinking.
Moll and her new husband move to London and the couple lives happily for five years. Moll lives quietly and “repented” her wicked past, or thought she did. As long as Moll has a comfortable income and prospects of continued stability, she glories in respectability: “Now I seemed landed in a safe harbour, after the stormy voyage of life past was at an end, and I began to be thankful for my deliverance. I sat many an hour by myself, and wept over the remembrance of past follies, and the dreadful extravagances of a wicked life, and sometimes I flattered myself that I sincerely repented.” She had only two children, and was by the end of the five years 48, and past the age of motherhood. As a reader at this point, I was glad to see that she could not have any more children. It seems that she may actually take care of these children. Unfortunately then her husband’s business failed when a clerk absconded with the money. Her husband did not recover from the disappointment, and fell into a lethargy and died. Moll was terrified: she had little beauty or money. For two years she slowly spent what she had, living in fear and misery. Little is said about her children at this point. Again, Moll’s maternal feelings just are not present.
During Moll’s life of crime, there is little reference to her children. However, I assumed that after her “repentance” (after getting caught) she might show some signs of maternal feelings for any children of hers that she encounters. In my opinion, it is a mixed bag, but nowhere near it should be. Once they (Moll and her husband) were transported to Virginia, the captain (for the price of a thousand weight of tobacco) arranged for them to be “sold” to a planter, who soon freely discharged them. They were free in Virginia. Close to where they had landed, Moll saw her brother/husband and son walking together; it appeared that he was nearly blind so she didn’t have to fear recognition. She was pleased to see her son so handsome and flourishing, and wished she could speak to him. Moll learned that her mother, now dead, had left her some land, held in trust by her son. Moll did not dare approach her son because she had not told her Lancashire husband about her incestuous marriage, and did not want him to find out. She allowed her shame and fear get into the way of approaching her own son. If she had any strong maternal feelings for him, seeing him would have been so overwhelming that she would have to approach him. However, because of her insecurities, she could not do so. Instead, she and her husband went and settled near Maryland, and started a plantation, buying many servants.
It seems that Moll at least had some feelings of guilt because after a year she went back to see her brother. She sent him a letter, full of tender comments about her son, which paid off well since her son read it and came to greet her. He was glad to see his mother and very affectionate, gave her gifts and wanted her to live with them. She was very happy but, not being eager to live with her brother anymore, refused, and after several weeks returned to her husband. She was still uncomfortable with the situation of being around her brother, and this overshadowed her want to spend time with her son. It seems to me that she was very happy because her son was giving her gifts. However, there is no record of her giving anything to her son. We learn later that with what they had already, and the income from the new land, and the son’s gifts, and what Moll had left with her governess, they were very wealthy indeed. Instead of thinking of her son, Moll used a lot of money to buy her husband swords and fine clothing, so he could “live like a gentleman.” She seemed to feel a sense of obligation to her husband, but this does not seem to hold true with her son. She continues to use the masks that she has been using throughout the novel. In fact, it was not until her brother died that she could tell her son that she was going to be married (to James, of course), and could also tell James the truth about her incestuous marriage. She allowed her pride to get in the way of the truth. Although she gave up her life of crime, her deceitful ways are still somewhat in the way of her relationship with her son. Even after Moll’s “repentance,” the common mother and son bond never seemed to take ground.
In conclusion, throughout the novel, and especially when Moll begins a life of crime, it becomes increasingly obvious that Defoe is trying to show that virtue is closely linked to prosperity and security. Through the social implications of Moll’s experiences, Defoe is encouraging his readers not to judge criminals and sinners too harshly, without considering the differences between their positions and those of more respectable folk. The virtue of love, which can be especially seen in the feelings of a mother for her child, is never truly shown in this novel. The only time that we do have a glimpse of motherly morality is when Moll’s governess tries hard to bribe the maid-servants to get Moll out of prison. She was unable to do so, even though she offered 100 guineas to girls who probably made much less per year. However, the governess may only have done this because it was to her benefit: perhaps Moll may have stolen things and given them to her. The governess also conveniently had the money at the time. Would she have struggled to save Moll if she did not have these funds? Did she in some way feel guilty? It seems that virtue always falls to insecurity or lack of wealth. Defoe seriously undermines the Christian fervor of his heroine, and sheds light on some of the possible immoral decisions that can take place in times of hopelessness.
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