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Moll Flanders: Sinner Or Saint Essay, Research Paper

Moll Flanders: Sinner or Saint?

There are many reasons why Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Moll Flanders is still studied today. One of the reasons that it is still so widely studied is that there are significant reasons to doubt the sincerity of Moll’s repentance at the end of the novel. Her conversion is attained rather easily, perhaps too easily. Moll herself is supposed to be narrating this text after her conversion, yet her newfound morality is not apparent in her discourse. It seems, at times, that Moll is telling this story to entertain her audience rather than reform them. However, she repeatedly claims to be warning the readers of the horrors of criminal life. This claim appears at several points over the course of the novel, but it is more concentrated during the preface, the opening, and after Moll’s conversion. By connecting clues offered at the novels beginning with evidence found after Moll’s supposed repentance, one can find significant reason to question the sincerity of Moll’s repentance.

Defoe offers many clues about how to read this book in the preface. The preface suggests that this book is supposed to be a moral text, yet it also hints that morality could be a shroud under which a smutty novel is hidden. First, Defoe indicates that this novel strives to be different from less reputable fiction. Defoe states “The World is so taken up of late with Novels and Romances that it will be hard for a private History to be taken for genuine” (Defoe, 37). Indeed, in his essay, “Moll Flanders, Crime and Comfort,” Ian A. Bell suggests that Defoe wanted to be seen as “a pure, hard-working editor, rather than the reprehensible vendor of filth” (Bell, 121). Furthermore, Defoe hopes that “Readers will be more pleased with the Moral than the Fable” (Defoe, 38). These statements suggest that he does not want Moll Flanders to be seen as lowbrow, smutty entertainment. It is supposed to be seen as a novel of reform. Like a biblical story, we are supposed to learn from the mistakes of the protagonist. However, during the course of the novel, there is little sermonizing. Perhaps the reader would not recognize the moral value of Moll Flanders if Defoe did not identify it. The references to morality are sparse. It seems like Defoe is trying to look like he is covering up for Moll. Bell says, “the subdued meaning [of the preface] is that the editor [Defoe] is not fully in control of his material…”" (Bell, 119). The absence of morality and this lack of control lead to a very interesting question. To what degree can the reader trust Moll?

Defoe states in the preface that “the Author [Moll] is suppos’d to be writing her own History” (Defoe, 37). The word “suppos’d” implies some degree of doubt of Moll by Defoe. The reader need not take his word for it. In Moll’s opening statements, she indicates that Moll Flanders is not her real name. She suggests that she conceals her identity to protect herself and some of her accomplices. There is an alternative idea. Maybe the entire story is supposed to be seen as a fabrication by Moll. If one is to doubt Moll’s veracity at any point, why not at every point? Perhaps she was so well acquainted with other criminals that she stitched together this lengthy string of crimes out of the experiences of others. Perhaps, if she used her real name, the reader could discover that these events never occurred. It seems possible that Moll’s Nom de Plume is used as a mask behind which she can invent her own past. However, even if we assume that this theory is false the reader still has enough points upon which Moll s integrity can be questioned.

The first case of doubt lies in the preface. Defoe states that after Moll s repentance, she liv d to be very old; but was not so extraordinary a penitent as she was at first (Defoe, 42). This seems to be a slight contradiction. How can one be less of a penitent than one was previously? If one goes back on some of what made him/her a penitent, does that not return him/her to the status of sinner? In addition, the fact that Moll s penitence decreases over time suggests that it was possibly a ruse in the first place. This could be an example of Defoe trying to elevate this text from the status of lowbrow entertainment to the level of a moral text with literary merit. This leads us to examine Moll’s supposed repentance in the text. She says that her repentance is “really the best part of [her] life” (Defoe, 368). Furthermore, she claims that, after her reform, a “Penitent serious kind of Joy succeeded” (Defoe, 370). These are two of countless examples of Moll saying that she is repentant. Her examples of behavior are in clear contrast with this claim.

One example of behavior uncharacteristic of a remorseful soul is Moll’s testament of Money after her release from Newgate. She takes “a private drawer” with her “Bank of Money” to America (Defoe, 389). The money that she takes is ill gained. In fact, when Moll pools her money with her Lancashire husband, she remarks that “a worse gotten estate was scarcely ever put together” (Defoe, 392). A truly reformed criminal should try to return his/her booty to the proper parties and, failing that, give it to a worthy cause. Furthermore, she, on pages 421-422, gives one of her stolen gold watches to her son. This is hardly the act of a penitential woman. If I gave my mother a gift of stolen goods, she would have me drawn and quartered!

Not only does Moll live off of her ill-gained fortune, she apparently lives in luxury. She “put a guinea into [the hand of the Boatswain]” (Defoe, 394). This is a clear case of bribery. She bribes this person to get access to the captain of the ship to buy extra “Conveniences”. Indeed she meets the captain and orders

Brandy, Sugar, Lemons, &c. to make punch, and treat our Benefactor, the Captain; and abundance of things for eating and drinking in the voyage; also a larger Bed and Bedding proportion’d to it…we resolv’d to want for nothing in the Voyage. (Defoe, 397-398)

This is a clear case of Moll using her crime money for luxury. If she kept only enough money to live a humble, no-frills lifestyle, perhaps her reform would seem more believable. Instead, she lives more like a retired criminal than a reformed one.

Her post-repentance sins do not end with moll’s free use of her crime money. She continues to spin her web of lies almost to the end of the novel. In Virginia, she first conceals her identity from her brother/husband and son. A truly remorseful woman would instantly come clean and face up to whatever penalties she had to endure. This raises a larger issue. Should not Moll face up to all of her crimes, even those that she could still get away with? By neither taking her punishments nor making reparations for many crimes, Moll cops out on her repentance. She hopes the reader will focus on her words and not her actions. Defoe told the reader to do just that in the preface, but it is the “reformed” Moll, not the “criminal” Moll, whose actions are questionable. Her sins continue. When faced with the problem of her brother/husband and son, she loses a bit of sleep. When her husband inquires about her condition, she tells the reader “I was forced to form a Story” (Defoe, 406). Although Moll comes clean with this Lancashire husband in the last page of Moll Flanders, she perpetuates her lie for some time before this occurrence. This is the work of a sinner, not a Lamb of God. In the final sentence, moll proclaims that her husband and she spent the “Remainder of our Years in sincere Penitence for the wicked Lives we have lived” (Defoe, 427). Except for Moll’s encounter with the priest in Newgate, there is no mention of religion. A truly remorseful person in 1683 would turn to God after leading such a sinful life. Moll does not even utter his name.

It is unlikely that Moll finishes the novel in the good grace of God. Her penitence seems hollow. Defoe’s warning in the preface and Moll’s pseudonym coupled with her post-reform actions provide a strong case against her supposed penitence. The evidence in the text points to the idea that perhaps Moll asks the reader to follow her words, not her example, even when she is supposed to be reformed. Although it is unclear why Defoe would imply a false reform in Moll Flanders, this issue is certain to provide a worthy topic of debate for scholars to ponder for years to come.

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