In “The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders,” Daniel Defoe relates the life story of an English adventuress and her exploits, portraying Moll’s life in such authentic detail that the readers can easily see themselves in her position. However, while reading, we must keep in mind a question: Is Moll’s story a spiritual autobiography?
Early British novels of the 1700s often comment on social ills, sometimes turning those stories into spiritual biographies of sorts. Characters meet hard times, are driven to sin, repent, and rise to sin again. George Starr, in his Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography, calls it a series of shallow repentances, all stemming from a spiritual view that we are pilgrims or wayfarers in this life. A single moment of repentance won’t do but rather a progression that leads the character to a more dramatic conversion. This spiritual perspective is commonly present in the fiction of the era.
In The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722), Daniel Defoe relates the life story of the English adventuress and her exploits, portraying Moll’s life in such authentic detail that the readers can easily see themselves in her position. Like Moll, Defoe had been in Newgate prison (1703) and had encountered poverty more than once. Also known as a sympathizer of women, Defoe blatantly expresses his views of injustice enacted upon both women and the poor.
But his story does not revolve around moral justice alone. Because Moll is seen as a whore, a thief, a schemer, and a repentant, the reader is unsure of any genuine emotion in Moll throughout her escapades. She might be determined to escape the confines of poverty, but it does haunt her. Throughout the story, Moll moralizes about her fear of poverty, her greed, and her vanity, many times justifying her poor choices. If only England provided properly for orphans. If only her life had begun differently.
Moll’s spiritual descent is slow and her ever-widening pool of excuses is something Dr. Starr describes as a “hardening.” It is essential to Defoe’s story, though tiresome for his readers. Born in Newgate, Moll begins her life with a band of gypsies and is later adopted into a wealthy family at age thirteen. As she matures into an intelligent and decorous woman, Moll attracts the attention of the eldest son and later (unhappily) marries his brother Robin, all the while telling us that her vanity and greed were her downfall. After Robin’s death, Moll resorts to her beauty and resourcefulness to attract a bevy of husbands, her second husband being her half-brother. Outliving her first three spouses, she turns to thievery and pickpocketing until she is arrested and sent to Newgate with a death sentence. She then gains a reprieve and is transported with her fifth husband, a highwayman, to the colony of Virginia. They prosper and later return to England for their remaining years of happiness.
It is clear Defoe presents a conscientious, if somewhat deceived, character. Though clever and self-sufficient, Moll is unable to maintain a moral center. Perhaps Defoe felt this was more true to life, for who in fact can conquer the sin within without daily repentance? Yes, Moll’s behavior might be realistic but it is through either her moral reasoning or shifting tone that she appears unstable and insincere. We see more of her actions and more of her regrets than her heart. For instance, after mourning the evil of sleeping with the married gentleman at Bath, Moll then goes off and becomes involved with a banker. She then mourns her loss, again, while the gentleman repents on his sickbed. What’s worse is that she repeatedly leaves her numerous illegitimate children, assuredly in good care, and yet condemns the prostitutes for abandoning theirs. Her hypocrisy wears on us. But most ironically Moll outlives almost all of her husbands, always escaping fatal trouble, though she likely has committed more sins.
Yes, the final quarter of the novel shows us a Moll who works hard to live upright, but I would argue that the realism of Moll’s character, even her strength, is diminished because she wavers and grieves over her indecencies through most of the story. She appears to regret more than repent. It is a prolonged tug-of-war that tires her readers. Her perpetual indecision pulls us away not only from the development of her character, but also from our hopes for her. Is Moll’s story a spiritual autobiography or not? Some might argue that moral quandaries were part of character development common to the period or that Defoe undoubtedly uses the cycle of sin and repentance to emphasize the significance of her final conversion.
Here, I would have to agree with Dr. Starr who writes of Moll’s conversion born of circumstance. Her conversion is true, yet her motive in the moment is to reunite with her Lancashire husband since she is to be tried at the next Session. This combination causes her to finally lose heart, and her ‘wretched boldness of spirit’ sinks. “ ‘I began to think,’ she says, ‘and to think indeed is one real advance from hell to heaven.’ ” Moll’s old governess sends a minister to her after she is found guilty. Though Moll did not ask for him, after reflecting on the words of the minister who she confesses her sins to, Moll fully repents the next morning. Dr. Starr’s point rings true. Only part, and not all, of Moll’s actions throughout the novel contain spiritual significance. For a spiritual autobiography, it is missing the vital element of conviction, the picture of all of one’s heart laid before God.
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The featured image is “The Lady of Shalott” (1894) by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.