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The International Writers Magazine:

Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe (1722)
(Norton Critical Editions, £9.99)
ISBN: 0-393-97862-1

Daniel Alves

Moll Flanders tells us everything that could not be spoken about in the eighteenth century. Pretending to be factual truth, this novel explores the taboos of the time.
To emphasise how ‘politically incorrect’ it was to write a novel of such topics, the author spends a healthy part of the preface apologising for the content, stating that he had no part in it and was merely retelling it how it happened. This clever evasion allowed him to actually publish the book, and at the same time permitted the people of the eighteenth century to read something ‘dark’ without feeling guilty or impure.

The novel is well written in a comically subtle style that says everything without ever actually saying it. Moll Flanders, the stage name of the anonymous heroine, is the daughter of a convict in Newgate prison. When she reaches adulthood in society, she understands how women are treated as objects and uses this to her advantage. Described as anything from a mid-wife, to a thief, to a whore, Moll throughout the novel uses her wit and deceit to survive by gaining wealth. For her, the price of wealth is her body and her lies.

Because of the period it was set in, there was no form of contraception whatsoever short of chastity. As a ‘whore’, Moll has many children along the way, all of which she abandons to keep moving to the next wealthy husband-to-be.
Money and commerce is one of the major themes of the novel, especially because of the wealth obsessed protagonist who puts a monetary value on everything, not only on physical items and property, but on people too. This is said to reflect the author’s need for money at the time as well, which is why he went to such great lengths to write something he knew everyone would want to read, while also putting it "into a Dress fit to be seen, and to make it speak a Language fit to be read".

To counteract the sheer lack of morals that Moll apparently has, the novel grips a strong theme of redemption towards the end of the book, as if it were a message to all sinners that no one is beyond correcting their mistakes. It is arguable whether this book can seriously be used as a moral guideline, or whether it just needed to justify itself to be read.

Despite the deviancy of the novel, it also returns to much more classic themes, such as the ‘true love’ Moll supposedly feels once and is allowed to continue again towards the end of the book. It also uses marriage as a symbol of sacredness, showing its audience how terrible it is to marry for anything other than love and religion. It constantly employs this technique of using Moll to show people what not to do, which only serves to pique their interest and compel them to read on.

Moll Flanders provides an insight into a more realistic side of eighteenth century society, whilst also excusing the reader if they ever decided to try this lifestyle for themselves.

© Daniel Alves, November 2007

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