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Moll Flanders

From Academic Kids

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders is a 1722 novel by Daniel Defoe.

Defoe wrote this after his work as a journalist and pamphleteer. By 1722, Defoe had become recognized as a novelist, with the success of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Furthermore, his political work was tapering off at this point, with the fall of both Whig and Tory party leaders with whom he had been associated. Robert Walpole was beginning his rise, and Defoe was never fully at home with the Walpole group.

Defoe's Whig views are nevertheless evident in the story of Moll. The full title of the novel tells part of its story: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Etc. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

Moll's mother is a convict who is given a reprieve by "pleading her belly." Moll grows up as a servant, then prostitute (with children she disposes of), and then gets attached to a household as a servant where she is loved by both of the sons, marries one son and has children, is widowed, leaves her children to the care of in-laws, goes to live in The Mint to hide from debtors, cons a man into marrying her (only to find out that he is doing the same), gets sent to Maryland as a convict, marries again and is happy until she discovers that she has married (and had children) by her brother, and comes back to England a thief. She at last repents of her conniving, desperate life, and accepts a religious and pious life of hard work and frugality.

The tale has been called picaresque and a morality tale, and in truth it is both. As a picaresque, Moll is a lower class character who travels among the wealthy and exposes their vanity and shallowness. However, as a morality tale the novel can be read two different ways. On the one hand, the story of Moll could be classically tragic: she possesses a single fault of hubris in that she wishes to be a lady– a station she was not entitled to– and commits adultery, prostitution, child neglect, and incest in an effort to rise to this station, only to be brought to confession, forgiveness, and a "proper" life in the middle class. On the other hand, it could also be read as a woman whose crime is self-reliance and lack of Christian obedience, who therefore commits crimes out of sinful willfulness, to whom prosperity as well as peace come only with confession, redemption, and subjugation to the Divine. Thus, the novel explores both contemporary 18th century conservative and liberal ideologies.

Defoe himself was a noted Puritan. His views are unambiguous, in that he believes and writes for hard work, devotion, and the work of providence as grace. Moll's journey is a conversion narrative, albeit one that seems to devote all of its pages to the sin and almost none to the salvation.

The novel combines Defoe's interests in conversion narratives with his experience and interest in crime. Moll Flanders was a popular novel, and Defoe's reputation was aided by it. He had earlier written about criminals for various journals, and Moll Flanders increased his cachet as a writer of criminal lives. Soon after the publication of Moll Flanders, he wrote two different lives, of Jack Sheppard, the Cockney housebreaker, in 1724, and a novella length life of Jonathan Wild in 1725. Also in 1724, Defoe returned to the subject of fallen women with an even more salacious Roxanna.

From the point of view of historians, Moll Flanders is valuable for its information on the life, punishment, and habits of the criminal world. In addition to being one of the few detailed descriptions of life in The Mint, it is also one of the best narratives of life in Newgate prison, the punishments of prostitution (as well as a common prostitute's tale), and the way that America was viewed in the early 18th century. The novel is itself a bit of pro-immigration propaganda, in that it portrays America as a place of peace, religious tolerance (so long as it is dissenting Protestant), and opportunity. In contrast to later depictions (e.g. Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village), Defoe's Puritan depiction is naive. Although Defoe is a biased witness, Moll Flanders has a high value for cultural history.

Selected quotations

...and let any one judge what must be the anguish of my mind, when I came to reflect that this was certainly no more or less than my own mother, and I had now had two children, and was big with another by my own brother, and lay with him still every night.
I was now the most unhappy of all women in the world. Oh! had the story never been told me, all had been well; it had been no crime to have lain with my husband, since as to his being my relation I had known nothing of it.

From The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (http://ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext95/mollf11.txt), from the works of Daniel Defoe (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/author?name=Defoe,%20Daniel) at Project Gutenberg.

Motion picture adaptations

George Sanders and Kim Novak in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders
Enlarge
George Sanders and Kim Novak in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders

There are several movies based on this novel; a search on the IMDb reveals four adaptations:

The 1965 adaptation titled The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders starred Kim Novak as Moll Flanders, Richard Johnson as Jemmy, and Angela Lansbury as Lady Blystone, with George Sanders as the banker, and Lilli Palmer as Dutchy.

A 1975 British TV adaptation, Moll Flanders, aired on BBC starring Julia Foster as Moll and Kenneth Haigh as Jemmy.

A most-notable adaptation is the 1996 Moll Flanders starring Robin Wright Penn as Moll Flanders and Morgan Freeman as Hibble, with Stockard Channing as Mrs. Allworthy.

Another British TV adaptation aired on ITV and PBS in 1996 titled The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders starring James Bowers as Gaoler and Alex Kingston as Moll.

Note that none of the movie adaptations attempt to capture all of the plotting of the novel; the 1996 theatrical release starring Penn adds and subtracts characters and themes.

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