Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Racy saga of a woman’s life of crime
Moll Flanders
was originally published in 1722, though the text itself concludes with the phrase “Written in the year 1683.” Narrated in the first person, this book purports to be an autobiography of the title character. To strengthen the illusion of a memoir, it was first published anonymously. It wasn’t until decades later that the book came to be attributed to novelist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). The book may have been inspired by the life of Moll King, a criminal who Defoe interviewed in London’s Newgate Prison. Even if the narrative was partially based on fact, the incredible life of Moll Flanders certainly bears the marks of some imaginative fictionalization.

Moll Flanders is not the narrator’s real name, but rather a criminal alias she acquired over the course of a career in thievery. She occasionally calls herself Betty, but never reveals her actual surname. She was born in Newgate Prison, where her mother was an incarcerated convict. The mother then opted for “transportation” (the deportation of criminals to colonies abroad) to Virginia, leaving her young daughter with a foster mother. The girl receives a decent upbringing, but eventually two personal characteristics become problematic: her beauty and her poverty. The former makes her irresistible to men, some of whom lead her away from the path of virtue. The latter leads her, out of necessity, to pursue a life of crime. Constantly seeking to improve her situation through marriage or theft, Moll’s life becomes a twisted saga involving several husbands, several children both in an out of wedlock, adultery, prostitution, bigamy, incest, larceny, fraud, and imprisonment.

When reading Moll Flanders, as with his earlier novel Robinson Crusoe, it is hard to believe Defoe was a writer of the early eighteenth century because his prose is so clear, engaging, and lively. The reader experiences none of the obscurity or ungainliness one finds with later writers like James Fenimore Cooper or Sir Walter Scott whose works, though often of great literary merit, can be tough going for today’s reader. Not so with Defoe. Because his audience of three centuries ago had a much longer attention span than today’s reading public, however, he really belabors every scene. If you were to accidentally skip a page, you probably wouldn’t even notice, because when you jump back in he’s likely still saying same thing.

Something that’s pleasantly surprising about the novel is its admirably progressive lack of prudery. Defoe doesn’t use foul or explicit language, but he does write about matters of sexuality, adultery, or abortion with a refreshing matter-of-factness that puts the puritanism of Victorian literature to shame. Some of this forthrightness can no doubt be attributed to Defoe attempting to attract a wider audience by being deliberately racy and risqué. For a book about crime and punishment, Moll Flanders is delightfully free of righteousness. The moral of the book is not “Crime doesn’t pay,” because here crime frequently does pay, and Moll usually lands on her feet. Defoe includes one brief scene of repentance, but it feels more like obligatory lip service than preachiness.

As a female protagonist, Moll Flanders is an independent woman centuries ahead of her time, and Defoe does a very fine job of telling the story from a woman’s point of view. For the most part, Moll Flanders is an enjoyable read, but it would be more so if the plot weren’t so unnecessarily long and overly drawn-out.
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