Daniel Defoe’s mock-autobiography Moll Flanders, published in 1722, is the tale of an unnamed female protagonist – her most common alias being Moll Flanders – as she goes through life and its many twists of fortune. Like Defoe’s other famous eponymous biographer, Robinson Crusoe, Moll is made to suffer various bouts of poverty and misfortune before ultimately settling down, many years after the novel’s opening scenes.
Defoe’s style does not lend itself easily to narrative excellence, but it is second to none in terms of character development. The way Moll presents herself and her circumstances are intriguing; the novel deals incredibly well with the plight of a woman living in the seventeenth century, and what she has to do to survive. The juxtaposing ways she describes her views on things and her feelings are almost comically realistic. She is the very epitome of an unreliable narrator, and the book is much better for it. Moll is classy and sassy and daring, everything you would not expect to find in a woman supposedly writing in 1683.
Defoe’s take on gender and patriarchy are interesting to read from a modern point of view too. Although the usual bigger structures of law and marriage remain largely in the males’ favour, Moll presents a feminist answer to it whilst simultaneously remaining in it and obedient to it. For example, she keeps a stock of her own money and achieves wealth independently, but at all times she seeks stability through the form of marriage. The themes of relationships and money are never separated within the text, and continually are used to drive the plot. But even more important than this is the treatment of Moll by the individual men we meet in the novel. They all treat her with the utmost respect and equality, which is refreshing for a work written in Defoe’s time. Moll’s gender, and her assuming genders and defying traditional gender roles, all come together to create an intriguing take on the traditional bildungsroman narrative, here with a female and criminal at the centre.
Unlike Defoe’s other works, I particularly enjoyed and was fascinated by Moll Flanders because I think a lot of the issues within it are still largely relevant today. Some of the issues which Defoe introduces are: feminism, the problems of capitalism and ideas of rehabilitation in latent criminals. Whilst it must be said that our contemporary society is by far improved in each of these instances than in Moll’s own society, the novel still raises questions and topics worth thinking about and comparing.
I really like Defoe’s writing style, it is easy and flowing and it works really well with the biographical format. The only problem I have with it is that the lack of chapters make the novel slightly difficult to read. Having nowhere definite to pause is understandable because of the format, but also intensely frustrating for me, especially as my copy contains 446 pages. I also wonder about Defoe’s use of modern and medieval language within his dialogue. I was slightly confused as to why some characters spoke modern English, some spoke in medieval English and some alternated between. It made little sense to me, especially because middle English had already gone out of common usage by 1683. But anyway, I’m sure there must be a reason for it somewhere. Apart from that, the narrative sounds very natural and in some places, almost like spoken discourse which worked really well. I also liked Moll’s brief references to future events which she then tells us she will ‘come back to’ later in the narrative.
All in all, Moll’s narrative, and the woman herself, are extremely enticing to read about. Her adventures are full of twists and turns, some more expected than others, but she never fails to surprise with her reactions to all of these events. I would recommend this book for anyone who is a fan of Robinson Crusoe, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams. Or, more generally, for anyone who likes to read accounts of strong and confident ladies.