Author: Daniel Defoe
Publisher: I listened to the Tantor Audio production
Publication Year: 1722
Status: electronic (freebie)
Moll Flanders for free download on Project Gutenberg
I first read MOLL FLANDERS in 2001, in the midst of an “I’ll Read Classic Lit So's I Can Be Cultured And Shit” phase. So far as I was concerned, classic novels were Good For You, but they weren’t necessarily enjoyable. I read them to give myself a sense of the wider literary tradition, not for entertainment.
Imagine my surprise when I devoured MOLL FLANDERS in three sittings, one of which took me through nearly a hundred and fifty pages.
The book is almost indecently fun. Moll schemes her way through the England of the 1600s, rising and falling at irregular intervals as her illegal undertakings bear fruit or go awry. She marries often, bears a multitude of children, turns to robbery whenever the need arises (or the opportunity presents itself), and deceives very nearly everyone she encounters. Her wild life must have seemed the height of debauchery to eighteenth century readers, many of whom I'm sure gloried in it anyway.
I suppose it’s possible to read MOLL FLANDERS as the chronicle of a woman forced into an indecent life of which she repents most ardently, but I find that a terribly boring take on the situation. I much prefer to view Moll as someone who’s ever in charge of her own destiny. She’s born into fairly low circumstances which she contrives to improve upon by any means necessary. Whether she's talking her way into a rich man’s bed or persuading an elderly fence to help her become London’s most successful pickpocket, she’s always in charge. She caters her lies to each individual, playing on their peculiar vanities in such a way that they can’t help but give in to her whims. Poor luck may set her back a step or two, but she never lets it keep her down for long. As soon as one scheme grows stale, she turns her hand to another. No matter what life throws at her, she finds a way to turn it to her advantage and come out on top.
The narrative conventions of the time dictate that she must deny receiving any satisfaction from her actions, but it’s obvious she enjoys herself immensely. The novel is full of moments where she vows to lead a somber and discreet life... right after she’s finished committing such-and-such a sin, and maybe one more for good measure. And hey, she’s never been involved in that line of illegal work, so she might as well give it a go before she throws in the towel. If it leads to another opportunity of a similar nature... well, so much the better.
Oh, Moll. I frickin’ love you.
Of course, I’m not an eighteenth century reader. It’s entirely possible that the original target audience would’ve been so scandalized by Moll’s doings that they took her cautions and lamentations at face value. Hell, maybe Defoe even intends them that way.
Me, I remain unconvinced of her penitence. She's an adept liar, after all; it's difficult to believe she'd restrain herself from practicing this skill upon the reader. I like to hope she keeps on scheming after the novel’s end, albeit in a wealthier sphere than was previously possible and with a willing partner in her final (or maybe just latest?) husband.
Godspeed to you, Moll, and good luck.
4 stars – loved it
Since I know rather a lot about the French Revolution, which happened near the end of the eighteenth century, I always think of the 1700s as having been "around two hundred years ago." It floored me when I realized MOLL FLANDERS was originally published almost three hundred years ago, and begins almost four hundred years ago. (Moll ends the narrative in 1683, when she's somewhere in her sixties or early seventies.) Wow.
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I should add that most of these reviewers regard the text in a rather different way than I myself did. (To be honest, they made me feel a bit bad for viewing Moll as I do. Oh well. I'm used to that sort of thing.) It's worth reading through their opinions--and of course, you'll want to read the book so you can form one of your own.
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