Ever since I read Ana’s review of Lord of the Flies, I’ve been mulling over in my head about how important context is to a text when you read it. Her point is that the idea of entitled school-aged boys turning evil doesn’t seem so novel in the wake of Columbine and other similar tragedies, but in 1954 when Lord of the Flies was first published, it was.
And so as I listened to Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel, Moll Flanders, I had to keep reminding myself of context. In 2011, Moll Flanders – the character – is a flat, selfish, manipulative-to-the-end creature with far more luck than karma allows. The novel is rambling, insanely repetitive and verbose, lacking in plot (not to mention sub-plot), and with few – if any – memorable characters. Despite Defoe’s preface arguing that the book is meant to be instructive, warning the wicked to turn from their ways and the chaste to live more cautiously, what the book seems to be about is how many husbands Moll can go through, how many children can she abandon and how many others can she deceive. Her prison-cell repentance feels self-serving, and her final marriage unremarkable.
However, thinking in terms of 1722, I can imagine that Moll Flanders – the book – was as satiable as it was scandalous in its portrayal of a woman who sets out to rise above her birth (to a Newgate prisoner) by whatever means she has. As a woman, these means are few. As a young woman in her teens, she learns to charm other women who then dote on her with trifles and opportunities. As she gets older, her opportunities are in marrying up, scheming with other women to portray herself more well-off than she is and by doing so luring men in higher stations to take her on. As she advances in age and can no longer rely on her beauty to be the snare, she falls into thievery and maintains this profession for many years, until she lands in the same fate as her mother, Newgate prison.
It is in prison that her life takes a turn, Moll repents under the counsel of a minister, and seeks a reformed life. Also in prison, she is reunited with her “Lancashire Husband” and together they volunteer to be shipped to America. Here, Moll has an inheritance waiting, that from her mother who was able to escape death, was herself reformed and had helped her son (once Moll’s husband-brother) develop a thriving Virginia plantation. And so she and her husband are able to live a happy and prosperous life.
Defoe presents the tale as biography, penned originally in by the anonymous woman herself, but in language he claims to have cleaned up, both in style and content. The specifics of Moll’s scheming episodes are supposed to instruct the honest reader of how thieves work, and Moll’s unfortunate circumstances are intended to warn those who dabble in the like.
But the positive, energetic and always industrious attitude of Moll is far more persuasive, and it is hard to ignore that Defoe is more broadly representing the opportunities he believes are available for women, if not a whole class, if one persists in their goals.
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