Academia – Literature

Moll Flanders: The Struggles of Women

By Abby Pittman

March 11, 2014

But my Case was indeed Deplorable, for I was left perfectly Friendless and Helpless, and the loss my Husband had sustain’d had reduc’d his Circumstances so low, that tho’ indeed I was not in Debt, yet I could easily foresee that was left would not support me long… (Defoe, Moll Flanders p. 253)

This quote shows Moll after her fourth husband has died, and she is left once again without a fortune and with children to provide for. Though the children fade into the background, Moll is still in a desperate situation. Ironically enough, the banker died from despair of the loss of his fortune. Her fourth husband the banker—though not her favorite husband—was probably the most reliable and honest of them all. The couple enjoyed a happy middle class life where they lived modestly, but never wanted. Had he died a normal death, Moll would have been well off: but since he died because of the loss of his fortune, Moll is actually worse off than she was before this marriage. Five years prior to the banker’s death, Moll still had the majority of her looks; now they have faded, as she grows older. In her youth, Moll relied on her looks and intellect to attract a husband with the goal of marrying upwards. Now in her age, she is without hope of finding a husband because she now lacks looks as well as fortune. Her situation is absolutely “deplorable”.

Moll’s need for advancement depicts itself at an early age when her nurse attempts to send her into the service, and Moll refuses. Instead saying she wants to be a gentlewoman, meaning: “all I understood by being a Gentlewoman, was to be able to work for myself, and get enough to keep me without that terrible Bug-bear going to the service” (p. 50). Moll’s distaste for the service leaves her little options for her life. She has three choices: marriage, prostitution, or thievery. And a husband is almost impossible to get without a fortune: “For the Market is against our Sex just now; and if a young Woman have Beauty, Birth, Breeding, Wit, Sense, Manners, Modesty, and all these to an Extream; yet if she have not Money, she’s no Body, she had as good want them all, for nothing but Money now recommends a Woman” (p. 53). Moll is fortunate enough to have an upper-class family take her in. In this family, Moll experiences her first taste of prostitution when the eldest brother sets his sights on her: “My Colour came and went, at the Sight of the Purse and with the fire of his Proposal together; so that I could not say a Word, and he easily perceiv’d it; so putting the Purse into my Bosom, I made no more Resistance to him” (p. 68). However, despite Moll’s claimed love for the eldest brother, she is too attracted to the immediate fortune that the younger brother presents. Moll is able to do what few are able to do, and married up in class to the younger brother. Yet, rather quickly, he died and Moll is once again on her own. Moll is unable to provide for herself without a husband, so she must find another one. She does; however, he is a terrible saver and loses all of his money alarmingly fast. He offers to part ways with her so she can marry once again. She does; this time to her brother—unknowingly of course—so now she is not only committing bigamy, she is committing incest. Eventually, she leaves that marriage too; marrying another man who was under the impression that Moll was rich. She wasn’t, so she left yet another marriage and landed on her last marriage to the banker. This marriage would have turned out prosperously had he not died of despair from losing his fortune. Moll marries four times: yet each marriage she comes out of, leaves her poorer and poorer. The one thing that allowed her to attract husbands was her looks; by this time her looks have faded. When at last her situation is so desperate, poverty pushes her to steal: “a time of Distress is a time of dreadful temptation, and all the Strength to resist is taken away; Poverty presses, the Soul is made Desperate by Distress” (p. 254). Thus, Moll begins her career as one of the most apt thieves of the time. In this case—and this case only—being a woman actually helped Moll. Her appearance as a gentle old woman allowed her so much success that she could have easily retired and live comfortably. However, she does not and eventually ends up in Newgate, as her mother did before her. Moll shows the incredible disadvantage of being a woman in this time period—despite the secular perk. She is unable to make an honest living as a man would: there are no options that allow her to sustain herself except criminal ones where ironically, her appearance helps her. Yet, what it takes to survive lands her in Newgate. The odds are stacked against women; yet, when women are able to find their way in the world as men would, they suffer for it, as Moll does.

Because of Molls unfortunate circumstances, she is forced by poverty to undergo almost every sin imaginable. Throughout the work Moll commits bigamy, prostitution, thievery, lying, and much cold-heartedness. However, none of this is Moll’s fault, this 17th century world does not allow for a woman to be on her own without a husband. Whatever she became, she became because her situation forced her to be this way. She could not survive without a husband, and when her second one failed her, she had to marry again. Her only other option is poverty, so she must commit bigamy and marry again. And when marriage fails over and over, she can either starve or take advantage of her looks and be either a mistress—which she does twice, or be a prostitute—which she does once. When her fourth husband dies, her looks have faded and she has no chance of marrying again. She is forced into stealing. She has absolutely no other option lest she starve to death. And after years and years of letting go of children because she cannot provide for them, of course she is a bit cold hearted. Her need for advancement is so ingrained into her from the time that she was young, that she would have even left her third/fifth husband who she claimed was her true love, for more fortune: “and thus I was as if I had been in a new World, and began secretly now to wish that I had not brought my Lancashire Husband for England at all” (p. 419). Every sin, every wrong that Moll does is simply because of her need to survive. This 17th century society is so stacked against women that there is no other way for Moll to survive in an honest way. Defoe depicts what it is like for a woman circa 1720 to attempt to make her way in this masculine world and society. The case of uneducated low-class women was clearly deplorable as is seen in Moll’s story and that is what Defoe wants his audience to get out of the novel. He shows the case of women indirectly in Moll Flanders, and then directly, in A Journal of the Plague Year.

Though we have progressed significantly as a society, there is still more options for men than there are for women. The struggle for equality is still alive and well today. Whenever we, as a society, see a strong woman in power she is often demeaned. For instance, in the 2008 presidential election, presidential candidate Hilary Clinton was often pitted against vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Clinton was labeled as a  “b—ch” for her strength, and Palin was demeaned to a sexual object for her looks. The media took neither woman seriously. Women have struggled for years to gain the same rights, and demand the same respect that white men have always had. Which is what partly, makes this novel so wonderful: that it can touch on issues in today’s current and progressed society as well as it could circa 1720.  Reformation was possible then, it started with Defoe’s education for women, and reformation is possible for today as well.




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