Moll Flanders

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The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders
Author Daniel Defoe
Country Kingdom of Great Britain
Genre Novel, picaresque
Set in England and Virginia Colony, 1613–1683
Publisher William Rufus Chetwood
Media typePrint: octavo
Pagesxiii, 424
OCLC 702355312
LC Class PR3404.M6
Text The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders at Wikisource

Moll Flanders [lower-alpha 1] is a novel by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1722. It purports to be the true account of the life of the eponymous Moll, detailing her exploits from birth until old age.


By 1721, Defoe had become a recognised novelist, with the success of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. His political work was tapering off at this point, due to the fall of both Whig and Tory party leaders with whom he had been associated; Robert Walpole was beginning his rise, and Defoe was never fully at home with Walpole's group. Defoe's Whig views are nevertheless evident in the story of Moll, and the novel's full title gives some insight into this and the outline of the plot: [1]

It is usually assumed that the novel was written by Daniel Defoe, and his name is commonly given as the author in modern printings of the novel. However, the original printing did not have an author, as it was an apparent autobiography. [2] The attribution of Moll Flanders to Defoe was made by bookseller Francis Noble in 1770, after Defoe's death in 1731. [3] The novel is based partially on the life of Moll King, a London criminal whom Defoe met while visiting Newgate Prison.

Historically, the book was occasionally the subject of police censorship. [4]


Illustration of an 18th-century chapbook. Moll Flanders.png
Illustration of an 18th-century chapbook.

Moll's mother is a convict in Newgate Prison in London who is given a reprieve by "pleading her belly," a reference to the custom of staying the executions of pregnant criminals. Her mother is eventually transported to Colonial United States, and Moll Flanders (not her birth name, she emphasises, taking care not to reveal it) is raised from the age of three until adolescence by a kindly foster mother. Thereafter she gets attached to a household as a servant where she is loved by both sons, the elder of whom convinces her to "act like they were married" in bed. Unwilling to marry her, he persuades her to marry his younger brother. After five years of marriage, she then is widowed, leaves her children in the care of in-laws, and begins honing the skill of passing herself off as a fortuned widow to attract a man who will marry her and provide her with security.

The first time she does this, her "gentleman-tradesman" spendthrift husband goes bankrupt and flees to the Continent, leaving her on her own with his blessing to do the best she can to forget him. (They had one child together, but "it was buried.") The second time, she makes a match that leads her to Virginia Colony with a kindly man who introduces her to his mother. After three children (one dies), Moll learns that her mother-in-law is actually her biological mother, which makes her husband her half-brother. She dissolves their marriage and after continuing to live with her brother for three years, travels back to England, leaving her two children behind, and goes to live in Bath to seek a new husband.

Again she returns to her con skills and develops a relationship with a man in Bath whose wife is elsewhere confined due to insanity. Their relationship is at first platonic, but eventually develops into Moll becoming something of a "kept woman" in Hammersmith, London. They have three children (one lives), but after a severe illness he repents, breaks off the arrangement, and commits to his wife. However, he assures Moll that their son will be well cared for, so she leaves yet another child behind.

Moll, now 42, resorts to another beau, a bank clerk, who while still married to an adulterous wife (a "whore"), proposes to Moll after she entrusts him with her financial holdings. While waiting for the banker to divorce, Moll pretends to have a great fortune to attract another wealthy husband Lancashire, assisted by a new female acquaintance who attests to Moll's (erroneous) social standing. The ruse is successful and she marries a supposedly rich man who claims to own property in Ireland. They each quickly realise that they were both conned and manipulated by the before mentioned new acquaintance. He discharges her from the marriage, telling her nevertheless that she should inherit any money he might ever get. After enjoying each other's company for about a month, they part ways, but Moll soon discovers that she is pregnant. She gives birth and the midwife gives a tripartite scale of the costs of bearing a child, with one value level per social class. She continues to correspond with the bank clerk, hoping he will still have her.

Moll leaves her newborn in the care of a countrywoman in exchange for the sum of £5 a year. Moll marries the banker, but realises "what an abominable creature I am! and how this innocent gentleman is going to be abused by me!" They live in happiness for five years before he becomes bankrupt and dies of despair, the fate of their two children left unstated.

Truly desperate now, Moll begins a career of artful thievery, which, by employing her wits, beauty, charm, and femininity, as well as hard-heartedness and wickedness, brings her the financial security she has always sought. She becomes well known among those "in the trade," and is given the name Moll Flanders. She is helped throughout her career as a thief by her Governess, who also acts as receiver. (During this time she briefly becomes the mistress of a man she robbed.) Moll is finally caught by two maids whilst trying to steal from a house.

In Newgate she is led to her repentance. At the same time, she reunites with her soulmate, her "Lancashire husband", who is also jailed for his robberies (before and after they first met, he acknowledges). Moll is found guilty of felony, but not burglary, the second charge; still, the sentence is death in any case. Yet Moll convinces a minister of her repentance, and together with her Lancashire husband is transported to the Colonies to avoid hanging, where they live happily together (she even talks the ship's captain into letting them stay in his quarters, apart from the other convicts, who are sold on arrival). Once in the colonies, Moll learns her mother has left her a plantation and that her own son (by her brother) is alive, as is her husband/brother.

Moll carefully introduces herself to her brother and their son, in disguise. With the help of a Quaker, the two found a farm with 50 servants in Maryland. Moll reveals herself now to her son in Virginia and he gives her her mother's inheritance, a farm for which he will now be her steward, providing £100 a year income for her. In turn, she makes him her heir and gives him a (stolen) gold watch.

At last, her life of conniving and desperation seems to be over. After her husband/brother dies, Moll tells her (Lancashire) husband the entire story and he is "perfectly easy on that account... For, said he, it was no fault of yours, nor of his; it was a mistake impossible to be prevented." Aged 69 (in 1683), the two return to England to live "in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived."

Marriages, relationships, and children

Throughout the novel, Moll goes through a series of relationships, legitimate and not, and through these relationships she bears many children. The lack of character names and Defoe's inability to keep clear distinctions between his many, nameless characters give the reader the difficult task of keeping track of not just characters as a whole, but specifically Moll's marriages, relationships, and children, which make up a majority of her life's story. The following maps out Moll's relationships and marriages in the order that they appeared in the novel as well as any children that might have been born as a result of their union. [1]

An Expanded View of Moll's Lifespan
ManMarriage?Children?Children: StatusMan: StatusAdditional Information
The older foster brotherYes (Unofficial)NoN/AAliveHer first love
The younger foster brother (Robin/Robert)YesYes (2)Both AliveDeadDid not love him
DraperYesYes (1)DeadAliveWas fond of, but did not love him
Plantation Owner/ Half-BrotherYesYes (3)2 Dead, 1 Alive (Humphrey)DeadDid love him, then fell out of love after incest realization
Married ManNo (Moll acted as a mistress)Yes (3)2 Dead, 1 AliveAliveAbandons Moll after a religious experience that spurred his penitence. She left their remaining child with him
Jemy/James AKA "Lancashire Husband"YesYes (1)AliveAliveAgree to separate after claiming poverty. Moll gives birth to their child in secret and sells the child to another family with the help of her midwife
The BankerYesYes (2)UnknownDeadThe children are mentioned periodically after the banker's death, yet their statuses and whereabouts are unknown
Jemy/ James (again)NoNoN/AAliveFind each other and rekindle their love. Move to America to claim Moll's riches obtained from her 3rd marriage's plantation. Reunites with her last living child with her half-brother, a son named Humphrey

A Quick View of Moll's Lifespan
Official Marriagesx5
Unofficial Marriagesx1
Acted as Mistressx1
Husband Deathsx3
Child Deathsx5
Children accounted forx7
Children unaccounted forx2
Children she sees again:x1

Incestuous undertones

Through all the romantic interludes that Moll experiences throughout her life, a major portion of them have incestuous overtones. Her first sexual relationship was with the elder brother of the mayor's household. Though he never referred to her as "sister" (instead only jokingly as "Mrs. Betty," inferring a married title and thus of a more sexual nature than if he had called her "Miss") the others siblings of the household held her at a familial yet proper distance, recognizing their societal stature as apart from the lowly Moll. The mayor's daughters and Robin, the younger son, sometimes referred to her as "sister," but mostly "Betty". After Robin become enamoured with Moll and considered her in a romantic light, he ceased with the title of "sister".

It is assumed within the work that the eldest brother never saw her as family but rather as a sexual outlet, often ribbing her with nicknames and cornering her in his sisters' bedrooms when they were elsewhere (45). Though he never treated her as a sister, she grew in the household alongside the siblings, oftentimes better excelling in the subjects taught to them:

"I had all the advantages for my education that could be imagined; the lady had masters home to the house to teach their daughters to dance, and to speak French, and to write, and others to teach them music; and as I was always with them, I learned as fast as they . . . I learned to dance and speak French as well as any of them, and to sing better . . . " (42).

When Moll and the eldest brother began a sexual relationship, there was romantic intent from both parties, and they were not concerned by their close upbringing over the last few years. Moll had been brought into the mayor's household at the age of ten and conducted this relationship when she was seventeen/eighteen. She believed their union to be a marriage of the heart, as he professed his love first and he proved his intentions through periodic payments:

''I'll take care of you and provide for you ... and that you may see that I am not in jest,' says he, 'here's an earnest for you,' and with that he pulls out a silk purse, with an hundred guineas in it, and gave it to me. 'And I'll give you such another,' says he, 'every year till I marry you." [5]

Their lack of care for this unconventional relationship demonstrates a naivety on Moll's part and an underhanded intent by the eldest brother, as he never intends to marry her, which Moll discovers after Robin declares his love for Moll. Moll's discussion with the eldest brother to determine their next steps in the relationship is a shock for Moll, who was led to believe that their "marriage" was a deal, secured by the finances that the eldest provided. Their lack of a concrete conversation regarding how they would go about marriage proves to be negative for Moll, where the eldest defends their unofficial romance and wants it to end as discreetly as it began:

" . . . I did tell you I would marry you when I was come to my estate; but you see my father is a hale, healthy man, and may live these thirty years still . . . you never proposed my marrying you sooner, because you know it might be my ruin; and as to all the rest, I have not failed you in anything' . . ." (59)

Thus arises a difficult situation for Moll between two biological brothers who are somewhat tied to her as her own "unofficial" brothers. The lack of disgust that Moll feels in her sexual relationship with the eldest comes out in full force upon Robin's burgeoning interest. She plays it off his multiple advances ("'I have attacked in form five times . . .'" (70)) for months (". . . this continued for sixteen or seventeen weeks . . ." (69)), often feigning sickness, until the younger brother makes his intentions public with the family. At that moment, Moll could no longer pretend that his advances would come to no fruition. She reluctantly marries him, and her distaste for the coupling is evident in the presentation of their marriage, lasting for only one sentence:

"It concerns the story in hand very little to enter into the further particulars of the family, or for myself, for the five years that I lived with this husband, only to observe that I had two children by him, and that at the end of five years he died" (76).

Moll's disgust for her marriage to Robin was present for several reasons: she was spurned by the man she actually wanted, was repulsed by Robin's personality, and thought of him more as a brother than as a romantic interest. By the end of her time with the mayor's family, Moll had invested time into two relationships: one romantic and passionate, the other not, and both to two "unofficial brothers.

These instances are separate from her marriage to her actual brother, the plantation owner, which was an entirely incestuous (though unintentionally) affair.


One of Defoe’s notable contributions to 18th century ideas of female empowerment rests on the notion of women as agents of their own wealth.

As Kuhlisch notes, “From the beginning, [Moll] does not believe that she is naturally poor but considers herself entitled to a more affluent life… [and she] defines her identity through her social position, which results from the material effects of her economic activities" (341). [6]

That said, it may also be Defoe's “antipathy for England's commoners” that contributed to Moll's socioeconomic ascension (p. 99). [7]

Spiritual autobiography

One of the major themes within the book, and a popular area of scholarly research regarding its writer Daniel Defoe, is that of spiritual autobiography. Spiritual autobiography is defined as "a genre of non-fiction prose that dominated Protestant writing during the seventeenth century, particularly in England, particularly that of dissenters". Books within this genre follow a pattern of shallow repentances, followed by a fall back into sin, and eventually culminating in a conversion experience that has a profound impact on the course of their life from that point. The two scholars to first analyze the pattern of spiritual autobiography in Defoe's works, publishing within the same year, were George A. Starr and J. Paul Hunter.

George Starr's book, titled Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography, analyses the pattern of spiritual autobiography, and how it is found in Defoe's books. His focus in the book is primarily on Robinson Crusoe, as that is Defoe's book that follows the clearest pattern of spiritual autobiography. He does discuss Moll Flanders at length, stating that the disconnectedness of the events in the book can be attributed to the book's spiritual autobiographical nature. He examines the pattern of spiritual autobiography in these events, with the beginning of her fall into sin being a direct results of her vanity prevailing over her virtue. Moll's "abortive repentances" are highlighted, such as her "repentance" after marrying the bank clerk. However, Moll is unable to break the pattern of sin that she falls into, one of habitual sin, in which one sin leads to another. Starr describes this gradual process as "hardening", and points to it as what makes up the basic pattern of her spiritual development. In examining her conversion experience, Starr highlights her motive as being "the reunion with her Lancashire husband, and the news that she is to be tried at the next Session, caused her 'wretched boldness of spirit' to abate. 'I began to think,’ she says, 'and to think indeed is one real advance from hell to heaven" (157). The final culmination of her repentance then comes the morning after this moment, when reflecting on the words of the minister that she confessed her sins to. Starr's main criticism of the book as a work of spiritual autobiography stems from the fact that only part, and not all, of Moll's actions contain spiritual significance. The overall pattern is consistent, but does not cover all sections, with some of those other sections focusing in more on social issues/social commentary. [8]

Film, TV, or theatrical adaptations


  1. Full title: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest and died a Penitent

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  1. 1 2 Defoe, Daniel (1722). The fortunes and misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother) Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent, Written from her own memorandums. Eighteenth Century Collections Online: W. Chetwood.
  2. "Title Page for 'Moll Flanders' by Daniel Defoe, published 1722". PBS LearningMedia. Retrieved 30 October 2017.
  3. Furbank and Owens "The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe" (1988); "Defoe De-Attributions" (1994) and "A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe" (1998)
  4. Peter Coleman, "Censorship: Publish and Be Damned." Media International Australia 150.1 (2014): 36–40.
  5. Defoe, Daniel (1722). Moll Flanders. Penguin Library. p. 51.
  6. Kuhlisch, Tina (2004). "The Ambivalent Rogue: Moll Flanders as Modern Pícara". Rogues and Early Modern English Culture. University of Michigan Press.
  7. Melissa Mowry (2008). "Women, Work, Rearguard Politics, and Defoe's Moll Flanders". The Eighteenth Century. 49 (2): 97–116. doi:10.1353/ecy.0.0008. ISSN   1935-0201.
  8. Starr, George A. (1971). Defoe & spiritual autobiography. Gordian Press. ISBN   0877521387. OCLC   639738278.
  9. "Moll Flanders". Retrieved 12 January 2021.



Works of criticism