Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Moll Flanders

Moll FlandersMoll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Moll Flanders tells the story of her checkered past as prostitute, con artist, serial bigamist, and professional fibber.

This is one of the big books that you hear about as an English major; Daniel Defoe's book that isn't Robinson Crusoe. Its heroine is a street-wise orphan with nothing but looks and an ambition to live as comfortably as possible. With nothing to sell but herself, she is unlucky in marriage five times, moves from England to Virginia and back again (twice), and then strikes out on her own in the mean streets of 1670s London. She becomes a pickpocket and scammer, and earns the working name "Moll Flanders" (she never divulges her real one).

She's usually one desperate step away from ruin, which in her case means poverty, disgrace, prison, or death. Moll faces her various circumstances with sharp intelligence and one sacred rule: look out for number one. She has multiple children from different fathers but they barely register (in fact, I suspect Defoe may have forgotten about a few of them as he wrote, or else he's purposefully made Moll herself a very forgetful mother). Here's my Moll Baby Watch:

Lover one: No children
Husband one: Two, left with his parents to raise
Husband two: One child, dies
Husband three: Two living, one dead
Lover two: One son living, two dead
Husband four: One son
Husband five: two kids (later, she says only one son, so either she forgot or the other died, and by this time she's 48 and past child-bearing)
The baronet: no children

And apparently I missed a few lovers in my count, because at one point mid-book Moll claims she's slept with 13 men, when I only count 7 or 8 - in Defoe's introduction he claims to have excised a few salacious details, which may account for the different numbers (though she never bothers to reckon up the number of children she's carried and unceremoniously dumped with relatives or strangers).

Moll makes all of the outward appearances of repenting her life of crime, but she manages to profit well by it and seems happy to do so. The best parts are where we get to watch her use her charm and intelligence to manipulate various men. There is a scene that struck me as being very similar to the opening of Sense and Sensibility (the exchange where Mrs. Dashwood argues her pliable husband to give his mother and sisters nothing of his own inheritance): Moll tricks a man into marriage after spreading a false rumor that she is wealthy. After he's secured, she acclimates him to her limited resources by slowly portioning out her savings like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat.

Moll is a fantastic character, conscienceless but still charming. She enjoys sex early in life, but after an early betrayal, Moll uses sex as a means to her ends. She lies easily and often to everyone, even the people she claims to love. She's an ingenious crook: the most entertaining portion of her adventures comes when she talks about her con games; stealing from children, picking pockets, shoplifting, and even stealing valuables from a neighbor's burning house. She protests her regret over her crimes but tells the story with such evident satisfaction that it's clear she regrets nothing but being caught. When she ends up with a comfortable amount of money in the end she shows no sign of wanting to find her missing children. She even has an (accidental) incestuous relationship with a half-brother. No wonder this book has such a scandalous reputation!

It's a witty look into the difficulties of a poor woman's life in the 17th century, and it's amazing that Defoe's treatment of Moll is so even-handed. (Moll claims she is 69 in 1683, and the novel was published in 1722, to give you a sense of historical perspective.) No one's an angel in this book, particularly not Moll, but no one's a devil, either. The novel is a picaresque, so the events are episodic and it may seem meandering to a modern reader. It's packed with realistic detail (and was originally published anonymously as a fake memoir), and I found Moll's brief account of moving around the American colonies fascinating, though other readers may find the abundant details onerous.

In short, worth checking out if you're an English major or if you love worldly picaros who happen to be fallen women.

No comments:

Post a Comment