Necessity and Morality in Defoe's Moll Flanders

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Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 2259|Page: 1|12 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Much of the critical debate surrounding Daniel Defoe's novel Moll Flanders centers around whether the author makes good on the promise he makes in the preface that the story will be morally instructive. For instance, Ira Konigsberg writes that "One of the book's contradictions that Defoe never resolves is in the conflicting arguments for necessity and morality".

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This seems to be a misunderstanding; for Defoe, necessity is part of morality and vice versa. It is certainly tempting to view that perspective as an indication of irony, but Defoe was not, contrary to popular opinion, writing an ironic novel. In actuality, he was writing a very realistic novel which expressed not only his own, but much of society's view that the sixteenth century had seen a tonal shift in morality, moving away from religious values rooted in the Middle Ages toward a value system based on a religious suspicion of indigence and sloth. The moral lesson contained in Moll Flanders is that she is a virtuous example of the new paradigm of the individual that Defoe envisioned as being crucial to maintaining the growth of England that was promised by the emerging economic structure of the 18th century.

That Moll Flanders is meant to be seen interpreted as a realistic, moral heroine can be deduced by comparing her economic worldview with that of her creator. In doing so, it becomes obvious that Defoe was creating a fully realized mouthpiece for his own personal theories on the necessity of economic aspiration as a means of moral salvation. Moll says at one point, "marriages were here the consequences of politic schemes, for forming interests, carrying on business, and that love had no share or but very little in the matter".

Moll learns this lesson early, and it is a guiding force for her throughout the rest of her life. Defoe himself "defended commercial marriages on the grounds that building a business was more worthy than marrying for lust" (Grassby 305). Many of Moll's beliefs - and particularly her opinion on the economic importance of marriage - coincide with Defoe's point of view. Robert Allan Donovan dances around this concept when he writes that "it is possible to regard every detail as relevant to the characterization of Moll and at the same time comformable to Defoe's ordinary mental processes".

Ian Watt, however, is much more explicit, and much closer to the mark: "Defoe's identification with Moll Flanders was so complete that, despite a few feminine traits, he created a personality that was in essence his own" (115). In Moll, Defoe creates an engaging character who personifies almost every socio-economic theory he expresses in his multitudinous non-fiction writings on the topics of trade and commerce. It seems inconceivable that Defoe would have created a character who so clearly was designed to be a loudspeaker for his economic theories who was not a heroic, admirable, and entirely moral figure.

The moral that Defoe provides in Moll Flanders is not that capitalism and commerce are bad for England, but rather the reverse; that, in fact, the pursuit of upward mobility by the middle class is a moral imperative and, furthermore, that the methods of gaining upward mobility are not limited to the "virtuous". Defoe's economically-based morality may seem somewhat warped to 20th century readers, making them more likely to interpret the novel ironically, but Defoe was not, in fact, out of step with his contemporaries. 20th century readers were conditioned to read novels about business and commerce as cautionary tales about the unscrupulous behavior of those who will do anything for money, at the expense of any who stand in their way.

It may be difficult for those readers to understand the mindset that produced Restoration and 18th century writers who were "favorably inclined toward business, seeing it as a great civilizing force and as a means of attaining both widespread material prosperity and world peace" (Meier 11). The moral world order had gone topsy-turvy between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance: money was now "good", and poverty was "bad". "As a result of a new emphasis on economic achievement...indigence was both shameful in itself and presumptive evidence of present wickedness and future damnation" (Watt 95). Moll Flanders is representative of the new mindset that Watt describes.

Moll reflects Defoe's concept that pursuing upward social mobility is tantamount to living morally. "Defoe saw economic success as a special kind of election and was willing to be less concerned about the moral value of the deeds which lead to that success" (Konigsberg 43). Marrying not for love, but for money; earning money as a whore; resorting to thievery when her attractiveness to men begins to fade...these are all justifiable to both Defoe and Moll because nothing could be worse than winding up in Newgate or becoming a beggar. This attitude is exemplified in the text when Moll, having finally wound up in Newgate, becomes so distraught that she seeks penitence, and when she casts herself as physically and spiritually unable to go out in beggar's garb during her career as a thief.

As Watt points out, Defoe's heroes "would rather steal than beg, and they would lose their own self-respect-and the reader's-if they did not exhibit this characteristic hubris of economic man" (95). The pride Watt speaks of attaches itself to every action that Moll undertakes. Throughout the novel, Moll sees herself as a gentlewoman, whether she actually is one or not, and pursues every undertaking with an eye towards bettering herself; indeed, she seems to feel that she is somehow owed a better life. Thomas Keith Meier says that Paul Dottin's description goes even further: "His scrupolosity was based on the old saying 'the end justifies the means.' Success, interpreted as material gain, was the keynote of his philosophy and, indeed, of his morality". To put it bluntly, Moll Flanders' whoring, financial marriages, and even her descent into thievery are all perfectly acceptable means of gaining upward social mobility to both herself and, by extension, Defoe.

The novel is indeed morally cohesive, despite criticisms to the contrary: Konigsberg writes that "the morality in the novel is to be taken at face value". On the contrary, every single "immoral" act that Moll perpetrates is completely consistent with the economic morality expressed by Defoe in his non-fiction work. Watt writes that Moll Flanders "is a characteristic product of modern individualism in assuming that she owes it to herself to achieve the highest economic and social rewards, and in using every available method to carry out her resolve...She is even morally pure in her whoring since it is, as she assures us, by necessity and not 'for the sake of the vice'" (114). Watt's reading is completely at odds with Konigsberg's contention that there is a contradiction between necessity and morality. Watt connects necessity to morality, rather than making them separate issues as does Konigsberg.

Defoe explicitly expresses this outlook in The Complete English Tradesman, writing that "the needy prostitute is free of guilt and that her lustful customer is wholly responsible for the sin committed" (Meier 87). The unnamed woman-and Moll-became prostitutes entirely out of necessity, and it is this necessity that is the crux of the novel. What, exactly, is Moll needful of? Moll clearly needs more than just enough money to keep her off the street and out of Newgate; she achieved that goal during her career as a thief, yet she still continued plying her trade. Why? Because Moll clearly wanted to rise as high in society as possible, and for Defoe, that meant as high as she wanted to go, because her economic success would eventually contribute to the economic success of the country at large.

Defoe felt that everyone should pursue economic individualism, and "regarded birth as irrelevant to the kind of individual one became in society" (Shinagel 123). Defoe even contended that "the son of a mean person furnish'd from heaven with an original fund of wealth, wit, sense, courage, virtue and good humor, and set apart by a liberal education for the service of his country...must be allowd...into the rank of gentleman" (Shinagel 225). Of course, Defoe was referring to males who sought upward mobility. The inaccurately ironic reading of Moll Flanders can be attributed in part to the fact she is a woman attempting upward mobility, and her means are therefore substantially different from that of a man.

Because she is clearly meant to be perceived as a hero by the novel's end, Daniel Defoe wants Moll to succeed in her pursuit of upward social mobility, and because those goals were direct conflict with the attitudes of Defoe's era, the novel has come to be viewed ironically by those who cannot accept that Defoe could have seriously viewed Moll as a virtuous figure. For the most part, the men in Moll Flanders earn their livelihoods in "respectable" ways: they are gentlemen, tradesmen, plantation owners, bankers, ship captains, businessmen and ministers.

True, there are also the occasional thieves, but for the most part the men in Moll's orbit would be considered respectable even today. Not so, however, the women. Almost without exception, the women that Moll encounters must earn their keep through some manner of debasement: tricking men into marriage, prostituting themselves, pickpocketing, or fencing stolen goods. Moll engages in many of these pursuits, and yet she doesn't seem to be considered any worse the wear from a moral standpoint. As G.A. Starr writes, "Moll's world is one in which things are not good or evil, but characteristically good and yet evil" (Richetti 104).

It is important, however, to understand that while whoring and thievery may be traditionally "evil" actions, Moll's ultimate goal is to achieve the good that comes from acquiring economic independence. Moll Flanders is often viewed as unrealistic because the means by which a reasonable woman advanced herself during Defoe's era are entirely anathema to readers whose vision of the morality of economics does not coincide with Defoe's. Ian Watt explains this problem when he writes that "We cannot believe that so intelligent a man as Defoe should have viewed either his heroine's economic attitudes or her pious protestations with anything other than derision.

Defoe's other writings, however, do not support this belief" (127). Defoe's other writings reveal a man who is quite comfortable with the practice of slavery, and who would unblinkingly side with trade if a dispute arose between trade and religion (Meier 82). In light of this fact, it would be quite surprising if Defoe expressed any discomfort with his heroine's desire to achieve economic independence. Nevertheless, one cannot help but be troubled by the fact that Moll Flanders is only allowed to pursue her dream of rising in society through increasingly degrading, humiliating means. She begins by trading love for marital security, and eventually begins simply trading sex for money. At her lowest point, she becomes an unrepentant criminal. Defoe seems strangely unconcerned that the only choices that England's evolving capitalistic system offered women who sought upward mobility were ultimately shaming. As Robert Alan Donovan observes, "If the book teaches a lesson, as Defoe piously assures us, it had nothing to do with the wages of sin; it is a lesson in how to succeed at the confidence game" (26).

Moll Flanders is a fictional interpretation of Daniel Defoe's non-fiction writings on his socio-economic theories, espousing the importance of pursuing upward social mobility. In his non-fiction writings, Daniel Defoe shows himself to be consistently and defiantly in favor of commerce. He also appears convinced that the middle-class person not only could, but should attempt to better themselves: "The attributes of commerce which Defoe repeatedly emphasizes are its service to the state, by making the nation economically powerful; to civilization generally, by encouraging peace and fostering liberty; to all classes of society, by improving their standards of living; and to the businessman in particular, by improving his mind and increasing his social status: all with the approbation of God" (Meier, 40).

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Moll Flanders must be considered an unimpeachable heroine because she exemplifies this point of view. If everyone followed Moll's course, the country would become more economically powerful and peaceful; the standard of living would rise considerably, with God's blessing. In the preface to Moll Flanders, Defoe promises that "there is not a wicked action in any part of it but is first or last rendered unhappy and unfortunate" (vii). By the end of the novel, Moll is quite happy, and very fortunate, raising the question of whether her actions can be considered "wicked". The novel achieves coherence when compared to Defoe's oft-stated economic theories; therefore, everything Moll does must be considered not only moral, but admirably so. Moll Flanders is a realistic, unironic heroine who personifies an economic individual who contributed to the evolving capitalistic system which would soon turn England into a dominant world power.

Works Cited

  1. Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Bantam Books: Toronto, 1989.
  2. Donovan, Robert Alan. The Shaping Vision: Imagination in the English Novel from Defoe to Dickens. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1966.
  3. Grassby, Richard. The Business Community of Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1995.
  4. Konigsberg, Ira. Narrative Technique in the English Novel. Archon Books: Hamden, 1985.
  5. Meier, Thomas Keith. Defoe and the Defense of Commerce. University of Victoria, 1987.
  6. Richetti, John J. Defoe's Narratives: Situations and Structures. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1975.
  7. Shinagel, Michael. Daniel Defoe and the Middle-Class Gentility. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1968.
  8. Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1957.
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Necessity and Morality in Defoe’s Moll Flanders. (2018, May 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from
“Necessity and Morality in Defoe’s Moll Flanders.” GradesFixer, 30 May 2018,
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