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Sexual Liberation Achieved in 'Moll Flanders'

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In an age in which promiscuity, free living and women’s liberation were not the catch phrases they have grown to become in this modern era, the title character of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders lives a life of sexual independence that was shunned in the seventeenth century, a time of straight laced ethics and closed door relationships. “Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife,” Flanders lives an extraordinary life of survival and seduction, utilizing her greatest asset—her beauty—to help her rise above her meager beginnings as a inmate of Newgate Penitentiary. In order to escape her hard luck life, Moll soon realizes that while she may not possess monetary wealth, her stunning looks are more than enough to earn her a comfortable, albeit nomadic, life. Throughout the novel, we see a woman born into an unfortunate situation, left with little more than her feminine wiles, who fights preconceived notions of sexuality and the norms of a stifling society to improve her inherited station. It is this sexuality, and her willingness to step out from under the standards of society, that allows Moll to climb the social ladder and finally, at the ripe age of seventy, reach its pinnacle.

While Flanders can be viewed as an ideal example of freedom achieved through open sexuality, Eve– in John Milton’s Paradise Lost– can arguably be seen as the polar opposite. Residing in the Garden of Eden, alone with only Adam and living in the embodiment of Paradise, Eve unwittingly uses her sexuality to her disadvantage, allowing Satan (in the form of a serpent) to flatter her incessantly until she is finally convinced to eat of the forbidden fruit. It is also this innate sexuality that persuades Adam to succumb and disregard God’s only directive, partaking in the Tree of Knowledge. He is unable to resist Eve’s pure physical beauty that had previously eluded him; instead, he yearns to be intimate with her, and this lust overrides all common sense. Whereas Flanders puts her beauty and sexual prowess to good use, Eve, unbeknownst to her, lets her natural sexual magnetism spoil her ideal living situation, and in turn takes Adam with her.

In a contemporary society inundated with sex at every turn, with promiscuity both accepted and applauded today more than ever, and with a woman’s sexuality on display for everyone to see, the story of Moll Flanders may see pedantic to some. However, in the era in which Defoe wrote his classic, this direct approach was unheard of, and perpetrators of such acts were castigated, often shunned from a conservative society. Even as an infant, Moll feels a sense of abandonment, and can not help but consider herself as completely alone in the world. Born to a convicted criminal, Moll is immediately thrust into the cruel justice system, and she is soon left an orphan. Reminiscing on her early childhood, Flanders describes herself as, “a poor desolate Girl without Friends, without Cloaths, without Help or Helper in the World”(7). These lonely, bleak words are portentous, and it becomes increasingly easy to understand why Moll continually seeks attention in any way she can as she grows older.

As Flanders blossoms into a beautiful young woman, she begins to realize the power her stunning appearance has over men, as she is, “taken for very Handsome, or if you please for a great Beauty, I very well knew it, and had as good an Opinion of myself as anybody else could have of me” (16). Despite her increasing vanity, she remains naive, and has a deep attachment to her first lover, despite the fact he gives her little affection, and treats her tantamount to a prostitute, giving her “a Handful of Gold in my Hand” (21). This is Moll’s first experience with the influence that sex can have over men, and she is both surprised and pleased that a gentleman would deem her time so valuable as to pay for her services. Her early, humble beginnings, in conjunction with her sense of abandonment from losing her mother, help lay the seeds for her later promiscuity.

Flanders begins to realize her sexuality at an early age, and is given the opportunity to experiment and learn from her mistakes as she goes, taking lessons from each experience and adjusting accordingly. In the infancy of humankind, however, Eve is not given the leeway to learn from past errors, and her first encounter with her own sexuality comes at the hefty cost of the human race. Satan uses strong praise of her impressive physical beauty to distract Eve from God’s word; “So glozed the Tempter, and his proem tuned; Into the heart of Eve his words made way” (IX.549-550). Like Flanders– who comes to realize in quick order how beautiful she really is— Eve’s ego is appeased in a matter of moments, and she is unable to resist the compliments the serpent piles upon her, despite God’s fatalistic warnings.

After succumbing to Satan’s praises and the subsequent realization of her physical splendor, Eve returns to Adam, disgraced but unrepentant. With the air of innocence that had previously pervaded the Garden of Eden knocked clean away, Adam sees Eve in a different light for the first time. His first reaction, for a split second, is anger, disgusted with the weak will and vanity of his partner. Quickly overtaking Adam’s initial emotion, however, is sadness, as he cannot imagine living in the Garden without his love, and he asks rhetorically, “How can I live without thee, how forgo Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined, to live again in these wild woods forlorn” (IX.908-910)? At this point, Adam is faced with a species altering dilemma: He realizes that if he partakes of the fruit, in direct disobedience of God’s orders, he will be cast out of paradise and scorned by his Creator. On the other hand, if he refuses Eve, and stays pure, he will lose his only companion and the love of his life. Unwilling— or perhaps unable—to turn down Eve’s invitation, Adam relents, and, “She gave him of that fair enticing fruit with liberal hand: he scrupled not to eat against his better knowledge, not deceived, but fondly over come with female charm” (IX.996-999). Shortly thereafter, rejoined once more, this time in mutual sin, Adam and Eve engage in the consummation of their falling from God’s grace, as “Carnal desire inflaming, he on Eve began to cast lascivious eyes, she him as wantonly repaid; in lust they burn” (IX. 1012-1015). With the floodgates ripped wide open, there is nothing to stop the couple from satisfying their physical desires, and they fulfill said desires under the watchful eyes of God, soon to be relegated to a life of wandering.

Unlike Eve, Flanders’ actions are not as closely monitored, and she takes full advantage of her attractiveness, seeking out wealthy men, both for love, and more often than not, for financial gain. Her history of abandonment continues, and Moll finds herself married yet alone, an ironic twist that sours her on the sanctity of marriage. As she grows more and more frustrated with the unsuccessful nature of her love life, Flanders becomes cynical, and realizes that if she is being used, there is no reason not to take full advantage of the men who exploit her.

As with most qualities any given person may possess, the sexuality of a woman can be used constructively, as is the case of Moll Flanders, or it can be a destructive force, very powerful and capable of changing the tides, as we see in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Moll Flanders, written by Daniel Defoe, the title character is left with little more than her good looks, and she uses her limited resource to her advantage, parlaying her overt sexuality in order to rise through society. On the other hand, Eve is portrayed as a manipulative character, who uses her sexuality to corrupt and ultimately destroy Adam and the Garden of Eden. The sexuality of these two characters are quite similar, but a shown in very different ways. Nevertheless, one similarity that stands out is the vanity of both women, who realize their looks and femininity can overcome most anything, including, in the case of Eve, the word of God. And in the end, that is really all that must be said: A beautiful woman’s sexuality is so strong, so powerful, it can overcome even the direct edict of the Creator.

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Sexual Liberation Achieved in ‘Moll Flanders’. (2018, Jun 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 6, 2022, from
“Sexual Liberation Achieved in ‘Moll Flanders’.” GradesFixer, 13 Jun. 2018,
Sexual Liberation Achieved in ‘Moll Flanders’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 Aug. 2022].
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