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Content Warnings: Sexual assault, incest, poverty, references to prostitution, death of a loved one, death penalty, colonialism
What It’s About:
“I am giving an account of what was, not of what ought or ought not to be.”
Born in Newgate Prison, but raised by a wealthy and charitable family, Moll Flanders dreams of rising above the lowly position in which she entered the world. However, she soon learns that society is not built for the survival of a woman, especially when she lacks a husband to depend on.
If she’s to get on in the world, Moll Flanders must rely only on her own wit, toughness and experience. And, as one misfortune after another is thrown her way, that’s precisely what she intends to do…
First Page Impressions
I was immediately drawn to the character of Moll Flanders, who is rather unconventional for a book written and set in early 18th century British society!
Defoe puts a female-centric spin on the traditional picaresque novel, presenting in Moll a strong woman who does what she has to do to survive in a society that has been against her since birth.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Janet Suzman and I would highly recommend it, as the narrator created a very authentic feel, as if I was sat in a drawing room with Moll Flanders herself recounting her life story.
Final Page Reflections
The character growth of Moll Flanders was definitely my favourite element of the book. It was deliciously subversive to watch her move away from innocence, towards experience and grit.
However, once our protagonist reached this point some parts of the novel began to feel repetitive, despite the fact that it’s not particularly long: around 400 pages. The story also started to stretch the bounds of realism, with Moll Flanders marrying (often dubious) men five times in pretty quick succession!
Diversity and Representation
Moll Flanders is a refreshing challenge to misogynistic narratives of the 18th century. She is openly defiant of social control, including the unspoken laws surrounding morality and sexuality. The novel was even banned for obscenity in the USA in 1873!
Yet the narrative is framed in a way that takes the edge off this defiance – Moll’s tale is presented as autobiographical, recalled by a penitent old woman who wishes her sins to serve as a warning to young ladies. Could this framing be a satirical cover that allowed Defoe to get his novel published in the first place?
- Money and wealth
- Sexuality and gender
- Social class
Beyond the Book
The character of Moll Flanders has become written into popular imagination. The most famous film version, released in 1996, stars Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman, plus there have been a number of stage adaptations too!
- What do you think Defoe is trying to say about morality? Is morality a luxury?
- Is Moll Flanders, in your opinion, a satirical novel? Is the protagonist held up as a moral warning, or is she really a role model of female power in the face of injustices?
- Did you find Moll Flanders a sympathetic character? Did your opinion change throughout the book?
“She is always married too soon, who gets a bad husband, and she is never married too late, who gets a good one.”
Read if: You’re keen to read a classic that breaks so many 18th century moulds.
Buy Now from Better World Books:
If you enjoyed Moll Flanders, I can highly recommend Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
Have you read Moll Flanders? What’s your favourite classic novel featuring a strong female lead? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!