Header Ads

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe - Summary

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe - Summary

Section 1 (Moll's childhood)

Moll Flanders (which isn't her true name, she tells us) is born in Newgate prison to a mother who is a convicted felon. Her mother had "pleaded her Belly," then was granted a reprieve until her child was born. When Moll is six months old, her mother is transported to America as punishment for her crime, leaving her infant daughter "a poor desolate Girl without Friends, without Cloaths, without Help or Helper in the World." Moll's earliest childhood memory is of wandering with a band of gypsies at the age of three. She separates herself from the gypsies in Colchester, where she is taken up by the town magistrates as a charity case. They place her with a nurse, a local woman who "got a little Livelihood by taking such as I was suppos'd to be, and keeping them with all Necessaries, till they were at a particular Age, in which it'd be suppos'd they might attend Service, or get their own Bread." This honest and kind woman provides Moll with a fairly good upbringing and gives her a rudimentary education.

When Moll reaches the age (eight years) at which she is supposed to seek employment as a servant, she protests tearfully that she would rather stay with her current mistress. She could earn her keep doing needlework, she entreats, explaining (without really knowing what the word means) that she wants to be "a gentlewoman." The childish innocence of this unreasonable ambition amuses her mistress and neighbors to no end, and she actually becomes something of a local celebrity. She is allowed to continue in her current situation, and several rich ladies begin to act as her benefactors, occasionally giving her money and clothes. When the nurse dies, Moll (now fourteen years old) goes to live with one of these prominent families. She continues her education alongside the daughters of this family, learning to sing, dance, and speak French.


Section 2 (Moll's first lover and first marriage)

Moll is growing into a very beautiful young woman, and she becomes vain of her appearance. The two sons of her adopted family begin to take notice of Moll (who at this time is known as "Mrs. Betty"). The eldest son is of a worldly and dissolute character. He flatters and flirts with Moll and eventually seduces her--which, as Moll confesses, was actually not all that difficult a task. They become regular lovers, and he gives her quite a bit of money in exchange for her sexual favors. She believes, however, that he means to marry her, and so she is bewildered when the younger brother, Robert (also called "Robin"), makes her a marriage proposal as well. Robert, captivated by Moll's beauty, wants to wed her immediately and without regard for the certain disapproval of his family and friends. Because he makes no secret of his desires, his mother and sisters start to treat Moll gruffly and even begin to talk of turning her out of the house.

Moll consults with the elder brother about how to handle the situation. Much to her surprise, her current lover encourages her to accept Robert's offer. He obviously sees this marriage as an easy way of extricating himself from a potentially embarrassing liaison. Moll, however, is aghast at this suggestion; she feels herself bonded to the elder brother indissolubly, and she admonishes him "to remember the long Discourse you have had with me, and the many Hours pains you have taken to persuade me to believe myself an honest woman, that I was your Wife intentionally, though not in the eye of the World, and that it was as effectual a wedding that had pass'd between us as if we had been publicly Wedded by the Parson of the Parish." She realizes that if she marries the younger brother, she will have been nothing but a prostitute to the elder: "If I have been persuaded to believe that I am really, and in the Essence of the Thing your Wife, shall I now give the Lye to all those Arguments, and call myself your Whore, or Mistress, which is the same thing?"


Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe - Summary

The shock of this whole series of developments throws Moll into a fever, from which she takes five weeks to recover. The family's concern over their younger son's attachment to Moll becomes increasingly obvious during this period, and they interrogate her repeatedly about his advances and her own intentions. She first claims that Robert is not serious, and then declares that she would never marry him against the family's wishes. Robert presses his family for their consent, believing that then Moll will marry him. His older brother aids him in this campaign, urging both Moll and his mother to agree to the wedding. He tries to work on Moll without having to violate his promises explicitly, but finally he makes her understand that he will have nothing more to do with her, whether she marries Robert or not. She begins to see the true contours of the situation, and when the mother eventually consents, she agrees to marry Robert. The older brother arranges things so that Robert is in too much of "a Fuddle" on his wedding night to know that his bride is not a virgin. Moll has no love for Robert and continues to cherish a flame for her first lover. Her husband dies after five years, and their two children are sent to live with Robert's parents.


Section 3 (Moll marries the draper, and then her half-brother)

Moll suddenly finds herself a wealthy widow (she has saved 1200 pounds of the cash her first lover gave her), alone in London, and "still Young and Handsome." She is courted by several men before she marries a draper, a tradesman who strikes her as being "something of a Gentleman too." His extravagant expenditures soon cast them into poverty, however. He is arrested and then escapes from prison and flees to France. This leaves Moll in a strange predicament: "I found I could hardly muster up 500 l. and my condition was very odd, for tho' I had no Child,...yet I was a Widow bewitched, I had a Husband, and no Husband, and I could not pretend to Marry again, tho' I knew well enough my Husband would never see England anymore." She decides, accordingly, to dress as a widow and start a new life under the assumed name "Mrs. Flanders." She soon finds herself among a miserable, "wicked" company of men and doesn't feel inclined to return any of their attentions.

Moll reflects on the acute disadvantage women are at in the marriage market. Her own situation is such that it "made the offer of a good Husband the most necessary Thing in the World to me," but the people with whom she is acquainted all know that she has no fortune, a handicap over which "Being well Bred, Handsome, Witty, Modest and agreeable" cannot prevail. Moll gets help from an acquaintance, who carries her into the country where, together, they cultivate the public misinformation that Moll has a fortune of 1500 pounds. Moll then finds herself courted by a plantation owner and, during a flirtatious game, tricks him into saying that he would marry her even if she were penniless. Once they are married, he bears the news that she is actually poor with relative equanimity, stating "that indeed he thought it had been more, but that if it had been less he didn't repent his bargain; only that he shouldn't be able to maintain me so well as he intended." In light of their reduced prospects, he expresses the wish to move to Virginia, where his plantations are, and where his mother and sister live. Moll agrees.

The whole family is getting along well in America, and Moll "thought myself the happiest creature alive; when an odd and surprising Event put an end to all that Felicity in a moment, and rendered my Condition the most uncomfortable, if not the most miserable, in the World." While her new mother-in-law is telling some stories, Moll suddenly realizes that the woman is really her own mother by birth, which she has inadvertently married her half-brother. Appalled in this moment of recognition, she hesitates to reveal her discovery to her husband; she knows only that she cannot continue in the marriage. She insists on being allowed to return to England--without giving a true reason--and her husband refuses. They quarrel regularly and start to be on very bad terms. Finally Moll confides in her mother-in-law/mother, who recommends that she "bury the whole thing entirely" and still live as before. She also promises to supply for Moll in her will. Moll is too disgusted at the thought of "lying with my own brother" even to think about this option. She finally tells her husband/brother the entire story, and therefore the news throws him "into a long lingering Consumption." Moll once again demands to travel to England, and he is in no condition to resist. After eight years in America she sails for home, and she and her husband consider their marriage effectively dissolved.


Section 4 (Moll has an affair with a married man)

Moll arrives safely in London but finds that a number of her possessions have been destroyed in transit. With those goods, she says, "I might have married again tolerably well; but as it was I was reduc'd to between two or three hundred pounds in the whole...[and] entirely without Friends." She sets up residence at Bath, which turns out to be a place "where Men find a Mistress sometimes, but very rarely look for a Wife." She does, however, become the platonic companion of a Gentleman whose company she particularly enjoys. He turns out to be a fairly wealthy man, and Moll finds out that he is in fact married, but that his wife has gone mad.

This gentleman-friend inquiries into Moll's financial situation, offering to help her if she is in need. Moll hesitates at first to accept any money from him despite the urging of her landlady, who tells Moll that she "ought to expect some Gratification from him for [her] company." Finally she does take his money. He invites her to move to London with him, but then he falls ill. She nurses him for five weeks, during which time their familiarity increases. Finally, after a journey to Bristol in which they are forced to sleep in the same room, their reserve falls away and they become lovers. "Thus the government of our Virtue was broken and I exchang'd the Place of Friend for that unmusical harsh-sounding Title of Whore."

Moll has several children by this man, and he dutifully supports both her and them. "Now I was indeed at the height of what I might call my prosperity," Moll relates, "and I wanted nothing but to be a Wife, which however could not be in this Case." She saves her money, knowing that her prosperous situation may not continue indefinitely. Because of the imperative to secrecy, Moll lives a fairly solitary life except for the company of her lover: "I kept no Company but in the Family where I Lodg'd,...so that when he was absent I visited no Body, nor did he ever find me out of my Chamber or Parlor whenever he came down; if I went anywhere to take the Air it was always with him." After six years "in this happy but unhappy Condition," Moll's lover falls into a "Distemper." For months she has little news of him. Finally he explains that he has had a religious experience in which, finding himself "at the very brink of Eternity," he repented of his sinful and adulterous conduct. Giving her a final sum of money, he resolves to see her no more. Moll plays on his guilt and pity to extract some further payments from him, on the agreement that he will then be released from all further obligations.


Section 5 (The banker, and Moll's Lancashire husband)

"I was now a single Person again," Moll remembers, "loose'd from all the Obligations either of Wedlock or Mistresship in the World." She has 450 pounds to her name, but at forty-two years old she is aware that her assets of personal beauty are in decline. She knows what she wants ("to be placed in a settled State of living") but says she does not know how to attain that end. What she really means is that no easy opportunity presents itself, and so she sets out to create a chance. Moll again allows people to think she is richer than she is. She meets and befriends a woman who carries herself like a gentlewoman and who encourages Moll to move to the North Country, where the cost of living is lower and where, she hints, there are plenty of rich husbands to be found. Moll decides to take her up on this offer, except that she needs someone to look after her finances in London. She is referred to a banker, who offers to handle her money for her and then offers to marry her in the bargain. He is married already, as it turns out, but his wife has been cheating on him. He is wealthy and congenial, and Moll agrees to consider his proposal if and when he can obtain a legal divorce. In the meantime, she still means to travel north, stating, "I made no scruple in my Thoughts of quitting my honest Citizen, who I was not so much in love with, as not to leave him for a Richer."


Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe - Summary

In Lancashire, Moll is introduced to Jemy, who poses as her friend's brother and who supposedly has a great estate in Ireland. He understands from his "sister" (who is really his accomplice) that Moll has a fortune. He courts her in grand style, and at great personal expense. Not until they have been married for a month does Moll's actual poverty come to light. Jemy then is forced to reveal his own fraudulence. He has no Irish estate; he has in fact wasted his last pennies trying to impress Moll and was counting on her supposed fortune to revive himself to solvency. "We are married here upon the foot of a double Fraud," Moll tells him; "you are undone by the disappointment it seems, and if I had had a Fortune I had been cheated too, for you say you have nothing." They discuss various get-rich-quick schemes to alleviate their distress, but Moll wakes up the next morning to find her husband gone. She is quite forlorn: "Nothing that ever befel me in my Life sunk so deep into my Heart as this Farewel." He soon returns, but Moll cannot persuade him to stay. He heads off to try his luck in Ireland, in spite of all her protestations. If he meets with any success there, he tells her, he'll look her up.


Section 6 (Moll marries the banker)

Moll returns to London intending to find the banker, who has been writing her letters weekly and who knows nothing of her marriage to Jemy. When she realizes she is pregnant, however, she has to stall her husband-to-be so as not to give herself away. During this inconvenient pregnancy Moll falls under the care of a street-wise woman whom she will later call "my Governess." This woman orchestrates all the details of Moll's confinement and arranges for the hasty dispatch of the infant once it is born. Moll is then free to marry her banker, who in the meantime has succeeded in divorcing his wife.

She arranges to meet the banker outside of London in order to preserve the appearance that she is just returning from Lancashire. He persuades her to marry him that very night, and a minister is called to the inn to do the offices. The next morning Moll happens to look out the window and is surprised to see her Lancashire husband, Jemy, in the company of two other men. She is later questioned by the police, who are looking for three highwaymen. She throws them off the trail, assuring them that she knows one of those three to be a very respectable gentleman.

Moll returns to London with her new husband, where she says she "took Possession at once of a House well Furnish'd, and a Husband in very good Circumstances, so that I had a prospect of a very happy Life, if I knew how to manage it." They lead a pleasing and cozy existence, if a solitary one (Moll still insists that she had no friends and "kept no Company" at that time). After five years, however, Moll's husband loses a great deal of cash in a financial speculation, falls into despair, and eventually dies. Moll is left alone and impoverished once again.


Section 7 (Moll begins a life of crime)

Moll lives for two years in a hopeless and lonely state of ever-increasing poverty. One night she wanders out with no particular aim and happens upon an unguarded package. "This was the Bait," she recounts, "and the Devil who...laid the Snare, as readily prompted me, as if he had spoke, for I remember, and shall never forget it, 'twas like a Voice spoken to me over my Shoulder, take the Bundle; be quick; do it this Moment." She steals the package and then wanders around in "Horror of...Soul" and "Terror of Mind." Her severe poverty soon reconciles her to the act, however, and she becomes a regular thief. Moll has a particular eye for an opportunity--and quite good luck as well--and soon has a substantial store of stolen goods. Not knowing where to market them, she returns to her "old Governess," who has since fallen on hard times and become a pawn-broker.

Moll entertains the hope that her Governess might be able to help her find some honest employment, "but here she was deficient; honest Business did not come within her reach." She does finally find a little sewing work, but still feels the periodic urge to walk out on stealing expeditions; it becomes plain that she has begun to enjoy them. After becoming the mistress of a baronet for a brief period, Moll returns to crime. She soon begins to collaborate openly with her Governess in her thieving and becomes acquainted with other local criminals as well. She learns a few tricks of the trade from veteran thieves and pickpockets, and her skill quickly surpasses their own. Although she sometimes enters into partnerships, Moll prefers to work alone, and she soon gains some renown as a master thief. In the period of her greatest notoriety she is given the name "Moll Flanders."

Moll sees a number of her "Comerades" sent to Newgate prison and even executed, and she has several close calls herself. The sense of danger she derives from these experiences makes her more careful--she begins to don disguises and occasionally leaves London when things get too hot--but she is never seriously deterred from her life of crime. If anything, the risk seems to feed her addiction. Moll once gets arrested by mistake, and she even manages to turn that to her own advantage. Finally, however, Moll is caught in the act of stealing some fabric, and they cart her off to Newgate.


Section 8 (Moll in Newgate)

Moll describes Newgate as the very pit of hell: "'tis impossible to describe the terror of my mind, when I was first brought in, and when I look'd round upon all the horrors of that dismal Place: I look'd on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of, but of going out of the World, and that with the utmost Infamy; the hellish Noise, the Roaring, Swearing and Clamour, the Stench and Nastiness, and all the dreadful croud of Afflicting things that I saw there; joyn'd together to make the Place seem an Emblem of Hell itself, and a kind of Entrance into it." Moll's fear of the prison launches her into a posture of repentance, and she spends several sleepless nights tormented by her conscience as well as by the mockery of her fellow inmates. However, she soon grows accustomed to her new surroundings. Moll's Governess, having heard of her capture, comes to advocate on her behalf with the prison officials and with the prosecution. Moll realizes during this tense period that her first repentance had not been sincere, but rather "only the Effect of my Fear of Death." While she still anticipates a death sentence, she finds that she can muster very little remorse--even though she acknowledges that her life has been "a horrid Complication of Wickedness, Whoredom, Adultery, Incest, Lying, Theft, and in a Word, everything but Murther and Treason."


Jemy, Moll's Lancashire husband, soon appears in the prison as well, finally having been caught at his highwayman's trade. She is surprised to feel a resurgence of guilt at her deception of him, in spite of the fact that he had deceived her equally. She still feels no real remorse for her crimes, though, even when her death sentence is handed down. Her Governess, who had become a "true penitent" herself, sends for a minister for Moll. With his help, Moll finally repents of her misdeeds. He eventually manages to have her sentence reduced to transportation to America. At this point, Moll finds Jemy and urges him to try for transportation as well, convincing him that going to America will offer the best chance for both of them to get a fresh start. He succeeds in this, and they manage to get passage on the same ship, where with their combined assets they are able to purchase good treatment on the voyage and to stock themselves with the implements and supplies they will need to set up a plantation in the colonies.


Section 9 (Moll and Jemy in America, and conclusion)

Moll and Jemy land safely in Virginia, but Moll knows she cannot stay there due to the chance of running into her Virginia relatives. She is led by curiosity to inquire after her mother and brother, and she learns that the old woman is dead and that her former husband, who lives on a nearby plantation with their son Humphrey, has gone almost blind and a little bit crazy. Seeing her son from a distance, Moll goes into a rapture of filial emotion: she can barely restrain herself from embracing him, and feels moved to kiss the ground where he has walked.

Remembering her mother's promise to provide for her in her will, Moll tries to devise a way to collect her inheritance without exposing herself. She has concealed her earlier ill-fated marriage from Jemy; he knows only that she has relatives in the area who ought not to know of their current shame. She cannot therefore let Jemy into all the particulars of her current dilemma over the inheritance, but tells him as much as he needs to know to agree with her that they ought to move elsewhere. They settle themselves on a farm in Maryland, and then Moll returns to Virginia to pursue the inheritance. She writes a letter to her brother, which her son receives first. He is moved deeply by the rediscovery of his lost mother and receives her passionately and with great generosity. Without informing his father of anything that passes between them, he makes arrangements for Moll to receive the yearly income of the estate her mother has left her. She returns to Maryland laden with her son's gifts and in a fair way to make a great success in the New World. After her brother dies, Moll invites Humphrey to visit in Maryland, pretending to have married Jemy only recently. She also tells Jemy the whole story of her Virginia relations, and thus frees herself from all her lies and entanglements. Moll returns to England at the age of seventy, where she and Jemy "resolve to spend the remainder of our Years in sincere Penitence, for the wicked Lives we have lived."

Moll Flanders - Character List

Moll Flanders as a realistic novel

Post a Comment