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How viable is it to read Moll Flanders as a feminist text?

Daniel Defoe chose to write a book with a woman as the leading character of it. In fact, he writes it from the perspective of this woman. In order to do this and make the book seem more realistic, Defoe has to get into the psyche of the female mind and therefore adopt a persona that views the world the way a woman would see it. Of course, Defoe would have to use his own opinions of a woman’s thoughts to influence his writing.

The leading character

By making this woman the leading character, it is essential for him to give her a strong character, one that will be able to carry the book and make it appealing to the reader, who at the time Defoe was writing was part of a male-dominated society. This puts Defoe in a position where he has to write about a woman who is going to be independent of herself and therefore does not see the male as the dominant sex.

Has Defoe given himself no choice but to try to be feminist? Moll Flanders, which is a name given to her through her partners in crime, is surrounded by women from the start.

Indeed, there is no real male influence in her life for her first few years. Born in a prison in Newgate, there is no real mention of her father and her mother gives her away almost immediately. After passing through the hands of a group of gypsies, she ends up in the custody of a Nurse where she is treated and brought up well and receives a reasonable education.

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The fact that she decides not to live with the gypsies at the age of three is a sure sign that she is to be a heroine of sorts and a woman like no other.

The early years of Moll

Moll describes her childhood slightly vaguely, stating that she can’t remember that much about it. It might be a hint of feminism that she only remembers the women. It is interesting how men are not present in her childhood whereas when she grows up they appear in almost every episode of her adventure. It is also important to note in terms of Moll’s character that she is born an orphan and that she spends all of her life doing things for herself and thereby refusing to blend into society. She was in fact very proud to be seen as a great thief, this reputation having been gained from her working alone.

If she had been seen as anything else, Moll might not have considered her acts to be such an art form. She had to be something special and something different from everyone else. When Moll does find men whom she has a romantic interest in, Defoe refuses to let her dwell on it. She has five different husbands in her life and she doesn’t describe most of her relationships with any great passion. She barely feels hurt throughout the novel, and when she does it doesn’t last for very long at all. She is forced to give up her children on numerous occasions and she does this without revealing much guilt at all.

An image of a strong woman

Are these the characteristics that you’d expect from a woman, especially from one at this time? Defoe is building an image of a woman who is so strong that she possesses the characteristics that a male chauvinist would be proud to have. Perhaps the reason that Moll does not show any emotional weakness is because of her mother giving her up at birth. When the two meet again in America there is no real resentment from Moll’s part and the two agree a settlement on the mother’s will. This is key to Moll’s whole life as she is putting money before emotion.

This would be the equivalent to a present day business woman whom one would see as a strong feminist woman. Moll is also keen to tell her younger female readers ‘to Guard themselves against the Mischiefs which attend an early Knowledge of their own Beauty’1. This is her warning to girls that they must make sure that they don’t allow themselves to become mere slaves to men and thus become the inferior sex. This is Moll’s demonstration of her belief in the equality of the sexes, if not the more dominant one. Moll comes off as a very intelligent woman.

Instead of refusing to be downcast for great lengths of time after personal tragedies, she spends a lot of time calculating what action to take. One of the few times where she becomes morally unstuck is when she finds out that she is in fact married to her half-brother. After a brief moment of shock and despair she calmly ponders her next move. Defoe uses this event to mark a contrast between men and women. It may only be just for the book but Defoe has Moll as strong and resilient after her discernment whilst her husband/half-brother breaks down and finds it impossible to cope with.

Women are more than a match for men

Is Defoe favouring the female sex by filling his story with degrading examples of men or does he just want Moll to demonstrate that women are more than a match for men? Whatever it is, he appears to offering some very feministic views at times. However, Defoe does degrade Moll to a certain extent in this episode by having her try to gain as much money from her half-brother as possible through his guilt, and therefore treats her like a prostitute. Moll’s intelligence is also evident when it comes to her relationship with a gentleman in London.

There is a brief glimpse into her moral side as she is reluctant at first to take money from him. Although when she finally accepts his offer she realises that it is essential for her to start saving her money as security with this man is not guaranteed to last forever, especially considering he was married. Her lust and need for money has forced her to look for opportunities where she might be able to prosper financially and she does not let her emotions to get in the way of this.

The only real characteristic is that she is corrupt

One of the few women that Moll meets in her adulthood is the one who tells her to move up north where there are many rich men available to marry. The only real characteristic that we manage to grasp from this woman is that she is corrupt. Defoe associates this harsh image with women in the book so as to give them an added impetus. It may be interpreted as a feminist image or as an attack on women; however, it is more likely to be the former. The man she meets up north is Jemy, a man who is very similar to Moll in his ways and hence the reason why she develops an affection for him like no one else in the book.

Although it is the money that drew her to him at first, she finds out about his poverty and schemes to get rich and this forms a basis for emotional attraction when they meet later on. Moll’s choice to pursue a career in crime enhances her strength in character as it gives her a certain evil prowess and fills her with a sense of power. It would seem not in keeping with the rest of the story for Defoe to have her do anything traditional such as needlework. Her capture and entrance into prison does evoke perhaps the most emotional part of the book as Defoe describes the harsh reality of it all.

Do we feel sorry for Moll even though we know that she deserves it? This is probably Defoe’s intention as he later has her sentence reduced and would mean that we have been won over by Moll’s feminist powers. Moll repents her sins, perhaps another ploy of Defoe’s to gain sympathy, and this signals a change in character as she turns to develop her emotions more towards Jemy and to settle down in life. This is not a conclusion the reader expects as Moll had been portrayed as such an independent and fascinating woman.

The novel is after all purely about a woman and her journey through life

It doesn’t seem right for her to put all her misdemeanours in the past and be paired off romantically when romance was something she never really took an interest in. It is only natural to read into the text and label parts as feminist. The novel is after all purely about a woman and her journey through life. Daniel Defoe has decided to write about a woman in a time when they were not seen to be an equal to men. In order to pull this off he has had to create a character who epitomises strength in personality and one who is not afraid to put herself out there and get hurt.

This fearlessness is the reason why Moll doesn’t get hurt and so we are presented with a stubborn and brave character whom we are forced to like, whatever she may have done or what sex she is. It is possible therefore to assume that Defoe is not trying to create a feminist view on life but instead give his reader the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a woman who stands up to society and does not let herself have her life dictated for her. This is probably Defoe’s aim but it would not be wrong to see it as a feminist work.

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How viable is it to read Moll Flanders as a feminist text?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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