53 pages 1 hour read

Daniel Defoe

Moll Flanders

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1722

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1722, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe tells the life story of a woman who carves her own path through late 17th-century England and North America. Like Defoe’s first novel, Robinson Crusoe, this work also tells the tale of a singular individual who overcomes adversity—in her case, extreme poverty—to become considerably wealthy. Moll Flanders is a wife, a thief, a sex worker, and an impresario. She is exceptional—always prettier than her peers, always cleverer than the men who clamor after her, and always able to extricate herself from difficult situations. Moll narrates her picaresque adventures in first person, providing insight into her mind as well as her actions. Like most of Defoe’s fiction, Moll Flanders was published anonymously. Defoe’s name was not associated with the novel until after his death, most likely because of the scandalous nature of the material. Still, he created one of the most indelible characters in literature, whose moral choices are compromised by her circumstances. The many television and film adaptations of Moll Flanders are a testament to its enduring appeal.

All quotations in this guide refer to the Penguin paperback edition of 1984. This edition retains British spelling and rules of punctuation.

Content Warning: The novel contains depictions of incest, references to death by suicide, and discrimination and slurs against Romani people.

Plot Summary

Moll Flanders is born in Newgate prison. Her mother is spared the gallows by “plead[ing] her belly” (34)—demonstrating that she is pregnant—and instead is sent to work as an indentured servant in the North American colonies. Moll is primarily raised in a makeshift orphanage in England, where she is prepared to take on a life of service. At eight years old, Moll refuses to accept this lot and claims she will become a gentlewoman. As she grows older, her beauty and intelligence become apparent. She attracts the attention of the Mayor’s wife, who allows her daughters to train Moll in the manners and habits of a higher social class. Soon, Moll is taken in by another wealthy family, where she receives a suitable education.

The oldest son of the family, Robert, takes a liking to Moll. Over time, he seduces her, and after much resistance, she sleeps with him. All of Robert’s promises to marry her are hollow; he will not marry until he has inherited his estate. However, his younger brother, Robin, does wish to marry Moll. While she is alarmed at the thought of intimacy with two brothers, Robert encourages her to take the proposal. Moll understands that, without the security of marriage, she is doomed to poverty or working as a housemaid. She and Robin marry.

Robin dies after a five-year marriage, and Moll is left with a small inheritance. She rushes into a second marriage with a spendthrift who strips her of most of what she has. He flees, and Moll must once more seek out better circumstances. With the help of a friend, she circulates a rumor that she is a woman of means, which attracts men to court her. Her third husband has a plantation in Virginia, and when he discovers that Moll does not have a fortune of her own, he decides they must live in the colony. They cannot live as well in London on the modest income they command. The two set out for the plantation and live in Virginia for some years in peace and prosperity.

Moll becomes friendly with her mother-in-law, who lives with them on the plantation. Eventually, the woman tells her about the circumstances of her life: she was transported to the colonies after being sent to Newgate for thievery, having to give up the child she bore while in the prison. Moll realizes, with dawning horror, that the woman is her own mother. Her husband is actually her half-brother.

She cannot bear to sleep with him any longer, but she also fears telling him the truth. The change in her behavior is so great that he threatens to send her to an asylum. After much talking to her mother and agonizing in her own thoughts, she tells him the truth. He agrees to allow her to return to England, leaving her children behind.

On the voyage to England, a storm destroys Moll’s cargo, and she finds herself in difficult financial circumstances yet again. She goes to the city of Bath where she can live more cheaply and becomes entangled in an affair with a married man. He supports her financially for six years, and she bears him three children. However, after a serious illness brings him close to death, he repents of the affair and refuses to see Moll.

She, meanwhile, has been invited to Lancashire by a wealthy woman she meets in Bath—although, as she later discovers, under false pretenses. Before she leaves for the north, however, she meets with a banker. She wants to protect her remaining assets, which are now mostly in paper money. He quickly falls in love with her, but she will not consent to marry him until he has officially divorced his wife. He promises to contact her when all of the documents are complete.

When she arrives in Lancashire, she meets the woman’s brother, a dashing gentleman who owns an estate in Ireland. The two marry, only to learn that neither one of them has been honest about their financial circumstances, or anything else. They are both relatively poor, and the woman is not his sister but his former mistress. Moll, for her part, does not reveal the banker’s offer of marriage, nor does she reveal that she has money in the bank. The Lancashire husband resolves to leave Moll so he can find his fortune in Ireland. Moll tries to convince him to return to the colonies with her, as she knows there is money to be made on the plantations, but he does not want to travel that far.

Moll returns to London, ready to accept the banker’s offer, only to discover that she is pregnant. She will not consent to marry the banker while carrying another man’s child. She is taken in by Mother Midnight, whom she calls her governess. She operates a dubious business: she cares for women who are dealing with unwanted pregnancies, and she also sells unwanted babies. Moll quickly discovers that many of the women in her care are sex workers, though she is reticent to suggest that those sex workers are in the governess’s employ.

Once Moll delivers her son, she agonizes over what she must do. The governess assures her that she will find him a good home, and Moll can ensure he will be well taken care of as long as she sends along regular payments of support. Thus, Moll is free to marry the banker, and she spends several happy years with him, once again financially secure. Tragedy strikes again when his investments suddenly fail, and he loses most of his money. He becomes ill and dies. Moll is left once more to fend for herself.

At this point, Moll Flanders’s infamous life of crime begins. After a few petty thefts, she reconnects with Mother Midnight, who invites her to stay. She has turned pawnbroker and employs a band of thieves who roam the streets of London. Under her tutelage, Moll becomes one of the greatest thieves of the age. While many of her peers are caught and hanged, Moll eludes capture time and time again. She becomes a master of disguise, dressing as a wealthy widow, a beggar woman, and even a man. All of this secures her freedom and safety.

Still, Moll does not rely only on her skills or her disguises; she also embraces whatever opportunities happen her way. When she attends the local summer fair, she is accosted by a drunken gentleman, whom she then proceeds to rob. The governess arranges to return his valuables to him in exchange for money and then sets up another meeting with Moll. The man pays Moll to engage in sex with him. This arrangement continues for more than a year, during which Moll does not have to steal.

When the arrangement comes to an end, however, Moll must return to her trade. While she is still quite adept at the art of thievery, she becomes increasingly aware of the risks. She takes up a lawsuit against a false accusation, knowing that, if it went to court, her name would precede her, and therefore prohibit any restitution. She settles for a tidy sum. Between the suit and her continuing exploits, Moll is able to amass a decent fortune. Yet, she is always aware that fortunes can be lost in an instant, so she persists in her petty thievery.

Finally, she is caught entering a private home and attempting to take away some cloth. She is sent to Newgate, where she faces death by hanging. She begins to repent of her actions, but without much conviction, until she catches sight of her Lancashire husband being led into the prison. She blames herself for his predicament and begins to repent in earnest. The governess sends a minister to her who is so convinced of Moll’s new-found repentance that he pleads her case to the court. Her sentence is commuted to transportation to the colonies to work as an indentured servant. She visits her Lancashire husband after she is released from prison and convinces him to accept the same sentence.

They travel to Virginia. Because Moll still has some money, she is able to buy her way into pleasant quarters on the voyage and buy her and her husband’s freedom when they arrive. Moll then discovers that her mother has left her both an inheritance and a small plantation. She is reunited with her son, Humphry, who will manage the estate and provide her with the proceeds. She and the Lancashire husband also set up their own plantation in Maryland. The couple become very wealthy. After the terms of their indentured servitude expire, they return to England, where, Moll claims, they will both live in “sincere penitence” for the remainder of their days (317).