Moll Flanders (Review)

Labels: Great Works

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Moll Flanders: The History and the Misfortunes of the Famoius Moll Flanders
Daniel Defoe, 1721
368 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
June 2014

Virginia Woolf referred to Moll Flanders as one of the "indisputably great" novels of the English language. Yet not everyone thought (or thinks) so. Defoe was one of the founders of the new-fangled novel in the 17th century, and after more than 300 years of practice, it's tempting to find fault with those early steps. And so we do, but all the while admiring Defoe's brilliance.

Still, no one disputes this single fact: Moll Flanders herself remains one of the most dazzling heroines of all time.

Moll is beautiful, brilliant, and bad—forever primed for the main chance and quick to hatch a scam. We see her self-rationalizations for what they are; even she seems skeptical of her own justifications.

Still, we root for Moll every step of the way. That is her brilliance.

Born in Newgate prison, she is taken into a prosperous home at the age of 10 where she grows into a young woman of considerable talent and beauty. The family is home to two brothers...and you will guess what happens. Never one to let a good opportunity pass her by, Moll eventually triumphs. But only for a time. Here, in her own words, is her summation:

My course of life for forty years [has] been a horrid complication of wickednes, whoredom, adultery, incest, lying, theft; and, in a word, everything but murder and treason had been my practice from the age of eighteen or thereabouts....

Moll Flanders is very much a social novel. Peering beneath the dressed-up version of British society, Defoe exposes its unsavory underpinnings—the desperation of the poor, the vulnerability of women and children, and brutality of the prison system. Moll falls victim to it all, and Defoe's readers view it through her eyes.

If you take Defoe on, be prepared for the verbal excesses of 18th-century writing. Yet, despite its wordiness, Moll Flanders remains fresh and exciting. With Moll on your arm, there 's never a dull moment. Oh...and does she repent at the end? It's up to you to say.

See our Reading Guide for Moll Flanders.

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