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Book Review: Moll Flanders

It has always been my contention that while times change and the world does progress (even a sketchy analysis of history tells us that), human nature remains the same. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, written in 1722, supports that view.

In this novel, Moll (not her real name) tells her own difficult and sordid history that begins with her birth to a convicted thief in Newgate Prison. She becomes a ward of the state and after her early years with some gypsies, she is placed in the care of a kind and humane foster mother. The book follows her highs, which are quite lofty, and lows, which are quite sordid.

Despite her poor beginnings, though, many of her lows came of her own poor judgment. Defoe warns in his introduction not to glorify these choices, and the character herself often rails against her own decisions. Yet, through Moll, Defoe shows a fascination with the darker side of life and an understanding of this woman that fascinates me.

Defoe wrote the book at age sixty-two and had been imprisoned twice by that time, once for indebtedness and once for his politics. I imagine he met and spoke to many women like Moll since I’ve learned prisons in those days were not typically segregated by gender.
Moll Flanders as played by Alex

Mainly, the book features a flawed character who nonetheless is admirable for her spunk and determination in a world where all the cards are stacked against her. Not only is she lowborn, but she is a woman. Moll makes clear the yoke she is under two hundred years before women were deemed worthy of the right to vote. She is a person of remarkable insight.

Some examples of Moll’s wisdom include “She is always married too soon who gets a bad husband, and she is never married too late who gets a good one” and “From hence ’tis evident to me, that when once we are hardened to crime, no fear can affect us, no example give us any warning.” That second one explains why theft was rampant in an England where the penalty for the crime was hanging. It also explains why the death penalty today is no real deterrent.

This book has captivated me and I will read it again. The language is a challenge since the wording and syntax are somewhat archaic. It took me a couple of chapters to get used to it and I skimmed some, making sure I at least had the gist of the passages.

This aspect did not keep me from understanding and enjoying the story at all. I highly recommend this classic.

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