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Virtuous Women? -- Moll Flanders and Pamela
Both Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders and Samuel Richardson's Pamela tell the tales of what the (male) authors perceive as extraordinary lives of two virtuous but lower class women. However, for Richardson, Pamela's virtue is defined solely in terms of her ability to resist the sexual advances of her employer, Mr. B. The novel evolves through a series of eloquent letters whereby poor Pamela is pursued, spied upon and conspired against in the B. family home and country estate, all the while the girl attempts to retain her virginity, even going so far as to hide in the bed of another female servant's to do so. Daniel Defoe's Moll is subject to more economic and worldly hardships, and her virtue is defined not in terms of her resistance and denial of her body and sexual circumstances but in terms of her openness to others, her kindness, and her ability to shift with her circumstances. Moll is a good person, therefore she is a virtuous woman in the eyes of the reader (and however grudgingly, in the eyes of her creator), while Pamela is a chaste woman, therefore in the author's eyes she is a virtuous woman.
The narrative structures of the two novels contribute to this different definition of virtue in both texts. Moll Flanders is a retrospective or fictional autobiography told in a reminiscing form, from the point-of-view of a woman who is imprisoned, thus it is a coherent and unbroken tale unlike the fragmented, epistolary style of Richardson. Moll is making a confession in jail to a confessor, thus she is ostensibly repenting of her past misdeeds, but also unblinkingly looking death full in the face, with middle-aged eyes upon youthful indiscretions. "The author is here supposed to be writing her own history," writes Defoe in his introduction, and excuses any sexual, corrupting influence the text might have on its reader by noting, "When a woman debauched from her youth, nay, even being the offspring of debauchery and vice, comes to give an account of all her vicious practices ... An author must be hard put to it wrap it up so clean as not to give room, especially for vicious readers, to turn it to his disadvantage ... To give the history of a wicked life repented of, necessarily requires that the wicked part should be make as wicked as the real history of it will bear, to illustrate and give a beauty to the penitent part, which is certainly the best and brightest, if related with equal spirit and life." (Defoe, Chapter 1, http://www.online-literature.com/defoe/moll_flanders/1/) However, Moll also has nothing to lose, as she is preparing for death, in being fully honest about her life, both in the religious sense that she must make a confession of all of her past sins, and also because she stands a chance, if she seems sufficiently repentant to be pardoned, as was her mother.
Richardson also writes in the prologue to his novel that his text's project is "to divert and entertain, and at the same time to instruct, and improve the minds of the youth of both sexes." Pamela, however, is immediately involved in the sexual dance of her employer at the beginning of the text, and is shown speaking to her employer Mr. B who clearly desires her sexually. Unlike Moll, she has been protected from the demands of the world, being quite cosseted by her former, now deceased employer Mrs., and as a young woman, she had an incentive to seem innocent and protect her image of chastity, unlike Moll who has more to gain by exposing her evident past transgressions.
Hence, both women have self-interested reasons for the postures of sin and virtue they adopt. Of course, it might be objected that the end of the tale and Defoe's initial set up of the dale merely makes Moll example of the framing author's crude morality and Puritanism. But Moll's repentance at the end and her salvation from the gallows just as easily strikes the reader as yet another example of Moll's virtuous resilience and resistance to potential downturns in her life. She meets every venture of the world with cheer and good nature, and even though she is venial, she never blames other people for her misdeeds, even while she takes advantage of other people's innocence as a thief. Although the world corrupts Moll, it is a corrupting world that is also to blame as well as the individual soul.
For instance, at the beginning of the tale, Moll is in a similar circumstance as Richardson's Pamela -- she is friendless, in a house of her employer, and desired by those who have power over her fate. At first, she resists: "I struggled to get away, and yet did it but faintly neither, and he held me fast, and still kissed me, till he was almost out of breath," she writes. But eventually Moll acquiesces from desire and hope for financial stability, for unlike Pamela, the way she tells her tale assures the reader she has a clear idea of what true poverty and starvation is like, even at a young age, having been born in the gallows and raised by gypsies. Moll has not been selected for improving favoritism, even though she is well liked by her female employer.
Also, the friendless nature of the young woman suggests that she is hungry for affection. 'Dear Betty, I am in love with you.' ... His words, I must confess, fired my blood; all my spirits flew about my heart and put me into disorder enough, which he might easily have seen in my face. He repeated it afterwards several times, that he was in love with me, and my heart spoke as plain as a voice, that I liked it; nay, whenever he said, 'I am in love with you,' my blushes plainly replied, 'Would you were, sir.' (Defoe, Chapter 4, http://www.online-literature.com/defoe/moll_flanders/4/) Unlike the favored Pamela, who still has parents and the motherly protections of the elderly servant Mrs. Jarvis, Moll has no one to turn to call her their daughter during her first debauchery and seduction by her husband's employer, hence her more permeable virtue
Moll is still virtuous, in Defoe's depiction, because her follies come from a simple, human desire for affection, and also to preserve her life, in a world that has stripped her naked of all of the conventional ties of family from a young age. And in fact, even though it does not end well, her submission to the elder son's affections of her first guardian does gain her some initial stability, as the younger son steps in to ask for her hand. Fate thus guides Moll's ability to mimic conventional virtues as well as her inner compass. Even when Moll tries to be strictly virtuous in a conventional marriage, she accidentally ends up marrying her brother, because she never knew who her mother was. When she learns of this Moll leaves her family and her only living tie, her mother, because when she learns she has involuntarily committed incest, her own moral approbation is aroused -- another indication she is a basically good person, despite the fact that conventional morality might say otherwise.
Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela has the significant subtitle of Virtue Rewarded (1740) and upholds more conventional standards of morality between the classes. By withholding sexual affections, and holding back from participating in life and love, the colder Pamela gains marriage, respectability, and the status of being virtuous as deemed by her creator. Rather that being narrated in the voice of an older, wiser adult looking back on youthful folly, Pamela is full of the heated exchanges of the moment -- Pamela does not know where she is going in…[continue]
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