The eighteenth century is often thought of a time of pure reason; after all, the eighteenth century saw the Enlightenment, a time when people believed fervently in rationality, objectivity and progress. However, Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe also shows an era of chaos, depicted by a sort of wildness inside of people. Moll Flanders, the protagonist of Defoe's story, has been an orphan, a wife, mother, prostitute and a thief. Paula Backscheider (65) urges that Moll Flanders symbolizes the vicissitudes that were frequently experienced by many people in what was supposed to be an enlightened age. This is an obvious juxtaposition in Defoe's work. Defoe depicts a world that is not very compassionate, despite it being the Enlightenment period. Moll should have been better taken care of as an orphan, but she wasn't and this shows a complete lack of social responsibility on the government's side. There seems to be a contempt for the poor that goes against Enlightenment ideas, which is why Moll must struggle to survive, doing whatever it is that she must do -- including bending to the whims of men above her, prostituting herself, cheating, and stealing. Moll must use her body as a commodity, but the way the world around sees women's bodies, in general, especially destitute women, is that of a commodity; women's bodies are seen as sexual or they are seen as maternal, and for the women of lesser means, like Moll, questions arise concerning the purpose of her body and what it should be used for. It is not Enlightenment individualism that compels Moll in the novel, despite the fact that individual personalities seemed to define English prose during the eighteenth century (Dupre 81) (e.g., Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, etc.); it is, rather, vulnerability because of her sex and a Puritanical view of how women should behave.
Moll refers to herself repeatedly as a commodity and she essentially is because of how she uses her body to get money. However, it is the attitudes of the time, attitudes of contempt for the poor, and attitudes against women that force Moll to become a commodity. The Enlightenment period was about individualism, and Defoe does portray Moll as being quite self-reliant, however, enterprise does not have anything to do with personal satisfaction (Mowry 97). "On the contrary, throughout the novel, Defoe clearly represents 'enterprize' as an antidote to the vagaries and degradations of collective affiliation" (98). Moll's first sexual encounter with the eldest brother in the family in which she is a maid is a perfect example of her vulnerability. Rousseau and Porter (198) note that "vulnerability of female servants, many of whom were children, to sexual abuse in the work-place was…an established fact." They were vulnerable because of their situation as well as because of their sex. Moll Flanders was perfectly aware of this as she knows precisely what she is doing when she removes her maid from London before discharging her, as the unemployed female servant in London was commonly believed to be the chief contributor to the ranks of prostitution (Rousseau & Porter 198-199).
Moll continuously cheapens herself in the novel. At one point she recalls her fall from "Virtue" with regretful sarcasm, dismissing that "Trifle" virginity as a wasted asset that he had undervalued. "Nothing was ever so stupid on both Sides… In short, if he had known me, and how easy the Trifle he aim'd at was to be had, he would have troubled his Head no farther, but have given me four or five Guineas and have lain with me the next time he had come at me" (Defoe 25). Whenever Moll approaches the topic of her sexual history, she uses a "reductive skepticism not entirely truthful…explaining away desire in economic terms of necessity… By reducing desire to its materiality, Moll remains innocent, forgiven for what Defoe would surely attack in his tracts as conjugal and extra-conjugal lewdness" (Flynn 65).
In her first sexual encounter, Moll faces to big problems: how to manage in a world of snares and cheats and how to express herself along the way. Protection is simply not enough in this world. In her subsequent falls from virtue, Moll opens herself up to the experience she is trying to control (Flynn 65). A woman alone in the world, she rationalizes, "is just like a Bag of Money, or a Jewel dropt on the Highway, which is a Prey to the next Comer" (Defoe 128). To protect her wealth, she uses her sexuality, turning herself into a "snare," a "cheat," while giving into calculated desire (Flynn 65). Flynn (66) notes that Moll's discourse becomes doubled, turning on invoked loathing of actions that actually "fire" Moll's body and imagination. "His words I must confess fir'd my Blood; all my Spirits flew about my Heart, and put me into Disorder enough" (Defoe 22). While she fits the stereotype of the "green-sick maid," Moll corrects her passion, explaining that the money that comes to her confounds her altogether. Her color comes and goes when she sees a purse, "with the fire of hi Proposal together" (Defoe 29), to reflect Moll's deliberate union of the sensual and the material (Flynn 66).
Defoe has created a heroine who struggles with the issues of money and sex. There are some who would say that Moll's confusion about the two things occurs after that first sexual encounter, when she begins to use her body as a commodity; others will argue that Moll's confusion occurs much earlier in her life. As a young girl, the women in her neighborhood would give her money and clothes because she was so well behaved and beautiful and thus Moll comes to associate her beauty with capital. However, it is undoubtedly when Moll is seduced by the eldest brother for the family in which she is a maid, she realizes the worth of her body. "…tho' he took these Freedoms with me…he put almost a Handful of Gold in my Hand, and left me" (Defoe 25). It is at this moment that Moll transforms her sexuality as erotic appeal, to sexuality as a commodity for exchange. She realizes that she can depend on no person but herself and for this the reader is compelled to feel compassion for Moll. She looks at herself and contemplates what she can sell. She has beauty and she has her youth and these are the two characteristics she decides that she must capitalize upon. With every struggle that Moll goes through and her subsequent immoral actions, the reader is inclined to understand, if not completely excuse, what she is doing.
Moll is anonymous in London in that she has given herself a pseudonym and the underworld of London in which she dwells does not allow her to be weak -- ever. Defoe makes it clear in the novel that social position and money are what one needs for survival and, as Moll has neither, she must fight to secure some kind of stability in life. This fight usually involves selling her body, stealing and deceiving others for her own benefit. She is determined to find wealth and she must find her way in a man's world, which makes her plight all the more difficult. However, she is able to find her way in the world and by the end of her life she has found wealth and some form of security. In this sense, Moll is incredibly strong; she has persevered and made a life out of nothing.
It has been suggested that Defoe created male characters and put them in women's clothing and this makes sense as Moll is a character like none other of her time. Moll must oftentimes dress in men's clothing to carry out her criminal acts and so the reader begins to see her as being a bit manly. Undoubtedly, the men in her life have never been half as manly as she is; they have oftentimes let her down and she has taken the brunt of the ruin. Women at that time were controlled by men and their whims and men were able to destroy their wives' security if they themselves messed up. She dresses as a man and it can be suggested that Defoe did this to make a point about women. As it was the age of Enlightenment, perhaps he was taking a firm stand about the power of woman and how they are just as strong and capable of taking care of themselves as men, yet they are punished for acting the same as men. Society took away a woman's right to be educated and her right to have control over her own life and her own affairs. Moll can be viewed as Defoe's stance against the social injustice of their time.
There is a certain contradiction in Moll Flanders when it comes to the female body and the woman's sexual system. In looking for some kind of security, which women of that day were supposed to desire, she also…