Moll Flanders: Money, Sexuality and Philosophical Views of Issues Raised
What are the lessons to be learned from the novel Moll Flanders -- the lessons in terms of historical relevance, social values, personal values and goals, and of the need for a survivable, solid income for each individual? How is philosophy tied into those lessons? And what do philosophers Immanuel Kant and Carole Pateman contribute to the overall understanding of what is presented in the novel? What
This paper proposes to offer insights on -- and germane examples of -- human behavior patterns and the philosophical view of how to interpret those behaviors. This paper will not moralize, or take strong positions on one side or another; on the contrary, the materials presented will attempt to first digest and then represent what the novel and the philosophers' views have to offer the reader.
After all, a novel written 232 years ago, in 1772, is not "contemporary" in a literal sense; and yet the characters are certainly members of the human society and their acts and behaviors have applications and lessons for this generation and future generations. The way in which this story is presented to the reader is very natural, and, except for obvious dated items and events, uses a style that might have been read in the New York Times Magazine two months ago.
This paper proposes to delve into the situations -- sometimes ludicrous, often times bizarre -- and look at those scenarios through the eyes of an interested reader and through the interpretations of philosophy.
The straight-forward style of Defoe allows his characters and theme to emerge and be understood
Indeed, the novelist, Daniel Defoe, son of a butcher and trained as a minister (albeit never practiced that profession), according to W.H. Davies, demonstrates his craft efficiently and tells stories so well that his story of Moll Flanders " ... moves on it such a natural way that no reader can doubt its being a true history"; further, it appears Defoe "moves with so much ease [in his writing] that we never get the impression that he has an overtrained mind," according to the Introduction (Davies, ix).
One can learn from the way this book is written, Davies continues (xii), because "There is not one page in Moll Flanders that does not contain one or more passages that could be quoted as an example of clear and simple beauty." An example of that simple beauty (xii) Davies' extols is found in this passage, when Moll is but a little girl but not yet sophisticated enough to understand what being a "gentlewoman" really means.
'As for my money, I gave it all to my mistress-nurse, as I called her, and told her she should have all I got for myself when I was a gentlewoman, as well as now ... [and] my old tutoress began to understand me about what I meant by being a gentlewoman, and that I understood by it no more than to be able to get my bread by my own work ... "
Davies is commenting here on the writing which shares for the read the combined simplicity and beauty of a young girl who says she thinks being a gentlewoman means earning her money on her own, notwithstanding her youthfulness.
The author's philosophy: tongue-in-cheek polemics or literary honesty?
On page xv of The Preface, Defoe prepares the reader for some of the rather raw and sexually aggressive behaviors of his protagonist, Moll: "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, and even to descend to the particular occasions and circumstances by which she first became wicked ... An author must be hard put to it to wrap it up so clean as to not give room, especially for vicious readers, to turn it to his disadvantage."
This is, on one level a pretty thin excuse for an author to be portraying some very graphic scenes; for example, the young woman Moll, who is being aggressively kissed (p. 22) and says, "perhaps he found me a little too easie, for God knows I made no Resistance to him while he only held me in his arms and ... By and by, taking his Advantage, he threw me down upon the Bed and Kiss'd me there most violently ... " And when the torrid scene was interrupted by footsteps coming up the stairs, the aggressive suitor " ... told me it was all an honest Affection, and that he meant no ill to me; and with that he put five Guineas into my Hand, and went away down the Stairs."
On another level, Defoe's explanation for writing such explicit prose in a novel in the 18th Century, is conveyed in the fact that he is excusing himself in that Preface for what the reader is going to encounter later, saying he couldn't help writing it because that is how Moll lived. She lived that way of course because he created her living condition. Or is he just teasing the reader and being ironic with tongue in cheek?
"All possible care ... has been taken to give no lewd ideas, no immodest turns in the new dressing up this story," Defoe writes on page xv. Actually, he goes on, some of the more "vicious part[s] of her life, which could not be modestly told, is quite left out ... "
That is an interesting and understated introduction to a raunchy novel, because on page 23, that same suitor Defoe created, who a page earlier had paid five Guineas for some kisses from our feminine narrator, now throws her "upon the Bed again" the narrator explains. " ... But then being both well warm'd, he went farther with me than Decency permits me to mention, nor had it been in my power to have deny'd him at that Moment, had he offer'd much more than he did."
Now, that said, her suitor "did not attempt" the "last Favour" (intercourse?), and apparently said he would take "Freedoms" with her at a later date but "stay'd but a little while" and "put almost a Handful of Gold" in her hand.
So, apparently the author is saying out in front -- philosophically -- that he hopes readers aren't offended; he writes that no doubt with an editorial wink, as writers have that license to do. On page xvi, Defoe again clarifies and seemingly justifies the racy nature of his work: " ... This work is chiefly recommended to those who know how to read it, and how to make the good uses of it which the story all along recommends to them ... " Defoe takes a rather bold and creative position in preparing readers for his book when, in the same paragraph, he suggests that readers who "know how to read" his novel "will be more pleased with the moral than the fable, with the application than with the relation, and with the end of the writer than with the life of the person written of."
Invoking Kant's Philosophies
When Moll Flanders is still merely a child, ten years old, she already is beginning to understand (or at least conjure up the belief) that most or all things go better with money. The stage is set for the reader to relate to this youthful yet brash philosophy (p. 14) when Defoe paints the necessary pictures through the character of Moll; pictures of a young woman explaining what she means by wanting to become a "Gentlewoman."
When asked what a Gentlewoman was, Moll first explained that her Mayoress had flattered her and then, " ... she look'd upon one of my hands. Nay, she may come to be a gentle-woman, says she, for ought I know; she has a lady's hand, I assure you." Betty was very impressed ("This pleased me mightily ... ") and after those flattering phrases, the Mayoress "put her hand in her pocket, gave me a shilling."
Meantime, in Immanuel Kant's "Metaphysics of Morals" philosophy, he talks a great deal about "duty" and whether "an action in accord with duty is done from duty or for some selfish purpose" (13). His discussion of duty offers a direct correlation to the scenario established through the story Betty and her life, which will be discussed following a more thorough look at Kant's view of duty.
To "preserve one's life" is a kind of duty, Kant continues, although the "often anxious care which most men take of it has no intrinsic worth" because men (and women) preserve their lives "according to duty, not from duty." And so duty goes beyond just surviving day-to-day, Kant is saying. It goes beyond the human instinct of keeping life and limb from harm's way.
Moreover, on page 15 of his "Metaphysics of Morals," Kant writes that "to secure one's own happiness is at least indirectly a duty, for discontent with one's…