How sensitive is Defoe to the plight of women in his contemporary social milieu? Is Moll Flanders an early feminist novel?
The most striking and unusual features about Moll Flanders as a female protagonist are her intelligence, her practical competence, her self-sufficiency, and her defiance of conventional feminine roles and mores. Moll is persevering and adaptable, and she seems to dominate every situation. She depends on men for security, but no more than she has to, and her dependency is of a peculiarly active sort: she uses men as tools whenever possible and seeks to maximize her opportunities for self-reliance. It is in the lowest stratum of society that Moll is most free, and where her activity rises to the level of art. She moves in that world with a confidence and celebrity that is actually quite becoming, in spite of her reprehensible acts. Defoe is sensitive to the inherent conflict in the fact that the arenas where Moll might hope to use her many talents and provide for herself are all morally dubious: she can be a thief, a whore, or a husband-seeker. Moll's admittedly flexible moral code is one designed to accommodate this conflict as much as possible. The fact that this questionable morality raises another set of conflicts--between mercantilist ethics and religious ethics, for example, and between public and private values--links Moll's particular dilemmas as a woman to larger issues of society.
What is the effect, for the novel as a whole, of Defoe's tendency to reduce every situation to its materialistic basis?
Defoe is at great pains, in this novel, to act as chronicler of his era. His personal background as a merchant provides much of the material for Moll Flanders, a book in which everything has a value: objects, situations, and people. Moll's personal attractions are her most valuable commodity when she is young; as she grows older she has to cash in on her cleverness. Her alternatives in life are severely limited, and Defoe has her explore all the available trades in order to document the realities of each. Life is above all a market-place, and the world of the novel is one in which human existence is defined by a basic struggle for survival. One result of this materialist orientation is that it sees the individual human being as profoundly isolated. Other people are reduced to mere expedients: Moll's relationships tend to end abruptly and without residual emotion, and the novel itself exploits a large number of minor, nameless characters only to advance the plot, and then abandons them. The spiritual side of human life is all but overshadowed by materialistic concerns, and there is very little room in Defoe's vision for the idea that people might find ways of transcending their physical and material constraints.
Does Moll develop or change as a character over the course of the novel?
There are two main movements to Moll's development. The first is the process by which she gradually becomes more sophisticated in the ways of the world. She learns, by the obstacles that life throws in her way, how to handle herself so as to minimize the extent to which she must depend on other people. This development forms the bulk of the novel, and it tends to lead Moll into ever-greater degrees of vice. Defoe also includes a discontinuous turn at the end of the story, in which Moll repents of all her former wickedness and lives a reformed life. This aspect of Moll's development has seemed unconvincing to many readers; certainly it has very little effect in shaping the book as a whole. Moll's life is one with material but not ethical consequences, and she tells her own story in those terms even from the vantage point of her later repentance.
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