Moll Flanders (which is not her true name, she tells us) is born in Newgate prison to a mother who is a convicted felon. Her mother had "pleaded her Belly," and so was granted a reprieve until her child was born. When Moll is six months old, her mother is transported to America as punishment for her crime, leaving her infant daughter "a poor desolate Girl without Friends, without Cloaths, without Help or Helper in the World." Moll's earliest childhood memory is of wandering with a band of gypsies at the age of three. She separates herself from the gypsies in Colchester, where she is taken up by the town magistrates as a charity case. They place her with a nurse, a local woman who "got a little Livelihood by taking such as I was suppos'd to be, and keeping them with all Necessaries, till they were at a certain Age, in which it might be suppos'd they might go to Service, or get their own Bread." This honest and kind woman provides Moll with a fairly good upbringing and gives her a rudimentary education.
When Moll reaches the age (eight years) at which she is supposed to seek employment as a servant, she protests tearfully that she would rather stay with her current mistress. She could earn her keep doing needlework, she entreats, explaining (without really knowing what the word means) that she wants to be "a gentlewoman." The childish innocence of this unreasonable ambition amuses her mistress and neighbors to no end, and she actually becomes something of a local celebrity. She is allowed to continue in her current situation, and several rich ladies begin to act as her benefactors, occasionally giving her money and clothes. When the nurse dies, Moll (now fourteen years old) goes to live with one of these prominent families. She continues her education alongside the daughters of this family, learning to sing, dance, and speak French.
The narrative begins with the disclosure that "Moll Flanders" is not the heroine's true name, but rather an alias given her by "some of my worst Comrades" in crime. Defoe thus reveals from the novel's first lines that Moll, having been born in prison as the daughter of a convicted felon, will eventually continue in that tradition. We also glimpse in this opening paragraph the severity of the justice system of the time. Defoe's century saw an increase in crime, and also in the number of crimes that were punishable by death. Moll's mother receives her sentence--transportation to the American colonies--as a "Favour"; the expected punishment would have been execution.
Defoe takes great pains to establish the authenticity of his book, which, though fictional, is almost journalistic in its unflinching realism and in its wealth of mundane detail. By presenting the story as the autobiographical account of a first-person narrator, Defoe reinforces that sense of immediacy. Almost everything that happens in the book is told out of Moll's direct experience. When this is not the case, Defoe is careful to give the source of Moll's indirect knowledge, as when she sketches the first few years of life based on "hear say."
Moll begins as an orphan, and her life will in fact be defined, from start to finish, as one of profound isolation. Moll's early abandonment is but the first in a long line of such desertions, and the novel will continue divesting Moll of all her friends and relations at a rapid rate. The basic aloneness of human beings was a favorite theme for Defoe. Although Moll exists in the midst of a bustling and crowded urban world (rather than being stranded on an island like Robinson Crusoe), she forges almost no enduring loyalties or friendships. On the rare occasions when she does find fellowship, Defoe does not allow Moll's interpersonal relations to become the focus of the novel.
Moll's solitary and unpropitious start in life also initiates her remarkable self-sufficiency. That she divides herself from the band of gypsies at the age of three is an index of the power this heroine will have to steer and direct her own life. While Moll is often at the mercy of circumstances, her lack of affiliation also gives her a kind of freedom, and it forces her to rely on her own judgment and cunning to make her way in the world. Her story will be a quest for survival.