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Defoe's Moll Flanders: Summary & Analysis

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Instructor: Diedra Taylor

Diedra has taught college English and worked as a university writing center consultant. She has a master's degree in English.

Daniel Defoe's novel 'Moll Flanders' is about a woman's adventures as she strives to improve herself amid a lifelong series of dreadful misfortunes. Explore a plot summary and analysis of Defoe's epic novel and learn about the background of Moll Flanders, the genre of this novel, and the themes that are woven within it. Updated: 09/15/2021

Background

You probably know someone whose life always seems like one adventure - or mishap - after another. Such was the life that Moll Flanders lived; whenever her life seemed to settle down, some misfortune stirred it up.

Moll Flanders was written by Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) and published in 1722. It is among some of the first works to be written in novel form, a lengthy fictional work written in prose. Because the novel had not yet gained wide popularity, the work is written as though it is an autobiographical report by Moll, herself. This pattern is seen in many of the early novels.

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  • 0:04 Background
  • 0:43 Plot Summary: Childhood
  • 1:51 Plot Summary: Back to Conning
  • 3:27 Plot Summary: Later Years
  • 4:22 Analysis
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Plot Summary: Childhood

In the novel, Moll Flanders explains that her mother was an inmate of London's Newgate Prison and managed to escape execution by pleading for her unborn child. After Moll is born, her mother is transported to the penal colonies in America, leaving Moll in England.

In her early teen years, Moll's foster mother sends her to work as a servant for a wealthy family. As Moll matures, she catches the attention of the family's two sons. Interested only in satisfying his desires, the older son convinces Moll to live as his mistress; however, he refuses to marry her. Heartbroken, Moll marries the younger brother, and they have a few children during their five-year marriage. After her husband's death, Moll leaves her children with her in-laws and begins passing herself off as a wealthy widow in the hopes of catching a wealthy man.

Moll's masquerade finally works, and she marries a tradesman. Unfortunately, the tradesman enjoys spending more money than he earns, and he goes bankrupt and flees to the Continent. Before he leaves, the tradesman tells Moll to forget him and move on with her life, encouraging her to remarry.

Plot Summary: Back to Conning

Moll takes her ex-husband's advice and goes back to conning men. She finds a wealthy man visiting England on business. Moll happily accepts his marriage proposal, and he takes her back to his plantation in Virginia, where he introduces her to his mother. They lead happy lives for a few years. However, Moll hasn't managed to evade trouble; she begins to wonder about her mother-in-law and eventually discovers that the woman is her mother, making her husband her half-brother. Horrified and hysterical, Moll dissolves the marriage and heads for England, leaving her children in Virginia.

Having recovered from the shock, Moll sets up residence in Bath and once again looks for a husband. She eventually meets Callum Murray, a banker married to an unfaithful woman. He proposes to Moll, and she accepts. However, while waiting for Murray to get a divorce, Moll moves to Lancashire and marries a supposedly wealthy man. Soon after the marriage, Moll and her new husband realize that they tricked each other into marriage. Moll pretended to have a fortune to attract him, and he pretended to have money to attract her.

This new husband feels guilty for tricking Moll into marriage when he couldn't support her, so he tells her that she's under no obligation to stay with him. Moll, now pregnant with the man's child, hastily returns to London in the hopes of marrying Murray. She gives birth to her child before the marriage and leaves him with a country woman. Moll and Murray enjoy five happy years of marriage, but once again, trouble finds her. Murray becomes bankrupt and dies, leaving Moll broke and homeless.

Plot Summary: Later Years

Moll's situation looks desperate: she's not as young as she used to be, so she has a harder time attracting men. She also doesn't want to live in poverty by working as a seamstress, so she resorts to stealing. After honing her new craft, Moll is finally able to maintain the financial security she's always longed for. Unfortunately, Moll is caught in the middle of a robbery and sentenced to Newgate Prison.

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