The “Deceitful Guiles” of Moll Flanders: A Post-Structuralist Mauling

Moll Flanders by Daniel DeFoeEssay by Lori DeBoer

The famous Moll Flanders seems the most slippery sort of literary character, somehow eluding exposure since she first introduced her “own History” in 1722 under an assumed name in Daniel Defoe’s manuscript. The alias is necessary, she claims–offering the vaguest sort of explanation–because she has “some things of such Consequence still depending there, regarding my Conduct, that it is not to be expected I should set my Name, or the Account of My Family to this Work,” though she allows that perhaps after she is dead “it may be better known; at present it would not be proper.” (Defoe, 43) Moll’s ability to present this basic deceit about her identity as a morally superior strategy is but one example of the opposing stances in her narrative that make it difficult to sort the ironic from the iconic, the penitent from the pretentious. Is her story offered to the reader as a cautionary tale against a life of crime and wickedness? Or, does it merely titillate readers with salacious details that pose as a necessary evil so “that the wicked part should be made as wicked as the real History of it will bear”? (Defoe, 38)

The myriad ways in which Moll contradicts herself may rile those readers trying to determine if Daniel Defoe’s telling is sly or serious–and professional readers, the literary theorists, have been batting his intent around for years. That said, if we take our cue from post-structuralism, trying to figure out where our Heroine and Author stand is more than half the fun. Post-structural theorists like Derrida and Barthes were smitten with the tendency of meaning to meander and gave short shrift to the notion of a knowable center in either language or literature. (Eagleton, 114). They believed there is something about story itself that defies structure (hence the term) and have effectively transformed text from a cul-de-sac of discrete signs into a superhighway of endless signage, from that which is merely “readable” into that which is also “writable.” (Eagleton, 119) This posture gives readers room to roam throughout the text according to their own critical whims, a nod to interactivity that clearly anticipates the digital age. Had the post-structuralists the Internet when they began spinning their notions about an endless web of signs and signifiers, meaning and metaphor, they probably would have appropriated the term “hypertext.”

Terry Eagleton admits that this sort of pondering creates a sort of “literary abyss,” and woe to those who might secretly prefer to stare into its depths and find someone—even ourselves—gazing back at us. Post-structuralists have dubbed dogmatic, naïve and even, gasp, metaphysical, anyone who might cling to the notion of transcendent Truth. In this construct (or, deconstruct, as the case may be), navigating a story becomes a task of picking one’s way through the shifting terrain of text, choosing among tussling truths. Perhaps it in the interplay of these opposing and arbitrarily binary differences that we can tell the truth, even if we can’t ask if the real Moll Flanders will please stand up.

What do we know about the Moll Flanders, based on what she says about herself? For starters, Moll has assumed an alias, but even this act has been carried out with a wink and a nod. In this case, the endless interplay of signs and signifiers becomes apparent when we realize that a real-life Moll inspired a biography written in 1662, which precedes our heroine’s literary birth by 60 years. Moreover, the real-life Moll was actually Mary Frith, whose nickname reflected the use of Moll as a term for a young woman of disrepute and Cutpurse as a nod to the thief’s method of cutting a purse and running with it. If we were to take these chains of meanings once further, we would find Cutpurse code for an emasculator because “purse” was also a popular term for testicles. By changing Cutpurse to Flanders, which is a type of lace, Defoe manages a slick bit of foreshadowing, because it is a foiled attempt to steal some lace that eventually lands Moll in prison at Newgate.

Moll (or Defoe, depending on how you want to slice it) acknowledges Mary Frith as her literary forebear when she is learning the art of thievery: “. . . . I grew as impudent a thief, and as dexterous as ever Moll Cutpurse was, though, if fame does not belie her, not half so handsome.” (Defoe, 266) During 17th and 18th centuries, biographies and novels about criminals fed on the public’s fear of social unrest and its appetite for sensationalism. (Davis, 107) It seems likely that Defoe intended to capitalize on this trend, by naming his character after a woman so notorious (though her deeds were greatly exaggerated) that she had two stage plays and a book written about her. Though we realize, of course, that Moll Flanders is a piece of fiction, Defoe blurs the boundaries even further by playing Moll’s editor in the preface, merely putting her words “into a Dress fit to be seen, and to make it speak Language fit to be read” and pretending the book is a historic account, penned anonymously: “The Author is here suppos’d to be writing her own history . . . .” (Defoe, 37)

Whether or not Moll’s story really appeared in language fit to be read came under a great deal of scrutiny, especially during the time of its publication, when what first passed for novels were widely regarded by the middle and upper class as “vulgar, illicit and irreligious” (Davis, 106) because of their inexhaustible fascination with social misdeeds. The opposing messages inherent in writing about criminals and their crimes was considered a great conundrum by many contemporary critics, who saw in the reading of novels the possibility for becoming undone, a state of decline that Defoe attributed to the reader, not the book itself. “If the reader makes wrong use of the figures,” said Defoe, in reference to his book, Roxana, “the wickedness is his own.” (Davis, 108) Nevertheless, novels during this period portrayed criminals in a manner that seems to have two purposes: the criminal is at once a symbol of depravity and sin; and yet his or her life demonstrates a way to achieve repentance and, ultimately, salvation. These opposing dualities are at play in Moll Flanders and clearly land within the realm of post-structural ambiguity, that lack of what Derrida dubs a center, territory in which “literature does not need to be deconstructed by the critic: it can be shown to deconstruct itself, and moreover is actually ‘about’ this very operation.” (Eagleton, 126) The ambiguity leads to what Ian Watts terms a “central confusion in Moll Flanders’s moral consciousness—her tendency to confuse penitence for her sins with chagrin at the punishment of her crimes.” (Watts, 128) This central confusion is compounded because we cannot tell if Defoe is indeed serious about Moll’s seeking or gaining repentance, a confusion that again echoes the post-structuralist notion of literary ambiguity, in which critics “venture into the inner void of the text which lays bare the illusoriness of meaning, the impossibility of truth and the deceitful guiles of all discourse.” (Eagleton, 126)

In fact, the famous Moll Flanders seems to struggle mightily with “deceitful guiles” because, in order to integrate opposing viewpoints, she attempts to resolve these ambiguities by controlling the flow of information about herself. In his post-structuralist critique of Moll Flanders Michael notes that the text continually “pushes its reader away from the truth about Moll herself, and this activity of driving the reader away from that object which she or he expects will signify itself as a signifying event.” (Michael, 369) We see this push and pull from Moll at the outset, when she claims to have both been abandoned and to have freed herself from a band of gypsies, mean feet for an 18-month-old. She had been given to the gypsies after her mother, imprisoned for thievery, was transported to a plantation, presumably to the United States. “It was at Colchester in Essex, that those People left me; and I have a Notion in my Head, that I left them there, (that is, that I hid myself and wou’d not go any farther with them) but I am not able to be particular in that Account . . . “ (Defoe, 45) Moll locates the power of her self-pronouncements at the age of eight, by aspiring to be a “gentlewoman,” which she passes off as innocent prattling. She is clearly aware of not only what she says, but the “innocent” tone in which she says it. (Defoe, 48) Her guile not only amuses her mistress but attracts the attention local benefactresses, who eventually take her into their home.

There are, of course, some problems that arise from deconstructing Moll Flanders. For one, Eagleton notes that the post-structuralism, focusing as it does on linguistic concerns and veering sharply away from concerns with historiocity becomes a “convenient” method of avoiding political concerns altogether. (Eagleton,124) Even though Moll Flanders is ambiguous, the book begs to be read as a political critique on economic and feminist grounds. Certainly Defoe was not apolitical and made his career not only writing novels but turning out political pamphlets. Moll herself seems to clearly be grounded historically, because her discourse is couched in mercantilism terms of value and worth. She clearly views information about herself as a form of currency, such that even withholding information about herself becomes a sort of “economy of revelation.” (Michael, 373) When she inadvertently marries her brother and meets up with her long-lost mother in the Colonies, when she realizes that she has committed incest she does not share her revelation and, in fact, lies when asked what was wrong. “She perceived I was out of order, and asked me if I was not well, and what ail’d me? I told her I was so affected with the melancholy Story she had told, and the terrible things she had gone thro’, that it had overcome me; and I beg’d of her to talk no more of it.” (Defoe, 125)

The value of her name becomes more apparent when she turns to a life of crime and she takes great care not to let her fellow thieves know her true identity, preferring to operate under the guise of Moll Flanders. She at once uses the name as a sort of marketing gimmick, realizing that keeping her name in circulation—much like money circulates—increased her cachet. She finds that fanning this identity ambiguity, going so far as to disguise herself as a gentleman, affords her a degree of protection from the law because she cannot be taken with any certain identification:

“Here again my old Caution stood me in good stead; Namely, that tho’ I often robb’d with these People, yet I never let them know who I was , or where I Lodg’d; nor could they ever find out my Lodging, tho’ they often enedeavour’d to Watch me to it. They all knew me by the Name of Moll Flanders, tho’ even some of them rather believ’d I was she, than knew me to be so; my Name was publick among them indeed; but how to find me out they knew not, nor so much as how to guess at my Quarters, whether they were at the East-End of the Town, or the West; and this wariness was my safety upon all these Occasions.” (Defoe, 285)

Throughout her narrative, Moll uses the malleability of identity to rise above the circumstances of her birth, giving her an ability to negotiate as a free agent, a position that puts her equal to a man, in the end, when she owns land in the colonies. We see this trajectory begin early on in her story. When her mistress dies and Moll goes to live with a genteel family, as was her wish, she prides herself on having being as much of a gentlewoman as one raised such: “I had the Advantage of my Ladies, tho’ they were my Superiors; but they were all the Gifts of Nature, and which all their Fortunes could not furnish.” (Defoe, 56) The direct link between money and her worth is clearly established when she begins a love affair with the oldest son of the family who has taken her in. After forcing himself on her (she admits she did not “resist him much”) he hands her five Guineas and leaves. She is “more confounded” by the money than by his love, and finds herself in a situation where she is fending off the advances of both sons—one who is essentially buying her complicity, though she loves him most, and the other who wishes to marry her. In the end, she abandons her moral center and is convinced to forget her love by “having the Dangers on one Side represented in lively Figures, and indeed heightn’d by my Imagination of being turn’d out to the wide World, a meer cast off Whore. . . .” (Defoe, 99) For Moll was learning that, for a woman, reputation was worth its weight in gold. In the end, of course, Moll does not exhibit much longing or regret at the loss of her love, observing only the particulars of her marriage to the younger son, which had not been very profitable: “Circumstances were not great; nor was I much mended by the match.” (Defoe, 102) She is much more enthusiastic about the maintenance agreement she has struck with the elder brother, which netted her 1200 l. and, when her husband dies, Moll seems more concerned about the money than her two children, which were “taken happily” off her hands by her in-laws. (Defoe, 102)

Moll’s life is clearly devoid of emotional attachments, as she abandons her children one by one and shucks off men when it is economically justified. She regards her associations with others as a means to support herself and discourse over money pervades all of her discussions with suitors and husbands. She explicitly identifies the money she has on hand as a means to value herself, noting that, “with a tolerable Fortune in my Pocket, I put no small value upon my self.” (Defoe, 103) In contrast, he looks upon Love as a “cheat” and said that she would not be taken in again. Given the structure of her life and her philosophical outlook toward money, the tears she sheds upon reunion with her Lancashire husband seem unconvincing and, when she is reunited with her son in the colonies it seems much more convincing not, that she has any tenderness toward him, but that she demands of him a full accounting of her estate.

The most conspicuous lack of a moral center comes in reading Moll Flanders as a religious text, promoting penitence from a sinful life. For, though Moll tends to consider her wickedness periodically throughout the book, she has no consistent attitude toward refraining from sinning. In fact, she seems (curiously) to locate the locus of control for her actions outside herself from the get go, though she seems to find it easy enough to control her own identity. Moll blames her circumstances on the town, which did not adequately provide for the care of orphans, has did some municipalities. In addition, each dip into thievery is marked as much by as unabashed pride at being such an accomplished thief as horror at what she feels forced to do to keep her in victuals. In fact, a woman of her time could well prepare herself for a life of crime by studying Moll Flanders for ideas about what makes or breaks a successful thief. She is compelled to account for all her ill-gotten gains with the same eye toward accountability as one might view legitimate gains. Toward the end her narrative, a watch that she has stolen becomes as legitimate a gift as were it honestly purchased.

Could we summon Moll Flanders from the text and quiz her about her more thoroughly about her motives and her search for her own “unimpeachable ground upon which a whole hierarchy of meanings may be constructed,” (Eagleton, 114) what might she say about her life? It seems, though she lived a sinful life and made a lot of talk about her wickedness and how it weighed on her mind, in the end, she is still rewarded with material gain when she goes to a country where she can, in essence, completely reinvent herself. If we look at the great guiles she has engaged in, it seems the conflicting moral views do point to a particular meaning, that of the ends justifying the means.

But perhaps we cannot judge Moll Flanders for her expediency, for she is simply a character caught in the ambiguous web of literature, which is automatically self-contradictory and lacking a center. If are to take the post-structuralist viewpoint to heart, it seems like a futile pursuit to try to tease meaning out of Moll Flanders or any other literary work. By doing so, we engage in a sort of academic word game of sorts, forming a “language about another language” in the guise of metalanguage. Eagleton, paraphrasing Roland Barthes’ System de la mode, observes: “there can be no ultimate metalanguage: another critic can always come along and take your criticism as his object of study, and so on in an infinite regress.” (Eagleton, 119) Post-structuralism then functions somewhat like the artistry of a pickpocket, offering us mere metaphorical misdirects and textual sleights of hand and netting us some small change for our efforts.


Works Cited

Davis, Lennard J. “Wicked Actions and Feigned Words: Criminals, Criminality, and the Early English Novel.” Yale French Studies, No. 59, Rethinking History:   Time,   Myth, and Writing (1980): 106-118

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd Edition. Minneapolis,  Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Michael, Steven C. “Thinking Parables: What Moll Flanders Does Not Say.” English Literary History. 1996 June; 63(2): 367-396.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkely: University of California Press, 2001.


While I mostly write fiction and magazine articles, sometimes I turn my hand to literary theory and criticism.  I really enjoy the classics and Moll Flanders is one of the most interesting female characters from the time when novel-writing was just in its infancy.  If you are interested in reading about complex and interesting women, you should put this book on your list. Moll does suffer somewhat from being written at the hands of a man and I wonder what her story would look like if someone modern took up her cause.