Daniel Defoe and the Possibility of Irony in Moll Flanders

Almost all critical analysis of Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders focuses on the question of whether the novel should be read realistically or ironically. Based on the overwhelming amount of critical study focusing on this bifurcation of viewpoints, it seems that choosing one of these interpretations is crucial in forming a critical appreciation of the novel.

There does exist, however, a small minority of critics who have come to the conclusion that both readings are equally valid, with the caveat that one interpretation was intentional on the part of Defoe while the other was completely unintentional. Uncovering the conscious intent of an author (subconscious intent is well beyond the scope of this paper) may be an exercise in futility unless the author has explicitly written down his aim, but discovering Daniel Defoe’s objective in writing Moll Flanders seems not only possible, but pivotal in obtaining a full critical understanding of the novel.

A profound critical analysis of Moll Flanders cannot help but be influenced by the realization that while Defoe thought he was writing a realistic interpretation of his socio-economic and moral theories in novel form, he was in fact unintentionally creating an ironic indictment of the immorality of capitalism as it pertained to middle class women pursuing upward mobility in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The author’s choice for the structure of Moll Flanders and his prefatory comments in it are explicit rejections by Defoe of any intention toward reading the novel as being anything but completely realistic. As a new form of literature at the time Defoe wrote Moll Flanders, the novel was subject to suspicion by contemporary readers who felt that there was no moral to be gained from made-up stories. “Right at the very inception of the novel, then, there was demand for narrative form dealing with real material.

Of course, this demand also led Defoe, and especially later writers, to authenticate their novels by developing narrative techniques which would present this material realistically” (Konigsberg, 18-19). Although Defoe seems to allow himself breathing room in the preface for the reading to be open to interpretation when he writes “the reader [may] pass his own opinion upon the ensuing sheets and take it just as he please” (v) he then goes on in detail to convince the reader that what is to follow is a true story from which a moral not only can, but indeed must be gained.

“Upon this foundation this book is recommended to the reader, as a work from every part of which something may be learnt and some just and religious inference drawn” (vii). It is quite obvious that Defoe was intending to write a book which was not only entertaining, but which also gave an object lesson in how to live life in the manner which he saw as virtuous.

With such single-minded devotion to purpose, it’s highly unlikely that he would intend for the novel to become confusing by writing one thing while intentionally meaning another. The entire point of the preface is to set up the realism of the story and deflect the natural suspicion that his contemporary readers would have toward fiction.

As Konigsberg makes clear, “There is no irony here. The preface is both a defense of his work and a job of advertising” (20). Defoe is advertising that this work should only be read realistically and as morally instructive. While this alone doesn’t exclude the possibility that Defoe was working in an ironic mode, when combined with a deliberate search for conscious intent, the result can only be that Defoe did not desire for his novel to be read as anything other than as what was concretely written down.

Moll Flanders’ many outlooks on life completely conform to Daniel Defoe’s outlooks, discounting the probability that she was created as an ironic commentator on the events which occur to her, and furthermore Defoe was well acquainted with consciously writing irony and it appears that he was made quite aware of the fact that it wasn’t his literary strength. Moll says at one point, “marriages were here the consequences of politic schemes, for forming interests, carrying on business, and that love had no share or but very little in the matter” (46). Defoe himself “defended commercial marriages on the grounds that building a business was more worthy than marrying for lust” (Grassby 304).

Much that Moll expresses coincides with Defoe’s point of view as clearly as their shared view on marriage. Robert Allan Donovan dances around this concept when he writes “it is possible to regard every detail as relevant to the characterization of Moll and at the same time comformable to Defoe’s ordinary mental processes” (22). Ian Watt, however, is more explicit: “Defoe’s identification with Moll Flanders was so complete that, despite a few feminine traits, he created a personality that was in essence his own” (115). It seems highly unlikely that Defoe would create such an engaging character who personifies almost every socio-economic theory he held in the hopes that her story would be read ironically.

Quite apart from that subjective opinion is the irrefutable fact that though there are some obviously intentionally ironic passages in the novel-the woman unknowingly relating Moll’s own story of incestuous marriage to Moll and the dialogue where young Moll’s nurse informs her that the woman Moll thinks of as gentlewoman is actually a whore-“there is no consistently ironical attitude present in Moll Flanders” (Watt 121 & 126). Thomas Keith Meier points out, “In his expository works he is one of the most unambiguous and straightforward in English literary history” (50). Even so, it is not as if Defoe wasn’t familiar with writing irony. Defoe’s work The Shortest Way with Dissenters was pointedly and consciously ironic and satirical. However, according to Watt, “the contemporary reception of The Shortest Way at least shows that it does not constitute irrefutable evidence that irony was a weapon which Defoe could handle effectively” (126). Defoe, in fact, was charged with sedition after his attempt to write a consciously ironic work. What better evidence is needed to assume that Defoe would studiously avoid making that mistake again and instead create in Moll Flanders an uncompromisingly straightforward moral lesson.

The moral that Defoe is consciously providing in Moll Flanders is decidedly not the ironic one that capitalism and commerce are bad for England, but rather the absolute reverse; that, in fact, the pursuit of upward mobility by the middle class is a moral imperative and, furthermore, that the methods of gaining upward mobility are not limited to those historically seen as virtuous. Defoe’s sense of economically based morality may seem a bit warped to twentieth century readers, but in fact he was not out of step with many of his contemporaries. “As a result of a new emphasis on economic achievementâÂ?¦indigence was both shameful in itself and presumptive evidence of present wickedness and future damnation” (Watt 95). Moll reflects Defoe’s concept that pursuing upward social mobility in any way she can is tantamount to living morally. “Defoe saw economic success as a special kind of election and was willing to be less concerned about the moral value of the deeds which lead to that success” (Konigsberg 43).

Marrying not for love, but money; earning money as a whore; resorting to thievery when her attractiveness to men begins to fade are all justifiable to both Defoe and Moll because nothing could be morally worse than winding up in Newgate or becoming a beggar. Both are exemplified in the text when she becomes distraught when she finally winds up in Newgate and when she quickly casts herself as unable to go out in disguise as a beggar during her career as a thief.

As Watt points out, Defoe’s heroes “would rather steal than beg, and they would lose their own self-respect-and the reader’s-if they did not exhibit this characteristic hubris of economic man” (95). Thomas Keith Meier says that Paul Dottin’s description goes even further than Watt’s questioning take on Defoe’s ethics: “His scrupolosity was based on the old saying ‘the end justifies the means.’ Success, interpreted as material gain was the keynote of his philosophy and, indeed, of his morality” (81).

To put it bluntly: Moll Flanders’ whoring, arranging financial marriages and even her descent into thievery are all perfectly acceptable means of gaining upward social mobility to Defoe. Once again, irony has been thrown out the window. Watt also is assuming completely honest realistic intent when he says that Moll Flanders “is a characteristic product of modern individualism in assuming that she owes it to herself to achieve the highest economic and social rewards, and in using every available method to carry out her resolve” (94).

“She is even morally pure in her whoring since it is, as she assures us, by necessity and not ‘for the sake of the vice'” (Watt, 114). Defoe reasoned this point of view out in his The Complete English Tradesman when he maintained that “the needy prostitute is free of guilt and that her lustful customer is wholly responsible for the sin committed” (Meier 97). But what was the prostitute needy of? Exactly what Moll was needy of: continuing upward mobility.

Moll’s great need was obviously not just enough money to keep her off the street and out of Newgate. She achieved that goal during her career as a thief. Yet she still continued plying her trade. Why? Because Moll clearly wanted to rise as high in society as it was possible for her to rise. And for Defoe that meant as high as she wanted to go. After all, Defoe “regarded birth as irrelevant to the kind of individual one became in society” (Shinagel 123).

Defoe even contended that “‘the son of a mean person furnish’d from heaven with an original fund of wealth, wit, sense, courage, virtue and good humor, and set apart by a liberal education for the service of his countryâÂ?¦must be allowdâÂ?¦into the rank of gentleman'” (Shinagel 225). Of course, Defoe was referring here explicitly to males who wished for upward mobility. The unintentionally ironic reading of Moll Flanders is directly attributable to the fact she is a woman attempting upward mobility and therefore her means are substantially different from that of a man.

Daniel Defoe wants Moll to achieve success in her desire for upward social mobility and because his dubious morality on the subject of what is acceptably available for women to do in order to attain that success is in direct conflict with changing attitudes since the novel was written, the novel has come to be viewed ironically by those who cannot accept that Defoe could possibly have been serious in presenting the events of Moll’s life as an object lesson in virtue. For the most part, the men in Moll Flanders are men whose manner of livelihood can even now be respected: gentlemen, tradesmen, plantation owners, bankers, ship captains, businessmen and ministers.

True, there are also the occasional highwayman and thief, but for the most part the men in Moll’s orbit are respectable even today. Not so the women. Almost without exception, the women that Moll encounters must earn their keep through some manner of debasement: tricking a man into marriage, prostituting themselves, pickpocketing, fencing stolen goods. Moll engages in most of the actions and doesn’t seem to be considered by Defoe any worse the wear from a moral standpoint. As G.A. Starr says, “‘Moll’s world is one in which things are not good or evil, but characteristically good and yet evil'” (Richetti, 104).

The general acceptance that Moll Flanders is an ironic masterpiece rests solely on the basis that what seemed entirely reasonable to Defoe as a means for a woman to advance herself in 17th and 18th England is entirely anathema to later readers whose vision of the morality of economics simply cannot coincide with Defoe’s in a realistic attitude. Ian Watt keenly explains the problem when he writes that “We cannot believe that so intelligent a man as Defoe should have viewed either his heroine’s economic attitudes or her pious protestations with anything other than derision.

Defoe’s other writings, however, do not support this belief” (127). Moll Flanders is only allowed to pursue her dream of rising in society through means which become ever more degrading and humiliating. She begins by simply trading away love for security through marriage. Eventually, she does away with the marriage and simply trades sex for money. At her lowest point, she will become an unrepentant criminal. Defoe seems unconcerned that the only apparent choices that England’s evolving capitalistic system offered women as a means of achieving upward mobility were choices that ultimately shamed them. As Robert Alan Donovan observes, “If the book teaches a lesson, as Defoe piously assures us, it had nothing to do with the wages of sin; it is a lesson in how to succeed at the confidence game” (26). Capitalism for women at the time the book was written can only be seen in retrospect as the ultimate confidence game.

The debate over whether Moll Flanders was intentionally ironic will continue for some time, but it seems abundantly clear that for the reader truly interested in approaching the book critically and who is willing to examine Defoe’s history of socio-economic thought and how it shaped his moral view, there is only one conclusion that can be reached. Throughout his non-fiction writings, Daniel Defoe showed himself to be consistently and defiantly in favor of commerce. He was also convinced that the middle-class person could and should attempt to better themselves.

Both of these outlooks-along with many others of Defoe’s-are shared by Moll Flanders. Moll Flanders is unquestionably an alter ego for Defoe in some ways, therefore it would border on the downright suspicious if Defoe were using her as some sort of ironic mouthpiece to exhort his “true” feelings. The irony in Moll Flanders exists not because Defoe intended it to, but because history has so substantially changed what are considered moral and acceptable ways for a woman to better herself in society.

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