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Moll Flander's Family Business

Updated on September 13, 2014

The subject of family is treated very curiously in Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders. While the concept of family might usually evoke ideals of affection, devotion and belonging, in Moll Flanders, family functions more as an economic unit than anything. Part of this is surely the influence of the times. Marriages were usually predicated on money and class, with the rich striving to marry the rich and the poor left to marry among themselves. This is the system in which the upwardly mobile character of Moll operates, trying to use class perceptions to land herself among the wealthy gentry. But her series of husbands and lovers were not the only family Moll collected. Over the years, she also found several different mother-figures and had quite a few children. Now, it’s quite arguable that these family units were not entirely devoid of affection. Indeed, Moll takes care of her families very well in most instances. But the end goal for acquiring these families was not for Moll to find companions—people to love and dote upon—but to use them economically, for means of wealth, security, a conduit for her own action or even merely council. For Moll, in a society where the self-made woman is an alien concept, her families are her business ventures.

Moll, poor orphan daughter of criminals that she is, had little other choice besides using others in some way to survive. Her business options are very limited and the most profitable choices available to someone of her class and gender would be to 1. Marry up, 2. Prostitution, or 3. Thievery. It is possible that if she had chosen some other means to support herself that she might have survived; she might have starved as well. There was no way that she could thrive without exploiting one of those three options, and Moll meant to thrive. She set her eyes on the prospect of being a gentlewoman and finding fortune. Even if she could not thrive, she wanted to at least “be able to Work for [herself], and get enough to keep [herself] from that terrible Bug-bear going into Service” (13). Moll did not want to live as a servant or a beggar.

Poster for the 1965 British adaptation of the book: "The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders," starring Kim Novak.
Poster for the 1965 British adaptation of the book: "The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders," starring Kim Novak.

While she was young and beautiful, the best way that Moll could gain her fortune was through marrying up—and she did so—several times in fact. In a society where marriage is more like a business merger than anything, for a wealthy gentleman to marry Moll would be like Coca-Cola acquiring a lemonade stand in a multi-million dollar deal. Could this actually happen? Only if the kindergartener running the lemonade stand was as smooth a talker as Moll. First off, Moll knew that perception is everything. When courting a wealthy man, she dresses herself in the appearance of a gentlewoman and sets into motion rumors that she is wealthy, but tells her mark nothing of this supposed wealth herself. In this way, she deceives her lover, but does not lie to him. Now, Moll does have a sort of rudimentary business ethic in her family-entrepreneurship. She does not want to physically harm anyone or to commit certain acts that are repugnant to her (i.e.: incest and abortion), but her pointedly not lying about her wealth is not an ethical consideration. She purposefully deceives her mark, so pulling the wool over his eyes does not bother her. But if she out-and-out told him that she was wealthy when she was not, he would certainly have cause to be angry at her and to leave her. By merely being deceptive, she gets a prize who feels that he can only blame himself for his mistake. In that way, she might keep her wealthy husband who “might say afterwards he was cheated, yet he could never say that [she] had cheated him” (80).

Husbands and lovers give Moll the wealth and security that she desires and are the family members/business partners that she seeks out with the most determination. However, they are not the only family members that Moll collects. She also goes through several mother-figures and female friends. Generally speaking, these relationships do not give Moll wealth directly. In the case of Mother Midnight, what goes on is much more of a trade than a gift—at least before Mother Midnight repents. Mother Midnight takes the role of fencing Moll’s ill-gotten gains when she turns to thievery, thus providing her with a safe place to dispose of the items she picks up. They both benefit from the transaction. Mother Midnight gets rich off of selling the goods, and Moll has an extremely valuable contact in the underground market. Other ways that Moll gains wealth indirectly through her female acquaintances is through matchmaking. By networking with other women she is able to create a good impression on the men she wishes to marry. She gains wealth more directly from her actual mother (who is also her mother-in-law and therefore a mother twice-over) who dies and leaves her a trust.

More so than providing wealth or security to Moll, her mother-figures and female acquaintances provide Moll with something very valuable: advice. In fact, when she finds herself friendless she believes it to be “the worst Condition” and goes on to say that “when a Woman is thus left desolate and void of Council, she is just like a Bag of Money” (128). Good advice is therefore something she values over having wealth, fearing that if she has wealth yet no one to consult with about it, that she will be taken advantage of and be left with nothing at all. Her own mother takes this role when advising her of what to do after she finds out that she has unwittingly married her brother. Mother Midnight gave her advice on many occasions, starting with arguments over what to do about the child that she could not care for. Some of her husbands and lovers also filled the role of advisor. In fact, she meets her fifth husband because she desires his help in managing her finances.

That fifth marriage is particularly interesting for many reasons. Unlike her other husbands, he was actually intimately aware of her financial situation, being that he was looking after it. Of course, he was blind to her moral condition, going very far to legally marry her when she was already married to another, but he certainly married her for love and not money. What’s more, Moll appears to have learned much from this man. She originally went to him because she “had a little Money and but a little, and was almost distracted for fear of losing it, having no Friend in the World to trust with the management of it” (132). Ironically, shortly before his death, her fifth husband lost them a great deal of money because he “trusted one of his Fellow Clarks with a Sum of Money too much for [their] Fortunes to bear the Loss of,” (189) thus leading Moll into the perpetual fear of poverty that led her to the life of a thief. By the end of their marriage it seems as though Moll has become a more cunning manager of money than he was, and this continues to develop through her illegal dealings with Mother Midnight and her own growing wealth. By the time Moll and Jemy gain their fortunes in the new world, Moll is the de facto financial expert, leaving Jemy free to hunt while Moll manages the money.

The children that are products of her marriages and liaisons have a less direct economic purpose. In the 18th century they did not have the rich array of birth control methods that are available now and Moll’s own rudimentary ethics precluded her from abortion, therefore she had little control over how many children she had. And indeed, unlike her husbands from whom she gained money and wealth and her mother-figures from whom she gained advice and a network of allies, her children were a drain on her resources and could trade nothing with her. It was because of this fact that she left her children behind, whether gladly or reluctantly. But in a sense, the children are a part of this economic parcel. For one thing, they are the end product of it, but in another sense they are… investments. Most of them do not pay off. Either they die or Moll chooses to put them into someone else’s care because she has little with which to support them and they are never heard from again. One of them, however, pays off in spades. The son from her incestuous marriage to her brother grew up to be quite well off and able to help and support his mother when she came to America.

Daniel Defoe, author of Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, among others.
Daniel Defoe, author of Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, among others.

In no way does Moll’s use of her family as a business preclude her from loving them. Seeing her husbands, lovers, mother and sister-figures, and children and weighing their economic advantages and disadvantages speaks to her pragmatic nature and is very much part of the reason she was able to transcend her meager roots and become a wealthy gentlewoman. Families were Moll’s business and there is every reason to believe she had a proprietary affection for them. A CEO today may quite reasonably be said to love the business he has assembled, and in this sense Moll does love her families. Yet, she did not seek them out because she needed someone to love—because a motherly affection that needed directing burned within her—or because she had a romantic desire for love eternal. She said herself that she “knew what [she] aim’d at, and what [she] wanted,” and that was “to be plac’d in a settled State of Living” (128). Husbands were a means to this end. She sought them out because she needed partners, allies and proxies to make her business in a world that was not eager to let her buck the social system and thrive on her own. Oftentimes her businesses would fail. Her husbands and lovers would die or choose to leave her and in a sense her business would go "bankrupt," but she did not give up and kept mounting ventures—building unconventional families even when she was beyond marriageable age and could not court another husband. Moll Flanders was an entrepreneur, and acted this role out in one of the few ways that her society allowed a woman to do so: through family.


Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. 1722. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. Print.


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      4 years ago

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