Degraded Necessities

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Moll Flanders was crafted by Defoe as a work “of which something may be learned…by which the Reader will have something of Instruction, if he pleases to make use of it” (5).  Similar to the discordant characteristics of the plot, Defoe’s moral instructions are aimlessly thrown into the story, oftentimes, to moralize one of Moll’s experiences.  Two perhaps contradictory moral instructions hold the most significant weight in the beginning the work: the lessons drawn from repentance and necessity.

            Appearing first on the facsimile of Moll Flanders is the idea of repentance.  In essence, the plot, ignoring Defoe’s instructional component, can be abridged to a story of a woman who, after experiencing great difficulty, dies wealthy yet penitent of her previous iniquitous actions.  In other words, Moll has regrets regarding her sinful past.  At odds with her penitence, however, is Moll’s justification for her sinful actions.  For Moll, “the Vice came in always at the Door of Necessity, not at the Door of Inclination” (103).  Disregarding the political aspects of the work, Moll’s opposing ideologies raise the core question of Defoe’s commentary on human nature. Should mankind bemoan actions done on the basis of necessity?

            Clearly, Moll regrets the immoral actions of her life even though all her base actions were driven by necessity.  An online dictionary defines a necessity as “something necessary or indispensable: food, shelter, and other necessities of life.”  Given such a definition, Defoe’s true satire is revealed.  Moll lives “twelve year a whore” because of the necessity of excessive wealth (1).  In eighteenth century London, it seems that the true necessities of human life were blended with the superficial necessities found in wealth and appearance.  Defoe comprehended the changing values of his society and used his writings to admonish the public of his observances.  It is, therefore, not a coincidence that a majority of Daniel Defoe’s works deal with instruction and moral guidance given his pessimistic view on society’s degradation.

            Satire characterizes a majority of the major works of the eighteenth century; Moll Flanders is no exception.  Not often considered a satirical work, when closely evaluated, Moll Flanders expresses congruent sentiments with Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Locke.  Moll’s loss of virtue on the basis of desiring the necessities of wealth and status, or just that wealth and status are necessities, is quite analogous to the satire found in writing an epic about pieces of hair. 

            Moll’s first experience with true repentance comes through her lover from Bath.  After a close encounter with death, her lover decides to break off his relationship with Moll.  Although devastated, Moll understands why her lover must stop being with a whore for “when ever sincere Repentance succeeds such a Crime as this, there never fails to attend a Hatred of the Object; and the more the Affection might seem to be before, the Hatred will be the more in Proportion” (99).  Inevitably, Moll will experience the same sort of repentance upon nearing death as her lover. The idea of only becoming penitent on a deathbed raises perhaps another point of Defoe’s satire.  If one finds sorrow for one’s actions only when nearing a place where those actions will result in consequences, then how valid is such penitence?

             Moll Flanders consists of commentary as diverse as the work’s audience.  On the surface, for the laymen and barely literate audience, Moll’s story is one of entertainment.  For the slightly more educated, Moll’s life can function as a moral guidebook (especially for women).  More importantly, Moll Flanders provides social commentary on crime, politics, and other aspects of England.  Deserving the most emphasis, however, is Defoe’s commentary not on England, but the inhabitants of England. London has become home to individuals who hold the artificiality found in wealth and appearance above not only their virtue and values, but also worthy of the ignominious acts sometimes necessary to achieve such superficiality. 

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One Response to “Degraded Necessities”

  1. delaneyp10 Says:

    I think you really get at the essence of the satire when you say that, for Moll, wealth is a necessity. Any action, no matter how immoral, can be partially justified as long as you are in someway working towards survival. The problem, however, arises when what you need to survive fluctuates. As your definition shows, wealth and high social standing cannot be considered vital for survival, but they certainly were for Moll and many others (perhaps they still are?). Nice job in presenting this topic, a topic ultimately rooted in the greed and superficiality of the time.

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