Posts Tagged ‘18th century literature’


January 26, 2010

As the upholders of the citadel of democracy in the world, we citizens of America praise ourselves for the relatively few instances of overt corruption evident in our country’s government operations.  We as Americans, however, embrace an ideal of democracy that exists only when cited to bolster nationalistic fervor.  Regardless of how the United States’ political structure is viewed in theory, in practice, Americans face many issues that stem from a corrupt political enterprise so ironically praised for democratic values.

            In evaluating modern day crime and punishment, one can easily draw upon the parallels between today’s practices and those of the eighteenth century.  In truth, I question whether we have advanced at all from rudimentary criminal practices of the eighteenth century exposed by Daniel Defoe in Moll Flanders.  How is the criminal enterprise of today, an enterprise accused of “rewarding the wealthy and punishing the poor,” any different from Newgate, where criminals with money could bypass standard means of punishment (1)?  We live in a fiscally driven world that began with the economic surges of the eighteenth century.  Unfortunately, on our way to a completely consumerist society, we have lost our moral guidance; oftentimes, we now seek to quickly maximize profits over acting to fulfill our moral obligations.  In this regard, it is no surprise that works such as Moll Flanders, and other works written to reinstall morality, oftentimes through instruction, into the lives of all citizens, are as equally applicable today as they were roughly three hundred years ago. 

            The current issue regarding inmates’ abilities to pay bail exemplifies one of the many similarities between two seemingly dissimilar time periods: the U.S. today and London in the eighteenth century.  In the town of Lubbock, Texas, the issue of corruption is clear.  Even though justified with its necessity in “making a living,” Lubbock’s bail bondsmen attempt to keep pretrial companies as unproductive as possible (4).  These bail bondsmen have no problem keeping inmates away from the pretrial companies and consequently causing them to be stuck in prison for an absurd amount of time pending their trial.  Perhaps most corrupt of all is that these men that the bondsmen are keeping from other methods of liberty could not even afford the services of the bondsmen.  In essence, the bond companies are using political schemes and “the power of money” to inhibit other people’s agendas without advancing their own (4).  If that does not sound like corruption, or to use a more fitting definition, moral perversion, what does?

            Moll has a similar prison experience, although, having money, she is more equatable to the bondsmen who benefit from corruption than the inmates who suffer.  In Moll Flanders, corruption is evident in not only the way that Moll can bribe officials to escape her transportation sentence, but also in the actions of the men employed by the prison.  The ordinary of Newgate, or Chaplain of the prison, would in the morning preach “Confession and Repentance,” while in the afternoon, he would be found “drunk with Brandy and Spirits” (218).  The prison workers and superiors in Lubbock are as corrupt in many ways as well.  The workers with any kind of decision making authority are inhibited in their actions by what is deemed politically correct.  For instance, one official justifies letting the issue of overstuffed jails come to such a deplorable state with “I don’t want [people] to think I’m soft on crime” (7).  As in Moll’s time, the importance of appearance oftentimes overshadows the value of human life.

            For Daniel Defoe’s writing, Newgate prison functioned as the extreme setting of melancholy and despair.  People were sent to Newgate prison, chiefly, for one purpose: execution.  In order to contrast the livelihood found from transportation, it is even likely that Defoe embellished some of the corruption found at the infamous prison. It is scary to think that a potential over exaggeration of a place that housed, for execution, offenders of such petty crimes as stealing scraps of cloth is even closely comparable to today’s justice system.  If, in fact, Defoe was exaggerating, is the deducible conclusion that Defoe’s attempt to correct society failed?  Has society actually degraded even farther from its crude state during the eighteenth century? I would argue that yes, we have failed to learn from the instruction of Moll and that our greed will eventaully lead to our destruction as our desire for monetary success consumes us.


Can Women Really Say No?

January 19, 2010

In applying simple economic principles to the marriage marketplace of the eighteenth century, womankind’s dilemma is clear.  A decrease in customer demand, in this case caused by the decreased number of buyers (men), causes fewer of the goods (women) to be bought for a lower price.  Ignoring the obvious injustice that results from the depersonalization of women into items that can be sold and purchased, women’s limited freedoms are now in even greater jeopardy for they have “lost the Privilege of saying No” (56).  Confronted with such a shortage of men, many women abandon their standards of what constitutes a gentleman, knowing that if a “man was by great Chance refus’d at one House, he was sure to be receiv’d at the next” (56).  Consequently, the shifted demand curve in the marriage marketplace greatly contributes to the degradation of society’s values, a degradation made clear by Defoe’s numerous attempts to correct society’s debasement with instructional writing.

The statement that women have “lost the Privilege of saying No” to men, regardless of their circumstances, provides a clear implication that such a privilege previously existed (56).  All other instances in the work, however, point to a woman’s being incapable of refusing a man.  Moll experiences such an expectation at a very young age, when, as Mrs. Betty, Moll’s integrity is questioned for having the audacity to refuse Robin.  The youngest sister in the family even asks the rhetorical question of “Do you think [Mrs. Betty] has learnt to say NO, any more than other People” (39).  These other people, or to speak with more specificity, these other women, have been raised with idea that women lack the aptitude to defy men their right to marry.

Throughout Moll’s narrative, Moll carries herself as if she has the faculty to deny men their wishes. In reality, Moll pretends to hold the power of refusal as a means to enliven the chase necessary to win her over.  In other words, to make the conquest more satisfying for her male suitors, Moll plays hard to get.  Moll makes it quite clear to her readers, however, that her restraint is nothing but a façade.  Oftentimes saying something similar to “I must confess I should not have restrained him much [had he pursued the issue of sex, or marriage, farther],” Moll makes it clear that regardless of her pretense, she, along with every other woman, truly lacks the ability to say no to men (92-3).

So if Moll, and perhaps all of womankind, lacks the ability to refuse men the right of marriage, or anything for that matter, why is a whole segment of Defoe’s work devoted to advocating a woman’s right to inquire about, and if necessary, to deny her male suitors?  The answer falls back upon the fundamental nature of instructional writing through satire.  Defoe uses the irony of having Moll, a woman who is incapable of denying men, teach her friend how to gain the upper hand in the marriage market place to instruct his large female constituency.  Defoe wishes to convey to his female audience that instead of dropping their standards of men, they should understand that “No Man of common Sense will value a Woman the less, for giving up herself at the first Attack, or for not accepting his Proposal without enquiring into his Person or Character; on the contrary, he must think her the weakest of all Creatures in the World … [who would] cast [her] life away at once, and make Matrimony like Death, be a leap in the dark” (62).  In this regard, the idea of a marriage conceived in the marriage marketplace of the eighteenth century accurately reflects the admonishing tone of Moll Flanders.

Degraded Necessities

January 11, 2010

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. 

Sexual Conquest in Fantomina

December 14, 2009

In her novella Fantomina; or, Love in a maze, Eliza Haywood, “one of the most popular, prolific, and versatile authors of her time,” satirizes 18th century society through her fictional escapade that explores the social aspects of class mobility in regards to sexual conquests (Abrams 2566).

From the opening of the story, Fantomina, for lack of a more permanent name, clearly struggles with the confines that her high “quality” and “degree” impose (2567, 2573). Fantomina does not understand why the upper echelon’s gentlemen turn to the basest women in order to shed their superficial formalities and act with “freedom” (2567). Her observations at the playhouse force her to see, but not yet understand, the irony that belles cannot satisfy their peer’s most primal and intimate desires.

It’s not until Fantomina transforms into Incognita that she realizes the true nature of why Beauplaisir is so superficial and philandering: “The most violent passion, if it does not change its object, in time will wither” (2580). Beauplaisir, an exaggerated eighteenth century beau and another object of Haywood’s satire, is a prime teacher of this lesson because he falls victim to his sexual vices far more often than not. In essence, he teaches Fantomina that his pleasures, and perhaps the pleasures of most upper class men, arise from the challenge of getting a woman to acquiesce to his physical desires. Basically, the thrill is in the conquest, and Fantomina illustrates her understanding of this philosophy in a none too subtle way when she addresses her letter to “the All-conquering Beauplaisir” (2579).

Thus, as Fantomina finds out through experience, the actual woman does not matter to these hedonistic men; they only care about successfully completing their missions. In fact, what bothers Beauplaisir so much in his dealings with Incognita is that he would never be able to lay his conquest to rest and move on to the next victim without gaining knowledge of her identity. Interestingly, the identity of the woman does not matter until it is absent. Fantomina knows the power she has over Beauplaisir in obstructing his hunt. “I have him always raving, wild, impatient, longing, dying.—O that all neglected wives and fond abandoned nymphs would take this method!—Men would be caught in their own snare, and have no cause to scorn our easy, weeping, wailing sex!” she says (2580). Once Fantomina gains this valuable advantage “she would rather part with him for ever” than go back to being a helpless victim of seduction (2581).

By the end of the story Haywood successfully satisfies Fantomina’s initial curiosity, that of why the gentlemen pay more attention to the prostitutes than to the fine ladies. Essentially, the ever-present focus on reputation, emphasized by Fantomina’s meticulous secrecy, creates an environment in the upper portions of the social hierarchy in which women care too much about being dishonored to have sex in the flippant manner that the conquest philosophy calls for. The biggest irony in the story, and the main target of the satire, is that for all the problems it creates, the apparent honor and dignity maintained by the upper class is utterly deceitful and hypocritical.

Abrams, M. H.; Greenblatt, Stephen; Lipking, Lawrence; Et Al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2006. Print.