Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Review: Moll Flanders

The author, Daniel Defoe, is best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe. He is considered one of the fathers of the English novel. (Thankfully, we've come a long way since then.) This was written in the early 1700s (though it covers from 1614 to 1683) and it definitely shows. The spelling isn't always standardized [1] and at other points it's simply archaic.[2] The book isn't divided into chapters at all. (That's right, 300+ pages without any chapter breaks). The point of the novel is the reformation of the titular character, Moll Flanders (which is actually an alias—the woman's true name is never given). But before it gets around to it there are ~270 pages describing all the sins she's involved in: fornication, adultery, incest, bigamy, prostitution, theft, gambling, horse-stealing [3], etc.[4] By her own confession, she's engaged in every possible crime except murder [5] and treason. It reads like something you would overhear from a gossip over the fence—only it's 300+ pages long. It gets tedious very quickly.

My verdict: This book was so long and dry that I may not ever have the muster to bring myself to read Robinson Crusoe. When Moll is finally caught stealing, she is sorry—but only sorry that she was caught. She has no remorse for her sins. Moroni calls this "the sorrowing of the damned" (Mormon 2:13). As she spends more time in Newgate Prison, she grows comfortable there and even degenerates to the level of her fellow inmates. It is not until someone she has wronged (one of her previous husbands) arrives at the same prison that she feels the pangs of true guilt. Moroni calls this "sorrow unto repentance" (Mormon 2:13) and Paul calls it "godly sorrow" (2 Cor. 7:9–11). This could've been accomplished in a much shorter, less tedious book. And despite this 'reformation', she's not so repentant that she surrenders the hundreds of pounds of stolen money and stolen goods that she still possesses, kept hidden by her landlady. And she lives quite comfortably on that after her conviction and deportation to the American colonies.[6]


[1] e.g. the word clothes is spelled cloths, clothes, and cloathes at different points.

[2] e.g. murder and burden are spelled murther and burthen; persuade is spelled perswade; easy is spelled easie; risk is spelled risque; choose is spelled chuse; join is spelled joyn, etc. And the past tense of most words ends in -'d not -ed (see my post Strong Verbs and Weak Verbs). This edition also has a lot of typos, including fmd for find, moming for morning, Febtuaty for February, etc. 

[3] She makes it a point to distinguish this from stealing money, silver dishware, fabrics, etc. Apparently it was much worse a crime to steal a horse in 1700s London. Even so, just the theft of the items listed above was often a capital crime. It is surprising to me how the hierarchy of sin in past eras differs from my own conception of it. For example, for Dante in his Inferno suggests the following order: lust (sexual sin) < gluttony < greed (both hoarding or squandering possessions) < wrath < heresy < violence (assault, murder, suicide, blasphemy, sodomy, and usury) < fraud (seduction, flattery, sorcery, astrology, corruption, hypocrisy, theft, alchemy, counterfeiting, perjury, impersonation, etc.) < treachery (see's Inferno#The nine circles of Hell). The society of Moll Flanders seems similar: heresy (by this time the Protestant Revolution was over) < sexual sin < theft = fraud < assault < murder < treason. Due to my upbringing in the LDS Church, I view it rather differently: theft = fraud < assault < sexual sin < murder < blasphemy (and by this I mean the absolute blasphemy of denying the Holy Ghost).

[4] A brief glance at Wikipedia suggests that none of the movies are worth considering since they seem to focus on the licentious aspects of the tale.

[5] Though on one occasion she briefly contemplates abortion or infanticide (it's not clear which). Even so, she doesn't keep any of the dozen or so children she gives birth to.

[6] There is a hint at the end of the book that going West into unsettled country is a move towards freedom (both moral and political)—a symbolism which crops up in many later American writings, including The Great Gatsby. It could be argued, though, that this isn't so, since she engaged in incest during her first stint in the Colonies. However, this was done in ignorance and she didn't engage in any other crimes during her time there.

Image attributions:

The Ruins of Newgate Prison is by Heather Katsoulis, available at 

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