In Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe, the validity of Moll’s repentance is very questionable. From Moll’s point of view, she believes that she has fully repented of all sins from her past life, however there are many factors that seem to negate the legitimacy of her protestations.
First of all, readers must keep in mind that a very filtered version of Moll’s life is being related in this book. The accounts given are not from an unbiased view, but rather from Moll herself, after years of reflecting on her life and actions, and with a possibly different perspective than Moll had at the actual time the events were unfolding. Therefore everything related by Moll in this book must be taken with caution and with the acceptance that this version is not the bare, uncensored version, but most likely flourished and tweaked a bit to make for a better story.
In relating this story, Moll does not mention repentance until the last episodes of her life and when she finally does bring up the topic, it is done so in a fairly contradictory manner. Even from the outset, her repentance seems doubtful. From the first moment that Moll speaks of repentance, she makes the remark that she does not seem capable of it. “Oh! Had I even now had the grace of repentance…” She seems to believe she is beyond feeling remorse for her vicious acts, and does not stop to even consider truly repenting for them. Considering her life prior to this point, it does not seem out of the ordinary for Moll to make this statement. Though she is largely a likable character, it has become apparent through her many adventures that Moll has a twisted view of morality. Perhaps she is setting herself up for a self-fulfilling prophecy, but either way this early statement merely sets the groundwork for the evidence against Moll’s true repentance.
The next clue that hints at the insincerity of her repentance is that upon mentioning the subject again, Moll confesses more than once that though she does make attempts at repentance, they are not carried out with a whole-hearted effort, and she does not feel shame for her offenses, but rather feels shame because she had gotten caught for them. It is clearly laid out by her announcement that “…repentance yielded me no satisfaction, no peace…because…it was repenting after the power of farther sinning was taken away. I seemed not to mourn that I had committed such crimes…but that I was to be punished for it”. This thought is also echoed a few pages later when Moll states that “…all my repentance appeared to me to be only the effect of my fear of death, not a sincere regret for the wicked life that I had lived”. From these two examples, it is easy to conclude that the only reason Moll considers repenting is because she feels that she has no where else to turn. It is also evident that if she had not been captured and was not facing a death sentence at Newgate, it would be likely for her to have continued her life of crime. It seems as if Moll’s heart has in fact been hardened beyond repair by her circumstances.
Very shortly after these last accounts, Moll suddenly suggests that she has turned over a new leaf, and intimates that she does in fact have it in her heart to feel emotions other than sorrow for herself and state of being. This occurs when she first sees Jemmy again from her cell in Newgate. Seeing him brings back memories of her former life and with them, a sense of shame. She states that “…the first reflections I made upon the horrid life I had lived began to return upon me; and as these things returned, my abhorrence of the place and of the way of living in it returned also; in a word I was perfectly changed…” As agreeable as it may sound, this proclamation does not seem to be supported by anything other than Moll’s insistence of the fact that she was truly remorseful. Her supposed reformation appears practically out of nowhere, and does not seem to be provoked by anything other than her sorrow for Jemmy’s state of welfare. She has transferred the misery she feels about her own misfortune to that of her beloved Jemmy’s misfortune, though there is no solid evidence that Moll actually despises what she has done. It is based again, more on her being ashamed at their being caught and punished than on any true feelings of remorse.
We now see Moll at presumably the lowest point of her life, where she must face death for her actions. When the minister comes to pray with her, she states that “It was now that for the first time I felt any real signs of repentance.” This makes it appear as if Moll’s last declaration of reform was not real, though she seemed so passionate about it. She tries to make it appear that she is a changed woman when she sees Jemmy, yet here she states that now is in fact the first time she actually meant it. How are we to believe her this time, if she was not true about it the last time? Though most would like to believe her, she seems to have undermined her own assertions, which greatly supports the rationale for having doubt about the genuineness of her remorse.
The doubt that is apparent concerning Moll’s repentance is also supported by the minister who “mourned sincerely for his part”about Moll’s transportation and tries to prevent her from being sent to Virginia. He believes that if Moll is turned loose amongst fellow criminals in a new land, she will revert back to her old wicked ways. Even this honorable man holds much doubt about the validity of Moll’s repentance, her morals and her strength of character. He sincerely doubts Moll’s intentions and treats her with the same caution that the readers of the text must take when experiencing her adventures through her act of storytelling.
Another factor to be considered is that Moll only seems to repent when faced with extremes. We have seen her repent in the face of death, but she also does so when she finds herself financially secure. After securing the plantation and the vast array of riches she obtains, she dotes on her life once more and states that “my past wickedness and abominal life never looked so monstrous to me…”. As honorable as this sounds, it must be kept in mind that she is making these reflections as compared to her present status. She is married, has a rich inheritance, has found her son, and has all she could ever wish for. There is no need for her to return to wickedness when she is in such a bountiful position.
This evidence is also paralleled when she speaks of Jemmy’s reaction to the riches she brings back to him from her son’s estate. After seeing the abundance of good fortunes, she states “and from this time forward I believe he was as sincere a penitent and as thoroughly a reformed man as ever God’s goodness brought back from a profligate, a highwayman, and a robber”. It is very intriguing that she never mentions his repentance until this point and then supports the facts of it by his being thankful for their many fortunes. “…The fact that the novel seems to offer piety as an option only after economic security and social stability have been obtained represents a more bleakly materialistic view of human spiritual possibilities” (Sparknotes: Section 9). These examples make very bold statements about the idea of repentance, whether or not it is done intentionally by Defoe.
Related to the previous evidence is the fact that Moll still enjoys her treasures from her past transgressions. For instance, when she gives her son the gold watch that she had stolen previously, and she also keeps all the stolen items from England to enhance her wealth in America. The fact that she does so makes it apparent that she values her possessions more than her morality.
One more factor that makes Moll’s repentance seem artificial is the fact that if she did not repent, or at least feign repentance, the book would not be acceptable for the time. “Certainly such an ending, even if contrived, would have been necessary to make the book publicly acceptable” (Sparknotes: Section 8). It was already feared to be more of a how-to instruction manual for thieves of the time, yet by placing Moll’s repentance in it, it somehow makes her actions and the purpose of the novel more acceptable to the standards of the day.
Another piece of evidence we also have to keep in mind is the favorable way that Moll relates her life story before this point. Never in her telling of it does she describe it as despicable, but rather seems to be proud of her accomplishments. “Critics have always been bothered by the inconsistencies which follow from Moll’s later perspective and her evident relish for her doings, even, apparently, after she has reformed” (Hume 481) . Moll also has a habit of being deceptive, even to those she loves, to get what she wants, so it is only natural to assume that she will use this same deception towards her audience to gain their trust and approval of her actions.
Moll has kept many of the same characteristics that were present throughout her life; selfishness and deception are just two of those seen throughout the text. Her eagerness to obtain her inheritance, even though it puts her in a risky situation, definitely speaks of her selfishness. Moll has always kept herself and her needs at the forefront and the fact that she will do most anything to stay on top does not waver even after her supposed change of character. Also, Moll does not hesitate to spread lies to several different people including her own husband to reach her ends.
In short, when experiencing Moll Flanders, readers must keep many things in mind in deciphering the true aspects of the novel. We must decide if it is safe or advisable to trust Moll and everything she says. It is made clear to us from the start that Moll is very skillful at embellishing, deceiving and using her wit to obtain what she desires. There is a bountiful supply of evidence that contradicts much of what Moll tries to pass off as the truth, and it is up to the readers to correctly analyze the text and decide for themselves what to gain from it.
Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. New York: The New American Library, 1964.
Hume, Robert D. “The Conclusion of Defoe’s Roxana: Fiasco or Tour de Force?” Eighteenth-Century Studies. Vol. 3, No. 4. (1970): 475-490.
“Moll Flanders.” Study Guide: Commentary. 2006. Spark Notes.