Moll Flanders: Employment and Blank Slates

The novel Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe is a novel that spoke of the hardships that a woman living in England at the time often had when it came to employment and the role that patriarchy played on a woman’s life. Defoe seemed to have seen that there was a change coming about in society […]

The novel Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe is a novel that spoke of the hardships that a woman living in England at the time often had when it came to employment and the role that patriarchy played on a woman’s life. Defoe seemed to have seen that there was a change coming about in society that allowed for women to take charge of their life and set their own destiny. Moll seemed to have difficulty finding solace and fulfillment in life and instead seemed to float around life from one turmoil filled relationship to the next instead of focusing on her own life and then, and only then, looking to expand her life by seeking a husband.

I would like to argue that Moll Flanders had many opportunities to change her life around and embrace the neo-feminist ideology that Defoe seemed to try and weave into this novel, but that she didn’t take advantage of her strengths, and instead gave in to a way to try and make “easy money”. I would also like to argue that Moll consciously didn’t seem to want to learn the lessons that her unsuccessful “business ventures” with men taught her and tended to enter into business partnerships that yielded the same unsavory results.

Another important question that would have to be answered in this whole situation is why, if as Locke explains a person is born with a Tabula Rasa, or blank slate, on which experiences are imprinted on did Moll Flanders turn out the way that she did when she had a bright future as a seamstress at an early age. I would have to argue that it is because of the deep seated trauma that she had endured of being abandoned at an early age that could not be erased from her Tabula Rasa and, although there were other experiences that had been imprinted on it since then, she seemed to look for acceptance, and money, from men in order to allow herself to feel complete and fulfilled.

First, “In Women, Work, Rearguard Politics, and Defoe’s Moll Flanders”, by Melissa Mowry she discusses the topic of work and publications, such as Moll Flanders, and comments on these satires when it comes to women in the workforce. She is quoted as writing, “These cheap publications feature women who work, either on their own or beside their husbands: “drapers, grocers, stationers, haberdashers “and “bricklayers, shoemakers, weavers, butchers, cutlers” in small shops or artisanal family businesses.” (Mowry 99). She points out that Defoe was troubled by the way that non-elite women were portrayed at the time citing that Defoe was troubled about these girls having poor work ethic. He was also bothered by the fact that it seemed as if the girls felt that it was the opposing community’s task to” facilitate their search for even greater profits of their labor” (Mowry 102). I would have to agree that Moll Flanders is a prime example of a way of showing a woman that has poor work ethics. He is talking specifically about the “serving girls” that were there at the time.

Mowry also discusses about how she viewed Moll’s thievery, “Moll’s final transformation into a thief correlates roughly with the Interregnum (1649-60) so that her career as a thief uncannily evokes the radical account of “work” from the same period.” (Mowry 102). There is a great example of the work that Moll Flanders not only had a strong vocation in but was also, at an early age, making a decent amount of money from. Defoe writes, “for she had taught me to work with my needle and spin worsted, which is the chief trade in that city” (Defoe 46). This goes to show that Moll was taught a vocation at a very young age.

An effective way to show that Moll Flanders did not learn from her business ventures basically goes against everything that philosopher John Locke had theorized concerning the Tabula Rasa (which is Latin for blank slate). He concluded that a person’s mind is blank at birth and it is the experiences that a person goes through that ends up imprinting the experiences on that person’s mind that they can then use to better make decisions in order to avoid the pitfalls that they may have initially have been subjected to.

He is quoted as writing, “Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished experience”(Locke 109). If this is true then why it is that Moll Flanders kept on engaging in the behavior that she did instead of being open to the idea that the way that she was trying to conduct her business, and even the type of business itself, was not the best for her. It very seldom yielded any positive long-term results that help her to raise her social and financial status, and instead ended up leaving her heartbroken and financially unstable. I believe that there is a strong correlation between the experiences that a person is subjected to and the way that they remember them. I think that it is all about perception. This is an idea that perhaps Locke did not intend to include with his idea of the Tabula Rasa, but it is an important factor to consider.

Her vocation with her needle was one that was very useful in the city and that means that Moll was learning a vocation that she could use to sustain herself. Her Tabula Rasa was being imprinted with the positive experience of honest work for an honest wage. Moll Flanders understands at this early age that she can make money for her trade and is even confident in her proficiency with the needle. Defoe writes, “for I was very nimble at my work, and had a good hand with my needle, though I was yet very young” (Defoe 52). This further solidifies the notion that Moll Flanders understand that she has a vocation that not only is she good at, but that will make her money as well.

Even though she may have started out life in a less than satisfactory method she seemed to, at that age, grasp the notion of utilizing an honest vocation and gaining the monetary means to sustain her. Once again, the imprinted experiences of the honest work should have been placed on her Tabula Rasa and should have led her to a life that was filled with honest work and advancement instead of one that was focused on men and being a whore in order to procure money.

In seventeenth century England there were more choices in employment that a woman could go into than many people think. Many people think that the primary role of the woman in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was that of the housewife. This might be true for some of the women who ended up married to a gentleman and were able to enjoy the life of wealth and status it seems as if there were far many more women that had to do what they could to sustain themselves in a predominately patriarchal society. As with many other civilizations at the time England was predominately a patriarchal society where men were usually saw as the “bread winners” for the family and the woman’s role was predominately concerned with domestic matters. Even then there are many instances where, especially in the upper classes in which the woman of the house didn’t deal directly with domestic duties.

Instead, these duties were usually given to the service-people of the house and the woman of the house simply oversaw them and made sure that the duties were being performed to the satisfaction of the lady. Many of the lower class women had high ambitions for themselves and yearned to have financial stability. They wanted to break out from the bonds of what they may have perceived as an oppressive patriarchy social situation and strived for their independence.

This time in England was known as the time of Enlightenment for these women. There are many instances in literary works of the time that show the struggle that a woman in that time. Moll Flanders, by William Defoe, is a prime example of one such pieces of literary work that outlines the enlightenment movement and gives readers the ability to see what sorts of employment were available for the average woman in that time that would allow her to sustain herself in a relationship with a man. Defoe tries to offer his readers a lens in which to look through this time; that of a neo-feminist society that was starting to emerge at that time.

In an article printed in Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser (London, England), Friday, September 1, 1775. Thomas Falcon talks about the “employment for women” at the time, which is eluded to be prostitution and that many a gentleman can be snared in the pitfalls that can befall men who visit them (or as the author of the Article called it “dangerous intimacies” (Falcon), but this article also goes on to say that there are many professions that a woman can do just as well as a man. Falcon states that teaching, dancing, and music can be taught just as well by women as by men. He does go on to say that, by no means, should a woman be allows being a barber. The reason for this is that the author of the article thinks that it is unwise to give a woman the opportunity to cutting a gentleman’s throat and the tools (razor) in which to do it. He also alludes to the fact that perhaps women should be given the opportunity to serve in Militias as soldiers. Quite the radical thought at the time. This shows that although there was a neo-feminist movement on the rise, it wasn’t quite there yet and that media was helping to inform both men and women that women shouldn’t be viewed as just the weaker gender, but that in certain vocations they can actually excel.

There is also even more historical data that shows that although it was hard for a woman to sustain themselves without a husband the opportunities were still there. In another newspaper article of the time, Diary or Woodfall’s Register (London, England), Monday, February 21, 1791, is talking about the women that are the sole makers of clothes for a certain tailor shop. It is arguing that having women do the job actually takes money away from the man that needs to sustain his family. The article continues on to give some statistics that there are between 20-30,000 tailors that are employed and that most of them for only half a year, which means that the growing number of women that may be trying to enter the workforce in that vocation would be met with great opposition by the tradesmen. The article also goes on to say that perhaps the best job for a woman is to be well versed in domestic duties so that she can gain a man that would “protect her”. It continues to describe how the women in the tailoring trade may be forced to engage in prostitution at night in order to be able to make enough money to support themselves since a woman in the trade makes considerably less money than a male in their trade. This article concludes to show that there were employment opportunities out there, even if it was under the scrutiny and control of the patriarchy. This is a prime example of seeing first hand, and in context, how women were viewed as far as employment was concerned. It was not impossible to find, or keep employment. It seems, though, as if the patriarchy wanted to make sure to showcase the inequality of the genders in the way that the women were being paid.

Although, the movement may have been somewhat latent, it was there. There were more and more women that were taking it on themselves to try and carve out their own destiny instead of just being complacent and dealing with what a male society was willing to give them. Literary critic Ian Watt delved into the topic of individualism and enlightenment as far as Moll Flanders, who is a fictional construct of a real caste of women that were living in England at that time and concluded that, “”Moll Flanders… is a characteristic product of modern individualism in assuming that she owes it to herself to achieve the highest economic and social rewards” (Watt 94). This is a very powerful and bold statement to make. My question for Ian Watt and all others who would take the stance of Moll being a true individualist and trying to escape the clutches of patriarchy is again this: Why is it that Moll Flanders did not employ the vocation that she was taught at an early age. Furthermore, what vocations were available, and viable, for Moll Flanders to be gainfully employed in that did not involve her resorting to using her body as a commodity and succumbing to the whims and wishes of men that were only using her for her body and, other than modest financial compensation, did nothing to further Moll Flanders’s social status?

The fact that Moll is perceived as a person that, for whatever reason, finds it imperative that she reaches the social and financial roles that she set for herself shows that Moll is trying to break the mold of the subservient woman that was the norm of the time and, instead try to embrace the time of Enlightenment for women by trying to take her life into her own hands and carve out a life for herself. Although I may agree with what Watt has said, I must say that it seems as if there is one critical flaw with that logic. The fact that Moll Flanders ends up depending on men either by the coupling with them in order to try and advance her social status, or the taking of their money for sex rendered it seems as if Moll is still dependent on men in order to try and make her way through the world and in order to try and get what she wants out of life both economically and socially.

It is worth mentioning that there were little options for a woman that did not already have some sort of financial capital to be able to break into the business world, but that doesn’t mean that all was lost with Moll Flanders.
Secondly, In, Defoe’s Alternative Conduct Manual: Survival Strategies and Female Networks in Moll Flanders. by, Srividhya Swaminathan, she introduces the notion of the importance of the women’s network of the time, and especially how women took on jobs that didn’t necessarily fit the current standard. She talks about the fact that the some of the women, including Moll, were actually working (although did they really get monetarily compensated?) as “confidantes, marriage counsellors, and marriage facilitators. When Moll discovers she has committed incest by her second marriage, she confides first in her mother-in-law (her biological mother) for advice.”(Swaminathan 11).
Swaminathan then goes on to address all of the interpersonal relationships that women had in order to survive. It seems as if the majority of the woman (except for the Governess) wanted to act as marriage facilitators in order to allow a woman the ability to skip the whole working class experience and try their hardest to marry into being a gentlewoman. Moll asks as a marriage facilitator as well when she shows her friend how to tarnish the reputation of a man that the woman is interested in so that the man will come to her and beg her for her hand in marriage. Defoe writes,

I told her, that if she would take my advice, I would tell her how she should obtain her wishes in both those things, and that I would engage I would bring the man to her door again, and make him beg to be let in: She smil’d at that, and soon let me see that if he came to her door her resentment was not so great as to give her leave to let him long stand there. (Defoe 114).

It seems as although Moll is not being monetarily compensated for this “job”, it does help her to solidify a friendship with the woman in order to gain her a future opportunity for assistance if she needs it. The tables were turned on the patriarchal dominated dichotomy of a romantic coupling, where the man usually has the control, and shifts that control to the woman. Moll spent her time facilitating this coupling for another woman instead of focusing on honing her vocation and getting herself out of the situation that she seems to put herself in time and time again; her having to rely on a man for financial success and heightened social status. This sort of job, that of the marriage facilitator, seems to show that Moll Flanders knows how to manipulate a man for others, yet she doesn’t seem to be able to do it for herself. Every time she tries to couple with a man it ends up going horribly wrong and she ends up self-proclaiming herself as the “Wife-Whore”.

Third, even though it isn’t exactly specified that she worked at her governess’s house as a “whore”, there is no denying that her lifestyle was that of the “whoring trade”; the exchange of sex for money. This also started at an early age when she was first courted by the two brothers. One of the brothers was the first to put the notion in her head. Defoe writes, “and with that he put five Guineas into my hand” (62). This is the first indication that Moll was being paid money not for her trade or vocation, but rather because of her gender. She was satisfying a boy’s lust and was monetarily compensated for this.

Consider the fact that although Moll Flanders had went around from situation to situation with men and tried to join in a coupling that would bear financial, social, and romantic fruit none of this had actually happened. What were her perceptions on how the business ventures crumbled? If it was that there was a mutual dissolution of the business venture that I could see how she would take the experiences for what they were and would then try to engage in a similar venture in order to hopefully yield different results. However, this was simply not the case. The fact that Moll had entered into several “business ventures” that always ended up with the man opting out of it, leaving her alone and depressed there is little doubt that she perceived these experiences as being very bad ones, yet she was doomed to repeat them.

There is no way that she couldn’t see the psychological ramifications of the failed business ventures since there were times after the dissolution of these ventures that she was found ill. For example, after one failed business venture with a gentleman that didn’t yield the fruit that she was hoping she fell quite depressed, “Under these reflections I continued very sad and pensive for near a month” (Defoe 178). This goes to show that she knew in her mind that there should have been an association between this type of venture and the fruit that it yielded; namely depression, fever, and grief. It seems as if it would have made a lot more sense for her to be able to stand on her own two feet with the vocation that she knew so that she would not have to worry about having a business partner that could undermine her success, and instead be able to take total control over the financial and social status of herself.

It is true that this type of social and financial ascension may not be the quickest way to end up high on the social ladder in a short amount of time, but it is one that has many less dynamic factors involved with it that could allow her to start cataloging positive experiences, and work ethics, on to her Tabula Rasa and change her perception not only on the way that these positive experiences had impacted her, but also it may give her a more grounded perception on the negative experiences that she had that were failures that gave her nothing but heartache and financial loss.

In conclusion, there are many forces at work against Moll Flanders that prevented her from enjoying her life and gaining fulfillment from it. It is true that she was traumatized at any early age and perhaps that sense of abandonment led to her Tabula Rasa being irreparably imprinted on with the experience of abandonment before the imprinting of feeling useful and confident in pursuing a vocation that could have given her a sensible life. Instead, she chose to go from man to man, seemingly seeking approval and marriage. These experiences with men didn’t seem to imprint on her Tabula Rasa in a way that deterred her from entertaining the notion of pursuing another and another. It is a shame that such trauma brought on to a child at any early age can scar them for life in a way that leads them to act out with deviant behavior and allows that person to “settle” with their station in life instead of reaching for something more. All of the literary critics that have been mentioned offer insight into certain facets of Moll’s reasoning, but in order to fully understand it one must take a piece from each one and leave the rest open to interpretation. There is no single answer that can be found, and as with many novels that have been written the nice unique thing about fiction is that it is all open to interpretation. Who really knows what impact Defoe’s novel would have had on a society that was rapidly changing at the time if he would have wrote in a more traditional and patriarchal way. Instead, I think that Defoe wanted critics and the general populace to draw their own conclusions and open it up to debate both in literary journals as well as the taverns of the eighteenth century.

Work Cited

Defoe, Daniel, and David Blewett. The Fortunes And Misfortunes Of The Famous Moll Flanders. London: Penguin Classics, 1989. 46,52,62,114,178. Print.
Falcon, Thomas. “The Brothers.” Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser [London] 1 September 1775, Print.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford University Press, 1991. 109. Print.
Mowry, Melissa. “Women, Work, Rearguard Politics, And Defoe’s Moll Flanders.” Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation (Texas Tech University Press) 49.2 (2008): 97-116. Academic Search Premier. Web
Swaminathan, Srividhya. “Defoe’s Alternative Conduct Manual: Survival Strategies And Female Networks In Moll Flanders.” Eighteenth Century Fiction 15.2 (2003): 185. Academic Search Premier. Web.
“To the Printer of the Diary.” Diary or Woodfall’s Register [London] 21 February 1791, Print.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010. 94. Print.

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