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American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS)

The Recent Critical Fortunes of Moll Flanders Author(s): Ian Watt Source: Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 109-126 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Sponsor: American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS). Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3031669 Accessed: 07/08/2010 10:08Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=jhup. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

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The Recent Critical Fortunes ofMollFlandersIAN WATT as we can see fromhis Essay Upon Projects;but he can hardlyhave envisaged what the future had in storeforone of his more casual productions,Moll Flanders: that aftertwo centuries a more or less of underground existence would emergeto be canonizedas one of it the world'sgreat novels by the modernmovement literature; in thatin 1911 JamesJoycewould declare (no doubtprematurely) that Defoe's heroine"reduce[s]contemporary criticism stupeto ' that universities should now prescribe the fied impotence;" book fortheircourseson the novel; and that,in the last decade, it should have become the subject of a lively and still growing critical controversy. Between 1945 and 1955 only threearticlesor otherextended discussions Mall Flanderswere published;but since thentheir of number grownsteadily an averageof at least threea year. has to This increasinginterest seems to have been stimulated two by books on the eighteenth-century novel, Alan D. McKillop's The Early Mastersof EnglishFiction (1956) and my own The Rise of theNovel (1957); in different waysbothworkschallenged the more extremeclaims made for Defoe as a novelistby the prechalvious generation critics;and both have been vigorously of lengedin their turn.EFOE WAS MUCH INTERESTED IN THE FUTURE, Portionsof this essay will appear as an Afterword a Fawcett Premier to Masterworks editionof Moll Flanders. I am indebted FawcettPublications, to and to the generaleditorof the series,Irving Howe, for permission use these to portions here. 1 Daniel Defoe by JamesJoyce, editedfromItalian manuscripts translated and byJoseph Prescott (Buffalo, 1964), p. 20.109




The reasons for the criticalapotheosisof Moll Flanders are of no doubt very varied. Defoe, surelythe most unromantic who amongthe Romantics, greatadmirers foundhis first writers, literary welcomedhim as a fellowrebel againstthe established in the Twenties,Defoe seemed a useful ally decorum. Later, in the rebellionagainst both Victorianpruderyand the studied of formalperfection the Flaubertianand Jamesiannovel: the rawer art and seamierlife of Moll Flanders were at least innoabout what a novel cent of the usual hackneyedassumptions people, psychological oughtto have-a tidyplot, love, sensitive moral outlook,etc. But whatever a development, conventional mayhave caused Moll Flandersto be acclaimedas a greatclassic, it the essentialquestion is whether really is one, and why. A posibrief(and no doubtprejudiced) reviewof themain critical the issues involved. tions of the last decade may help to clarify I At first sightMoll Flandersdoes not appear to have much codoes not excludethe herenceof themeor action. This, however, art. As regards of possibility greator even of consciousliterary its plot Terence Martin has argued that the general patternof the events in Moll Flanders can be seen as one which both amplifiesthe opening scenes, and completesthe cycle that is begun there. Thus everymajor episode-Moll's five marriages half of the novel, and in and other sexual adventures the first to careerfollowedby the finalreturn Virginia then her criminal to of in the second half-is a logical expression Moll's attempt in an which is prefigured her become a gentlewoman, attempt the first dialogueswiththenurse. As regards cyclicalnatureof the elements: for instance, plot, Martin findsit in many repetitive Moll is born in Newgateprison,and at the end her life comes to fullcirclewhen she returns Newgateas a felonand is reborn with thereas a penitent. Other examples of cyclical repetition variationare the two visits to Colchester,and more significant especiallythe two to Virginia. Thus Moll's second stay in Virginia is associatedwith the pursuitof real wealth,and not the a false promiseof it as in the earliervisit;withfinding long-lost






her true love, son, not a long-lostmother;and with marrying not her repellent half-brother. Martindoes not maintainthat Defoe is accurate about details structural or thatMoll Flandershas a "sophisticated involvunity ing theme,character,and tone."2 Anotherrecent critic,however,makeslargerclaimsforDefoe as a consciousartist: Defoe's Robert R. Columbus writes,"suggeststhat he told "plotting," his storyin a deliberateand conscious attempt unriddlethe to soul of Moll Flanders." Columbus argues that by lettingthe point of view of "the crafty, egocentric, young" Moll Flanders governthe "understanding" and "sympathy" the aged peniof moral limitations his heroine of in tent, Defoe demonstrated was whollyunaware,not only when she was which she herself it livingherlife,but even whenshe laterreviewed retrospectively. As readerswe are forcedto see what neither "the girl of light virtue[nor] the old lady who has acquired virtuelightly" seems to see at all-the basic truth that "time,circumstance, and her own self-interest" have fashioneda personality Moll which for is entirely dominatedby "vanity"and "avarice," at least until the timewhen"thesinewof need [has] softened intothefatof inand thuspreparedtheway for"a proper'penitence'." clination," 3 Columbus is not alone in connecting question of Defoe's the basic narrativedesign with two other interrelated issues: the moral and psychologicalissue, "What kind of person is Moll Flanders?",and the more technical issue, "Whatvalue judgments are impliedin Moll's pointof view as she narrates life?" her Any criticaljudgment Moll Flanders as a novel mustvery on largelydepend on what view we take of Defoe's characterization of his heroine. It is not, certainly, the traditional of kind. There are obviously greatmanythings do not know about hera we not even if she is a blonde. As a result,the criticsare hardly agreed on anything about her character,except, perhaps, that she is not, as the late lamentable movie proclaimed, madcap." "a Yet E. M. Forster uses Moll Flandersas "our exampleof a novel2 'The Unityof Moll Flanders,"ModernLanguage Quarterly, XXII (1961), 123. 3 "Conscious Artistry Moll Flanders,"Studies in English Literature, in III (1963), 415, 416(5), 431(3). Wherethereis morethanone successive quotation on a singlepage, the number such quotations givenin parentheses, here, is of as afterthe page number.



is and in whicha character everything is given freest play"; and Moll does indeed "stand alone in . . . the book that bears her name . . . like a treein a park."4 mean thatMoll Flandersis a round This does not necessarily and fully-developed fictional character.Leslie Stephenlong ago assertedthat Defoe "seems to see in mankindnothingbut so manymillionDaniel De Foes;" I and in The Rise of the Novel I of argued that the essential personality Moll Flanders seems of largelyindependent the two main facts about her-that she and thatshe is a woman. As to her beinga criminal, is a criminal Defoe actuallygave Moll Flanders the psychology a special of kind of businessentrepreneur, veryfew if any of the usual and psychologicalcharacteristics the criminalclass; while as to of her beinga womanit merely seemsto endow her witha marketable physiological asset. therereallyis such a thingas a specifically feminine Whether muststillbe regarded an open question. In the case as character difficult resolve to of Moll Flanders it is renderedparticularly by the factthatshe began lifeas an orphan,and was thenforced to for in to devoteall her energies fighting independence a man's criticsthe statusof world. If we are willingto allow feminine on we expertwitnesses the feminine character, must accept the about Moll Flanders. opinionsof two women who have written Woolf foundboth Moll Flanders and Roxana convincVirginia she theirportraits evidenceof Defoe's as inglyfeminine; regarded own advanced views on the injustice of denyingwomen the economicand educationalmeans to be independent, although she bound to concede that it would probablybe a tactical also felt blunder to claim Defoe's heroines as "patron saints . . . of 6 women's rights." Dorothy Van Ghent also accepted Moll Flanders as a feminine character, writing that she has "the immense and s


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