Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Women, Work, Rearguard Politics, and Defoe's Moll Flanders

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Women, Work, Rearguard Politics, and Defoe's Moll Flanders

Article excerpt

The last third of The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders (1722) opens as Defoe's title character has been reunited with her husband, Jemy, in Newgate prison. Having recently undergone her own conversion, repentance, and reprieve, Moll exhorts Jemy to follow her example by pleading no contest to the charges against him. In so doing, Moll argues, he might save his own life and be sentenced to transportation rather than risk hanging for his highway robberies. Alive in the colonies, "there might be an Hundred ways for him that was a Gentleman, and a bold enterprizing Man to find his way back again." (1) Like so much of Defoe's writing, Moll's exhortations to Jemy are thick with interpretive possibilities. Among the most obvious of these possibilities is that Moll's promise of a new life in North America underscores the half-century-old critical convention that Defoe's novel epitomizes Enlightenment individualism's central claim that "persons" are "ends in themselves." (2) As Ian Watt put the matter, "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." (3) Fifty years later, interpretations of Moll Flanders still hew in this direction. Individualism remains the dominant hermeneutic for cultural and literary historians of the eighteenth century alike, and Defoe continues to be understood as the ideology's particular purveyor, as his characters, perhaps more than those of any other novelist until Richardson, struggle with their "needs for autonomous security." (4)

Superficially, Defoe's commitment to the Enlightenment account of individualism is hard to dispute. From most vantage points, Moll looks self-reliant for exactly the reasons Watt and others have described. Yet closer scrutiny of Moll's Newgate conversation with Jemy reveals a formidable challenge to this critical shibboleth. For in this passage and others in the novel, "enterprise" has nothing at all to do with self-fulfillment. On the contrary, throughout the novel Defoe very clearly represents "enterprize" as an antidote to the vagaries and degradations of collective affiliation. Jemy initially rejects Moll's proposal that the couple accept transportation to North America and challenges his wife's assumptions that entrepreneurial initiative is the avenue to "find his way back again" to England. In his eyes "enterprize" is little more than "Servitude and hard Labour" and these are "things Gentlemen could never stoop to, that it was but the way to force them to be their own Executioners" (236). Jemy is resolute in his opposition. But Defoe's heroine is nothing if not resourceful. After two pages of ineffective argument, Moll finally explains that "enterprize" has nothing to do with "Servitude," but is, on the contrary, the instrument that will liberate the two from the sordid associations of the commons and the "Mob" (234). In North America, Moll points out to Jemy, they might "live as new People in a new World, no Body having any thing to say to us, or we to them" (238). For Moll, the felicities of a life free from public commentary and communal accountability contrast sharply with the perils of London's underworld where association made her constantly vulnerable to betrayal and violent reprisal either at the hands of her own confederates or the hands of the state. She paints a chilling picture of the dangers of collective affiliation in which "Enemies" vie to "upbraid" the couple with "past disasters" (238). Moll's arguments cannot be dismissed easily as an expedience born of a desperate moment. The very plot of the novel tells us that if Moll's persuasion fails, Jemy will hang, and the novel will end without establishing its new Eden. Given their centrality to the plot, Moll's arguments about the relationship between individual "enterprize" and local, communal relations also suggests to readers an important question that implicates both Defoe's novel and the critical conventions that surround it in a surprisingly conservative polemic: why was seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England so invested in proliferating narratives of Enlightenment individualism? …

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