Moll Flanders: Subverting Romance Conventions

Daniel Defoe’s ‘Moll Flanders’ was published in 1722. The passage I will be focusing on comes halfway through the novel as an older Moll recounts a time of high notoriety in her life. Following her failed marriage to the banker, Moll turns to a life of thievery, and following the capture and execution of her accomplice, adopts the name ‘Moll Flanders’ in order to conceal her true identity. In the passage, located in Chapter 18, Moll is seduced by a ‘Gentleman’ that she meets at ‘Bartholomew Fair,’ and following the end of their liaison, she robs him. This passage, like the rest of the novel, continues to subvert traditional romance conventions, by drawing attention to romance conventions in the passage, the setting, actions of characters and by using free direct discourse. 

Romance conventions had been previously established in works of romance prose fiction, and such conventions can be identified in the opening of the passage. Moll’s ‘Gentleman’ is ‘extreamly well Dress’d and very Rich.’ These adjectives illustrate Moll’s suitors’ wealth and status within society, making him a highly eligible bachelor. Suitors would often be of a high status in romance prose fiction, as identified by William Congreve, who noted that stories of this nature involved individuals of ‘the first Rank.’[1] This emphasises that characters involved in romance prose fiction were of the highest status, which mirrors the implied status of Moll’s suitor. This is certainly true of Aphra Behn’s prose romance Oroonoko, in which the title protagonist is a ‘prince.’[2] Moll’s impression that her suitor is ‘civil’ may correspond with Congreve’s assertion that ‘lofty Language’ frequently appeared in romance prose fiction.[3] This could refer to hyperbolic romantic language, which suitors would deploy to incite feelings of affection within their lovers. Moll’s suitor also buys her a ‘Feather Muff,’ in an attempt to win her affections. This could be equivalent to the heroic acts that male suitors in romance prose fiction were supposed to complete in order to win the hearts of their lovers, referred to as ‘invincible courages’ by Congreve.[4] This plays to the idea that as well as words, suitors would have to physically prove their love to their female counterparts. The opening of the passage appears to adhere to conventions of romance prose fiction, as it develops a male character that is of high status who attempts to win Moll’s hand by showing his affection for her by buying her a gift. This then allows Defoe to subvert these established conventions throughout the remainder of the passage and novel.

The setting of the passage confirms that this was Defoe’s intention. Moll encounters her gentleman at ‘Bartholomew Fair.’ The fair had taken place since the twelfth century, in honour of Saint Bartholomew.[5] This specific setting is selected by Defoe as by 1720, two years prior to the publication of Moll Flanders, the Fair had become home to ‘debaucheries, drunkenness, whoredom’ and was deemed unfit for ‘Christians ears and eyes.’[6] This emphasises the immorality and irreligious nature of the fair, as activities within it were condemned by the Church. This foreshadows the unconventional romance between Moll and her lover, despite the initial opening of the passage, which appeared to adhere to typical romantic conventions.

This choice of setting also marks the rise in formal realism, as the novel begins to act as a ‘picture of real life and manners.’[7]  Ian Watt also recognised this as a mark of the eighteenth century novel, due to its attention to particular ‘times and places.’[8] This demonstrates that the novel is reflective of the times in which it was written, thus progressing away from romance prose fiction, which described more fantastical stories of heroism. The setting is an ironic one in which to find a romantic relationship, as those at the fair are generally seen as ‘idle’ or of ‘loose’ morals.[9]

The actions of Moll’s suitor continue to support the assertion that the passage subverts typical romance conventions. The absence of a name removes any identifying feature from the character, and also emphasises his lack of relevance in Moll’s life, as another of her nameless conquests. As the passage progresses, more is discovered about the character which contradicts the readers’ first impressions of him. He ‘press’d’ Moll to drink, implying that he forced her impolitely. He is not heroic and does not go to great efforts to win Moll, as suitors were expected to in other works of romance prose fiction. In Oroonoko, the title character notes that to save his love, he would ‘venture through any hazard to free her.’[10] Moll uses the verb ‘yielded’ to describe how she responded to her suitors’ advances and describes that he ‘did what he pleas’d with me.’ These descriptions make Moll appear passive, as her suitor is actively pushing her to drink. The relationship appears one sided, suggesting an unequal balance of romantic feeling between the two. There is an imbalance of power, as Moll appears passive to the active agency of her suitor. The forceful nature of Moll’s suitor contradicts her initial impressions of him and confirms the constitution of his character to her and the reader.

Defoe uses free direct discourse to expose the true nature of Moll’s suitor, describing him as ‘so absurd, so surfeiting, so ridiculous.’ This list of three emphasises Moll’s disdain for him, and her use of ‘surfeiting’ implies that she has endured too much of his company which has caused her to desire no more. This confirms that he stifled her, as previously suggested by his persistent action in encouraging her to drink. Moll declares that he was ‘in the possession of two devils at once.’ This metaphor emphasises his immoral nature, as he is controlled by not one but two devils, linking back to the idea that the Fair was home to people devoid of Christian moral values.  It is now confirmed that her suitor represents the antithesis of Christian morality, styling him as a devilish villain. Defoe’s use of free direct discourse allows the reader to see Moll’s point of view verbatim as she recounts her own personal experience. The lack of punctuation gives the impression that Moll has launched into a tirade of anger against her lover and is consumed by it. This emphasises her ‘individuality of character,’[11] which was explored in the eighteenth century novel, as it allowed the reader to understand characters fully, and moved them away from the stereotypical archetypes of romance prose fiction.[12] Both Moll and her suitors’ supposed morality depletes as the passage progresses, revealing their true, corrupt nature.

Moll’s own actions display her own corrupt nature. In response to her lovers’ revealed character, Moll ‘pick’d his Pocket of his watch and his purse of gold.’ What originally appeared as a romantic liaison now has descended into petty thievery. This also marks the shift away from romance prose fiction to realist novels, as Moll’s individuality of character dictates her nefarious actions. This reduces the romantic nature of the liaison to something purely economical and confirms that both characters have used each other for mutual gain. The beginning of the passage contrasts the ending, as the morality of the characters declines as the passage progresses, showing their mutual descent into moral degradation. Moll does not intend to marry this man, as one might expect at this point in her life, and the relationship is considerably dishonest as he appears as something he is not, and she robs him. Although she claims that the situation was ‘unlook’d’ for and ‘undesign’d,’ Moll makes great use of it. The unconventional use of the prefix ‘un’ attempts to emphasise Moll’s lack of involvement in the circumstances of the affair, as she tries to redeem herself in the eyes of the reader.

The passage, and novel, display the transition from romance prose fiction to the eighteenth-century novel, by subverting typical romance conventions. Defoe’s focus on setting and individuality of character allowed him to tell a more realistic story that reflected the times in which it was written, unlike the hyperbolic romance fantasies that had gone before. The moral degradation of Moll and her suitor is reflected in the dénouement of the passage, as their true nature is revealed. This is aided by his use of free direct discourse, allowing greater insight into Moll’s mind. Their actions and behaviour fully subvert the previously established romance conventions of romance prose fiction.

Thanks for reading!

[1] William Congreve, Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconcil’d (London: Printed for Peter Buck, 1692), A5v sig [Available online: EEBO].

[2] Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (London: Penguin Classics, 2004) p. xxv.

[3] Congreve, Incognita, A5v sig.

[4] Ibid., A5v sig.

[5] Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (London: Penguin Classics, 2011) p. 187, n.1.

[6] Ibid., p. 187, n.1.

[7] Clara Reeve, The Progress of Romance (1785), quoted from lecture, Jessica Fay, ‘Moll Flanders’ (9th January 2020, University of Birmingham).

[8] Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (London: Pimlico, 1957 repr. 2000) p.32.

[9] Defoe, Moll Flanders, pg. 187, n.1.

[10] Behn, Oroonoko, p. 20.

[11] Watt, The Rise of the Novel, p.32.

[12] Northrop Frye, ‘The Four Forms of Prose Fiction’, The Hudson Review, Vol. 2, No. 4 (1950) p. 584.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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