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“Terry Eagleton’s literary ‘strategy’ in Moll Flanders”

      Does an author have a role in the creation of a narrative? Is it possible for an author to come up with a completely original idea? Does a story write itself?  If the answer to the first two questions is a “yes,” then readers are left with a fourth, even more-troublesome, question: How are we to read authorial intent in any piece of fiction? Literary theorist, Terry Eagleton, argues that “the literary work of art projects out of its own innards the very historical and ideological subtext to which it is a strategic reply” (170). If this be the case, how, then, are we to read Moll Flanders? Does the fiction ever part from Defoe’s personal politics? If it does part from Defoe’s politics, where? What was the political, as well as socio-economic, climate in England at the time? If we are to understand Moll Flanders as a specific literary strategy, these are questions that need to be tackled. Published in 1722, Moll Flanders can be read as Daniel Defoe’s indictment upon the poor and common people of England, whom Defoe felt had begun to gain too much power in the electorate, and thus could spell out the ruin of English society. Ironically enough, much like Moll the character, Defoe spent his share of time in debtors’ prison twice, once in 1692, once in 1693. Yet, as Melissa Mowry puts it in her article “Women, Work, Rearguard Politics, and Defoe’s Moll Flanders,” “by the time Defoe came to write Moll Flanders his antipathy for England’s commoners was as entrenched as his involvement in shaping England’s political identity was well-entrenched” (99). With this historical perspective in mind, it is not a far-gone conclusion that Defoe’s treatment of Moll, and the other lower-class characters of the novel, is a thinly-veiled satire of the lower classes.

            What was Defoe’s end goal for readers of Moll Flanders? The tale isn’t one of morality: at the end of the novel, Moll seems apparently absolved from her crimes, living comfortably on 300£ sterling a year, and dying with penitence for her misdeeds. With these factors in mind, Defoe could have meant for a case to be made against the commuting of a criminal’s sentence to one of transportation. Moll recounts that her mother said “when [felons] come here . . . they work together in the field till their time is out; when ‘tis expir’d, they have encouragement given them to plant for themselves; for they have a certain number of acres of land allotted them by the country” (113). That Defoe is arguing against the sentence of Transportation seems the most likely strategy, if we are ignorant of Defoe’s personal politics. Joseph F. Bartolomeo argues for this strategy in his article “’New People in a New World’?: Defoe’s Ambivalent Narratives of Emigration.” In his essay, Bartolomeo argues “The transportation of Moll Flanders to Virginia serves its ostensible legal purpose . . . but otherwise the coercive circumstances of her punishment are essentially superficial” (457). However, I would argue that it is imperative that we take into account Defoe’s politics, as well as what was happening in England at the time.  There was a fear present in England that the power of old, landed gentry was to quickly be usurped by the newly-gained wealth of the emerging merchant class. Mowry writes, “In a tract titled ‘The Alteration of the Triennial Act Considered’ (1716), Defoe complained that England’s electorate was too fickle and that, without the Septennial Act, the nation would be condemned to endure endless political upheaval” (99). In other words, Defoe’s abhorrence of the class from which he came up, went deep enough to argue that elections should be held every seven years, instead of every three.

            Where does that leave the reader? Eagleton argues that no matter what the intended strategy, “none of it can take place without a reader, and that reading is as much as strategic enterprise as the work itself” (184-5). For this reader, taking into account Defoe’s personal politics, as well as the socio-economic climate of the time, the strategy lies in a satire of the poor. If we take into account Defoe’s other writings, it isn’t hard to find truth in this. In  1727 Defoe wrote a treatise titled Conjugal Lewdness; Or, Matrimonial Whoredom. A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed. Defoe criticizes several acts that he depicts Moll engaging in, throughout the novel. In Chapter VII, Defoe writes “To Love and not to Marry, is Natures Aversion; to Marry and not to Love, is Nature’s Corruption; the first is Hateful, the last is really Criminal” (379). Throughout four marriages, the only husband Moll seems to truly love is Jemy. Defoe’s strategy, what his work is “projecting from its innards,” is the immorality of the common.

Defoe, as any writer, more than likely collected stories he heard at Fleet prison, and King’s Bench prison, while serving a debtor’s sentence. Drawing upon this experience, Defoe would have easily been able to put these stories to use in writing Moll Flanders. Fredric Jameson wrote “the whole paradox of what we have here called the subtext may be summed up in this, that the literary work . . . as though for the first time, brings into being that very situation to which it is also, at one and the same time, a reaction” (qtd. in Eagleton, 170). Carl R. Lovitt mirrors this sentiment in his article “Defoe’s ‘Almost Invisible Hand’: Narrative Logic as a Structuring Principle in Moll Flanders.” While Lovitt is writing about the supernatural in Moll Flanders, we can use his ideas in the conversation of literary strategy as well. Lovitt writes “events, in other words, determine the stories we tell about them” (5). Events, in this case, can be read as Defoe’s imprisonment, his writings on behalf of the Tory government, as well as the rise in the merchant class in England. Looking at each of these events, it is clear to see why Lovitt, further down, states “it is evident that Defoe did not need to go to such lengths to accomplish his purpose [of allowing events to determine the stories we tell]” (5).

            Finally, if we are to look for Eagleton’s literary strategy in Moll Flanders, we need to talk about the text as an answer to a question, and the question is dependent upon each individual reader. Does Defoe intend for the work to be a cautionary tale about usury and debt? Is Moll Flanders, the character, meant to be viewed as a virtuous character? Or, as seems the most likely case, is Moll Flanders, as a novel, a work of satire, ridiculing the lower classes in England? Eagleton cautions “the text is not bound to provide an answer in the sense that a medical diagnosis is meant to do. It may simply represent a response to the questions it poses, rather than a literal solution to them” (174). As enigmatic as this may seem, Eagleton is leaving us with a valid theory with which to read any work of literature, a theory he calls the Theory of (Almost) Everything.

            What then are we to ultimately make of Moll Flanders? Projecting out of its own innards is a strong critique of the lower classes. It is clear that Defoe was using the popularity of the concept of the novel, to move forward his ideas of the need to strengthen the upper classes in England. Through his other writings, specifically the pamphlets and tracts he produced, Defoe made it clear that he saw no clearer threat to the integrity of the country than that of the commoners using their powers of the vote. Because of this, it is fairly reasonable to read Moll Flanders, and Moll Flanders, as Defoe’s representation of the lower class. Moll seems to hold no remorse for her crimes, her multiple marriages, or her debt, and in the end, seems to come out with clean hands. It is this immorality Defoe is highlighting, in hopes of raising the ire of the Tories, or what could be considered the old guard in English politics. Whether this was Defoe’s true authorial intent, is hard to say.
How do we read a piece of fiction like Moll Flanders? With each reader arise new questions and problems the text is meant to resolve. Whether the reader is tackling Post-Colonial theory, or the Feminist Ideals, it can easily be approached by looking at the work as a strategy. Is Moll Flanders a novel about rising class tensions in 18th-Century England? Is Moll Flanders, the character, meant to embody a bold new era of strong female characters? Does Moll Flanders attempt to justify England’s colonization of other continents, and the decimation of indigenous cultures? The answer to all these questions is “Yes.” As well, the answer to each of these questions is “No.” However, each reader will find that the text, if read closely enough, will project outward the answer to each question it is meant to solve.


Works Cited
Bartolomeo, Joseph F. “’New People in a New World?’: Defoe’s Ambivalent Narratives of Emigration.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 23.3 (Spring, 2011): 455-470. Print.
Defoe, Daniel. “From Conjugal Lewdness; Or, Matrimonial Whoredom. A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed (London, 1727).” Moll Flanders. Ed. Paul Scanlon. Toronto: Broadview, 2005. Print.
- - -. Moll Flanders. Ed. Paul Scanlon. Toronto: Broadview, 2005. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. The Event of Literature. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012. Print
Lovitt, Carl R. “Defoe’s ‘Almost Invisible Hand’: Narrative Logic as a Structuring Principle in Moll Flanders.Eighteenth-Century Fiction 6.1 (October, 1993): 1-28. Print.

Mowry, Melissa. “Women, Work, Rearguard Politics, and Defoe’s Moll Flanders.” The Eighteenth Century 49.2 (Summer 2008): 97-116. Print.


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