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Haque Explorer, Volume 2, Number 1, September 2009, ISSN 1998-


Moll Flanders - A Universal Tale of Capitalism

Fahmida Haque*


Defoe's Moll Flanders is considered as the expression of bourgeois ideology (Seldon, 1989).
Defoe’s understanding of ‘Capitalism’ not only creates the capitalist heroine Molly but also
epitomizes her as a representative of all capitalist society. Moll Flanders may be a capitalist
tale of a particular society or period; but it depicts the formation of capitalist values, morals and
ideology of all capitalist societies in general irrespective of any time. In the present situation of
globalization, which is an extreme form of capitalism, we have millions of Molly who represent
the capitalist ideology in various forms of economic and cultural exploitation; repressions of
workers and trade unionists, and phenomena such as social alienation, inequality,
unemployment, and economic instability.

*Asst. Prof., Dept. of English, IBAIS University, E-mail:

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Haque Explorer, Volume 2, Number 1, September 2009, ISSN 1998-

Moll Flanders - A Universal Tale of Capitalism

Fahmida Haque

Defoe's Moll Flanders is considered as the expression of bourgeois ideology (Lin & Liu, 2000).
It is assumed that Defoe understood the idea of ‘Capitalism’ before it was explored as a term.
Defoe’s understanding of ‘Capitalism’ not only creates the capitalist heroine Molly but also
epitomizes her as a representative of all capitalist society. Moll Flanders may be a capitalist tale
of a particular society or period; but it depicts the formation of capitalist values, morals and
ideology which are universal in all capitalist societies.

In social studies, a political ideology is a set of ideas and principles that explain how the society
should work, and offer the blueprint for a certain social order. A political ideology largely
concerns itself with how to allocate power and to what ends it should be used. (Wikipedia)
Capitalism is a widely studied ideology which governs the politics and societies of the world
since 14th century. According to Marx, ideology is as an instrument of social reproduction. Marx
proposed a base/superstructure model of society. The base refers to the ‘means of production’ of
society. The superstructure is formed on top of the base, and comprises that society's ideology, as
well as its legal system, political system, and religions. Marx proposed that the base determines
the superstructure. It is the ruling class that controls the society's means of production - and thus
the superstructure of society, including its ideology, will be determined according to what is in
the ruling class' best interests. (Wikipedia)

And Capitalism as Marx defined it is the creation of a ‘labor market’ in which most people have
to sell their ‘labor-power’ in order to survive. Marx argued capitalism is also distinguished from
other market economies with private ownership by the concentration of the means of production
in the hands of a few. ( Marx considered capitalism to be a historically specific
‘mode of production’ (the way in which the productive property is owned and controlled,
combined with the corresponding ‘social relations’ between individuals based on their
connection with the process of production) in which capitalism has become the dominant mode
of production. The capitalist stage of development or “bourgeois society,” for Marx, represented
the most advanced form of social organization to the present date. Thus, it is evident that
ideology and capitalism has a very intense relation.

According to Deleuze (2000), “There is no universal capitalism, there is no capitalism in itself;

capitalism is at the crossroads of all kinds of formations, it is neo-capitalism by nature. It invents
its eastern face and western face, and reshapes them both - all for the worst” (ATP: 22) In fact,
capitalism is everywhere – “Even the so-called socialist States are isomorphic, to the extent that
there is only one world market, the capitalist one” (ATP: 503) Capitalism is not territorial, but
functions globally according to Deleuze and Guattari (2000). However, capitalism is not a
transcendent paradigm, but an immanent model of realization, which is immune to any specific

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So, in any capitalist society, the ideology is determined by certain universal factors. These are:

-contractual relationships or binding agreements under the law

-the economic motive
-the drive to consume or the rise of commodities
-venturing in search of financial opportunities
-a heightened individual or a weak connection to community (

In many ways, Moll Flanders is very much a product of capitalism. All the above factors are
present in Moll Flanders which are common to any capitalist society. In the criticism of Moll
Flanders, we can say that the historical survey of the relationship between the author's and the
text's prevailing ideologies are necessarily dialectical. Defoe takes pains to create Molly in such
a way that she uses rigorous inventory of each of her many marriages or affairs to value her net
worth. (Sexton, 2006) This passion for capital worth is certainly not coincidental considering that
England was in the midst of transforming into a nation dominated by the rights of property, and
that marriage was the only property transaction available to a woman interested in keeping
herself one step away from poverty or debtors prison. Understanding the rapidly increasing
attachment to property's increasing value during Defoe's time is vital for anyone attempting to
fully understand the novel's preoccupation with capitalistic trade, and especially its association of
trade with the convention of marriage.

Considering that at the time Daniel Defoe wrote Moll Flanders, there existed in England
essentially no difference in the punishment received by those who committed theft and those
who committed murder. All the while, of course, a woman’s rights to property were for all
practical purposes null and void. A woman’s opportunity for marrying into money was greatly
dependent upon how much wealth she could bring to the marriage.

Beauty, Wit, Manners, Sence, good Humour, good Behaviour, Education, Virtue,
Piety, or any other Qualification, whether of Body or Mind, had no power to
recommend: That Money only made a Woman agreeable [53]

Moll Flanders takes precious little time to grasp and embrace this relationship. Like many of her
real-life contemporaries, Moll Flanders quickly comprehends that money is the thing, and the
mere possession of money is really the one thing that makes a woman agreeable to a man when
marriage is up for consideration.

In fact, all of the women, and most of the men, are obsessed with increasing their fortunes by
virtue of the sacred institution. Moll Flanders—the novel—appears to be sanctioning this
practice as an honest method of keeping a woman financially stable. Consider that Moll is
reduced to committing crime to remain solvent only after she has begun to lose her sexual
attractiveness. The implicit prediction here is that if Moll had only been able to enact a
transaction with a man who was able to live long enough, or not run away, or make bad business
decisions that she might never have fallen into her life of wickedness. When Moll Flanders takes
those painstaking inventories after each of her relationships fail, she is proving herself keenly
aware of the fact that adding whatever wealth she can to her greatest possession—her
attractiveness and sexual desirability—is of the utmost importance in ensuring that she can

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continue to do the one thing that will prevent her from falling into abject poverty: landing
another husband. This may give the reader a feeling of Moll's calculating personality.

According to the Marxist critics, the story is a tale of capitalism due to the numerous allusions to
money, contracts, and other currency-related items: Everything, including people, has a
monetary value. ( Truly, in Moll Flanders, money makes the world go around.
Hardly a page goes by in the novel without a mention of money. Moll's money worries begin at
the age of eight when Moll must figure out a way to avoid being placed in servitude.

………..I was eight years Old, when I was terrified with News that the
Magistrates, as I think they call’d them, had order’d that I should go to Service;

To do this, she tells the nurse who has taken her in that she can work, and that eventually she will
earn her own way in the world. When the nurse expresses doubt that Moll can really earn her
keep, Moll responds, “I will work harder, says I, and you shall have it all.” [10]

Though Moll is easily flattered by men commenting on her beauty, she is even more flattered at
their attentions if the men are wealthy.

I was more confounded with the Money than I was before with the Love, and
began to be so elevated, that I scarce knew the Ground I stood on: [20]

When she and the elder brother are discussing their future, he shows her a purse full of coins that
he claims he will give her every year until they are married, in essence for remaining his

here's an Earnest for you; and with that he pulls out a silk Purse, with an Hundred
Guineas in it, and gave it me; and I’ll give you such another, says he, every Year
till I Marry you. [24]

Moll's “colour came and went, at the sight of the purse,” [24] and at the thought of the money he
had promised her.

Moll complains after the death of her first husband that no one in the city appreciates a beautiful,
well-mannered woman, and that the only thing a man is looking for in a wife is her ability to
bring money into the relationship. She notes that

“money only made a woman agreeable: That Men chose Mistresses indeed by the
gust of their Affection, and it was requisite to a Whore to be Handsome, well
shap’d, have a good Mien, and a graceful Behaviour; but that for a Wife, no
Deformity would shock the Fancy, no ill Qualities, the Judgement; the Money
was the thing; the Portion was neither crooked or Monstrous, but the Money was
always agreeable, whatever the Wife was.” [54]

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So, whatever she wanted to become—wife, whores or mistresses, of course, these relationships
are built upon money, as well.

Ultimately, most of Moll's actions are precipitated by the need or desire for money. She searches
for husbands who have money and usually tries to give them the mistaken impression that she is
wealthy. She plots and schemes because she believes that all that matters in life is the acquisition
of wealth. Her motto is “Deceive the Deceiver” [61]. Even when she becomes the richest thief in
all of England and her fame threatens her ability to continue stealing, she cannot stop her hunt
for more money. Her greed ultimately having her downfall, for she gets sloppy and is caught
stealing from a house where she cannot pretend to have been shopping.

In the novel, Moll sails to Virginia twice: first as the wife of a plantation owner and second as a
convicted criminal sentenced to serve time as a slave. In the late seventeenth century and early
eighteenth century, Virginia was an English colony, an evidence of expanding English overseas
interests in the name of trade and political power. Settled in the early 1600s, Virginia was a
thriving and important complement to England's economy by the early 1700s.

During this period, wealth came progressively more from merchants’ capital, creating a powerful
and prosperous business class. Business was booming in England, fostering an attitude that there
was lots of money to be made. England's major manufactured export product during this period
was cloth, which, along with other manufactured goods, was shipped to the American colonies in
exchange for an increasingly valuable commodity, tobacco.

It is significant that it is only when Moll Flanders reaches America that she achieves long-lasting
financial stability without having to resort to whoredom or thievery. In America, she can live out
the dream of being a property owner, something which would be forever denied her in England
because of the accident of her birth. Daniel Defoe seems relatively unconcerned with Moll's
personal morality, choosing instead to relate it to the larger concern of the immorality inherent in
the rising English system of capitalism and consumerism which clearly seemed determine to
leave women with very little choice in terms of morality if they aspired to live better than their
circumstances of birth proscribed.

Moll Flanders’ attitude at the end of the novel appears to be in perfect accord with her attitude
throughout the book; while seeming to be in complete juxtaposition to the promises made in the
preface that hers is a story from which the moral is more important than the fable. The apparent
lack of a moral, however, seems to be one more case of Defoe's ironic indictment of capitalism
and consumerism, most specifically how they relate to women in England. For a rational critical
analysis of this novel, it's important to understand how Defoe’s interest lies in the morality of
capitalism as it serves women in England at the time.

By the novel’s end Moll Flanders has all but forgotten her embrace of Christianity and her desire
to do self-punishment for her past crimes as she almost immediately accepts bribery as her way
of getting out of Newgate and getting to America in the finest class possible. She also apparently
has no regret about using the gains she got through her life of crime to further her career as an
American plantation owner. Nor does she seem to mind lying to her son about her state of
matrimony. Not only is she still continuing her questionable moral code of living, but by the end

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of the novel, Moll Flanders is living in good heart and health, which seems to be a direct
contradiction of Defoe's claim that no villain exists in the novel who does not meet either an
unhappy end or is redeemed through penitence.

A contradiction, that is, unless one assumes that the real moral lesson Daniel Defoe is providing
here is that there exists no moral component to capitalism when applied to any British woman
not to the manor born. By having Moll Flanders end up successful, happy and, most importantly,
alive in a story which has seen her earn money as a bride willingly engaged in a loveless
marriage, as a whore, as a mistress, as a thief — in every way except as an honest worker — the
moral of the story doesn't seem to rest on Moll's penitence, as was promised, but rather on the
fact that the only means available to Moll of producing enough capital to assure herself of living
the kind life she aspired to was a series of financial transactions which were demeaning to her
moral stature.

The pivotal point of the novel revolves around the transformation of a religious society into a
secular society. Material conditions balanced religious issues, and at times outweigh it in the
cultural texts of the Eighteenth Century. Daniel Defoe was a keen Capitalist, and his values are
present in the material presentation of middle class life in all his works.

Marx (Fromm, 1991) argued that it was the material condition of an individual’s life that shaped
that individual’s understanding of the world and themselves (Class consciousness). Historical
Materialism refers to the idea that material conditions are determining factors in the development
of human social history. Marx viewed human history as the development of society along the
line of material conditions. These conditions shape the balance of power. (Fromm, 1991) We can
analyze Moll as a Capitalist Heroine because she exhibits Capitalist tendencies, and her material
conditions shape her understanding of the world.

While the philosophy of the eighteenth century Enlightenment period addressed such issues as
individual liberties, social welfare, economic liberty, and education, these concerns did not
translate into major changes for women between the late 1600s and early 1700s. In fact, there are
indications that the status of women declined during this period; in 1600, more than two-thirds of
the businesses in London were reported to be owned by women, but by the end of the eighteenth
century, that rate had been reduced to only ten percent. (

Because the English economy at this time was based on the family unit, financial success
determined that most people live within a family unit. In such an environment, society looked
upon individuals who lived outside of a family unit with suspicion and assumed they were
probably criminals, beggars, or prostitutes. Moll, when she finds herself in particularly difficult
situations, frequently bemoans the fact that she does not have any family or friends whose
household she could join. (

I had no Acquaintance, which was one of my worst Misfortunes, and the

Consequence of that was, I had no adviser, at least who cou’d advise and assist
together; above all’ I had no Body to whom I could in confidence commit the
Secret of my Circumstances to, and could depend upon for their Secresie and

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Fidelity; and I found by experience, that to be Friendless is the worst Condition,


Essentially, her eternal search for a husband is a search for a family unit of her own.

Working-class women were expected to participate in the labor force as early as their sixth
birthday. If a child was an orphan without anyone willing to provide financial support, as Moll's
nurse did for her, the authorities expected the orphan to go into “service,” usually household
work for young girls. Women could rarely marry without a dowry, an amount of money that
went to the husband as a sort of investment in the family economic unit.

Women of laboring families, married or single, worked in low-status jobs. Middle-and upper-
class women had more economic options although by the seventeenth century, as a woman's
status increased, her ability to secure productive work diminished as she was not expected to be
in a situation where she would have to work.

Many progressive Englishmen of the day believed that education was a paramount requirement
for a civilized society; educational opportunities were extended to middle and upper class
women in addition to men. But the existing attitudes dictated that only men should receive
instruction in the more intellectual subjects such as philosophy and science, and that women
should study subjects that would contribute to their moral development and to their desirability
as marriage prospects. These subjects included singing, dancing, and languages, as demonstrated
by the young girls in the household of Moll’s first husband, Robin. Moll learns these lessons,
giving her an edge that most girls in her economic status did not have.

From the Marxist critics, we know literary forms are themselves expressions of class ideologies
(154). Pierre Macherey suggests that literature can “show the incoherence of ideology.” “Weber
thesis” about the connections between capitalism and the “Protestant ethic” suggests that
“Calvin's ‘inward’ ethical attitude, which saw the individual life as a ‘labour’ for a deferred end,
also resembled capitalist ideology (155). Defoe’s identity as both an entrepreneur and a religious
dissenter affects the Puritan/capitalist ideological “mélange” (Moll's double perspective in her
narration: her indulgence and lament of her “wicked” life.) of his novel. “The incoherence and
contradictions are suppressed in ideology's 'imaginary' representations”(156). Moll Flanders
suggests that the new and ruthless capitalists of the times resemble in their values the criminal
underworld of the day. The paradoxical and contradictory nature is a direct effect of the ideology
Defoe produces in his text. (Lin & Liu, 2000)

We can relate Capitalism to Puritan Ideology. Puritans were Protestants that believed that we are
born damned and need to live in discipline life in order to receive signs of God’s Providence.
The neurosis of being born Damned forced Puritans to have an individual relationship with God,
and they believe in the internal personal financial success as a sign of God’s grace.

Max Weber (1904, 1905), a German sociologist, wrote The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit
of Capitalism. He argued that these Puritan values generated an enhanced capitalist drive in early
Modern Europe. Protestant Work Ethic: a Puritan view that promotes hard work and self-

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discipline as means to financial wealth and God’s grace. Economics and religion become
interestingly intertwined.

Defoe’s capitalist motive in not only prominent in Moll Flanders, but also in his other major
works like Roxana and Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s Roxana, like his Moll Flanders, trades upon
the appetite for apparently autobiographical thieves’ tales and context scandalous which
appeared in early capitalist London, and which survives in modern celebrity magazines and
newspapers. The issues Defoe addresses, however, were more sharply felt in 1721 as capitalism
had only recently been released from monarchical control by the Glorious Revolution and the
“Financial Revolution” was inducing rapid changes in daily life and social institutions. The
narrative tells of Roxana’s descent from middle-class propriety to whoredom and charts her
accumulation of a huge fortune by judicious sale of her one asset, her remarkable good looks.
Defoe’s work thus exploits the salacious imagination whilst staging the moral problem of the
body on sale: if it is fundamentally good that everything can be traded in the market, then what
could be wrong in a woman selling her own body?(Clark, 2000)

Again Defoe’s most legendary creation Crusoe is as economic man. As economic man, Crusoe
has been specifically identified with capitalism, particularly by Marxist critics. His solitary state
on the island, his limited relationships with others, including his own family, and the
insignificance of sex/women reflect the nature of capitalism, which emphasizes individual self-

So, it is evident that Defoe formed a capitalist motive which has a universal point of view present
in all of his novels. Capitalist economic practices incrementally became institutionalized in
England between the 16th and 19th centuries; capitalism has been dominant in the Western
world since the end of feudalism. Capitalism gradually spread throughout Europe, and in the
19th and 20th centuries, it provided the main means of industrialization throughout the world.
And the latest version of capitalism is globalization. In the present situation of globalization, we
have millions of Molly who represent the capitalist ideology in various forms of economic and
cultural exploitation; repressions of workers and trade unionists, and other phenomena such as
social alienation, inequality, unemployment, and economic instability. Thus, we can end with to
conclude that Moll Flanders is a universal tale of capitalism and such ideology.


Clark, Robert. “The Fortunate Mistress; or Roxana.” The Literary Encyclopedia.

28 October 2000.

Fromm, E. Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum, 1991.

Kibbie, Ann Louise. “Monstrous Generation: The Birth of Capital in Defoe's Moll Flanders and
Roxana,” PMLA 110 (1995): 1023-1034.

Lin, Ethan, and Kate Liu. “Marxist Interpretations on Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, and
Shakespeare's King Lear and Macbeth.” Literary Criticism II. 21 March 2000.

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Patton, Paul. Deleuze and the Political. Routledge, 2000.

Selden, Raman (ed). “Section 22, Text: Deniel Defoel, Moll Flanders.” Practicing Theory and
Reading Literature: An Introduction. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. 152
- 57.

Sexton, Timothy. “Moll Flanders and the Immortality of Capitalism”. Associated Content.htm.
22 July 2006.

Parsons, Talcott (ed). Weber, Max. The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

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