Watt - Moll Flanders

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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 10:08 Your 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 [email protected]. The Johns Hopkins University Press and American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS) are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Eighteenth-Century Studies. http://www.jstor.org

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Page 1: Watt - Moll Flanders

American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS)

The Recent Critical Fortunes of Moll FlandersAuthor(s): Ian WattSource: Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 109-126Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Sponsor: American Society for EighteenthCentury Studies (ASECS).Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3031669Accessed: 07/08/2010 10:08

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay 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 athttp://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 printedpage of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].

The Johns Hopkins University Press and American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS) arecollaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Eighteenth-Century Studies.


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The Recent Critical Fortunes of Moll Flanders IAN WATT

D EFOE WAS MUCH INTERESTED IN THE FUTURE, as we can see from his Essay Upon Projects; but he can hardly have envisaged what the future had in store for one of his more casual produc- tions, Moll Flanders: that after two centuries of a more or less underground existence it would emerge to be canonized as one of the world's great novels by the modern movement in literature; that in 1911 James Joyce would declare (no doubt prematurely) that Defoe's heroine "reduce[s] contemporary criticism to stupe- fied impotence;" ' that universities should now prescribe the book for their courses on 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 three articles or other extended discussions of Mall Flanders were published; but since then their number has grown steadily to an average of at least three a year. This increasing interest seems to have been stimulated by two books on the eighteenth-century novel, Alan D. McKillop's The Early Masters of English Fiction (1956) and my own The Rise of the Novel (1957); in different ways both works challenged the more extreme claims made for Defoe as a novelist by the pre- vious generation of critics; and both have been vigorously chal- lenged in their turn.

Portions of this essay will appear as an Afterword to a Fawcett Premier Masterworks edition of Moll Flanders. I am indebted to Fawcett Publications, and to the general editor of the series, Irving Howe, for permission to use these portions here.

1 Daniel Defoe by James Joyce, edited from Italian manuscripts and translated by Joseph Prescott (Buffalo, 1964), p. 20.


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The reasons for the critical apotheosis of Moll Flanders are no doubt very varied. Defoe, surely the most unromantic of writers, found his first great admirers among the Romantics, who welcomed him as a fellow rebel against the established literary decorum. Later, in the Twenties, Defoe seemed a useful ally in the rebellion against both Victorian prudery and the studied formal perfection of the Flaubertian and Jamesian novel: the rawer art and seamier life of Moll Flanders were at least inno- cent of the usual hackneyed assumptions about what a novel ought to have-a tidy plot, love, sensitive people, psychological development, a conventional moral outlook, etc. But whatever may have caused Moll Flanders to be acclaimed as a great classic, the essential question is whether it really is one, and why. A brief (and no doubt prejudiced) review of the main critical posi- tions of the last decade may help to clarify the issues involved.


At first sight Moll Flanders does not appear to have much co- herence of theme or action. This, however, does not exclude the possibility of great or even of conscious literary art. As regards its plot Terence Martin has argued that the general pattern of the events in Moll Flanders can be seen as one which both amplifies the opening scenes, and completes the cycle that is begun there. Thus every major episode-Moll's five marriages and other sexual adventures in the first half of the novel, and then her criminal career followed by the final return to Virginia in the second half-is a logical expression of Moll's attempt to become a gentlewoman, an attempt which is prefigured in her first dialogues with the nurse. As regards the cyclical nature of the plot, Martin finds it in many repetitive elements: for instance, Moll is born in Newgate prison, and at the end her life comes full circle when she returns to Newgate as a felon and is reborn there as a penitent. Other examples of cyclical repetition with significant variation are the two visits to Colchester, and more especially the two to Virginia. Thus Moll's second stay in Vir- ginia is associated with the pursuit of real wealth, and not the false promise of it as in the earlier visit; with finding a long-lost

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son, not a long-lost mother; and with marrying her true love, not her repellent half-brother.

Martin does not maintain that Defoe is accurate about details or that Moll Flanders has a "sophisticated structural unity involv- ing theme, character, and tone." 2 Another recent critic, how- ever, makes larger claims for Defoe as a conscious artist: Defoe's "plotting," Robert R. Columbus writes, "suggests that he told his story in a deliberate and conscious attempt to unriddle the soul of Moll Flanders." Columbus argues that by letting the point of view of "the crafty, egocentric, young" Moll Flanders govern the "understanding" and "sympathy" of the aged peni- tent, Defoe demonstrated moral limitations in his heroine of which she herself was wholly unaware, not only when she was living her life, but even when she later reviewed it retrospectively. As readers we are forced to see what neither "the girl of light virtue [nor] the old lady who has acquired virtue lightly" seems to see at all-the basic truth that "time, circumstance, and her own self-interest" have fashioned a personality for Moll which is entirely dominated by "vanity" and "avarice," at least until the time when "the sinew of need [has] softened into the fat of in- clination," and thus prepared the way for "a proper 'penitence'." 3

Columbus is not alone in connecting the question of Defoe's basic narrative design with two other interrelated issues: the moral and psychological issue, "What kind of person is Moll Flanders?", and the more technical issue, "What value judgments are implied in Moll's point of view as she narrates her life?"

Any critical judgment on Moll Flanders as a novel must very largely depend on what view we take of Defoe's characterization of his heroine. It is not, certainly, of the traditional kind. There are obviously a great many things we do not know about her- not even if she is a blonde. As a result, the critics are hardly agreed on anything about her character, except, perhaps, that she is not, as the late lamentable movie proclaimed, "a madcap." Yet E. M. Forster uses Moll Flanders as "our example of a novel

2 'The Unity of Moll Flanders," Modern Language Quarterly, XXII (1961), 123.

3 "Conscious Artistry in Moll Flanders," Studies in English Literature, III (1963), 415, 416(5), 431(3). Where there is more than one successive quotation on a single page, the number of such quotations is given in parentheses, as here, after the page number.

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in which a character is everything and is given freest play"; and Moll does indeed "stand alone in . . . the book that bears her name . . . like a tree in a park." 4

This does not necessarily mean that Moll Flanders is a round and fully-developed fictional character. Leslie Stephen long ago asserted that Defoe "seems to see in mankind nothing but so many million Daniel De Foes;" I and in The Rise of the Novel I argued that the essential personality of Moll Flanders seems largely independent of the two main facts about her-that she is a criminal and that she is a woman. As to her being a criminal, Defoe actually gave Moll Flanders the psychology of a special kind of business entrepreneur, and very few if any of the usual psychological characteristics of the criminal class; while as to her being a woman it merely seems to endow her with a market- able physiological asset.

Whether there really is such a thing as a specifically feminine character must still be regarded as an open question. In the case of Moll Flanders it is rendered particularly difficult to resolve by the fact that she began life as an orphan, and was then forced to devote all her energies to fighting for independence in a man's world. If we are willing to allow feminine critics the status of expert witnesses on the feminine character, we must accept the opinions of two women who have written about Moll Flanders. Virginia Woolf found both Moll Flanders and Roxana convinc- ingly feminine; she regarded their portraits as evidence of Defoe's own advanced views on the injustice of denying women the economic and educational means to be independent, although she also felt bound to concede that it would probably be a tactical blunder to claim Defoe's heroines as "patron saints . . . of women's rights." 6 Dorothy Van Ghent also accepted Moll Flanders as a feminine character, writing that she has "the im- mense and seminal reality of an Earth Mother," a view which echoes William Faulkner who, in the course of naming Moll Flanders (along with Moby Dick and When We Were Very Young) as the book he would most like to have written, wrote of the heroine's "teeming and rich fecundity like a market-place

4 Aspects of the Novel (London, 1949), pp. 59, 55. 5 Hours in a Library, I (1899), 17. 6 "Defoe," The Common Reader, First Series (London, 1938), pp. 101-102.

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where all that had survived up to that time must bide and pass.... 7

In other respects Dorothy Van Ghent's interpretation of Moll Flanders was very different from Virginia Woolf's. She is de- scribed as the bearer of a "stereotypic" middle-class and materialist morality, and thus as a symbolic "progenetrix of the wasteland, sower of our harvests of technological skills, bombs, gadgets, and the platitudes and stereotypes and absurdities of a morality suit- able to a wasteland world." Not, of course, that Defoe intended any such meaning for his heroine. Dorothy Van Ghent sidestepped the whole question of what Defoe consciously intended, arguing that since "we read it-and reread it-with gusto and marvel," we must "waive the question of Defoe's 'intention' and 'sincerity'," though we may well be inclined to the intuitive "guess that a great book could not be written by an impoverished soul." 8

The critics who have faced the issue of Defoe's conscious at- titude to Moll's character have had to deal with evidence that is very difficult to assess. The main evidence is the Preface, and Defoe's qualified approval of Moll Flanders there has seemed wholly unacceptable to many readers. This is especially so among writers who concentrate on the economic aspects of her behavior. Mark Schorer, for instance, assumes that Defoe cannot be im- partial about his heroine because "he is Moll Flanders"; like her Defoe sees everything in terms of the arithmetic of personal profit; and so Schorer's analysis concludes with the memorably wounding verdict that "without in the least intending it, Mall Flanders is our classic revelation of the mercantile mind: the morality of measurement which Defoe has apparently neglected to measure." 9

For Mark Schorer this significantly diminishes the literary value of the book as well as the human value of its heroine. Most recently, however, Denis Donoghue has suggested that the great- ness of Mall Flanders as a book is directly dependent on Defoe's

7Essays, Speeches and Public Letters, ed. Meriwether (London, 1967), p. 198. The letter is dated 1927.

8 The English Novel: Form and Function (New York, 1953), pp. 42-43. On the feminist aspect of Moll Flanders, see also Tommy G. Watson, "Defoe's Attitude Towards Marriage and the Position of Women as Revealed in Moll Flanders," The Southern Quarterly, III (1964), 1-8.

9 "Introduction," Moll Flanders (Modem Library College Editions, New York, 1950), pp. xi, xiii.

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blindness to his heroine's real character. "Moll cannot be said to have a character at all," Donoghue writes, "if we mean a figure with a rich interior life, full of individuality"; Defoe's idiom in general is "morally null"; and in his basic narrative point of view "there is no irony at all." But Donoghue argues that it is this which, paradoxically, brings about Defoe's triumph. The novel's terms "assume that whatever cannot be measured does not exist," because Defoe is totally committed to a perspective in which "the analogies of capitalistic trade provide the sole 'form' of human action." This perspective, though "ignor[ing] two-thirds of human existence," had one inestimable literary advantage: it enabled, indeed virtually obliged, Defoe to create what was in fact "a single, unified world." Defoe's-and Moll's-terms were indeed narrow: but they ensured a point of view that was historically unprecedented in its coherence; and this coherence, Donoghue concludes, was "precisely Defoe's contribution to English fiction." 0

In his Rogue's Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel, Robert Alter, the only critic, as far as I know, who finds me giving "too much credit to Defoe's art," takes a view of Moll's psychology very similar to Schorer's and Donoghue's. He gives it, however, a rather different literary interpretation. Alter attributes the brutal plain-dealing of Moll's customary language to her businesswoman's literal-mindedness, which unconsciously assumes that material quantity and quality are the only realities. As to her occasional polite euphemisms, especially about sex ("offer her a kindness in that way"), they are merely copied from the speech habits of the genteel society to which she aspires, and only serve to reveal how little importance she attaches to her own emotional life. She is not really conscious of the false social and moral roles that she plays; and for this reason she is not a picaresque character. The picaro has a protean capacity for putting on new identities as the situation demands; but Moll Flanders is essentially always the same; her character must be seen as a normal product of capitalism which, as Max Weber showed, "necessarily converts the conduct of the individual life into an austere discinline." 11

10 Denis Donoghue, "The Values of Moll Flanders," Sewanee Review, LXXI (1963), 298, 292, 293, 302-303.

11 "A Bourgeois Picaroon," Rogue's Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), pp. 49, 35-36, 57. Alter dissents, correctly as I think,

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I naturally welcome Donoghue and Alter to my corner of the critical ring; but I am also bound to admit that the majority of recent critics have taken a much more favorable view of Moll's character. Her concern for profit, they believe, cannot be denied, but it need not be regarded either as her only real motive, or as completely disproving her moral protestations. It is contradictory, no doubt, for Moll Flanders to repent, and still keep the profits of her wickedness: but nothing is more human than inconsistency; we all talk morally and act selfishly; we all continually deceive our- selves; and we all pass more partial judgments on our own acts than on those of others.

Howard L. Koonce, for instance, bases his interpretation of Moll Flanders on the normality of human inconsistency. His article "Moll's Muddle" takes up the famous passage where Moll steals a necklace from a child (p. 169 in Riverside edition) and then reflects to herself: The last affair left no great concern upon me, for as I did the poor child no harm, I only thought I had given the parents a just reproof for their negligence, in leaving the poor lamb to come home by it self, and it would teach them to take more care another time.

Koonce then quotes my comment on this: There is no doubt about the psychological veracity of the reflection: the conscience is a great casuist. There is, however, some doubt about Defoe's intention: is it meant to be an ironical touch about his heroine's moral duplicities, her tendency to be blind to the beam in her own eye? or did Defoe forget Moal as he raged inwardly at the thought of how careless parents are, and'how richly they deserve to be punished?

Koonce then throws down his gauntlet, though not precisely on the ground I thought I was occupying: . . . it seems to me that Professor Watt has missed almost every point, ostensible as well as underlying, that the passage has to make in his oversimplified set of alternatives.

The passage, in context, makes it quite clear that Moll is not only not "blind to the beam in her own eye," but that she is actually berating herself for it.... from the common treatment of Moll Flanders as a picaresque novel. The term picaresque is often used loosely to mean merely rambling, spicy or amoral: Defoe is certainly not the last two, and although Moll could be considered a rogue, she doesn't think of herself as one, as the picaro, never prone to self- deception, characteristically does.

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Koonce instances the preceding passage in which Moll comments on how "poverty as I have said, hardened my heart, and my own necessities made me regardless of anything;" and concludes that . . . though she does accuse parents and maid of vanity and careless- ness, there is nothing in the passage even remotely suggestive of rage . . . far from forgetting Moll, Defoe is here depicting her in her most characteristic activity. She is ingratiating and exculpating herself by wandering into a thoroughly disarming moral muddle. And it seems to me that Defoe was not only aware of this muddle, but that he in fact planned and executed it as a means of uniting what had long been the two basic elements of the criminal narrative.

Koonce identifies the two elements as "a zest for tales of criminal ingenuity and a taste for moral preachment"; and he argues that it is the tension between these two very different sets of demands which animates both the heroine's character and the irony of the book as a whole: Moll's sense of destiny not only was in conflict with her circumstances, it is in conflict with her own sense of morality; the book is a series of interlocking challenges to Moll's ingenuity and resourcefulness not only in overcoming adversity, but also in turning grossly culpable behaviour into a matter for admiration or sympathy or both.12

If we accept Koonce's interpretation, the character of Moll Flanders becomes much more consistent. When, for instance, Moll is disgusted at the "hard-mouthed jade" who, though earning only ?3 a year, refuses a bribe of ? 100 to change her evidence against Moll, we can interpret it as evidence of Moll's muddle- ment; if she really is penitent she logically ought to admire dis- interested honesty, but in ordinary life we don't condemn people as insincere merely because they don't like kissing the rod of retribution.

But my doubts about Defoe's characterization of Moll Flanders obstinately continue. How far Defoe succeeded in introjecting "the two basic elements of the criminal narrative" into Moll's psychol- ogy and behavior still seems to me an open question. I asked if Defoe "raged inwardly" only as an ironically hyperbolic way of invoking the conflict of these two opposing considerations in his mind as he wrote the passage: Defoe wanted to promote better

12 Howard L. Koonce, "Moll's Muddle: Defoe's Use of Irony in Moll Flanders," English Literary History, XXX (1963), 378-379, 382.

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baby-sitting, and to bring that moral in through Moll's reflections. When Koonce denies that Moll is "blind to the beam in her own eye" we are really involved in a misunderstanding: she was surely blind when she blamed the parents, and not herself; and she cer- tainly did not "actually berate herself" either at the time of the theft, or as she reflected about it shortly after, which is when I was talking about and finding casuistry. Perhaps Moll Flanders later came to the point of deeper moral self-criticism implied by Koonce; but the actual narrative status of that final retrospective phase seems to me to be rather vague; and it certainly left un- touched many other things for which Defoe might well have "be- rated" his heroine's conscience.

My doubts find some support in the way that even the critics who adopt a more sympathetic view of Moll's character come to widely different conclusions about it. Arnold Kettle, for instance, who is also specifically concerned to refute my interpretation, interprets the episode of the lynching of the boy pickpocket, when Moll barely escapes after her attempt to steal a gold watch from the gentlewoman at the meeting-house, as a condemnation, not of Moll's obdurate selfishness, but of the brutal injustice of the society of Defoe's day. On Moll's laconic remark that "the poor boy was deliver'd up to the rage of the street, which is a cruelty I need not describe," Kettle, rightly as it seems to me, comments that her reaction is "humanly speaking . . . quite inadequate." For Kettle, apparently, Moll never comes to the point of genuine self- criticism, even when she looks back retrospectively on the cruelty of mob rage. Kettle's interpretation, it appears, has less room for muddle because for him the target is not moral or psychological, but social, evil; it was society which gave Moll Flanders no other way to live or be: . . .to become a maidservant in that period meant the end of any possibility that could conceivably be subsumed under the words free- dom or independence, any possibility therefore of individual human development or flowering.

Kettle's comment is no doubt historically true: but is it a truth expressed in the novel? Do we really, in regarding Moll Flanders, experience what Kettle finds-a "desire for better relationships with other people than life as a servant . . . in the man's world

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of eighteenth-century England . . . will permit"? 13 Or, to take another Marxist interpretation, do we really experience, in Alick West's words, that "the theme of Moll Flanders" is how "the hu- man relation becomes a property relation, and it is the woman who suffers." 14

Arnold Kettle and Alick West, like the other critics who con- nect the character of Moll Flanders with the patterns of behavior produced by modern capitalism, assume that Moll's penitence can- not be sincere, although they do not go as far as Koonce, who sees her pious protestations as something the reader must "recog- nise" as "an absurd, preposterous logical triumph, in which Moll's sense of morality has been completely absorbed into her sense of destiny." 1' Here Koonce, along with Kettle, West, Alter, Schorer, Donoghue and the other critics who use social and eco- nomic history to support their interpretations of Moll's character, is almost completely at odds with the findings of those who have explored the religious aspect of Defoe's background.

The most thorough treatment of this subject is undoubtedly that of George Starr in his very illuminating monograph Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography. (1965). Moll sins through the tempta- tions of vanity, abetted by greed and improper social ambition; her subsequent career shows an increasing tendency to insincere repentance, and to the spiritual danger of trusting to the fallible guidance of individual reason, instead of to religion; but the long process of progressive hardening is only a necessary-and tradi- tional-stage towards achieving a final and genuine, if not com- plete and unassailable, religious conversion. To support this reading of Moll Flanders, Starr establishes many parallels, both with many earlier works of genuine spiritual autobiography, and with Robinson Crusoe; and he also points, surely rightly, to the much more convincing tone with which Moll's anguished contri- tion in Newgate is related.

For Starr, then, Moll Flanders embodies a rather standardized pattern of the sinner's progress, although he does not claim that Defoe shows us a wholly "systematic development of the heroine's

13 "In Defence of Moll Flanders," Of Books and Mankind: Essays and Poems Presented to Bonamy Dobree, ed. John Butt (London, 1I964), pp. 60-61, 63, 65.

14 Alick -West, "Defoe," The Mountain in the Sunlight (London, 1958), p. 89. 15 "Moll's Muddle," p. 384.

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spiritual condition." Starr's interpretation has the advantage of being consonant both with the contemporary genre to which Moll Flanders partly belongs, and with the explicit statements of the author and the heroine. We must certainly agree-with whatever qualifications-that Moll Flanders and Defoe both thought them- selves sincere about the religious and moral issues raised; so that one's real doubt with Starr's-as with many other interpretations of Moll Flanders-is just how much of the book the interpretation really accounts for. To admit that "some portions of the narra- tive are not spiritualised at all," and nevertheless maintain, as Starr does, that "a conventional pattern of spiritual decay supplies" a degree of "thematic coherence despite any amount of incoherence in the outward narrative," 16 leaves us somewhat in the air; after all, "the outward narrative" comprises much more than half the book.

Wherever we turn, then, in what has been written about Moll Flanders, we meet obstinate contradictions. The classic modem solution to such critical problems, of course, is to talk of duality, paradox, above all of irony; and this is certainly the main critical solution proposed by those who, finding manifold contradictions in Moll Flanders, nevertheless believe it to be a coherent work of art.


That there is a good deal of irony in Mall Flanders seems beyond question.

First, a good many short passages in Moll Flanders are demon- strably ironic in intention as well as in effect. When, for instance, after having been tricked by Jemmy, Moll Flanders reflects that "'Tis something of relief even to be undone by a man of honour rather than by a scoundrel," the studied antithesis of "undone" and "honour" shows that Defoe intended us to see the inconsist- ency between the fashionable pretences and the sordid realities which characterize "men of honour;" and this would be conscious irony whether we think that Moll is laughing in retrospect at her

16 G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton, New Jersey, 1965), pp. 127, 162, 161(2).

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own psychological inconsistency, or that it is Defoe who is mock- ing the muddled consolation which his heroine's vanity disarmingly' supplied at the time.

Only slightly less incontrovertibly, we can also be sure that certain whole scenes in the book must have been intended iron- ically. The first major episode, Moll's seduction by the Elder Brother (pp. 20-44 Riverside), for instance, presents a consist- ently realistic amalgam of coquetry, covetousness, lust, and genuine love in Moll's youthful consciousness: and the narrative voice is therefore ironic in the sense that it is a detached observer of human folly.

But to accept two kinds of limited and local irony in Moll Flanders is one thing; and to see the whole book as a "work of irony" is quite another.

There are two possible meanings of the term "irony" here. First, the older and more mechanical sense in which the intended mean- ing of a book is the direct opposite of its literal tenour. This was certainly the case, for instance, with Defoe's The Shortest Way With The Dissenters, and with many of his other satires; but so long and various a narrative as Moll Flanders could hardly mean the reverse of what it says all, or even most, of the time. We are therefore left with the second meaning of irony in its broader, more modern, and, it must be admitted, vaguer sense. According to this second sense of irony, the whole structure of Moll Flanders, everything from plot and character to local episode and prose style, would be under the control of "a deep awareness of the contra- dictions and incongruities that beset man in this vale of tears," 17 an awareness which gives the reader a unifying perspective for evaluating the life and character of Moll Flanders in a way she herself never does.

This kind of ironic interpretation raises the difficult epistemo- logical problem of how we can derive final values and meanings from a work of fiction where we are entirely limited to what the main character tells us. In his notable study of The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), Wayne Booth takes Moll Flanders as his example of the problems which arise in a novel from the "excessive com-

17 The Rise of the Novel, p. 126.

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plexity, subtlety, or privacy of the norms to be inferred." 18 Every- thing is told from Moll's point of view; but her own moral judg- ments are so often inconsistent or morally inadequate that we cannot accept her at her own evaluation; on the other hand we find it impossible to infer other more satisfactory standards of judgment from the narrative itself. We don't, in short, know whether we should be laughing at or with Moll Flanders; and we can't even wholly rule out the answers "both" or "neither."

The problem, very baldly stated, finally involves a choice be- tween three positions: first, the view shared in different ways by many formalist and historical critics, that Defoe is so muddled or careless that the question of an ironical interpretation of the novel, hardly arises; second, the full-fledged ironic interpretation, already illustrated in one form by Koonce, according to which Moll is consistently portrayed as muddled by a Defoe who knew just what he was doing; and lastly, the compromise position that both Moll and Defoe are muddled at times, like the rest of us, and that there- fore we can find, both in Moll and Defoe, a good deal of irony, some conscious and some unconscious, but no all-encompassing and coherent ironic structure.

The first view has more evidence to support it than is some- times assumed, but it can hardly be held by anyone who has come under Defoe's spell; we are therefore left with the two other pos- sibilities to consider further.

The most recent direct treatment of the second viewpoint is Maximillian Novak's essay "Conscious Irony in Moll Flanders." Novak adduces the large number of specifically ironical political pamphlets as evidence of Defoe's habitually ironical turn of mind; and he concludes that in general "Defoe saw man's condition in terms of contradictions and incongruities," although "he did not always resolve his position on these matters." The main general contradictions in Defoe's thought which are most directly relevant to Moll Flanders are ethical and social. Ethically, Novak shows that Defoe was very much aware of the clash between "a standard

18Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1961), pp. 320-323. This comes under the general heading of "Troubles with Irony in Earlier Litera- ture," in which Defoe also figures earlier as an example in the category "Lack of adequate warning that irony is at work" (pp. 316-320).

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Christian morality with charity as the highest of virtues," and the secular attitudes of "natural law," as they had been codified by Grotius and Pufendorf, which saw man as primarily motivated by self-love, self-interest, and self-defense. Similarly, as regards proper social standards on such matters as sex, marriage, the education of children, and the position of servants, Defoe was something of an idealist; but at the same time he knew that the natural law of necessity made right conduct very difficult in practice. Novak con- cludes that these conflicts operate throughout Moll Flanders, and produce a consistent irony: "on the surface level of her narrative Moll sees her life as a Christian penitent. She is only dimly aware that she operates on a level of natural law, pursuing security through marriage and then self-preservation through theft."

This interpretation-as Novak says-is very close to Koonce's view that the "underlying irony of the work is to be found in Moll's . . . 'muddle'"; but Novak's analysis of the novel seems to me to be too brief to fully establish his conclusion, "the un- questionable fact that Moll Flanders is a work of irony," '9 as opposed to a work of which irony is one of the components.

The most persuasive version of the view that Moll Flanders is a coherent work of irony seems to me to be that of Robert Don- ovan in his fine book The Shaping Vision (1966). Donovan bases his case on a convincing stylistic analysis of Moll's prose, and the relationship in it between narrative event and reflective comment. The analysis reveals the glaring disparity between Moll's "moral posturing" on the one hand, and her actual subordination of every- thing to material interest on the other. For Donovan this "double vision" implicit in the narrative texture makes the novel "ironic in that it seems to say one thing and actually says another." The literal sense of what Moll says, as she "apprehends and organizes the details of her own experience" as a character, presents every- thing in terms of her "assumed self," of her false social and peni- tential roles; but the pattern of actions she narrates is only conceivable as coming from a "real self" that is essentially a "vege- table tropism that draws her to comfort and security." a tropism

19 Maximillian E. Novak, "Conscious Irony in Moll Flanders: Facts and Prob- lems," College English, XXVI (1964), 200(3), 203(2), 20. See also his "Moll Flanders' First Love," Papers of the Michigan Academy, XLVI (1961), 635-643.

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"brutal in its simplicity." It is the presence of this "second, or ironic voice," which emanates "from Moll herself" 20 as she really, though unconsciously, is, that makes the novel as a whole con- sistently ironic.

Donovan's reading is not in direct conflict with the view that Defoe himself had no final attitude towards the contradictory values implicit in Moll Flanders. When Donovan confronts the question of Defoe's intention he decides, not that Defoe intended his novel ironically, but that his psychological insight into his heroine was such as to generate irony. Donovan thus combines much of what Koonce, Novak and others have shown in their interpretation of Moll Flanders as "a work of irony," with the findings of the scholars who have used intellectual and economic history, together with many of Defoe's other writings, to show why there should be a pressing and yet finally unresolved conflict in Moll Flanders between spirit and matter, between salvation and ill-gotten gains, love and egoism, between feeling and reason.

The third alternative, the position that there is some muddle both in the character and in the book, probably derives its strongest support from the incidental inconsistencies in Moll Flanders, and the large amount of repetitious and lifeless narrative which con- nects the main episodes. This view still allows us to see a good deal, but not all, of Moll Flanders as ironic. It also, perhaps, makes Moll Flanders an even more interesting work. Thus Martin Price, in his endlessly suggestive and yet tonic study of eighteenth-cen- tury literature, To The Palace of Wisdom (1964), writes Defoe, we are told, seems not to judge his material; Defoe must be a brilliant ironist. Both assertions imply a set of values thinner and more neatly ordered than Defoe can offer. He is aware of the tension between the adventurous spirit and the old piety; he can see the vitality of both religious zeal and worldly industry; the thrifty efficiency and the reckless outlawry that are both aspects of the middle-class adventure; the wonderful excitement of technology as well as its darker omens.

Price concludes that Defoe is "one of the artists who make our moral judgments more difficult"; more difficult because he is "ultimately . . . a comic artist" whose unremitting insistence on

20 Robert Alan Donovan, The Shaping Vision: Imagination in the English Novel from Defoe to Dickens (Ithaca, N.Y., 1966), pp. 34(2), 37, 45, 41, 44, 35.

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the commonplace realities of daily life continually gives us "paro- dies of tragic situations." 21


To see Defoe as "ultimately . . . a comic artist" is to make the tensions in the values of his time the final source of what we may call either the comedy or the irony in Moll Flanders; and so we come back by another route to the unformalist conclusion that the book is an ironic object rather than a work of irony. Is there, then, no way out of the infinite regress in which the debate about Moll Flanders seems to be immobilized? Possibly not, one may reflect, on considering that, as early as 1931, Pierre Legouis re- versed the title of his article "Marion Flanders est-elle une victime de la Societe?" in his conclusion, and asserted the contrary pro- position "la Societe est victime de Marion Flanders." 22

Many of the recent detailed studies certainly seem to me to have made permanent contributions to our understanding of Defoe and his fiction: on the religious side George Starr's book, and J. Paul Hunter's The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe's Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in 'Robin,son Crusoe' (Baltimore, 1966); on the economic, moral, and political side the studies of Maximillian Novak, especially Economics and The Fiction of Daniel Defoe (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962) and Defoe and the Nature of Man (Oxford, 1963); and on the stylistic side the analyses of Donoghue, Alter and Donovan. But a great many topics remain for detailed investigation. First of all, further study might resolve many of the important questions raised by McKillop about Defoe's attitude to writing, for example, and the influence of the whole contemporary context of authorship. The extent to which Defoe provides reliable commentaries on his fiction might be clarified by a detailed comparative study of his prefaces, including those of some of the non-fictional writings. And although my own com- ments on the repetitions and inconsistencies in Moll Flanders have tended to be ignored or dismissed as intolerably pedestrian, an objective and detailed analysis of errors would surely not be ir- relevant to a judgment on Defoe's-or anybody else's-art.

21 Martin Price, To the Palace of Wisdom: Studies in Ortder and Energy from Dryden to Blake (Garden City, N.Y., 1964), p. 266.

22 In Revue de l'Enseignement des Langues Vivantes, XLVIII (1931), 299.

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Yet monographic studies alone will probably not bring agree- ment, if only because basic divergencies of critical attitude are involved. One notices, for example, how the judgment that Moll Flanders is "one of the great English novels, perhaps the greatest" 23

is mainly attacked by those who invoke biographical or historical considerations, while it is mainly supported by those to whom the "Genetic" or the "Intentional" fallacies, in whatever form, make any question of Defoe's background, outlook, or conscious literary aim, quite simply irrelevant. There is another general difficulty. Our whole critical vocabulary for fiction is still confusing in it- self, and it also happens to be particularly misleading in reference to Defoe. For instance, even if one doesn't curse the day that the word irony was let out of the rhetoric handbooks, one must surely conclude that it has made it harder to see the main critical issues in Moll Flanders.

But by now, perhaps, some readers have already been sufficiently exasperated by the present discussion to adopt a fourth position, and locate the chief irony not in Moll Flanders at all, but in the partial and contradictory solemnities of the critics (not, of course, excluding your humble servant) who have written about it.

It does, of course, seem rather odd that there should be so much doubt about the interpretation of a great literary work. But, as it happens, there are exactly the same doubts about the final im- plications of many undoubted masterpieces-including works by Defoe's greatest contemporary in prose-Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and by his immediate successor in fiction-Richardson's Pamela.

These doubts may well be the result of the contemporary critical climate. The Age of Reason tended to keep the literary surface simple: but now, in the Age of Criticism, we know that reading is a very complicated matter; we assume that all writing must be, too; from this dubious premise it seems to follow that the simpler the literal surface, the more compelling is the need for exegetic complication; and so perhaps, like Gulliver's Travels and Pamela, Moll Flanders has only become complex because we have grown so sophisticated.

23 John Peale Bishop, Collected Essays, ed. Wilson (New York, 1948), p. 388. The dictum probably preceded Bishop's essay "Moll Flanders' Way," which appeared in 1937.

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On the other hand, of course, no one ever knows the whole truth about any human situation; and Defoe's genius as an ob- server, together with a narrative technique that did not force him to prejudge his material, may well have produced a masterpiece which is, unintentionally but enduringly, a comprehensive image of the ambiguous and dehumanizing conflicts into which modern civilization plunges its unhappy natives. Our difficulty in pene- trating the secret of Moll Flanders would then be, in effect, the projection of our own conflicting attitudes upon Defoe's convinc- ing but equivocal text.

Wherever or whoever we may be, Moll Flanders looks us right in the eye and smiles back. She is the Mona Lisa of the Age of the Common Man; whether she is grinning at the memory of a particularly clever theft, or of some rewarding encounter with Jemmy, or even at the eternal felicity alleged to be the retirement pension of all true penitents, the reader must decide for himself. Of course there would be nothing inconsistent in resolving that it is the very idea of expecting her to break the habits of a life- time, and tell the whole truth, even to herself, which makes Moll Flanders-or is it her creator?-keep smiling.

Stanford University