More Moll

Genealogies of Desire

The deeper I dig into Moll Flanders, the more I wonder about the impossibility of relating lives. But the trope that Defoe employs to tell Moll’s story is built around the history of her relationships, and her motives of desire. It’s complicated.

Unlike the relatively lame movie version, the story of her life is complex. In the Forest Gumpy movie version, Moll is seduced, betrayed, and finds true love in the arms of an artist. How twentieth century is that? Of course the story must be related through a well-meaning narrator (Morgan Freeman) through a series of flashbacks. This movie, other than the name, has nothing to do with the book. If you want to digest your popcorn neatly, and get the warm fuzzy happy ending, the movie version is made for you.

The book is messy, inconsistent, and somehow far more real. In the first 140 pages you cross from infancy into the life of a 42-year-old woman who is still filled with desire. Her choices are marked by a duality of desire and practicality. She recounts little in the way of physical description, but much in the way of inner landscape. It seems to me to be the evolution of a perverted, deterministic view of desire.

I was thinking about the progress of Moll, and the complexity. Moll first relinquishes her virtue on a promise— the promise that a man will marry her when he comes into his estate. The story is intense, and yet strangely distant. There are questions as to which parts are ironic, and which are not. Defoe’s narrator is Moll herself, a woman (supposedly redeemed) telling the story of how she fell prey to her circumstances. Money is the constant worry, and yet desire is her constant downfall. Due to her first lover’s duplicity and machinations to rid himself of her, she ends up wedded to his younger brother. Out of fear and most of all, rhetoric, she finds herself in a loveless marriage.

This [fear of being alone] and his persuasion at length Prevail’d upon me to Consent, tho’ with so much Reluctance, that it was easie to see I should go to Church, like a Bear to the Stake; I had some little Apprehensions about me too, least my new Spouse, who by the way, I had not the least Affection for, should be skillful enough to Challenge me on another Account, upon our first coming to Bed together; but whether he did it with design, or not, I know not; but his elder brother took care to make him very much Fuddled before he went to Bed; so that I had the satisfaction of a Drunken Bedfellow the first Night: How he did it I know not, but I concluded that he certainly contriv’d it, that his Brother might be able to make no Judgment of the difference between a Maid and a married Woman; nor did he ever entertain any notions of it, or disturb his Thoughts about it. (57)

From the start, marriage and desire are separate for Moll. There are questions of desire, and then there are questions of economic survival. Even recollecting the death of this husband, she recounts her desire for his brother:

I confess I was not suitably affected with the loss of my Husband; nor indeed can I ever say I loved him as I ought to have done, or as was proportionable to to the good Usage I had of him, for he was a tender, kind, good humour’d Man as any Woman could desire; but his brother being so always in my sight, at least, while we were in the Country, was a continual Snare to me; and I never was in Bed with my Husband, but I wish’d my self in the Arms of his Brother; and tho’ his Brother never offered me the least Kindness that way, after our Marriage, but carried it just as a Brother ought to do; yet, it was impossible for me to do so to him: In short, I committed Adultery and Incest with him every Day in my Desires, which without doubt, was as effectually Criminal in the Nature of the Guilt, as if I had actually done it. (59)

Marriage is an arrangement of deception; desire is incestuous and cause for guilt. The formula is repeated with increasingly dire consequences. The repetitive hunting metaphors drive the point home. Going into marriage is like being tied to a stake to be taunted and tortured [staking bears was big sport in the renaissance]. Desire is a snare, which constantly entraps Moll. Moll proclaims her major flaw to be vanity, early on in the novel and her second marriage is her first comeuppance— her second husband is a vain man, a tradesman who comes into a large amount of money and then flees the country abandoning her. Her response to this is an increasing coyness, which is related well in her reflection on the state of women:

NOTHING is more certain, than that the Ladies always gain of the Men, by keeping their Ground, and letting their pretended Lovers see that they can Resent being slighted, and that they are not affraid of saying NO. They, I observe, insult us mightily, with telling us of the Number of Women, that the Wars and the Sea, and Trade, and other Incidents have carried the Men so much away, that there is no Proportion between the Numbers of the Sexes; and therefore the Women have the Disadvantage; but I am far from Granting that the Number of Women is so great, or the Number of Men so small; but if they will have me tell the Truth, the Disadvantage of the Women is a terrible Scandal upon the Men, and it lyes here, and here only; Namely, that the Age is so Wicked, and the Sex so Debauch’d that in short the Number of such Men, as an honest Woman ought to meddle with, is small indeed, and it is but here and there that a Man is fit for a Woman to venture upon. (74)

It is interesting to me that Defoe’s picture of men hasn’t changed that much over the years. In his early tract An Essay Upon Projects he proposes that the only way women can be educated is through separating them from contact with men. For men will always deceive them, and should be punished. Defoe’s view is not misanthropic like Swift’s, and yet he displays a continual low appraisal of his own sex. However, the payback for Moll’s “incest in her heart” from her first marriage is yet to come. Her third husband manages to break through her coyness in a really fun bit of dialogue scratched in glass:

One Morning he pulls off his Diamond Ring, and writes upon the Glass of the Sash in my Chamber this Line,

You I Love, and you alone

I read it, and ask’d him to lend me his Ring, with which I wrote under it thus,

And so in Love says every one.

He takes his Ring again, and writes another Line thus,

Virtue alone is an Estate.

I borrow’d it again, and wrote under it,

But Money’s Vertue; Gold is Fate.

He colour’d red as Fire to see me turn so quick upon him, and in a kind of a Rage told me he would Conquer me, and writes again thus,

I scorn your Gold, and yet I Love.

I ventured upon the last cast of Poetry, as you’ll see, for I wrote boldly under his last,

I’m Poor: Let’s see how kind you’ll prove.

This was a sad Truth to me, whether he believ’d me or no I cou’d not tell; I supposed that he did not. However he flew to me, took me in his Arms, and kissing me very eagerly, and with the greatest Passion imaginable he held me fast till he called for a Pen and Ink, and then told me he could not wait the tedious writing upon Glass, but pulling out a piece of Paper, he began and wrote again,

Be mine, with all your Poverty.

I took his Pen and followed him immediately thus,

Yet secretly you hope I lie. (79)

The equivocation between love and money in both Moll Flanders and Richardson’s Pamela is a constant source of trouble for modern readers. Reading “‘A More Culpable Passion’: Pamela, Joseph Andrews, and the History of Desire” (from Clio, authors not credited) I was struck with the Lacanian hypothesis that the separation of love and money only comes at the end of the nineteenth century. The logic of love, and the logic of money are separated through the development of Marxism and Psychoanalysis. The article proposes that the universe of Pamela and Joseph Andrews, economics and psychology are conflated in a sort of original amorphous state. I disagree, thoroughly. The separation, and the price to be paid for following one or the other is traced through the genealogy of desire in Moll Flanders. Money and desire are separate for Moll, and her submission to the economics of love in her third suitor exacts a profound price.

Her third husband turns out to be her half-brother. She commits incest, by separating money from love. The evolution of her thought just fascinates me. The relationship which follows this one is not consummated by marriage, and it is perhaps her true love of the story. Defoe marks a separation between marriage and desire in no uncertain terms, and on both sides there is always a price to be paid. There is no pat conclusion, no virtuous path offered as alternative. The man she truly loves rejects her in the end because it was a sin to have children with her outside of marriage. She is left again at 42 with no love and no prospects. It’s just a story. A story far too complex for the movies.