However, it wasn’t always clear to Moll Flanders how to build up a good and useful reputation such as this. When her second husband, a thief, flees the country, Moll finds herself entirely at loose ends for perhaps the first time in her life. She seems to instinctively know that if she stays where, and who, she is, she will soon dwindle down into nothing. She resolves “…to go quite out of my Knowledge, and go by another Name: This I did effectually, for I went into the Mint too, took Lodgings in a very private Place, drest me up in the Habit of a Widow and called myself Mrs. Flanders” (Defoe 64). At first, this move seems to work perfectly. Moll has attained her reputation of virtue by claiming to be a widow, which leaves her both blameless for her lack of “chastity” and open for re-marriage. Yet, the reputation for wealth continues to elude her. Rumors begin to circulate that she is a widow, certainly, but a poor one. Learning that marriage is a market (Defoe 67), she quickly realizes that with such a reputation, no matter how virtuous she pretends to be, she will soon run out of stock and be both destitute and alone.
The resourceful Moll formulates a plan, first testing it on a friend she has met in her neighborhood. Her friend has just lost the prospect of a good marriage with a sea-captain. Moll encourages her “that…she should take care to have it well spread among the Women, which she could not fail of an Opportunity to do in a Neighbourhood, so addicted to Family News, as that she liv’d in was; that she had enquired into his Circumstances, and found he was not the Man as to Estate he pretended to be…” (Defoe 69). In this adventure, Moll discovers the key to making and breaking reputations: gossip. It is the gossips of any community that have the power to ruin or elevate based on reputation. After testing this theory to success, she then applies it to herself over and over again. She moves to a new place, spreads the rumor that she is a woman of fortune, and then marries a rich man while being able to claim innocence of any falsehoods, since she never says outright that she has any fortune at all.
This modus operandi of gossip and deceit serves Moll well throughout the novel, keeping her afloat many times when other heroines would have floundered. Nevertheless, all the self-generated gossip in the world can’t save Moll from a fate that every heroine of this era fears most of all: unwedded pregnancy. It is pregnancy that ends the successful scheming of Haywood’s heroine Fantomina. It is difficult, and in many circumstances, impossible, to hide a pregnancy and in most stories it is a certainty that sooner or later someone will find out. Besides, as aforementioned, it only takes the rumor of an impropriety such as this to ruin a woman’s reputation forever. At the point in the story when this fate befalls her, Moll has already had several children within her various marriages. Being familiar with the state of pregnancy, she knows full well how difficult it will be to undergo such a thing by herself; a fact, perhaps, that Fantomina doesn’t fully appreciate and thus fully plan for.
With little money and no husband or family to turn to, Moll’s situation is dire. However, she works the people around her to her advantage and soon finds herself in the care of a Mrs. “B—-”, a midwife with whom she “lays in” (Defoe 163). Unlike Fantomina, pregnancy doesn’t end up hurting Moll’s reputation one bit, simply because she’s a better liar and seems to know more of the world.
Moll Flanders is a character that stands out from her contemporaries in many ways. While her actions are morally reprehensible, she is in control of her life, unlike the other fictional heroines that were placed in her position. Defoe’s tale of the life of Moll Flanders shows that reputation is actually worthless. It raises the question that if reputation can be fabricated so easily and accepted without real virtue behind it, what’s the point in valuing it at all? Perhaps though, Defoe’s depiction of Moll Flanders does contain a moral about reputation that is more clearly illustrated by Moll’s treatment of her children than by the other episodes. The child she has at Midwife “B—-”’s and, in fact, all the other children she bears, she abandons, just as she was abandoned by her mother. She rarely shows any kind of remorse or regret about these desertions, and most of the time the children barely get a line in her narrative. This is one of the most chilling things about Moll Flanders as a character: she is completely cold to those she is supposed to love. Defoe’s story reveals that maintaining a good reputation through deceit, while not impossible, can make one hard and immune to the more tender emotions of not only shame, but love and trust. Surely the price of maintaining one’s reputation through deeds, not deceit, is far cheaper.
Defoe, Daniel, and G. A. Starr. Moll Flanders. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
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