Matrimonial Whoredom and Capitalist Thinkings in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders

            Matrimonial Whoredom: The Interrelationship of Prostitution and Property Marriage in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders


 by Pi Yi Chien


         In Moll Flanders, Defoe unveils the universal rule in the marriage market of eighteenth century that matrimony is essentially compared to business transaction. At root, marriage is credited with “the consequences of politic schemes for forming interests, and carrying on business, and… Love had no share, or but very little, in the matter(Defoe, 67, 68).At the core, Defoe deliberately renders an insightful social commentary. In Moll Flanders, mostly everybody is obsessed with fortune calculation and interest accumulation by means of marriage, which is evidently a social phenomenon at the time. As aptly put by Miriam Lerenhaum in A Woman on Her Own Account, “Marriages of convenience were the norm. A marriage of convenience is one in which each party is marrying for some reason other than love. Quite often it is to improve one’s social status or for financial gain,” which foretell poor women’s plight in contemporary society (78). Poor women “need to stoop to the disasters of the times” (61).In Moll Flanders, people set out” “Fortune Hunting” in the marriage market that they pick up husband or wife in measuring fortune rather than affection and the rule applied to both women and men (68). Altogether, both men and women are motivated to profit themselves by means of marriage without feeling shame. With the remark, it validates poor woman’s doomed gloomy mishap.


         The novel was published in 1722 and emerging capitalism was come into being and booming. The tale can be interpreted as a historical representation of late 17th and early 18th century London, that Defoe indeed manifests the socio-economic climate of the age through the leading lady’s dramatic life experiences. Moll’s criminal life experiences are corresponding to a typical capitalistic spirit. 


          As for men of Fortune, they are endowed with advantage to marry women of fortune and to fetch women of Beauty as to satisfy their “wicked Pleasure” and men want of fortune are disposed to pick up woman of Fortune so as to “better” themselves economically and effectually (29). In Moll Flanders, Robert is the representative of men of the age whom discards “all manners of Affection,” “honor, and Justice, Humanity, and even Christianity” in order to “secure themselves” with “Interest” (58). As for women of fortune, they are privileged to choose whether marry for love, for fortune or both on the ground that “for a wife, no Deformity would shock the Fancy, no ill Qualities, the Judgment; the Money was the thing…the Money was always agreeable, whatever the wife was” (67).

        In stark contrast, woman want of fortune is “the weakest of all Creatures in the World” in the “wicked” age, in which “virtue” is nothing, but “Money” is everything (61, 74, 75). At any rate, woman want of fortune is denied by the mainstream men on the ground that men have preference to “please” their “Pocket in Marrying” and “will take care not to fancy one …without the Money” (20, 36). Hence, women want of fortune are greatly frightened by “fear of not being Marry’d at all” (75). In Moll Flanders, all the characters conform to this rule except Robin, Moll’s first husband. Taken together, the requisite to be a wife is assured by possession of money rather than beauty or virtue, thereby poor woman’s misadventure is guaranteed.


         Undeniably, Moll is blamed and accused vehemently by the way how she manipulates marriage as a device to accumulate wealth, though many-times property marriage. She is not a particular case that “men made no scruple …to go a Fortune Hunting” in contemporary society (68). Considering Moll’s case in terms of social expectation, she is poor but she is “Young and Handsome,” thereby she is qualified to be a mistress but a wife (59. 118). As noted, it is “requisite to a Whore to be handsome, well-shapd, have a good Mein, and a graceful Behavior” and “for a wife, …the money was the thing(67). When it comes to marriage, money is the key decider in the marriage market at the time. Beauty and youth are poor women’s assets to bargain in the market and sex is the service which they could provide for. In this approach, it rationalizes Moll’s agitation reaches to its peak when she reaches “Eight and Forty,” because she senses that she “past the flourishing time” of youth to be a “mistress” (189).

         In Moll Flanders, poor women’s criminal life experiences are a commonplace thing. Flander’s deplorable life experience is concurrent to other poor women’s fate and predicament. Moll astutely chronicles other poor women life stories, which are much akin to hers. As suggested by Watt, Moll and “ a few of her friends are essentially virtuous and deserving people who have been unfortunateshe is even morally pure in her whoring,…by necessity” (113, 114). With this remark, woman want of fortune is destined be the “person of ill fame” (14). For instance, the “old good nurse” articulates that poor women can hardly provide themselves by any so-called “honest industrious Behavior” (8, 14).

        As stated by Spencer in The Rise of the Woman Novelist, women’s restricted working opportunities are severely deprived by men. As claimed by Moll, if her husband “died” then she is “undone” (189). In other words, women have to dependent upon men for the sake of survival that economic independence is not happening for average women. Before Moll commits theft, as proclaimed by Moll, “ tho’ indeed I was not in Debt, …while it wasted daily for Subsistence, I had no way to increase it one Shilling” (190). In this respect, the circumstance was excruciating to women. When self-survival is in crisis, self-respect is rather a fantasy or delusion.  Regarding disgraceful alliance, being a mistress, thief or whore are the pathetic options out there. Tempted to solve her economic necessity by the means of marriage, Moll gets married without enquiring a man’s “Person or Character” or even his parentage or fortune, so she fails to “marry safer” and dramatically married to her half-brother in her third marriage (75, 82).

         Moll was initially a “whore by Necessity” and she transformed herself into a whore“by Inclination” for “the sake of Vice” (135). She used to hold the idea that “a Woman should never kept for a Mistress that had Money to keep her self” (61). But she succumbs to the deadly intoxication of sexual pleasures. Ostensibly, as she ages, she is more vulnerable to resist the wickedness on earth. She takes the role of a mistress when is capable of “Maintain” herself (237). As Moll claims, “poverty brought me into the Mire, so Avarice kept me in”(203). In a sense, her is victimized by poverty first and then enslaved by avarice. In this respect, her character and virtue are wholly defiled. She is susceptible to the temptation of money. Hence, she incorrigibly discards her “Virtue” and “Modesty” and drowns into an age of degeneration (29). 

         As avers by Defoe in “Conjugal Lewdness or, Matrimonial Whoredom,”“ he or she who, with that slight and superficial Affection, Ventures into the Matrimonial Vow, are to me little more than legal Prostitutes” and he adds that “to marry one Woman and love another, to marry one Man and be in love with another…is a Kind of civil, legal Adultery, nay, it makes the Man or Woman be committing adultery in their Hearts every Day of their lives; and it may be well called a Matrimonial Whoredom” (32, 181).

         Since marital obligation demands sexual intercourse between husband and wife by law, marriage without affection minimizes the discrepancy between a whore and a wife. Speak of Moll’s case, she claims herself as a “legally married” whore and confesses that she “ had not the least Affection” for her first husband” and she takes a step further in boldly claiming that “ I never was I in Bed with my Husband, but I wish’d my self in the Arms of his Brother…….I committed Adultery and Incest with him every Day in my Desires (57, 59, 176). At bottom, when it comes to morality and practice, “Whore, or Mistress, …is the same thing” (39).

         Indisputably, woman want of “money” is viewed as “nobody,” literally women of no value in the marriage market (67).Moll’ orphaned parentage leaves her no inheritance and “nothing but Money now recommends a Woman” (67). It is easy to foresee her poor condition and sense of hopelessness. As noted by Miriam Lerenhaum in A Woman on Her Own Account, in18th-century England, “people were very conscious of their social positions and marriages between the wealthy and the poor were not common (47). In this respect, the tragedy of poor women is verified that they are desperately compelled to marry a man for economic support rather than affection.

         As suggested by Watt in The Rise of the Novel, Moll is highly condemned as an unfeeling and “heartless mother” (110). She is “somewhat callous in her treatment” of most of her children that once she left them “in the care of relatives or foster mothers, she never inclined” to “redeem” her children or inquire them “when opportunity permits.”(110).Without doubt, Moll’s means of earning a living is chiefly based on the “offer of Marriage” (173). When it comes to marriage, Moll is keenly aware that to “have a Child” upon her could “destroy” all the likelihoods of remarrying and she articulates that” there was no Marrying without entirely concealing” (171, 173). In a sense, her children are “the great and main Difficulty” and “inexpressible Misfortune” for her chances of remarrying (171, 173). Though Moll abhors the crime itself, namely, by living the children to the care of others, she succumbs to the reality in consideration of her “own Starving”(191). In detail, Moll is unwilling to have her children” murthter’d or starv’d by Neglect and Ill-usage” that she asserts children are “helpless and incapable” by nature and” must Perish” if without “Care and Skill” and she concludes that the scheme to give Children “to be Manag’d by those…who have none of that needful Affection”, in which was exclusively “placed by Nature in the Hearts of Mother to their Children, is considered “a contrived Method for Murder” or “an intentional Murder, whether the Children lives or dies,” which is equals to “a killing their Children with safety” for” Decency sake”(173,174).

         In detail, Fladners is unwilling to have her children” murthter’d or starv’d by Neglect and Ill-usage” since Moll asserts that children are “helpless and uncapable” by nature and” must Perish” if without “Care and Skill” and she concludes that the scheme to give Children “to be Manag’d by those…who have none of that needful Affection”, in which was exclusively “placed by Nature in the Hearts of Mother to their Children, is considered “a contrived Method for Murder” or “an intentional Murder, whether the Children lives or dies,” which is equals to “a killing their Children with safety” for” Decency sake”(173,174).

     At root, she is vulnerable to the mainstream corruption of society. Moll is not callous by nature. She used to be naïve in her childhood before stained by the unfriendly social aura and the evil of poverty. As proclaimed by Moll, “poverty press [es]” her into the “snare” of wickedness” and “the prospect of my own Starving”…harden my Heart by degrees. (191). In a sense, her fear of poverty, together with her apprehension of her imminent and possible starvation annihilate her awareness of morality and “reform’d” her (190, 193). Ultimately, virtue and morality become her least concern. Situated in the “frightful” circumstance, Moll grows to be immune to conscience, as she claims” my own Distress silenc’d all these Reflections, “literally her conscience (193). And she eventually transforms into a hardened figure.

         Moll advertises herself by making good use of her sexuality through a series of failed marriages and some sexual immoral relationships.Come to think of it, if Moll cannot maintain herself by remarrying and stays with the child, they will starve to death together. In this respect, her “hardened” heart and her catastrophic life experiences are pressed by poverty altogether (191). As she claims, she is “driven by the dreadful Necessity “(193). Instead of abandoning her children on the streets, which is a commonplace thing in the hard time of eighteenth century, she entrusts her children to the care of others with money. Hence, her manner is reprehensible but she is not inhumane.

         Inflicted with the evil of the society, Moll is obsessed with calculating her money as a way to upgrade her personal value. In this respect, the society is at fault, speaking of Moll’s morbid material obsession. Situated in an age that the society measures a person’s merit by its fortune, Moll comes to realize that” Gentlewoman…meant to live Great, Rich and High, ” so she is tempted to accumulate wealth”(13). Learned by social observation, Moll learns to “Deceive the Deceiver” so as to” cheat a Man into Marrying…on pretence of a Fortune” (84). As suggested by Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel, Moll “perceived herself as product” that she centers her attention and efforts in “keeping up her appearance” (114). As she claims “I dress’d me to all the Advantage possible” (235). Apparently, it is her strategy to appear wealthier so as to clinch “the properest Man” around (67, 84). Her schemes prove to work well that “with the reputation of this fortune,” she found herself surrounded by purpose-oriented suitors (78). Among other things, Moll’s morbid addiction to stealing witnesses her irresistible desire to fortune- accumulation. 

          At the core, dire poverty victimized her life track to marry for fortune rather than love. Hence, Moll’s confession is more like an accusation of wicked age rather than repentance in stating “I seemed not to Mourn that I had committed such Crimes” that her” thoughts” lies not in what she “had sinn’d,” but” what she “was to suffer”(274).Social prejudice and social injustice exclude poor woman from the mainstream marriage market and working opportunities. Hence, the society is accountable for poor women’s miserable wicked trades. It is a commonplace thing that many family upgrade social standing or economic situation with their daughters. 

          At root, she is vulnerable to the mainstream corruption of society. Beyond that, Moll is in the grip of her fear of starvation and her morbid pursuit of vanity, which undermine her conscience dramatically. As claimed by Moll, “give me not Poverty least I Steal” that “poverty” embodies “the Devil “over her shoulder and summons her to commit crime.” (191). Taken tighter, Moll concludes that “ I was not without secret Reproaches of my own Conscience for the Life I led, …yet I had the terrible prospect of Poverty and Starving which lay on me as a frightful Spectre…as Poverty brought me into” the life of wickedness, “ so fear of Poverty kept me in it”(120). In this respect, her conscience is eaten up by her incessant awareness of the imminent poverty.

          Fundamentally, Moll Flanders the text itself is a manifestation of a morbid society. Irrefutably, a portrayal of an unfeeling leading lady is utilized by Defoe to cast denunciation of a morbid social phenomenon. In consideration of social expectation in the eighteenth century, fortune begets vanity and this fallacious conception is embedded in the mind of everyone. To be plain with it, the crime waves are overwhelmingly omnipresent and very few can be immune to the degeneration of the social aura. At root, fortune-accumulation, self-survival and social mobility are top priorities for Moll by executing tricks criminal activities. Learned by social observations, virtue and morality are measured as the least and unnecessary concerns for her. Matrimonial whoredom is operated as the vehicle for Moll to upward her social mobility and her sense of vanity. 

 Moll is quite aware of her precarious position that poor women can barely survive by honest industries. Poor Women are commodities on the market, like Cloth. Moll is the pioneer practitioner of pragmatism. She details her dramatic life experiences in the capitalist society. Penitence was such a pretentious delusion when self-survival is at stake. 

Works Cited:

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders.New York: The Modern Library.


Spencer, Jane. The Rise of the Woman Novelist.

Lerenhaum, Miriam. A Woman on Her Own Account

Porter, Roy. London, A Social History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

issue: property marriage, whoring by necessity, survival, prostitution, working opportunities, marriage market,  Pragmatic Capitalist, fortune hunting, social phenomenon, humanity, morality, Psychological and Presentational Realism ,Essays in Feminist Criticism,Essay, Capitalism, crime, poverty and female disfranchisement Tale, picaresque novel, Critical Essays,Psychology, women and capital in Moll Flanders

tag: social consciousness, Review/commentary, poor women’s plight, abyss, analysis, English and American Literature,Courtship, love and marriage, research, debate , feminist Readings, narrating subject, love, money, motherhood, wicked trade, industry, study guide,  Feminist Thoughts, rogue protagonist ,a series of adventures and exploits, new literary, society and culture,Reviews, Discussion, summary英美文學:

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Margaret W. Lavigne 司馬儀

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