When Jem, taken aback, asks “What is the meaning of all this?” as Moll’s impressive cargo from England arrives in Maryland at the culmination of her story, he might well be raising the main question concerning Daniel Defoe’s The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722). By 1721, notably following the success of Robinson Crusoe (1719), regarded as the first English novel, Defoe was a recognised author, although he was not credited on the original edition of Moll Flanders, which purported to be an autobiography and which, on occasion, was to be the subject of censorship. The bawdy picaresque story was based partly on the life of the London criminal Moll King, whom Defoe met when visiting Newgate Prison.
If I can be permitted a little literary theory to establish my perspective: a reading of Moll Flanders shows the falsity of the claims of the “New Critics” in the middle of the last century, who suggested that a literary text’s language alone was capable of providing all the clues necessary to determine its full meaning. The school confined itself stringently to close analysis of the words on the page, deploring both the “intentional” and “affective”’ fallacies, which suggested that respectively, authors and readers could have any decisive influence on assemblages of meaning.
It was the two major considerations of language and the unconscious which, stemming from the works of Saussure and Freud, caused great changes in, and a proliferation of, the ways in which literary texts were read. Theories embracing these two areas began to supplant the uncontextualised liberal-humanist and “Practical” or “New Critica”’ approaches which, presuming a certain stability in language, had dominated the field hitherto, having arisen from the studies of IA Richards, FR Leavis and William Empson, and acknowledging the earlier criticism of TS Eliot and Matthew Arnold.
Language and meaning themselves came to be problematised, and the genesis of a text came to be seen as being bound up inextricably with the socio-cultural and socio-political conditions of its time. History, politics and context were placed at the centre of the literary-critical agenda. Language became constitutive, meaning contingent; no longer could they be regarded as absolutes. “Clues” to meaning were all that readers could now possibly hope for, with no prospect of solutions. Derrida seized upon Saussure’s declaration that the relationship between signifier and signified was purely arbitrary in order to formulate his widely influential theory of deconstruction under which no stability of meaning can be claimed for the reading of any text. Derrida coined the term différance, a play on the French word différence, to indicate how meaning is constantly “deferred” endlessly along the chain of signifiers.
Barthes proposed that the “birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author”, by which he meant that the process of arriving at meaning was vested mainly in the reader and that the author was representative merely of “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”. Indeed, if the text’s language alone was no longer enough to provide all the clues to meaning, however elusive, then the reader, as well as the socio-political context, had to be taken into account.
Certainly, upon the advent of post-structuralist criticism, in the 1970s and 1980s, the emphasis shifted to the reader and away from the author as the location, or site, of meaning. The reader no longer “discovered” the author’s pre-set meaning but instead was the constructor of meaning on his or her own terms. Reader-response criticism investigated the ways in which readers respond to texts as they read. It, too, rejected the idea of a single meaning for a work, and shared with psychoanalytic criticism the interest in the dynamics of mental response to textual cues (or clues).
I want to suggest that différance revealed in Moll’s narrative, together with the pervasive effect of the particular socio-economic structures of Defoe’s commercial milieu ‑ essentially its mercantilist rationalism ‑ combine to exemplify how the language of the text alone, as conceived in the New Critical approach, cannot be the single determinant of meaning. It is as if, for Moll herself, there is a recognition that language has an inbuilt insufficiency.
G A Starr, in his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Moll Flanders, writes: “Moll’s situation is complicated rather than clarified by the welter of qualifications and disclaimers, and her seeming effort to put things precisely is often at odds with the effect she actually achieves, which is to perplex and unsettle. Paradoxes tend to be multiplied rather than resolved.”
These “qualifications and disclaimers”, these linguistic paradoxes, extend even to Moll’s true identity which, assiduously, she keeps from the reader. If “Moll” won’t even name herself, how can we trust her to name anything else? Moreover, Defoe, in his preface, suggesting that Moll’s story is a “private history to be taken for genuine” ‑ albeit a typical formula of the period ‑ says that “the original of this story is put into new words … to make it speak language more fit to be read”, ostensibly keeping Moll’s own words from the reader too. So we know neither the identity of the (unreliable) narrator, nor her story as she wrote it herself. It must make Moll the most mysterious woman in the history of the English novel.
That the signifiers are seen to be sliding from the start is also exemplified in Moll’s numerous interlocutions, such as “viz” (namely), “that is to say” and “in a word” ‑ there are no fewer than eighty instances of these ‑ and her many variations on “as they call it”. These are phrases all to do with naming but, as with the vexed issue of the narrator’s identity, they serve only to demonstrate the deferral of meaning and the consequent and continuing demand for elucidation.
Moll’s euphemistic doublings, such as “wife and no wife”, “husband and no husband” and “robbery and no robbery”, and her frequent blame of “the Devil” for pushing her into wickedness and the “old Trade”, also betray a movement away from specific naming, or an immediacy of meaning. If we look at language as a kind of thin clothing with which we cover naked reality, then euphemisms are one of the places where this clothing is most likely to tear when “reality” insists on breaking back through.
Every work of art may be said to be the product of an interaction between the artist, on the one hand, and a variety of social determinants on the other. I would argue that the determinants acting upon Moll Flanders chiefly arise from the mercantilist rationalism of Defoe’s day. The prose style of Defoe, a merchant himself, reflects the new values of the scientific and rational outlook of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as well as key aspects of its literary culture. For example, his style reflects the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704), for whom the purpose of language was to “convey the knowledge of things”. Defoe is mainly interested in primary qualities such as solidity, extension, figure, motion and number, rather than secondary qualities such as colour, sound or taste.
His style, therefore, is straightforward and factual; he had also written substantial works offering people commercial advice (for example, The Complete English Tradesman, 1726), and Moll, who continually reckons up her accounts, is out to win the greatest economic and social rewards, her crimes themselves being an example of economic individualism. Arising from this, Defoe seems to have regarded all human transactions, including even the most intimate ones, as economic or contractual exchanges.
Examples of this are when Moll, having spread the word that she has a fortune of at least £1,500, finds herself “bless’d with admirers enough”, when she makes her brother/husband sign an agreement before she reveals that she is his sister, and when Moll and Jem are about to sail for America and “our first business was to compare our Stock”. Defoe’s attitude is typically Protestant and middle class and rampantly capitalist: for him, economic independence is the cornerstone of moral rectitude and political enfranchisement. Moll is an obsessively self-regarding, self-reliant individual for whom the world appears as an impersonal system ruled by economic self-interest.
So, with everything reduced to market transactions and relations, could Defoe and his creation Moll then be regarded as prototypical neoliberals promoting free market capitalism and redefining citizens as consumers?
Instead of asking what a specific text means in and of itself, the New Historicist approach, founded by Stephen Greenblatt in the early 1980s, asked what the text actually does within the complex of social relations in which it is located. In this approach, what Defoe’s novel does is to convey the social realities as experienced by certain classes of people living in London in the early eighteenth century, and provide insight into the society of the time. To divorce Moll Flanders from its socio-economic and philosophical context is thus to deny the potential of a wider meaning for the work in a historical perspective. Greenblatt says we must investigate “both the social presence to the world of the literary text and the social presence of the world in the literary text”.
Part of the answer, then, to Jem’s question, “what is the meaning of all this?”, must be that, in Moll Flanders’s world, all human relationships are regarded merely as trading relations, a concept which conflicts head-on with the alleged cautionary tale and redemption aspects of the narrative. Moll says that the account of her life is for “Instruction, Caution, Warning and Improvement to every reader”, and yet Jem, a former highwayman and robber, becomes a penitent through being enriched by cash and “Horses, Hogs and Cows, and other Stores for our Plantation”.
The other part of the answer must be that such profound contradictions, together with the profusion of linguistic paradox and vacillation which seems to go hand in hand with them, preclude any determination of a “full meaning” for the text from its language alone.
Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998)
Jacques Derrida, “La Différance” in Margins of Philosophy (Hertfordshire: Harvester, 1982)
Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana/Collins, 1977)
WK Wimsatt and M Beardsley, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: Kentucky University Press, 1954)
Geoff Ward’s drb essay marking the three-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe is available here: https://drb.ie/articles/a-novel-enterprise/