Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-15

Part 13: Moll as a Full-Fledged Thief

Moll was by now quite rich, but continued her new trade, motivated more now by avarice than by want. She avoided shops, especially those selling cloth, where the shopkeepers were very watchful. New shops, run by inexperienced people, were thought to be safe, however. Moll worked for a while with a young couple who "robbed together, lay together, were taken together, and at last were hanged together." She refused to break into a house with them, thinking it too dangerous, and indeed the couple were arrested and hanged, despite their youth.

Moll's governess found good projects, and divided the booty with the thieves who carried them out. In one of these, she knew of a good amount of smuggled Flanders lace hidden in a private house. Moll went to a custom-house officer and told him where it was, on condition that she should get her share of it. They went to the house and she hid 50 guineas of it on her person while taking it out of its hiding place, and also bargained for another 50 openly with the officer. There was about 300 worth in all. Moll liked this line of work - safer than stealing watches - and engaged in it whenever she could.

After five years of thievery, Moll became an adept and well-known thief, incurring the envy of some of her colleagues. She was first called Moll Flanders, the name she adopted as a pseudonym.

Dressed as a man, she worked with a young fellow shoplifting for a while, until they were surprised and pursued after he insisted on a risky job. The man was taken. Moll fled to her governess' house and changed into woman's clothes, so that she was pretending to sew and mind a child when the constables came to search. The young man tried to gain favor by revealing his accomplice, but was unable to locate the person he thought was "Gabriel Spencer" (Moll never told him she was a woman). Moll left town for a few weeks and lay low. Despite her wealth, and the danger of her trade, she continued to steal.

Once she stole a fine piece of damask and entrusted it to a comrade, who was taken shortly thereafter, while Moll hid in a lace shop. Moll was sorry for the poor woman, who tried to improve her position by saying that a Mrs. Flanders had given her the bundle to carry home. The authorities could not find Moll, since she was careful never to tell anyone her true name, or where she lodged, or anything that could endanger her. The other woman was transported instead of being hanged. By this time everyone who had known Moll Flanders by that name was either hanged or transported, except for her old governess, so she was relatively comfortable and secure.


Moll Flanders was an exceptionally successful thief because of the precautions she took: she never revealed more about herself than absolutely necessary, protecting herself from incriminating witnesses, and she avoided jobs that she considered too clumsy and dangerous. The necessary lack of trust which results from leading an immoral or illegal life does not seem to burden her too much, but she evidently makes no new close friends during this period of her life. She does not appear to be particularly happy either: she lives in fear of being taken or betrayed, and her successes are tainted by remorse.

Moll's profits off smuggled Flanders lace were indirectly caused by the trade wars between England and the Netherlands during this period. Both countries were important naval powers which derived much of their wealth from trade, and hence came into conflict. They struggled for dominance over profitable shipping routes, fought naval battles, and England imposed many punitive restrictions on Dutch goods, apparently including Flanders lace. The Netherlands did well in spite of British hostilities until 1670, when Britain and France joined together against the Dutch republic, ultimately ending its golden age.

Part 14: Moll Has a Lover - a Glance at Harlotry

During Bartholomew Fair Moll met a rich gentleman who fell to talking with her, and finally invited her into a coach with him. After some resistance, she agreed, and soon found out that he was quite drunk and in an amorous frame of mind. They went to an inn he knew, and he "did what he pleased with" her. Then they went in the coach again, where the gentleman eventually fell asleep. Moll quietly left, taking along his gold watch, purse, periwig, gloves, and sword. She thought his behavior ridiculous - she was, after all, over fifty, and he probably had a loving wife and children at home. In any case she thought that drunken men who went to whores were behaving stupidly: even during the act, the women were motivated by avarice rather than pleasure, and would pick their clients' pockets if they could. One acquaintance of Moll's even kept a purse of fake coins and a gilded watch with her so she could exchange them for the real objects during her clients' distraction. Besides losing their money, men who went to whores risked catching "the pox," syphilis, which they would then transmit to their wives, who would give birth to congenitally infected children

Moll's governess thought she knew the gentleman, and went to see him. He was pretending that he had been robbed, and hadn't told his wife about Moll - he wasn't eager for the truth to get out. The governess discreetly offered to sell him back his lost possessions, and did so - except Moll sent back the sword for free. He was, by and large, a pleasant and harmless baronet, who didn't blame Moll for her theft, especially since the governess told him that Moll was an innocent and impoverished widow who had never slept with anyone besides her husband. In fact, the gentleman wanted to see Moll again, so the governess set them up, and Moll spent the next year safely living off what he occasionally gave her. Then, as she expected, he tired of the affair and did not return, so Moll took up her old trade.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, prostitution was widespread in London. This was probably the result of a social system in which poor women could hardly make an honest living, and completely lost their reputations if they were seduced, thus making it almost impossible to get an honest job. A "fallen woman" had little choice but to remain on the ground. Also, men could not engage in extramarital sex with respectable women, and commonly married late.

Moll's meditation on the lack of sensuality of whores is reminiscent of one "medical" theory held that prostitutes did not become pregnant because they felt no pleasure, which was thought to be required for conception. Other authorities said that too much intercourse prevented conception. Of course, as we have seen with Moll's governess, prostitutes were as fertile as anyone else.

Syphilis was probably introduced into Europe from the Americas, in exchange for small pox and a host of other diseases. It appeared in Naples in 1493, and ravaged its way through Europe, known generally as the French Pox, except in France where it was called the Naples Disease (le mal de Naples). It was treated in a variety of harmful and ineffective ways, including the use of mercury, a dangerous poison. Some people argued that it could not be sexually transmitted because so many monks had it! But by the time of Moll Flanders, there was apparently little doubt that it was a venereal disease. It appears commonly in 18th century engravings as a punishment suffered by lustful sinners, weakening aristocratic families when infected children were born.

Part 15: Moll Sues a Rude Tradesman, and Other Adventures

Another trick of Moll's was to dress like a poor woman and wait around inns where stage-coaches passed, where she would offer to watch packages for weary and harried travelers. She also stole goods from warehouses by finding out the contents of boxes and presenting forged letters describing them, so that they were delivered to her.

One day, when Moll was dressed as a widow, she was seized by some men who claimed that she had stolen from their shop - in fact another thief dressed as a widow had done so. They treated her without respect, but she behaved like a respectable woman who had been deeply offended and angered. After they had made her wait for quite a while, some journeymen came back with the true thief. The master of the shop tried to buy Moll off, but she was determined to sue him for damages. Her governess got her an honest lawyer and eventually, after a good deal of bargaining, she settled for 150 guineas, a humble apology, and a new silk suit of clothes. Moll now had 700 guineas, and was the wealthiest thief in England.

Moll went out dressed as a beggar a few times, and stole a horse that she had been given to hold, but gave it back since she didn't know what to do with it. She did not like being dressed as a beggar.

She was approached by some counter-feiters, but would have nothing to do with them since their crime was punishable by burning at the stake. She had to avoid them carefully, since they would gladly have murdered her for her knowledge.

She stole 20 guineas worth of lace from a milliner's shop while the people there were watching the queen pass.


Very likely Defoe learned these tricks of thievery when he himself was in Newgate Prison, where he was jailed in 1703 for his satire against the High Church, The Shortest Way With Dissenters. They sound authentic, and Defoe describes so many of them that he seems to be making a catalogue of his illicit knowledge.

As we can see in Moll's adventure in court, and other episodes, her success depends largely on impersonation: she needs to be able to make widely different impressions on people, and to completely hide her true identity. Theft is not as different from her previous way of life - successive courtships and marriages - as it may seem, since both hinge on pretending to be what one is not or to feel what one does not. Identity is a fluid thing in Moll Flanders: she changes her name and appearance frequently, and can even cross the gender boundary and briefly become a man. She leaves complicated trails behind her, making it difficult for the authorities to find her, or curious husbands to discover her true past. The fluidity of identity can be associated with that of money, easily spent and hard to trace, especially since identity was ascertained by the clothes one wore. In a time where clothes were very expensive, they were good indicators of class, and Moll takes advantage of that fact. Becoming a gentlewoman in the eyes of the public is as simple as putting on a rich set of clothing, which can be easily bought. Of course, Moll also has the advantage of a good education, clean habits, and refined manners.