Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-19

Part 16: Further Adventures - Moll Meets Lady Betty, Gambles, and is Almost Taken

Moll went out in fine clothes and saw two very young ladies walking in Saint James's Park: one was about twelve years old, and the other nine. Their footman was waiting for them at the entrance of the park, where Moll greeted him and asked who the girls were. The foolish footman told him their names and a great deal of information about them. Moll then went up to the eldest, Lady Betty, and pretended to be a friend of her mother. When the King went by, Moll helped the girls to get up to where they would be able to see, and in doing so, stole Lady Betty's fine gold watch. She then said farewell and left as though she was being swept away by the crowd. By the time Lady Betty realized what had happened, Moll was far away in a coach.

Another time, she went into a gaming house where gentlemen gambled, and pretended to be too frightened to venture her own money because the stakes were high, and she did not know the game well. A gentleman lent her some of his money to play with, and she gradually won more and more, occasionally hiding some of her profits in her pockets. Finally she offered the gentleman all she had won, but the others insisted that he divide it evenly with her, so she left richer by 73 guineas, 43 stolen and 30 given. However she was careful not to gamble again, knowing that it could become an expensive habit.

When the richer people left town for the summer, so did Moll, who toured the countryside. She stole luggage at a harbor town, and left on a boat before the loss was discovered.

One day Moll saw a silversmith's shop left unattended, and went in with the intention of stealing some silver. Unfortunately a man across the street rushed in and caught her there alone, but she managed to call out herself before he got there, and claimed that she had only wanted to summon the smith so she could buy something. She was brought before a magistrate, and managed to convince him of her innocence, especially when she did indeed buy some silver spoons from the shop. It was a lucky escape that was not repeated twice.


Moll has no grand illusions about her thievery, and does not consider herself to be a sort of Robin Hood. She is quite wealthy by this time, and is careful to attack vulnerable people like children and inexperienced shop-keepers whenever possible. Of course she tends to steal from the rich rather than the poor, but only because it is better worth her while. She never engages in heroic violence of any nature, but prefers to use her wits. Despite the unheroic nature of her thievery, she is still something of a heroine: she takes on the role of the fabled clever fox. This is consistent with her gender: women were widely considered to be more clever and quick-witted than men, although they were thought to lack the ability to think deeply and importantly.

Gambling was an important part of the lives of the rich and frivolous, and it was not uncommon for men (and women also, as we can see by Moll's participation) to win or lose immense sums of money at the gaming tables.

It was a common practice for those who could afford it to go to the country in the summer, when London was less pleasant and more likely to give birth to a deadly plague. The city was by no means clean, and rats were rife. Defoe knew this very well: he wrote, among other things, A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722. London was also full of wooden buildings, which burnt easily and disastrously. The Great Fire of London left huge numbers of people homeless in 1665.

Part 17: Moll in Newgate Prison

Seeing some rich pieces of brocade silk through the open doors of a house, Moll went in and took them. As she was leaving, two maid-servants rushed in and caught her, and the people of the house and a constable were soon there. Although the master and mistress of the house were inclined to compassion, the constable took Moll before a judge, who committed her to Newgate.

Moll was horrified by the prison, where so many of her colleagues had gone to die: she was struck by "the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness," which made it seem like hell. She repented that she had been caught, not that she had been a thief, and could not sleep for days. The other prisoners were glad to see her finally taken; their gay behavior confused Moll, who could not then understand how they could get used to such a place, especially when living under a death sentence. One woman, when asked whether she was comfortable there, said "Ay, I can't help myself; what signifies being sad? If I am hanged, there's an end of me."

Moll's governess tried hard to bribe the maid-servants, but was unable to do so, even though she offered 100 guineas to girls who probably only made about 3 a year. Moll disliked the clergyman of the prison, who only tried to get her to confess, and gradually became as insensible and unrepentant as the other prisoners. She was somewhat softened when she saw her Lancashire husband, James, among some celebrated highwaymen who were captured and brought to Newgate: she felt responsible for his destruction. She began to really repent, and lost the hardness she had acquired. She was found guilty of felony, and one the keepers told her frankly that she should talk to a minister and prepare for death. She asked for mercy but was sentenced to death. Her distressed governess, by now quite old and sincerely attached to Moll, found her a minister, who prayed with the newly Christian Moll. This minister, struck by her repentance, obtained a reprieve for her and finally managed to get her sentence commuted to transportation to Virginia. Her governess reminded her that she had plenty of money, which could make transportation more advantageous than it seemed, and 15 weeks later she was put on board a ship.


Defoe's description of Newgate and its inmates is powerful and extremely memorable: evidently his time there marked him deeply. The disturbing, paradoxical happiness and gaiety of the despairing prisoners in their wretched surroundings is like madness. In a way, the prisoners' behavior serves as a distorted mirror for the world: everyone, broadly speaking, is under a death sentence, yet few people behave as though they were preparing for an end. It is this twisted resemblance between Newgate and the world which gives the prison's image so much power: we would not be so shaken if we did not see ourselves in the laughing, singing prisoners.

Of course, the behavior of the prisoners makes less sense if one assumes the existence of a Christian afterlife; there is a real and important break between the worldview of the respectable people and the clergymen, and that of the prisoners. If the afterlife exists, then sinners have every reason to repent, as Moll does. The fact that so few prisoners do repent indicates that they do not believe in the most essential points of Christianity. The behavior of a prisoner in Newgate, then, appears to be similar to that of an atheist in the world, and it is so dangerously careless and uncontrollable that an early modern judge would clearly see the necessity of religion in an orderly society.

It would be interesting to know where Defoe stands: we know that he was generally tolerant, and did not want to become a minister. But is it possible that he could have been an atheist? We see Moll sincerely repenting: "I now began to look upon my past life with abhorrence... The greatest and best things, the views of felicity, the joy, the griefs of life, were quite other things; and I had nothing in my thoughts but what was so infinitely superior to what I had known in life, that it appeared to me to be the greatest stupidity in nature to lay any weight upon anything, though the most valuable in this world." However, one should keep in mind the end of the prologue, which states that once Moll achieved security and prosperity toward the end of her life, she "was not so extraordinary a penitent as she was at first." Is this bit of irony a mild statement about human weakness? Or does Defoe seriously undermine the Christian fervor of his heroine, and consequently all Christian fervor? Is the terrible gaiety of the Newgate prisoners a reflection of the horrors of atheism or the hopelessness of the human condition?

Part 18: Moll Saves her Husband and They are Transported

During this time Moll did not forget her Lancashire husband, the highwayman. She pretended that she was willing to give evidence against him, whereupon he asked to see her, not having any idea who she was. She went to visit him; recognizing her, he thought at first that she had come for revenge. She reassured him, and told her some of her recent history, but leaving out most of her thievery and pretending that she had been mistaken for the famous Moll Flanders. It appeared that he had been a highwayman for twelve years before their marriage, having many adventures, and had never been caught until then. The evidence against him was little enough that he could obtain transportation if he wanted, but hating the thought of slavery and hard labor, was more inclined to hang: "here he knew what to do with himself, but... there he would be the most ignorant, helpless wretch alive." Moll successfully persuaded him that, with money, transportation would not be so bad - especially since she would go too. After some negotiations, they managed to be put on the same ship, and Moll's governess bought all sorts of supplies and tools useful for running a plantation, to be loaded on the same ship. Their money (Moll took 246 guineas with her, leaving another 300 with her governess, and James had about 108) obtained them a pleasant cabin and all sorts of small luxuries; the boatswain and the captain were both pleasant and understanding. They were even allowed to go onshore freely at Gravesend, before crossing the Atlantic. The governess was sorry to part with Moll, who told her that she would marry James in America (she had never told her they were already married). The crossing took 42 days, which was hard for Moll's husband, who was seasick. Once they reached Virginia, the captain (for the price of a thousand weight of tobacco) arranged for them to be "sold" to a planter, who soon freely discharged them. They were free in Virginia.


Although Moll and her husband are clearly given favorable treatment as a result of what people would call bribes today, there appears to be no consciousness of unfairness in the novel. The ship's officers are not called corrupt, though by modern standards their behavior would be considered criminal. Perhaps because Moll's society did not pretend to be equitable where money is concerned, she seems accept the existence of official corruption without hesitation or doubt. The captain is called "one of the best-humoured gentlemen in the world," who delights to "show himself kind and charitable" (especially to rich convicts).

Moll's highwayman's behavior echoes that of her grave husband, who died after his business failed. They both show an inability to adapt: without Moll's intervention, James would certainly have allowed himself to be hanged. It is curious that man whose previous occupation involved so much danger shows himself to be so helpless and frightened when an unfamiliar challenge presents itself. Indeed, Moll's brother also showed the same lack of energy and cheerfulness: he wanted to kill himself when he found out that he had married his sister. In contrast, Moll and her governess adapt themselves readily when their circumstances change drastically, as they frequently do. The women might lack strict principles and unbending pride, but their survival (and often that of the men around them) depends on their driving will to live. They are less noble, but perhaps more brave.

Part 19: Moll Makes Good and Lives Happily Ever After

Close to where they had landed, Moll saw her brother/husband and son walking together; it appeared that the old man was nearly blind so she didn't have to fear recognition. She was pleased to see her son so handsome and flourishing, and wished she could speak to him. Moll learned that her mother, now dead, had left her some land, held in trust by her son.

Moll did not dare approach her son because she had not told her Lancashire husband about her incestuous marriage, and did not want him to find out. So the two of them went and settled near Maryland, and started a plantation, buying many servants. After a year Moll left her husband there and went back to see her brother. She sent him a letter, full of tender comments about her son, which paid off well since her son read it and came to greet her. He was glad to see his mother and very affectionate, gave her gifts and wanted her to live with them. She was very happy but, not being eager to live with her brother anymore, refused, and after several weeks returned to her husband. With what they had already, and the income from the new land, and the son's gifts, and what Moll had left with her governess, they were very wealthy indeed. Moll was able to buy her husband swords and fine clothing, so he could live like a gentleman. A year later Moll learned that her brother was dead, so she could tell her son safely that she was going to be married (to James, of course), and could also tell James the truth about her incestuous marriage. She was immensely relieved no longer to have to keep secrets. They were very prosperous, and in eight years had an income of 300 guineas a year.

When Moll was seventy and her husband sixty-eight, they returned to England rich and legal, and Moll said that they resolved to spend their remaining comfortable years repenting their sins.


It is really only in this chapter that we learn that keeping secrets is a strain for Moll: "a secret of moment should always have a confidant, a bosom friend, to whom we may communicate the joy of it, or the grief of it, be it which it will, or it will be a double weight upon the spirits, and perhaps become even insupportable in itself." Moll keeps many secrets during her life: even those closest to her, her governess and her Lancashire husband, are not told important things about her. As we have seen in the rest of the novel, especially parts 13 and 15, the ability to keep secrets has been essential to her security. The end of the novel, in which Moll is finally able to tell some essential secrets (those of her marriage to her brother and her marriage to James), is calm and favorable not only because Moll achieves wealth (she had been wealthy before) but because she can relieve her mental oppression. Every secret is then told to someone: her governess knows about her thievery, though her husband and son do not; and her husband and son know about her marriages, although her governess does not. Moll will never be entirely free of secrecy, since even as a rich old woman she will not tell her real name, but, living legally, she can rest relatively easy.

It is interesting to note that Moll makes little difference between her white and black servants: we bought us two servants, viz. an English woman-servant just come on shore from a ship of Liverpool, and a Negro man-servant, things absolutely necessary for all people that pretended to settle in that country." Presumably the white woman was an indentured servant, bound to serve a limited term of years, while the black man was a true slave, but Defoe does not distinguish between the two varieties of servitude, nor does he appear to be especially racist, except in his ignoring the evil of slavery. Plantation life is described in sketchy terms: we learn nothing of the day-to-day business of raising tobacco, but only hear about the wealth it brings.

During her repentant stage Moll claimed to learn to despise material wealth, but renewed prosperity and safety appear to dull her religious beliefs, and while we might easily believe that she does not wish to return to her evil ways, it is nonetheless true that she ends the novel comfortably repenting while living off profits based on theft and highway robbery.