Social Mobility in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders

During the 18th Century, society was ranked by money and social standing. The more money you had, the better class of person you were. There were four different social classes at this time: the aristocracy, the gentlemen, middle/merchant class and the labouring poor. Defoe once said that “after a generation or two a tradesman’s children or at least their grandchildren come to be as good gentlemen, statesmen, parliamentary men…as those of the highest and most ancient families”. This meant that if a tradesman managed to climb the social ladder by becoming wealthy and landed, he wouldn’t necessarily have the social graces this required but as the generations went on, the tradesman and his family would pass as the genuine article. Moll Flanders however, had very different ideas on climbing the social ladder and required the social status she craved as fast as she could get it.
When Moll was living with the mayor’s family in Colchester, one of the mayor’s daughter’s states “if a young woman has beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty and all to an extream, yet if she has not money, she’s no body”.
Moll always wanted to be a gentlewoman, even from the age of eight. This was opposed to going into service, which Moll had an undeniable fear of. When she is visited by the mayor’s wife and daughters, they ask her what she thinks a gentlewoman is and she replies “to get my own bread by my own work”. Here we can see her determination and independence from an early age.
As an adult Moll reinvents herself many times to seek the life that she desires. She has intelligence and self-sufficiency and will stop at nothing to get what she wants. She doesn’t need a man to protect her, instead they are used as a tool to advance her betterment. Moll makes her whole life’s work in the pursuit of social climbing and stability. It was her career.
Moll soon realises that her own background and lack of wealth meant that she couldn’t jump up between the social classes without a husband or money so she lies to enable the social mobility she craves. When she befriends the captain’s wife, they decide on a project to “get a husband of fortune” for Moll. And one that would “most likely depend on the hearsay of a fortune”.
On returning from Virginia and losing her cargo at sea, she spends what money she has left on fine clothes and suitable accommodation in order to appear a lady of some standing. This was extremely important to Moll as she was already on the look-out for a better prospect. Again, Moll was able to reinvent herself to acquire the status she desired. When she meets the banker, she admits “I play’d with this lover as an angler does with a trout”, confirming that this was a game she was playing for her own ends. At the same time, Moll meets James or Jemy. He is the male version of Moll and is fortune hunting just the same as Moll is.
The children that she bore were social constraints to Moll. Each time one of her marriages broke down or her husband died, the children were left behind in order that she could move onto better things. Even when she is in the midwife’s home for Lying-inn, the offer of marriage from the banker is too tempting and the baby is given away.
Moll also her used her feminine wiles, and her body to gain what she needed. She knew that a man could be seduced by her charm and beauty and used this to her advantage. All Moll’s actions are designed to advance her place in society and give her the stability which she craves but ultimately these actions are her undoing and she falls into a life of crime, making her social status retreat back to where her life had began.


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