Gender Representation and the Female Heroine in Early Modern Writing

The early modern period span from the late 15th Century to the late 18th Century. This was a period of rapid and significant transition from the medieval times to an increasingly individualistic society. The Renaissance, beginning in Italy during this time, began to manifest and make its way to Britain in the late 15th Century. This saw major changes in art, sculpture and literature. It also saw a rebirth of the arts and a shift in thinking together with humanism and its development of human virtue including a love of honour. Honour was different for men than women. Men could fight for their honour but this was not an option for women. At the beginning of the 18th Century was the birth of literary realism. Writers began to include women, making them more prominent characters. Literary realism is the author’s way of depicting a true likeness of middle class life in which the story was written.  This can be seen in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. With its picaresque form and written as an autobiography, Defoe depicts the protagonist Moll’s rich and varied life and her fight for survival as a woman without means in the 18th Century. She becomes a mother many times over, seeks social mobility and will do anything to achieve it and in doing so turns to crime. The thesis of the tale being ‘a quest for survival, a search for economic and social stability’ (Hammond, 1993, p.95).  Moll is a victim of circumstances but Defoe gives her a voice in an otherwise very male dominated world. Not content with sitting back passively, Defoe as a proto-feminist ensures Moll has a chance, in the survival of the fittest. He portrays Moll as very resourceful, which bucked the trend as conventional gender representation and this is what I will explore in this essay.

Moll bears numerous children during her lifetime, all of which she abandons in her search for money and position. She wants the reader to believe that she cares a great deal about them but her desire for social mobility gives us a very different perception over her somewhat liberal maternal instincts. It is clear throughout the novel that Moll sees her children as a barrier and an inconvenience. When Moll expects her baby by the highwayman, she is in such a position that she requires the skills of a midwife. In the 18th Century, these were usually ladies with limited nursing skills that would aid prostitutes and other fallen women for a fee during their period of gestation. These women were victims of circumstance but Defoe portrays Moll as a survivor and this literary realism shows us what life would have been like for these unmarried women at that time. Moll lacks any maternal instincts and we see this when she steals the gold-beaded necklace from the young girl in the street. She even thinks of killing her but then says,

the last affair left no great Concern upon me, for as I did the poor child no harm, I only said to myself, I had given the parents a just reproof for their negligence in leaving the poor little lamb to come home by it self. (Defoe, 2004, p.153)

Even at this point Moll believes she has helped the child’s parents become more careful about letting their child wander on her own, believing she has done them a favour and she has done no wrong. Moll makes a point of referring to her governess as mother. Defoe is connecting Moll to a maternal figure in the governess to evoke a sense of pity from the reader. When Moll returns to Virginia and meets with her grown son, even then she lies to him and gives him a stolen watch. She makes a passionate plea to all mothers when she says,

…let any mother of children that reads this, consider it, and but think with what anguish if mind I restrain’d myself, and how I thought all my entrails turn’d within me. (Defoe, 2004, p.251).

Defoe’s use of language here shows Moll’s emotional plea to all mothers as she clearly puts herself in the same category even though she abandoned him when he was small. Defoe hasn’t created Moll as a mother figure but instead she has created one for herself for respectability’s sake, which is something she has craved for all her life.

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: the aristocracy, the gentlemen, middle/merchant class and the labouring poor. At this time, work for poor women throughout England was ‘low-skilled, low-status and low-paying’ (Bennett, 1988, p278). As a woman on her own, Moll had very little chance of moving up in the world unless she married into money. 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’ (Defoe, 2004, p.14). The mayor’s daughter also tells Moll that, ‘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’ (Defoe, 2004, p.20). This resonates with Moll and it stay with her throughout her life, giving her the motivation to survive and a reason for doing what she does. As an adult Moll reinvents herself many times to seek the life that she desires. She has intelligence and is self-sufficient and will stop at nothing to get what she wants. She 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. On returning from Virginia and losing her cargo at sea, she spends what money she has left on fine clothes and suitable accommodation to appear a lady of some standing. Again, Moll can reinvent herself to acquire the status she desires and using her beauty and charm, Defoe enables Moll to continue her quest for survival. When she meets the banker, she admits ‘I play’d with this lover as an angler does with a trout’ (Defoe, 2004, p.112) confirming that this is a game she is playing for her own ends. Moll also uses her feminine wiles, and her body to gain what she needs. She knows that a man can be seduced by her charm and beauty and she uses this to her advantage. All Moll’s actions are designed to advance her place in society and give her the stability which she craves and she has no scruples using her femininity as a tool to do this.

Another example of a strong female character is Portia from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Portia is portrayed firstly as a woman whose only desire is to seek a husband, then secondly as a strong independent woman who can stand her ground in a court room and outwit the male characters around her. Shakespeare gives Portia a voice in an otherwise male dominated society. In the court room scene, Portia finds a loophole in the bond given to Antonio by Shylock, ‘This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood…if thou dost shed One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate…’ (Shakespeare, 2008, p.460). It is this loophole that outwits Shylock and the bond is broken. She is educated, intellectual and understands the law and this was unheard of, as women had rarely been portrayed in this way. Both Portia and Moll are pretending to be something they’re not to get their own way and advance themselves in a world where women had no voice at all.

Defoe uses emotive language to portray Moll’s descent into crime. When one of her husbands die, she laments, ‘I sat and cried and tormented myself Night and Day; wringing my hands and sometimes raving like a distracted woman’ (Defoe, 2004, p.150). The use of long sentences here in this particular passage shows how agitated Moll’s mind is becoming. Indeed, on her first outing as a thief, she says ‘it is impossible to express the horror of my soul all the while I did it…’ (Defoe, 2004, p.151). Moll relies on necessity as justification when she is in difficulty (Bell, p.425). She states that ‘a time of distress is a time of dreadful temptation’ (Defoe, 2004, p.151). Moll finds herself turning to a life of crime when she has no husband and runs out of money. This is another example of literary realism as there were not very many choices for women at that time. Unless you were born into money or married into it, there was very little else beyond poverty for women. Moll had the opportunity of being a seamstress but she had no desire to work in this way. She justifies her crimes as the work of the devil, thus making it beyond her control, ‘the devil carried me out and laid his bait for me’ (Defoe, 2004, p.151). The use of emotive language here is designed for the reader to sympathise with Moll’s fate but sympathy does not come easy as she never admits any wrong-doing. Similarly to Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Moll also knows her way around the law. When she is falsely accused of stealing in the mercer’s shop, Moll knows the system well. ‘Her experiences with it reflect and reinforce her sense that everything is a manipulable surface’ (Zimmerman, 2004, p.366). Moll plays the system for her own gain and is able to evade arrest with her knowledge and confidence in herself. Defoe’s portrayal of a female character in such early modern writing is such that it was unheard of for a woman to be intelligent in this way and use this in such a manipulative fashion. Defoe also portrays Moll as a moralizing woman, always justifying her actions. When she seduces a gentleman in a coach, she considers the possibility that it is better that he is seduced by her than a diseased prostitute but then her true self states,

as for me, my Business was his money…I would have sent him safe home to his house, and to his family…would he be trembling for fear he had got the pox. (Defoe, 2004, p.179)

She also tells her governess this tale as though she is talking about someone else. Moll manages to detach herself from her actions. Her morals show through but her justification is always there in abundance, excusing her actions. She also risks punishment, as although sexual behaviour outside marriage was condemned by the church, ‘a double standard was built into the law, whereby men’s promiscuity was deemed far less harmful than that of women, and was far less likely to be punished’ (Shoemaker,1998, p.72), yet women were treated equally in the dock when it came to sentencing.

To conclude, the early modern writers shifted away from the traditional expectations and moved towards a literary realism. With the upward trend of readers and printing press, the public were looking to read morality tales. As this was the time of the birth of the novel, Defoe’s Moll Flanders gave women a voice that was unheard of. As Moll journeys through her life becoming a mother, her craving for social stability and then turning to a life of crime, Defoe portrays an extraordinary woman intent on bettering herself at any cost. Her fight for survival and desire for social status confirms her own status as a female heroine in all senses of the word and the representation of her gender in such a mainstream way was surely the beginning of a new feminist era.



Bell, I.A. (2004). ‘Moll Flanders, Crime and Comfort’. In: Rivero, Albert J. (ed). Moll Flanders. A Norton Critical Edition- An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc

Bennett, J.M. (1988). ‘”History that stands still”: Women’s Work in the European Past’. Feminist Studies, [Online] 14, (2) pp. 269-283. Available from- [Accessed 05/01/17]

Defoe, D. (1722). Moll Flanders. In: Rivero, Albert J. (ed). A Norton Critical Edition- An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Hammond, J.R. (1993). A Defoe Companion. Hampshire: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Shakespeare, W. (1596-97) The Merchant of Venice (pp413-471). In: William Shakespeare Complete Works (2008). Bate, J. and Rasmussen, E. (eds). Hampshire: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Shoemaker, R. B. (1998). Gender in English Society 1650-1850. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd

Zimmerman, E. (2004). ‘Moll Flanders: Parodies of Respectability’. In: Rivero, Albert J. (ed). Moll Flanders. A Norton Critical Edition- An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc

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