Feminist criticism suggests that the struggles for women to assert themselves lies in society’s oppression of their attempts to do as such. It argues for equality to promulgate in a male centred-nature of civilisation, ‘androtexts’ must act as a purge for the power relations established by the cultural, societal and historical influences over time.
Regarding Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders , set in the late 17th Century England, a sense of challenging a modern Marxist reader for largely ignoring the unjust position of woman, is inaugurated by the celebration of the first ever lowest social class female protagonist’s attempts to assert herself in an otherwise male-dominated society. The most persistent way that Defoe expresses his revaluing of a woman’s experience is by narrating through the persona of Moll Flanders. Differentiating from his earlier male-centred novels, Moll Flanders is written using the first-person personal pronoun ‘I’ in order to reposition the focus of the narrative to one that focuses on Defoe’s attempt to celebrate Moll’s own attempt to assert herself against the formidable obstacle of an orthodox male centred-nature of civilisation. This subversion from his previous choice of narration style, expresses Defoe’s recognition of the role of language especially seeing as choosing this intense way of detailing this novel provides a consciousness of the representations of power relations in 17th Century England; noticeably differentiating from his earlier works.
By stating that the editor has modified ‘the original of this story (and) put (it) into new words’ whilst retaining the falsely titled ‘Author’s Preface’, Defoe aims to introduce the idea of ‘the famous lady’ being mendacious in psyche and begins to question whether men and women are essentially different when it comes to their actions of desperation. The preface of the novel acts as his inauguration to the theme of the oppression of women by using such language that reinstates to the reader the fundamental attributions of his characters that instigates a challenge to the generalised gender representations of the time. ‘Is suggested there cannot be the same life…brightness and beauty, in relating the penitent part, as in the criminal part: if because there is not the same taste and relish in the reading…indeed it is too true that the difference lies not in the real worth of the subject so much as in…the reader’, establishes as much by creating an exposure of the character’s criminality and in turn, the unreliable nature of the title protagonist’s first-person narration whom ‘thinks fit to conceal her true name’.
By allowing this idea to materialise as an ideology to the reader, Defoe is thereby questioning the true nature of ‘Whose voices are heard?’Defoe’s novels prior to Moll Flanders choose to act as an allegory for his attitude towards crime and punishment previously expressed through his didactic writings which insist that crime be consistently punished, while virtue prevails. Whilst the authorial preface pertains to these attitudes on crime, ‘When a woman […] comes to give an account of […] all the progression of crime which she ran through in threescore years, an author must be hard put to it to wrap it up’, the story in itself subverts from this view; repeatedly allowing Moll to remain unrepentant in nature subsequent to him choosing to leave Moll unpunished for ‘all her vicious practices’.
The explanation for this lack of injustice could stem from that of which is detailed by Laura Mulvey’s ‘Male Gaze Theory’, which entails that the author focuses on the feminine attributions of a character, despite assuming the role of an impartial narrator. In Moll Flanders, Defoe is unconventionally seen to comply with this theory by having Moll herself be the one whom relates an elucidation of her ‘great beauty’ to the reader through various vain accounts as such, ‘I was apparently handsomer than any of them; secondly, I was better shaped; and, thirdly, I sang better […] I do not speak my own conceit of myself, but the opinion of all that knew the family.’. Distinctively here, if the assertion that many texts clearly assume that their readers are male is accepted, then this repositions the focus so that this concentrated attention on Moll’s appearance, rather than her qualities as a character, could be seen as another example of the archaic phallocentric nature of much literature.
To then agree with the statement, Defoe does emphasise the unusual way that Moll uses the struggles of being condemned to gender representations, by appealing to them in order for social and financial gain. ‘I play’d with this Lover as an Angler does with a Trout,’ complies with the stereotype of a dangerous seductress and resultantly subverts from the assumption of woman being essentially helpless, by showing intellectual awareness of gender representation of the time, therefore showing a celebration of the attempts to assert themselves. Moll noticeably says that she will live using ‘thus my pride, not my principle, my money, not my virtue’. This clear subversion from the traditional morals of every woman in society of the time, only emphasises the control she is able to possess instead of a reliance on a man. With this idea in mind, it is then unfair to think her a ‘whore’ since the manipulation of using her sexually promiscuous nature in order to gain financial security from each of her ‘relationships’, shows perception that is rare for even a woman 100 years her senior.
The control that Moll possesses that resultantly impacts the novel’s plot, is provided by Defoe both readily and with restraint. This causes emphasis to be then placed on how inextricably bound up in a male centred-nature of civilisation Moll is regardless of Defoe’s attempt to celebrate Moll’s attempt to assert herself against the traditional societal views. Defoe’s introduction of her control over her own fate comes in the form of an act of persuasion. ‘I did nothing but work and cry all day, which griev’d the good kind woman so much, that at last she began to be concern’d for me’ shows development of Moll’s characterisation occurring in the novel since this is the first time she is able to dictate her own life path. Control from this point forward is then measured depending on the strength of the security and stability she possesses without a male protagonist’s interference.
Defoe structurally plays into this by providing, essentially a new start, in her story every time she is met with an obstacle that could impede her sense of an individual identity; thus refusing to allow room for a male protagonist to provide any significant influence upon this story. With a different consideration of Moll Flanders, Moll has been constructed so that her presence in literature is one that allows her to stand as a role model in a society based on the oppression of woman by altering the power relations. This defiance of the cultural construction of woman results in the obtaining of an increased social standing in her favour; an idea which purges the need for a male centred-nature of civilisation.In conclusion, Moll Flanders does suggest that the assertion of women is something to be celebrated as a significant and brave achievement in light of the struggles resulting from the oppression of women.
Defoe’s novel supports the effort given to purge the culture of gendered stereotyping by creating a female protagonist that is seen to heavily criticise the widespread stereotyping of women in literature, by acting as defiance against the need for a male centred-nature of civilisation. Within each aspect of the novel discussed, the control of her own fate that Defoe provides, is the strongest method of communication for these ideologies since the mere boldness of the action forces a through revision of gender roles by changing the power relations between men and woman to allow room for true equality.