In the preface of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders
,the narrator introduces himself as the editor of Moll’s story, which came to him as a first-person narrative. He asks readers to learn from Moll’s story, particularly as she was drawn to crime. He emphasizes the importance of the story is its moral, not the details of the crimes themselves.
The story is split into seven sections. In section one, Moll Flanders describes how she was born at Newgate Prison in London. She spends the first three years of her life with gypsies, and then goes to live at a school run by a woman simply referred to as “Nurse.” There, Moll learns proper manners and how to do needlework. When she is eight years old, she decides she will not become a servant, but rather a gentlewoman. For Moll, this means she will seem to earn her living by her needlework, when really her money will come from selling herself as a prostitute.
As it turns out, she does earn money from her needlework. When she is fourteen, the nurse dies, and she goes to live with a wealthy woman who has two sons. The oldest convinces Moll to have sex with him; he offers to make her his secret mistress and eventually marry her. The younger son, Robin, is also attracted to Moll and wants to marry her. The family supports Robin’s and her match because she is not a fortune hunter.She and Robin live together for five years. They have two children before Robin dies, and his parents take in the children. Moll spends her time going to parties.
Moll remarries in the second part of the story. Her new husband is a draper and a rake. He is soon arrested because he has not paid his debts, but he escapes and flees to France. Moll takes the name Mrs. Flanders and moves. She and a friend devise a scheme to spread rumors that she has a large fortune, enabling to find another husband. She tells her new husband that she does not have as much money as everyone said, and he says the same. In order to survive, he says they must go live in Virginia, at his plantation. She goes with him and they have three children. Unfortunately, Moll learns that her husband is actually her brother, ultimately forcing her to leave him.
Moll returns to England, but along the way, almost all of her possessions and money are destroyed on the crossing. She ends up in Bath, intent on finding a husband. The problem there is that the men only want mistresses. She ends up forming a platonic relationship with a man whose wife is ill. He gives her money before falling ill himself. Moll nurses him back to health and stays with him. Two years later, their relationship becomes intimate and she becomes his mistress for the next six years, until he becomes ill once more. He lives, but terminates their relationship.
Section four finds Moll in her early forties. She marries again—this time to a man named Jemy. They love one another, but neither has any fortune. Moll discovers that Jemy’s lover targeted her. Because Moll was rumored to have a large fortune, Jemy’s lover thought they could get their hands on the money. When Moll finds out about this, Jemy leaves. She makes her way back to London, and learns she is pregnant. A friend of hers, meanwhile, who is a bank clerk, is trying to get her to marry him, which she does once she has her baby and finds a family to raise it. They live in happiness for five years, at which point the clerk loses all of his fortune and dies of grief. Moll is back to being without a fortune, and now she has two children with her.
In order to survive and rebuild her fortune—small as it was—Moll begins to steal in section five. She becomes good at it, and well known for her abilities. Despite the fact that her accomplices in increasingly elaborate schemes are caught, imprisoned, or even executed, Moll manages to stay safe. One way she does this is to use a false identity. After stealing from a man she refers to as “the baron,” Moll becomes his mistress for a year. During that time, she stops thieving, but starts again after their relationship ends. Soon enough, she is stealing just for her reputation; that is when she is caught and sent to Newgate Prison.
While she is in prison, Moll learns that Jemy was arrested for being a highwayman. Meanwhile, she has a trial and is sentenced to be executed. Thanks to her minister, her sentence is commuted to transportation. She convinces Jemy to try for the same sentence. They are supposed to work as indentured servants for five years, but Moll’s friend arranges for them to be released and set up as plantation owners once they arrive at the end of section six.
The seventh and final section explores Moll’s second visit to America. Her mother left her a plantation there, and she is able to reconnect with her son—the child she bore with her brother. When he dies, she and Jemy marry, and they prosper with her plantation. Ultimately, they retire to England.