Does Moll Flanders Repent & Does It Matter?

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Moll is a variation on the biblical parable of the prodigal son (see below). He wants to be free to do his own thing so asks his father for his share of the inheritance in advance. He spends the money on ‘wild living’ and ultimately ends up degraded and desperate, living in a literal pigsty. Newgate prison is Defoe’s equivalent to the pigsty. Moll describes Newgate in disturbing detail: ‘the hellish Noise, the Roaring, Swearing, and Clamour, the Stench and Nastiness’.

Ultimately the son swallows his pride and returns to his father, begs forgiveness and offers himself as a servant. Moll’s submission to transportation, a form of slavery, provides a clear parallel. The prodigal son is welcomed lovingly by his father; Defoe and his readers would have been familiar with the parable and its meaning that God welcomes sinners who turn to Him.

The evidence for Moll’s repentance lies largely in her language, which convinces the prison chaplain to speak on her behalf. Yet repentance involves not simply remorse (often regret at being found out in Moll’s case!) but actively turning away from sin: the lost son goes back to his father. Sin is anything which goes against God’s law eg in Moll’s case theft, lying, selfishness etc; if she truly repents then she will do her best to turn her back on such things and try to follow God’s ways. Moll turns from crime but this may simply be because the legitimate rewards of her inheritance render crime unnecessary.

We’re not party to Moll’s thoughts so we simply don’t know whether or not her religious and repentant language is an expression of faith (I would argue not) but what is clear is that Moll’s new crime-free lifestyle testifies to the positive potential of transportation. Defoe recognises that as far as the law is concerned, whether or not Moll’s repentance is genuine is in one sense irrelevant. As someone who had intended to become a Protestant minister Defoe was clearly interested in repentance in spiritual terms but he was also a crime journalist and in secular terms Moll’s repentance is significant only in so far as it may indicate the likelihood of her re-offending.

For a fuller treatment of this issue please see my lecture on Moll Flanders.

Context: The Parable of the Lost Son Luke 15:11-22 The Bible (New International Version)

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

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