Useful background reading in order to gain a sense of what Defoe considered 'repentance' to be includes Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living (1650, rep. Oxford 1989), Defoe's own Serious Reflections on the Life and Surprising Times of Robinson Crusoe (the little-read third book) and his poem, A Hymn to the Funeral Sermon (1703). Extracts from these works have been included in Appendix 1, for ease of access. An excellent essay which successfully argues against Moll's repentance being taken seriously is Michael Suarez's "Shortest Way to Heaven?".
Moll's repentance is one of the most argued and one of the most crucial elements of the book. If we are to believe that she is truly penitent, how can the text have any real moral claims. Defoe, as supposed editor of the text recommends the work chiefly, "to those who know how to read it". (Preface). The suggestion is that the reader should play an active part, rather than gathering easy knowledge. While the inferences drawn from the work are clearly intended to be morally instructive, Defoe is prepared to leave the reader to follow the protagonist, whilst not necessarily believing her.
Repentance, as something Moll sees in others as well as in herself, is mentioned frequently. The context does not, however, always indicate a truth of feeling. Moll mainly feels sorry for her actions if and when they cause her inconvenience or upset. For example, she regrets her marriage to Jemmy, her Lancashire husband not because she is already married (albeit to an absent husband), nor because she has left a suitor in London divorcing his wife on the implicit understanding that he and Moll will marry, but because there is the possibility that her indiscretion will be discovered. On receiving a proposal from the now divorced banker, Moll begins, "Seriously to reflect on my present Circumstances, and the inexpressible Misfortune it was to me to have a Child upon my Hands...". Similarly, when in Newgate, Moll feels repentance, quite simply because she has been caught, at least until she confesses to the minister. There is still an ambiguity here, however. Moll clearly thinks she is truly penitent. However, a reading of the extracts in Appendix 1 will show that for Defoe, as well as others, a vital part of repentance is restitution. The attitude of Moll and Jemmy to their transportation, during which they use stolen goods to buy a more comfortable passage to America, is not that of true penitence. This is an aspect of Moll Flanders which may be noticed upon merely reading the text, but which further knowledge of the period and of Defoe's attitude will always enhance.
That Moll ought to repent and that her life is sinful are the obvious moral aspects of Moll Flanders and, despite the lack of authorial intrusion, the points are clear; our final judgement on the characters may not be. There is a point of debate over whether Moll's repentance ought to be believed and whether Moll herself actually believes in it. If so, does she believe she has truly repented only because she is so used to lying to herself, as well as to others? Certainly the fast-paced story does not sound as if it were told by an overly shamed narrator.
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