Defoe is mostly recognized as the author of Robinson Crusoe- the story of a man abandoned on a desert island. This story could have been an existentialist nightmare. In Defoe, it becomes a tale of homo economicus: get busy and organize your resources.
The ingenuity of human resourcefulness is a central theme in another of his, less recognized, great novel: Moll Flanders.
During the 18th century while Britain was undergoing squalor and inequality from the industrial revolution, the journalist Defoe found the streets to be a laboratory for observation and imagination. Looking at society from the bottom up, Defoe makes his protagonist a woman, and turns her loose on the streets of London.
Moll was born in a prison to a criminal mother, foreshadowing the determinism of her future. After her birth, her mother is transported to America as part of her sentence, a common practice in England during that time. Moll, however, is left behind in England. As an orphan, Moll’s early life is a constant struggle for survival and identity. Early life is marked by attempts at finding stability and a sense of belonging, but the attempts fail her due to birth’s stigma.
The picaresque’s unfolding is a modern story of cunning and survival, revealing the resources available to people who do not have resources. Moll Flanders is a self-described artist who uses disguise as the key to her monetary and erotic successes; her world is governed by the rule of exchange. Throughout the novel, Moll will surprise the reader with her peculiar honesty and deep insights into the human condition.
Moll, an orphan without money or status, attempts to succeed in a world regulated by wealth and class. Her goal is to become a gentlewoman, which for Moll means gaining a measure of independence. Her only tools for achieving that goal are her beauty, body, wit and cunning. The younger Moll tries to make a wealthy marriage, usually by appearing to be woman of means. As she ages, she becomes a thief. Defoe is criticized to give a materialist definition of the ‘good life’ in this novel. In the context of Moll, we see that money, lace, linen and silver are things that are measurable and can be used as resources. How would immeasurable morality, emotion, and the soul help someone such as Moll survive?
We often see Moll’s unflinching honesty throughout the novel. Moll is a deceiver and a liar to the world, but honest to herself. When her first husband dies, Moll counts how much money he left her and tells us that her two children were ‘taken happily off my hands’. Here, she seems interested only in the material life.
Later, she describes a clever plan for stealing from the upperclass resident of a home during a fire. She feels remorse afterward, but says, “I could never find it in my heart to make any restitution. The reflection wore off and I began quickly to forget the circumstances that attended the taking them (the stolen items).” Remorse is real- it’s just not very powerful. We’re not without moral values, but life makes us callous, and those moral values surface occasionally. To the privileged, they get to surface more frequently due to not being a ‘have not’.
Moll’s erotic and economic successes would appear to hinge on her talent for disguise and self-presentation. Moll can never tell people who she is because of the risk that she would be hanged as a thief, not to mention the undoing of her survival strategies.
Thieving, throughout the novel, is depicted as a form of artistry, a creative activity. For Moll, the desire to steal verges on the pathological. Pathology is the deviation from the norm, but shouldn’t the norm be defined in relation to the individual?
Selectively reading the novel, I found some uncanny similarities between Moll and the street children. The thread that binds these similarities together is perhaps resourcefulness.
Street children are born in the most unfavourable environment imaginable. Their birth, too, foreshadows their future. A difficult upbringing follows. These children, then, are compelled to fend for themselves from a young age.
A street child merely doesn’t roam, scavenge, earn and sleep on the streets. They form their identity around the elements of the street life: social groups, vendors, peers, adults, institutions and so on. The mismatches between one element to the other is what makes their adaptability so fascinating. Here we see the shared trait with Moll.
Finally, when the street becomes a ‘place to belong’, life presents itself as shaky, and they soon start to realize they don’t really belong there. The streets are not for them, but for the beneficiaries of the urban metropolis.
Like Moll, a street child hides his identity due to safety. Camouflaged identities help generate income as well. Begging is built upon a deceptive identity. Street children beg using made-up identities and through lying generates the sustenance income. Here, the similarity between Moll and the street children cannot be more striking.
Like Moll, street children lack resources. So, they take what they have and build on those resources. No money? Beg. Use your babyish face and innocence to appeal the urbanites for some coins. No food? Wash the floors of cheap restaurants for income, and as a bonus, you will get to scavenge wasted food from the restaurants. No begging possible during rainy days? Steal and save that money during winter.
Street children practice theft to a level almost pathological. Here again, we see the similarities with Moll. In context, to say their habit of stealing has a pathological level is to say they have upgraded their skills as per the demand of their job-market.
The world of Moll Flanders and today’s street children are similar as well. Like Moll’s London at that time, Dhaka, Nairobi, Delhi, Cali are also cities of contrast.