Defoe wrote this after his work as a journalist and pamphleteer. By 1722, Defoe had become recognised as a novelist, with the success of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. His political work was tapering off at this point, due to the fall of both Whig and Tory party leaders with whom he had been associated; Robert Walpole was beginning his rise, and Defoe was never fully at home with the Walpole group. Defoe's Whig views are nevertheless evident in the story of Moll, and the novel's full title gives some insight into this and the outline of the plot:
The first time she does this, her husband goes bankrupt and flees to the Continent leaving her on her own with his blessing to do the best she can and forget him. The second time, she makes a match that leads her to Virginia with a kind and good man who introduces her to his mother. After two children, Moll learns that her mother-in-law is actually her biological mother, which means her husband is her half-brother. She dissolves their marriage and travels back to England, leaving her two children behind, and goes to live in Bath to seek a new husband.
Again she returns to her con skills and develops a relationship with a man in Bath whose wife is elsewhere confined due to insanity. Their friendship is at first platonic but eventually develops into Moll becoming something of a 'kept woman' in Hammersmith, London. These two truly fall in love and have a son, but after a severe illness he repents, breaks off the arrangement and commits to his wife.
Moll, now 42, resorts to another beau, a banker, who is still married to an adulterous wife (a “whore”) but proposes to her after she entrusts her with her money. While waiting for the banker to divorce his wife Moll pretends to have a great fortune in order to attract another wealthy husband. She becomes involved with some Roman Catholics in Lancashire that try to convert her and she marries one of them, supposedly a rich man. She soon realises he expected to receive a great dowry which she denies having, which leads him to admit that he has cheated her into marriage, lying about having money, which he does not possess. He is in fact a ruined gentleman and discharges her from the marriage but still says she should inherit any money he might ever get (finally, she mentions his name). Although now pregnant again, Moll lets the banker believe she is available, hoping her husband returns. She gives birth and the midwife gives a three-partite scale of the costs of bearing a child, with one value level per social class.
Moll's boy is born when the banker's wife commits suicide following the divorce, and she leaves it in the hand of a countrywoman for the sum of £5 a year. Moll marries the banker now, but realises: “what an abominable creature am I! and how is this innocent gentleman going to be abused by me!” She also dislikes being married in an inn at night by the landlord who is also a minister, an hour after she agreed to marry at all. But he dies in financial ruin after five years, when Moll had two more children by him.
Truly desperate now, she begins a career of artful thievery, which, by employing her wits, beauty, charm, and feminity, as well as hard-heartedness and wickedness, brings her the financial security she always sought. Only here, she takes the name of Moll Flanders and is known by it. On the downside, she is even robbing a family in their burning house, then a lover she becomes a mistress to, and is later sent to Newgate Prison (like the book's author twenty years before).
Here, she is led to her repentance. At the same time, she reunites with her soul-mate, her "Lancashire husband", who is also jailed for his robberies (before and after they first met, he acknowledges). She is found guilty of felony, but not burglary, the second accusation; still, the sentence is death anyway. But she convinces a minister of her repentance, and with her Lancashire husband is sent to the Colonies to avoid hanging, and happily are together. (She even talks the captain into not being with the convicts sold upon arrival, but in the captain's quarters.) Once in the colonies, she learns her mother has left her a plantation and her own son (she had by her brother) is alive, as is her brother (husband).
She carefully introduces herself to her brother and their son, in disguise. With the help of a Quaker, the two found a farm with 50 servants in Maryland. She reveals herself now to her son in Virginia and he gives her her mothers’ inheritance, a farm he will now be her steward for, providing £100 a year for her. In turn, she makes him her heir and gives him a (stolen) golden watch.
At last, her life of conniving and desperation seems to be over. She tells her (Lancashire) husband when her (brother) husband is dead, the entire story, and he is “perfectly easy on that account”. “For, said he, it was no fault of yours, nor of his; it was a mistake impossible to be prevented”. Aged 69 (in 1683), they return to England to live “in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived”.
Moll Flanders often causes the reader to question if doing something immoral out of necessity is really immoral at all; still, the reader should not underestimate the twist that her wicked deeds are told in a way to have compassion with her even when she intentionally harms and takes advantage of the kindest people.
Defoe himself was a noted Puritan. His views are unambiguous, in that he believes and writes for hard work, devotion, and the work of providence as grace. There is some debate, however, as to whether Defoe intended Moll as an entirely sympathetic character. The novel, devoting many pages to crime and sin and very few to repentance or even remorse, leads the reader to question Moll's desire for forgiveness. She is therefore an ambivalent character. Some have even speculated that Defoe intended the book partially as a titillating moneymaker. These arguments often allude to Defoe's preface, in which he mentions "lewd ideas" and "immodest terms" that could lead the audience to read the work for scandalous entertainment instead of moral value.
The novel combines Defoe's interests in conversion narratives with his experience and interest in crime. Moll Flanders was a popular novel, and Defoe's reputation was aided by it. He had earlier written about criminals for various journals, and Moll Flanders increased his cachet as a writer of criminal lives. Soon after the publication of Moll Flanders, he wrote two different lives, of Jack Sheppard, the Cockney housebreaker, in 1724, and a novella length life of Jonathan Wild in 1725. Also in 1724, Defoe returned to the subject of fallen women with an even more salacious Roxana. The life of Moll Cutpurse, who is mentioned in the book, undoubtedly inspired Defoe although she is quite a different character to Moll Flanders.
From the point of view of historians, Moll Flanders is valuable for its information on the life, punishment, and habits of the criminal world. In addition to being one of the few detailed descriptions of life in The Mint, it is also one of the best narratives of life in Newgate prison, the punishments of prostitution (as well as a common prostitute's tale), and the way that America was viewed in the early 18th century. The novel is itself a bit of pro-emigration propaganda, in that it portrays America as a place of peace, religious tolerance (so long as it is dissenting Protestant), and opportunity. In contrast to later depictions (e.g. Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village), Defoe's Puritan depiction is naive. Although Defoe is a biased witness, Moll Flanders has a high value for cultural history.
"…and let any one judge what must be the anguish of my mind, when I came to reflect that this was certainly no more or less than my own mother, and I had now had two children, and was big with another by my own brother, and lay with him still every night."
"I was now the most unhappy of all women in the world. Oh! had the story never been told me, all had been well; it had been no crime to have lain with my husband, since as to his being my relation I had known nothing of it."