The woman’s condition in Eighteenth-century England. A comparative study of Moll Flanders and Roxana by D. Defoe
The woman’s condition in Eighteenth-century England.
A comparative study of Moll Flanders
and Roxana by D. Defoe
My dissertation deals with the woman’s condition in Eighteenth-century England and
a comparative study of Defoe’s two novels: Moll Flanders and Roxana.
The majority of eighteenth-century English women live in a traditional patriarchal
society, although many men respect women and treat them considerately in personal
relationships. Many women acquire education and satisfying lives but their happiness
often depends on the importance that husbands give to their wishes and judgment.
Women’s comfort, fulfillment and self-respect depend on the good will of the men
around them: their husbands and their relatives.
The role of the woman in society becomes relevant when she attains the adult status.
Female maturity, for women, mainly means being married, having children to grow up,
and running a household.
A woman who is married enjoys greater social status than a single one. But marriage
can also turn a woman into a person without power of decision, her husband’s
dependant with no real will of her own.
The majority of women in early modern society are married with husbands that
sustain them. However, not all these women find a marriage that provides them an
economic support. Many women can be deserted or widowed, and they may live lives
similar to those of single women.
Different elements influence the lives of adult women: in particular their social and
economic position affects the circumstances in which they live; it does not matter if
they are single, married or widowed.
Marriage is more or less forced on women, as their only way to a recognized position
in society. Legally, husband and wife are considered one person - in effect the man.
This means that a wife cannot make a contract or control any of the family property:
anything she has, inherits, or earns can be only spent or wasted as her husband chooses.
Early modern women can achieve the possibility of having romantic and sexual
attraction with their partners, but they are not always free to rank it first; equality of
birth and wealth are generally essential especially among the gentry and the middle
class. It is more convenient for women to make marriage work as a social and economic
partnership, even when there is not an emotional and sexual bond, because wives have
no legal power in the household economy, no lawful way out of an unsatisfactory union
and few career options instead of marriage.
Laboring women can hope at best for a working partnership with no romantic love.
Many women think that marriage is still the best survival strategy even when there is no
romance, but it is simply used as a means to survive.
The relationship between husbands and wives is linked to women’s work roles in the
family economy. Women who are actively involved in a direct partnership with their
counterparts enjoy more prestige and equality than other women in marriage. It can be
more equality between the sexes at the bottom of the social ladder, among those who
work day by day in order to survive.
At the time any adult woman without a husband is seen like an anomaly, people talk
about single women in terms of their failure to marry. Women who are not married or
whose husbands fail to support them, find living difficult.
At the upper levels of society, women usually live with relatives or friends, although
their position in the household cannot be easy. Unmarried gentlewomen usually live
under the control of fathers or male relatives.
At the lower social level, a single woman usually works at the service in someone
else’s household. At these levels, the alternatives are few; single women are involved in
an economy of makeshifts which can include prostitution. Although women’s wages are
lower and their employment opportunities more limited than those of men, they have
similar subsistence costs for rent and food.
A lot of the aspects that characterize the woman’s condition in Eighteenth-century
England can be found in two novels of Daniel Defoe: Moll Flanders and Roxana. These
novels have two women as protagonists; Moll and Roxana’s condition and possibilities
are different sometimes, but both of them have to face the difficulties of life.
In these novels Moll and Roxana narrate their stories, the decisions they have to take
as women, how they choose to face the adversities, and the means they decide to use in
order to sustain themselves. We can observe the possibilities that society offer them,
and how Moll and Roxana decide to behave; the values they choose to support, and
their conflicting relationships with their families, friends and more generally with other
There are some analogies between Moll Flanders and Roxana, their plots focus upon
economic necessity, and they demonstrate that women are made helpless by eighteenthcentury society. Like Moll, Roxana offers a narrative of a woman trying to negotiate
success in a world in which women’s action has a lot of limits.
Defoe gives us two women who are capable managers of money; Roxana builds a
large fortune entirely through her own efforts. Like Moll, Roxana finds herself
without money in the beginning and both of them find the way to save a good
Moll and Roxana are inevitably different in their adventures. As women they move
strictly within the defining institutions of female destiny, sex, marriage and the family.
They can only come to their sense of themselves and establish their particular identities
in relation to those institutions, by undermining them.
Throughout the narratives both of them practice a feminist individualism that subverts
the validity of marriage and the family. In their view of sexual experience there is a
particular coldness in both of them. The sex Moll and Roxana tell us about is analyzed
as a male institution, a set of oppressive practices, an attempt to exercise male power,
which they manage to control in order to survive and prosper.
Moll and Roxana begin their careers differently from a female norm, their initial and
disastrous sexual and marital experiences allow them to shift sex and marriage from a
set of women’s desires to a natural process male society has institutionalized for its own
power and pleasure.
The respectably Roxana begins her adult life as a virtuous married woman, but she is
helpless to prevent the financial ruin of her husband, and when he runs away and
abandons his family, Roxana is left with five small children to support, but as a woman
she has no means to do so. Their father, his family, and society leave them on her hands.
All she can do is sell her possessions one by one and beg her husband’s relatives, who
consider her a parasite, for help. Roxana is forced to these degrading expedients only
because she is a woman.
Only after Roxana’s children are gone, the kind landlord comes to help her. As a
respectable lady, she is naturally horrified at the idea of prostituting herself to him “for
Bread”. But she has no other means of support. Since a woman’s only source of support
is a man, a woman like Roxana, who is not able to marry, can only defy the law of
chastity and become someone’s mistress because it is better to become a rich man’s
mistress than to starve.
Once Roxana is reduced to widowhood and poverty she takes charge of her destiny
by dispensing sexual favors and she becomes the mistress first to a merchant, then to a
prince, and finally to a king. Her assets are her physical beauty and her sexual attraction,
which never fail her; with these means she makes an immense fortune.
Moll, too, repeatedly finds herself in a position where she has to choose between
morality and survival and she chooses the second: she can starve as the deserted wife of
the linen draper who has lost her fortune, or she can marry another man bigamously; she
can starve as widow of the ruined banker or she can steal. Moll and Roxana are passive
victims because there is a conception of love that reduces women to passive creatures.
These two women both reject chastity, but Moll and Roxana have a different opinion
about marriage: Moll truly loves the eldest brother and after the pain she feels when he
convinced her to marry his brother and left her, Moll starts to think that marriage is the
only means she has to escape from starvation and poverty; so she begins to look for rich
men who can support her through marriage and without any feeling of affection for
them. After the failure of some affairs that left her without money to survive, she starts
to save money on her own.
On the contrary, Roxana, after her ruinous first marriage, refuses this legal bond and
prefer to have profitable affairs as a mistress. The rejection of chastity allows Roxana to
survive and increases her comfort and even her self-respect. She has the conviction that
wives are treated with indifference, while mistresses with a strong passion, as she said
also to the Dutch Merchant when he tries to coerce her into marriage by making her
pregnant. Roxana is so opposed to marriage because she thinks it places women in a
condition of economic dependence.
As a mistress, Roxana is free to direct her life as she wants. She can enjoy ego
gratification from professional success, while it is not available to a woman in
respectable domestic life. She wants public acclaim and wealth, and prostitution
happens to be the only field in which she can use her talents to pursue her aims.
In the same way, Moll Flanders, driven by necessity to be a thief, soon begins to be
proud of her professional skill and success. It highlights the valid point that only in
crime a woman can exercise the skill, cleverness, and invention which would use a man
in honest trade. As a thief, she can make full use of her superior capacities by escaping
the respectable woman’s dependence on others.
Moll’s career involves activities regarded as sinful and criminal under the legal
system; her crimes are mostly those involving property. So theft and fraud are relatively
excusable. It is for this reason that for the readers the most disturbing episode in the
novel is that in which Moll confesses an impulse to commit physical harm to a small
child. This episode provides an intriguing link with Roxana. This story, like Moll’s,
ends with the reappearance of a lost child, in Roxana’s case her daughter Susan, whose
tenacity to learn the truth about her birth is very strong.
Like Moll, Roxana is smart, and they share the same saving force of assimilation in
the daily business of surviving and accumulating, even if Roxana has fewer incidents
and less variety in life because she is a courtesan and an upper-class matron. Indeed
Moll finds herself in a critic position a lot of times during her life, when she loses the
support of her protectors, she finds herself without money. In order to live a respectable
life she needs to find other rich men or an activity that secures her survival.
Differently from Moll, Roxana never finds herself without money after the end of her
first marriage, because she starts to save money from the beginning, and also because
she has a higher position in society. Being part of aristocracy, unlike Moll who belongs
to the middle class, she always has more money than Moll, thanks also to her affairs
with men like the prince and then the king from which she accumulates a big fortune.
Roxana, like Moll, derives a sense of security from wealth, and the more wealth one
accumulates, the better. And her recurring fear of being again at the point of starvation,
if she should lose her money, is another reason of her continuous accumulation of
Moll tries to support herself by marriage with rich men or by being the mistress of
men with a good wealth, and when she finds herself without a protector and without
enough money to survive, she decides to steal. Even if Moll built a good fortune, she
does not reach the high level of Roxana’s richness.
Thanks to her upper position in society, Roxana, unlike Moll, makes money through
investments and never actually loses money in the course of her life. She starts by
inheriting a fortune after the death of her landlord and from this point she begins her
investments that will bring her a great wealth.
One of the biggest differences between Moll and Roxana is the ending of their
stories. Moll ends her story repentant, with a good income, married to a man she loves.
Roxana has a different ending: she experiences an upsetting fall in financial status
very early on in the story, and as Spielman suggests “she learns early what Moll learns
later: to invest her money and to keep it under her control, building it over time into an
At the end of her criminal career, when she is imprisoned in Newgate, Moll repents
for all the bad actions she did during her life and she decides to buy her freedom and go
to live with her Lancashire husband, whom she really loves. In a way she chooses her
happiness, she has a good fortune, a husband who loves her and she fixes the
relationship with her son. However, it seems that Moll does not pay enough for her bad
actions, her repentance is real but it seems to be accompanied by a good dose of luck
that allows her to have her happy ending as a gentlewoman, as she dreamed when she
was a child. This luck seems to be a reward for all the efforts she did in her life.
On the contrary, Roxana has not this happy ending. Even if she tells us at the end of
the book that she is victim of some “Calamities”, she ends her story married to a rich
man and with an immense fortune for herself, but she is unhappy because of her
psychological condition. She feels the pressures of guilt for the death of her daughter
Susan, the fear that someone sooner or later can discover her identity and destroy her
life. The obligation to conceal and the desire to confess oppress her mind and prevent
her from finding the peace and happiness that Moll was able to reach in the end.
Moreover, Roxana tells us different times that her various attempts of repentance are
not real, they seem to be only brought by fear, and it can be another reason of her
Moll tells us that at the age of seventy she has reached the happiness she has looked
for during all her life, while the end of Roxana’s tale is different. At the end of
Roxana’s story we do not know if her psychological status can change in the future or if
she is destined to remain in this condition of unhappiness until her death.