The essay aims to examine the role of Moll’s name and clothing as disguises in Moll Flanders. Disguises appear to be a central theme in Daniel Defoe’s novel, “Moll Flanders” on two levels. First, we have a physical disguise that Moll finds useful as a way of disguising her identity. In addition, Defoe tries to use disguise as a way of masking Moll’s criminal record to appear like a moral act. In eighteenth-century England, clothing was a disguise to enable people to masquerade as the opposite sex. The essay shall also attempt to explore the physical disguise employed by Moll to disguise her identity while hunting for a husband, and more so with regard to the thievery episodes. It is important to note that physical disguise ushers in the transgression spirit. In the eighteenth century, England was characterized by a rigidly hierarchical society whereby clothes signified one’s gender and class. Because clothes make an individual, as such, Moll makes use of the socially accepted dressing code to disguise her identity. A perfect example is when Moll decides to cross-dress so that he is disguised as a man. By manipulating clothes so that she can hide her identity, Moll is also transgressing gender and class boundaries as well.
Moll’s name is quite ambiguous in the novel, and this is indicative of her turbulent life. The decision to hide Moll’s true identity is an attempt to structure the novel as a rogue biography. Moll does not wish to reveal her real name for she is fearful that doing so would end up incriminating her. She argues that her true name is in Registers and in the Records and considering that her family has been incriminated in criminal activities in the past, she opts to remain anonymous. As such, she has no intention of being associated with any of her family members, although this could in part be due to her own self-centeredness. She only provides the names of her two husbands, Jem and Robin, as well as that of her son, Humphrey. This is a clear indication of Moll’s early feminism. Moll also changes her name spontaneously, and this is a sign of her quick wit and independence, qualities that allows her to commit numerous crimes and go undetected. We also need to note that at the time when the novel was set, name-changing was quite popular in England. This was the period of the Fire of London, the Great Plague, the Restoration, as well as the English Civil War. Names used to be far more flexible, differed in spelling, and official recording of names was very rare.
Although Moll Flanders was published in 1722, the intention was to have it as an ‘old’ text, and there are even allegations that the novel was actually written in 1683. With regard to the vague sense of identity that characterizes the novel, this could have contributed to its archaic values. The criminal community gives her the nickname ‘Moll Flanders”. However, it is significant to find something special about Moll Flanders’ name. It is possible to speak about the name of the “very good Flanders-Lace” (Defoe 200). The prisoners of Gateway give Moll her name, “Moll Flanders”: “These were they that gave me the name of Moll Flanders for it was no more of affinity with my real name or with any of the names I had ever gone by…except that once, as before I called myself Mrs. Flanders” (Defoe 179).
Moll calls herself “Mrs. Flanders” after her second husband. Why does she choose this name? Choosing this name may reflect her materialistic view of herself and how she perceives herself as a piece of clothing. In fact, Moll knows that fashionable clothing has great value and gives a person a position in society. She decides that calling herself the name of an expensive piece of clothing may give her the opportunity to be part of higher society, especially because she knows that “Flanders –lace” indicates wealth. Moreover, Moll also knows that Flanders lace is one of the “prohibited goods” in England and that traders have to smuggle it into the country. In Dress in Eighteenth-Century England, Buck states that “the prohibition of imported goods had the effect of making them fashionably desirable” and they are “of the highest value” (Buck 190–91). With this idea in mind, one can assume that Moll calls herself “Mrs. Flanders” to become more desirable and deceive people with her high status.
The novel assumes a largely proleptic narrative, and this allows the reader to think of Moll by a nickname that she only acquires when she is well past fifty years of age. Although Moll asserts that she is a penitent, this claim is undermined by her pride. Moll King happened to have been a famous female criminal in England at the time of writing the novel and she could have in fact inspired Defoe. Such a reference would therefore help contemporary readers to understand the connection between Moll Flanders and Moll King and its implication for Moll Flanders’s glamorous and dishonest career. For Moll Flanders, her name enables her to evade the law, a retort at being a thief, as well as a trademark of her many criminal activities. Because she does not know who her other is, we cannot expect Moll Flanders to be sure of her real name, let alone the circumstances surrounding it. Moll Flanders is, without doubt, one of the most erratic characters in eighteenth-century literature. There are many forms of identities attached to Moll Flanders, such as a wife, a whore, a transported felon, a thief, and a penitent. In addition, she also masquerades as a rich woman, beggar, and a man, while playing her thievery life. Putting on new costumes or clothes enables Moll to play the many roles that characterize her life. As such, there is a need to explore the role of clothes in Moll Flanders.
In the eighteenth century, masquerading was very popular in England. However, we need to note that Moll Flanders was set in the seventeenth century, although it is an eighteenth-century novel. However, the tactic used by Moll to masquerade as another individual was very common in England in the eighteenth century. Moll disguises herself in the crowds and on the streets, just like other masqueraders of the eighteenth century did. There are two ways through which people can present themselves to others. One way is through what people say, and the second way is through behavior and clothes. In both these two methods, the person ends up intentionally conveying misinformation through fighting and deceit. Moll’s strategy at disguise appears to match this description. For instance, Moll manages to guide social interaction by manipulating not only her appearance but also the information conveyed to others so that the audience gets to hear what she wants. As such, in both the thievery and husband-hunting episodes, Moll adorns different costumes and clothes, props and accessories in an attempt to reinforce the impression other people have for her. Her appearance and manner further conveys additional information. Besides keeping her warm, a lady’s usual costume has a key function of display that is, enabling other people to know her status. Apparently, Moll is aware of this and as such, her disguise seems to be an attempt to manipulate the display. She is fully aware of what a scarf tied around her neck or a watch in hand suggests. Moll is also aware that the use of certain terminology or expression emphasizes the speaker’s status. She uses the title, ‘Lady” in an attempt to emphasize her dominant position.
To become a gentlewoman is the main goal of Moll who tries to avoid the role that is determined by the social norms for her since childhood. Moll does not want to serve as the other young women of the same origin and belonging to the same class. That is why analyzing the situations in Moll’s life, it is possible to note that “by taking her stand, she has set herself against the social expectations of someone of her low birth” (Karl 89). Social expectations are also that factor that drives Moll Flanders to act by breaking all the norms. The only thing which is interesting for Moll is her possible wealth, and this wish stimulates her to survive and go directly to her aims, Karl asserts Her desire to rise, even at the expense of danger, anxiety, dread, flirtation with the hangman, is comparable to her “original sin”, her refusal to serve” (Karl 89).
Clothes help Moll to act as a gentlewoman, a widow, a beggar and even as a man. Dressing as a gentlewoman gives Moll a lot of benefits to blend in the society and steal without being noticed or suspected, she states “that on these Adventures [I]always went very well Dress’d, and I had very good Cloths on…as like a Lady as other Folks”and “(Defoe 177). Moll states that she dresses up as a man in order to stay anonymous and take advantage of situations. She dresses as a man in order to protect herself from being detected. Clothing give Moll the power of concealment according to Stadler, when Moll plays the role of “a gentlewoman wearing a ‘good’ dress and a gold watch or when she is disguised as a man, dress functions as a sign of power, as a false sartorial message of apparent integration within the social hierarchies” (Stadler 469). The overall aim of Moll’s performance is to conceal her truth by the way she dresses so that she passes out as her ideal self.
Clothing is always considered as an indicator of social status and ranks because they are well known to the public and easily recognized, as Maria Stadler states in her article “Defining the Female Body within Social Space: The Function of Clothes in Some Early Eighteenth-Century Novels “that “Over the centuries clothing has been a mark of the social rank of its wearer; it has also been a striking sign of irreversible social and historical transformation” (468). The clothes of the eighteenth century could be subdivided into groups according to social classes. The representatives of definite social classes had the opportunity to wear only that kind of clothes which was typical to accentuate their status. It was also the question of income because poor people were not able to buy linen or lace. In her article, Stadler also states that “cloth and clothing not only constitute visible, ‘countable’ signs of wealth, but the garments themselves, in a strictly stratified society, act as costumes that identify condition and status” (469). Thus, wearing this or that dress is a result of following traditions and of the public’s wealth.
Moll tends to describe how society perceives people depending on their clothing and appearance. She describes the way the people perceive and treat her when she wears fashionable clothes: “They entertain’d me not like what I was, but like what they thought I had been” (Defoe 119). Yet, that is not the case when she describes the people’s reactions and feelings when she is in the beggar’s disguise; “Everybody look’d at me… they were afraid I should come near them, least I should take something from them, or afraid to come near me, least they should get something from me” (Defoe 211).
Finally, Moll’s roles, names and ‘masks enable her to prevail over social barriers. One’s mode of dressing can help him/her to manipulate the public’s mind. Towards this end, Moll has succeeded in making use of this instrument to help her conceal her true intentions. As such, the adoption of necessary names and fashionable clothing enables Moll to paint a fake role in society. In her quest to become more successful and richer, Moll Flanders ends up losing herself in her mode of dressing. Clothing and change of name allow Moll to disguise herself as the character she would want to be identified with, and this also satisfies her personal need as well. Ever since she was a small girl, Moll has always been determined to become a “gentlewoman”. Even as an adult, this determination is still intact and she can only fulfill her dream effectively through disguise in her choice of name and clothes.