Almost all critical analysis of Daniel Defoe's novel Moll Flanders focuses on the question of whether the novel should be read realistically or ironically. Based on the overwhelming amount of critical study focusing on this bifurcation of viewpoints, it seems that choosing one of these interpretations is crucial in forming a critical appreciation of the novel. There does exist, however, a small minority of critics who have come to the conclusion that both readings are equally valid, with the caveat that one interpretation was intentional on the part of Defoe while the other was completely unintentional. Uncovering the conscious intent of an author (subconscious intent is well beyond the scope of this paper) may be an exercise in futility unless the author has explicitly written down his aim, but discovering Daniel Defoe's objective in writing Moll Flanders seems not only possible, but pivotal in obtaining a full critical understanding of the novel.
A profound critical analysis of Moll Flanders cannot help but be influenced by the realization that while Defoe thought he was writing a realistic interpretation of his socio-economic and moral theories in novel form, he was in fact unintentionally creating an ironic indictment of the immorality of capitalism as it pertained to middle class women pursuing upward mobility in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The author's choice for the structure of Moll Flanders and his prefatory comments in it are explicit rejections by Defoe of any intention toward reading the novel as being anything but completely realistic. As a new form of literature at the time Defoe wrote Moll Flanders, the novel was subject to suspicion by contemporary readers who felt that there was no moral to be gained from made-up stories. "Right at the very inception of the novel, then, there was demand for narrative form dealing with real material.
Of course, this demand also led Defoe, and especially later writers, to authenticate their novels by developing narrative techniques which would present this material realistically" (Konigsberg, 18-19). Although Defoe seems to allow himself breathing room in the preface for the reading to be open to interpretation when he writes "the reader [may] pass his own opinion upon the ensuing sheets and take it just as he please" (v) he then goes on in detail to convince the reader that what is to follow is a true story from which a moral not only can, but indeed must be gained.
"Upon this foundation this book is recommended to the reader, as a work from every part of which something may be learnt and some just and religious inference drawn" (vii). It is quite obvious that Defoe was intending to write a book which was not only entertaining, but which also gave an object lesson in how to live life in the manner which he saw as virtuous.
With such single-minded devotion to purpose, it's highly unlikely that he would intend for the novel to become confusing by writing one thing while intentionally meaning another. The entire point of the preface is to set up the realism of the story and deflect the natural suspicion that his contemporary readers would have toward fiction.
As Konigsberg makes clear, "There is no irony here. The preface is both a defense of his work and a job of advertising" (20). Defoe is advertising that this work should only be read realistically and as morally instructive. While this alone doesn't exclude the possibility that Defoe was working in an ironic mode, when combined with a deliberate search for conscious intent, the result can only be that Defoe did not desire for his novel to be read as anything other than as what was concretely written down.
Moll Flanders' many outlooks on life completely conform to Daniel Defoe's outlooks, discounting the probability that she was created as an ironic commentator on the events which occur to her, and furthermore Defoe was well acquainted with consciously writing irony and it appears that he was...
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