Analyse the representation and critique of class relations in early modern writing

Sociologists suggest that society has a stratification system; individuals are instantly placed into a social stratum from birth, based on their family’s heritage and assets. Marxists developed the social class theory which mainly categorizes society, into two bands. The higher-class individuals in society are called the Bourgeoisie and they are a smaller group with an elevated socioeconomic status. The lower classes are called the Proletariats and they are a large work force that are employed by the Bourgeoisie (as they have the means for production). The Proletariats are an exploited work force by the Bourgeoisie but ironically both necessitate each other, hence why the Proletariats never revolt. This is called a false class-consciousness as the Proletariats will never grow or advance in a capitalist society. Marxists suggest that “poverty is an inherent and inevitable consequence to capitalism” (Haralambos & Holborn, p160, 1995). This means that the stratification in society generates and reinforces poverty, proving the individual has no control in their situation. This essay will analyse the class relations in the early modernist novel Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe. Furthermore, it will be discussed the extents to which Moll Flanders digressed, to try and improve her socioeconomic status and whether this was deemed as socially acceptable.

Throughout the novel Moll Flanders, there are two different class bands portrayed. In the beginning, Moll describes the circumstances around her birth. Her mother was convicted of petty theft and because she was pregnant with Moll at that time she was offered a reprieve until she was born. Moll’s mother was then transported to the plantations in America to work as a slave. This meant Moll was an orphan. As a baby, she was passed from pillar to post – staying at a relation of her mothers, travelling with gypsies, and then left at a parish in Colchester. This demonstrates that Moll was categorized in society as a Proletariat as she had not inherited a family estate or assets. What Moll had inherited was her mother’s lineage, poverty and name. From the parish, a three-year-old Moll was placed with a nurse whom had a school whereby she looked after children for a small livelihood. It is here that an eight-year-old Moll decided that she did not want to be placed in service but that she wanted to be a ‘gentlewoman’. Moll describes a ‘gentlewoman’ as “to get my bread by my own work” (Rivero, p14, 2004). This ideology was instigated and reinforced by multiple visits from the Mayoress and her daughters, whom encouraged Moll’s ‘gentlewoman’ principality by passing her money and publicising her skills throughout the town. Word spread through the town and Moll was making her own money by doing work for them “such as, Linnen to Make, and laces to Mend, and Heads to Dress up” (Rivero, p15, 2004). Therefore, from an early age Moll was primary socialised to earn her own money by selling her skills as she had previously learnt through observing the nurse. Furthermore, the Mayoress and her daughters would have been role models for Moll and this is where she draws grander aspirations. Therefore, for Moll to be placed into service at this point, would have merely dissipated her social standing and this was the opposite of her ambitions as she wanted to improve her socioeconomic status. This is a typical Proletariat existence as Marxists describe that “The proletariat is that class in society which lives entirely from the sale of its labour and does not draw profit from any kind of capital; whose weal and woe, whose life and death, whose sole existence depends on the demand for labour – hence, on the changing state of business, on the vagaries of unbridled competition” (Blunden, 2005). Moll was paying for her own upkeep which included food, clothes and lodgings and she also managed to store some money away. Moll was becoming successful and popular through the selling of her skills, that she was asked to stay at a wealthy lady’s house for a week when she was around the age of fourteen. This changed Moll’s perspective of a ‘gentlewoman’ as she had had “a taste of genteel living…I had quite other Notions of a Gentlewoman now, than I had before” (Rivero, p16, 2004). This proves that during Moll’s secondary socialisation she was living a life of a Bourgeoisie and therefore she could not be relegated back to a Proletariat. This is a major transition in Moll’s ideology as she has been socialised into wanting something better for herself. She had even witnessed the ladies’ daughters married off into wealth and status, something she would try to do herself as she got older. All these observations during this crucial socialisation period would have contributed to her character later in life. When the nurse dies, Moll is left penniless and homeless and many ladies of the town are wanting Moll’s services. She ends up with a family where she becomes a servant but she is treated like one of the family’s daughters. They provide her with a prestigious education that involved music and French. As Moll describes “I not only had the Reputation of living in a very good Family, and a Family Noted and Respected everywhere…but I had the Character too of a very sober, modest and vertuous young Woman” (Rivero, p18, 2004). This reinforces the notion that Moll was enjoying her Bourgeoisie existence, also supported by the fact that she irrefutably refused to be placed into service. Moreover, her perception of a ‘gentlewoman’ had considerably changed since she observed the Bourgeoisie life.

The next part in Moll’s transition was that she realises that marrying into money will improve her socioeconomic status in a route to become a Bourgeoisie. This is evident when the eldest son in her mistress’ home lures her into a sexually relationship where she believes he will eventually marry her. He pays her five guineas after each encounter. In contemporary society, this is deemed as prostitution as the eldest son is paying for her services, but she does not realise this as she is young and naïve and only has bettering her socioeconomic status in mind. One of the sister explains “AND IF A YOUNG WOMAN HAS BEAUTY, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty and all to an extream, yet if she has not money, she’s no body” (Rivero, p20, 2004). This is evident as all Moll is fixated on is the money (due to her being socialised in this way) as she knows she does not have all the above characteristics. When her husband dies, Moll goes in search of the next husband whom can provide her with the socioeconomic status she desires. She publicises the fact that she is a fortunes widow which will lure in more suitors to provide for her. Here she marries a draper where she believes she can at least live as a ‘gentlewoman’ again but disaster strikes as her husband eventually goes bankrupt and leaves her on her own. Moll decides to leave the area as the bankruptcy would impede her social status and leave her ruined and unable to remarry. From this point, there are many more liaison’s and marriages with men which end like the following: her realising she has married her brother, they become bankrupt, they die or they go their separate ways because they lied about their financial status’. All the circumstances surrounding each relationship has ended with a potential public scandal and each time Moll has left the chaos behind and moved on to a different area. The reason being is that society would have out-casted her and she would have been unable to marry again as she would have a poor reputation, no money and no status. The only liaison that Moll revelled in was with a wealthy man but he was married and his wife was declared insane. She started an affair and so she became his mistress. He bought her clothes and gifts therefore experiencing the high-status life again. However, disaster struck again for Moll as the gentleman ended the relationship after he became gravely ill yet survived whilst having religious experience. Moll’s money and social status is depleted again. However, when she discovers she is pregnant is when her life deteriorates (before this point, she was fluctuating between the two social bands with no consistency). Moll encounters a particular midwife whom gives a tripartite scale for dealing with births and the aftermath. The three different price scales were dependent on social class and the price double each time. This is a prime example of class relations in early modern writing as this is significant evidence of the class divide.

The next part in Moll’s transition is that she realises she will never ascertain a high social standing as she is becoming older and therefore less attractive, so it is more doubtful that she will marry into wealth. Therefore, Moll’s need for money is heightened as she realizes she must take control herself and not rely on a spouse. She then decides that a life of theft provides her with money and goods for basic survival. Moll’s friend the midwife encourages her to steal bundles that can either be pawned for money or used. Moll gradually increases the risk each time as she is never caught and her name ‘Moll Flanders’ becomes popular in the criminal world. She even dresses as a man and has sexual relations with one to disguise herself while she is committing such thefts. Similarly, in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Portia dresses as a man to disguise herself as a doctor and Nerissa dresses as a man to disguise herself as a law clerk. Ironically Moll disguises herself as a man to commit multiple crimes and Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men to get Antonio acquitted in a law court. Both prove successful methods. It appears that in early modern writing, women dressing up as men was a popular theme demonstrating that women needed to do this to be taken seriously, therefore proving that women were always the subordinate gender. However, when Moll and Jemy are on the ship heading for the plantations in America, she uses her money to bribe her way into a better social standing. As they were criminals they were treated as such but when Moll flaunted her money she and Jemy were moved into better accommodation and even dined at the Captain’s table. Moll took control of their situation proving that her gender was the leader in this relationship.

Socioeconomic factors contribute to Moll’s placement in the stratification system. Both factors show a positive correlation with each other demonstrating that both are needed to necessitate the other. There are many Ideological state apparatus’ in society that underpin the inequality between Bourgeoisies and Proletariats. These are institutions comparable to religion, education, and legal system and this is evident in the novel Moll Flanders. Marxists suggested that each band of social class have shared economic and political values and so they would never amalgamate in society. For Moll to progress higher through the class system she would have needed a heavy injection of money and she realises this through her secondary socialisation. From this point on money was her only fixation and whether she achieved this through work, marriage, prostitution, or theft she was determined to better her social standing. This was evident when she used the money she had saved from stealing to ascertain societal privileges on the ship to America. Moll was “a very serious businesswoman” (Elliot, p68, (1970) and even though her actions and methods were socially unacceptable she never labelled them herself which makes the reader unsympathetic to her. As a reader, you can only admire her passion for wanting the best out of life but her methods were not socially acceptable then and now. Furthermore, the happy conclusion at the end of the novel only heightens the irritation in the reader as she should have been hung like her fellow criminals. Even though this was set in the 17th century this is highly relatable to contemporary society as the struggles within the class system are still evident. Moll did undertake a prestigious education which was rare for people in her class band. She should have used her education to better herself and work for her own money, as this was proving successful for her in the beginning of the novel. Her economic status would have gradually improved which would have gradually improved her social status thus fulfilling her aspirations. This proves that whatever social status you are born into becomes the responsibility of that individual if they want to change it through socially acceptable methods. Whether Daniel Defoe was ironically judging Moll Flanders or the constraints of society it can never be proven but it can be argued that either way it gives us some insight into class relations of that time.


Blunden, A (2005). The Principles of Communism. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 2nd January 2017]

Defoe, D (1993). Moll Flanders. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited.

Elliot, R. (ed.) (1970). Twentieth Century Interpretations of Moll Flanders. America: Prentice-Hall.

Haralambos, M & Holborn, M (1995). Sociology Themes and Perspective. 4th ed. London: Collins Educational.

Rivero, A. (ed.) (2004). Moll Flanders: A Norton Critical Edition. America: W. W. Norton & Company.

Shakespeare, W (2000). The Merchant of Venice. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited.

Simonton, D (1998). A History of European Women’s Work: 1700 to the Present. London & New York: Routledge.


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