The major recurrent theme in the novel is that of greed — a greed which leads Moll to prostitution, thievery, and moral disintegration. Moll sees people as commodities — her relationships with them as business transactions. Although she is in love with the eldest brother, she has few qualms about taking money from him. She then accepts a bribe from him to marry his brother Robin. She easily consigns her children to the care of their grandparents and considers herself lucky. "My two children were, indeed, taken happily off of my hands by my husband's father and mother, . . ." She chooses husbands on the basis of their affluence or social class. When the first one dies she muses, "I had preserved the elder brother's bonds to me to pay me £500, which he offered me for my consent to marry his brother; and this, with what I saved of the money he formerly gave me and about as much more by my husband, left me a widow with about £1200 in my pocket." She takes money for prostitution. She steals from children and from people in distress. And only when she is too old to do otherwise does she repent.
It appears that Defoe consciously manipulates the reader to view Moll as a covetous individual. The terms he uses in the novel are very often economic, with direct recordings of Moll's business and criminal transactions. In journalistic fashion, Defoe itemizes the booty of Moll's first criminal venture: " . . . I found there was a suit of childbed-linen in it, very good and almost new, the lace very fine; there was a silvery porringer of a pint, a small silver mug and six spoons, with some other linen, a good smock, and three silk handkerchiefs, and in the mug, in a paper, 18s.6d, in money."
In fact, at nearly any point in the book, the reader is able to approximate what is Moll's economic standing. Unfortunately, our knowledge of her inner life suffers. Kenneth Rexroth notes, "Moll Flanders has no interior life at all, and the material facts with which her character is constructed do not increase her individuality. They are chosen as facets of her typicality."
Defoe, in the Preface, insists that he is writing the book as a moral lesson to "give the history of a moral life repented...." But Moll seems to flourish in her life of crime and actually the lesson we learn is that to survive one must fight with the weapons one has. Defoe was writing in a new, capitalistically oriented England. To have played the genteel lady would have meant a life of poverty for Moll. This was a decision which the social environment of the day forced on many people; Moll Flanders can be considered a good example of the criminal of that time who is forced into a life of crime by social conditions which leave few other alternatives. We cannot, thus, consider them too harshly for they are protagonists in the constant battle for survival which society imposes on the poor.
An important theme of Moll Flanders is that vanity is the force that prevails over virtue. It is vanity that determines Moll's behavior in the first part of the book. Moll's vanity facilitates her seduction by the elder brother. It is also a strong motif which runs through Moll's five marriages and numerous lovers. It is a factor which precipitates her decision to steal rather than remain poor and exist only by the honest labor of her needle. In fact all her actions are in some way linked to her vanity.
The theme of repentance is a recurring one in Moll Flanders. She constantly entertains the desire to repent. Lacking true moral persuasion these repentances are, until the end, half-hearted and insincere. She lacks moral strength; her moral fiber is quickly overcome on several occasions by the slightest pressures or inducements. Her will at times seems to be completely enslaved.
Her first repentance comes when Robin asks her to marry him: "I was now in a dreadful condition indeed, and now I repented heartily my easiness with the eldest brother; not from any reflection of conscience, for I was a stranger to those things, but I could not think of being a whore to one brother and a wife to the other."
Actually, Moll's repentance seems more like regret for having underestimated her chances for a better arrangement.
It is evident as the book unfolds that Moll has not been "led astray." She has very shrewdly calculated the course of her life. Throughout the story Moll considers or reflects on the path her life is taking. The occasion of Robin's marriage proposal causes Moll to say to the elder brother, "Upon serious consideration, for indeed now I began to consider things very seriously, and never till now I resolved to tell him of it." Again Moll considers what to do when she realizes she is not as bad as the people living in the Mint. She says, "I was not wicked enough for such fellows as these yet. On the contrary, I began to consider here very seriously what I had to do; how things stood with me, and what course I ought to take."
When the gentleman at Bath rejects any further contact with Moll, she reports "I cast about innumerable ways for my future state of life, and began to consider very seriously what I should do, but nothing offered."
After her Lancashire husband leaves and Moll is back in London alone she says that "here being perfectly alone, I had leisure to sit down and reflect seriously upon the last seven months' ramble I had made, . . ." After she is delivered of another baby and receives a letter from her London bank clerk saying he wants to see her again Moll is "exceedingly surprised at the news, and began now seriously to reflect on my present circumstances, . . ." She appears to reproach herself just before she marries him: "Then it occurred to me, 'What an abominable creature am I! and how is this innocent gentleman going to be abused by me!' How little does he think, that having divorced a whore, he is throwing himself into the arms of another!"
Nevertheless, she marries him and after his death begins her criminal career. As can be noted, many of her partial repentances dissipate into further scheming. Ironically Moll's energies are too consumed in maneuvering herself out of a bad situation to worry seriously about saving her soul.
When Moll is first committed to Newgate she makes the following statement: "Then I repented heartily of all my life past, but that repentance yielded me no satisfaction, no peace, no, not in the least, because, as I said to myself, it was repenting after the power of further sinning was taken away. I seemed not to mourn that I had committed such crimes, and for the fact, as it was an offense against God and my neighbour, but that I was to be punished for it. I was penitent, as I thought, not that I had sinned, but that I was to suffer and this took away all the comforts of my repentance in my own thoughts."
This passage clearly shows another shallow repentance by Moll. She fears not for her spiritual state but for her physical being.
Even during her stay in Newgate, Moll does not appear to really repent until quite some time after her talk with the pastor. And perhaps even then Moll is really worried about being hanged. The very fact that she insists on securing her inheritance shows how the possession of earthly goods has much deeper meaning for Moll than does the acquisition of spiritual well-being. In fact, we see a meaningful contrast between Moll's character and that of the governess, a former crook who seemingly has truly repented.
Note that the tears Moll weeps from time to time are merely an emotional release rather than a sign of true repentance, for even after the shedding her heart quickly hardens against her victims and she continues their victimization. This is shown, for example, when she steals the bundle from the burning house. Whatever regret Moll has is weak indeed: "with all my sense of its being cruel and inhuman, I could never find in my heart to make any restitution."
The question as to whether Moll ever really becomes a hardened criminal is an interesting one. We have seen that, motivated by greed, she has been able to commit the crassest of criminal acts. But Defoe still reveals to us sentimental aspects of Moll's personality that we cannot ignore. To say that she is a thief with a soul is to credit her with more depth than Defoe really shows us. We never really see Moll's inner life that completely. Yet it is evident that Defoe meant us to sympathize with Moll; and we are able to sympathize with her because he portrays her as a very likeable woman, who, despite her thieving and prostitution, is well-liked by her contemporaries, and seems to like them as well.
Defoe uses irony ingeniously in the passages telling us of Moll's thoughts during her various crimes. He often portrays her as moralistic; for example, when she steals the necklace from the child in Aldersgate Street, she feels she is actually doing the child a favor: "The thought of this booty put out all the thoughts of the first, and the reflections I had made wore quickly off; poverty, as I have said, hardened my heart, and my own necessities made me regardless of anything. The last affair left no great concern upon me, for as I did the poor child no harm, I only said to myself, I had given the parents a reproof for their negligence in leaving the poor little lamb to come home by itself, and it would teach them to take more care of it another time." Defoe didn't want us to condone the action and condemn the parents. Through ironic humor he gives us insight into Moll's attempts to rationalize her felonies.
Frequently Moll feels remorse — but it is a hollow remorse, for it neither leads her to curtail the particular crime she is bemoaning, nor does it prompt her to offer restitution. This is shown in her robbery of a woman whose house is on fire: "This was the greatest and the worst prize that ever I was concerned in; for indeed, though, as I have said above, I was hardened now beyond the power of all reflection in other cases, yet it really touched me to the very soul when I looked into this treasure, to think of the poor disconsolate gentlewoman who had lost so much by the fire. . . ."
Moll is shown as most compassionate in her relationships with her various lovers and husbands. She seems to truly love the elder brother. And when she marries his brother Robin, poor Robin never learns of the affair. Her second spouse is a rake, but she treats him well and helps him escape from his creditors. She nurses her men when they are sick and loves them when they are well. Her relationship with Jemmy seems to be full of love and compassion. Moll is in Newgate, under sentence of death, but when she learns Jemmy is there too her remorse and sense of guilt are genuine. "I was overwhelmed with grief for him; my own case gave me no disturbance compared to this, and I loaded myself with reproaches on his account." Moll is an ambivalent character. She is a criminal — but a sympathetic one. Her life of crime is constantly colored by her good humor, compassion and sense of loyalty.