Sexuality has always played a role in literature and art and is a common theme in three works of fiction from the eighteenth century, “Moll Flanders” by Daniel Defoe, “The Country Wife” by William Wycherley, and “A Harlot’s Progress” by William Hogarth, all of which are examples of artistic expression from the 18th century. Its absence in certain literary periods signifies avoidance on the part of writers who sought to avert controversy and social censure, while its presence in other literary periods has served both to establish social norms, in some cases, and to challenge them, in others. Yet some writers and artists in the eighteenth century have explored sexuality openly and explicitly without seeming to take a definitive stance about the morality of certain sexual behaviors, including extramarital sex and prostitution. Rather, the approach taken by these writers and artists seems to suggest that they believed it important simply to make a place for sexuality in the literature in such a thought-provoking, non-polemical manner that the reader would be compelled to consider the role that sexuality played in his or her own life. Such is the case in Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe, The Country Wife, by William Wycherley, and “A Harlot’s Progress,” by William Hogarth. In each of these pieces from the eighteenth century, the creators developed complex female characters whose behaviors constituted a threat to established social norms. Nonetheless, the authors appear to remain neutral with respect to their own personal values, given that they skillfully elicit the reader’s interest, empathy, and even identification, with these female characters.
In Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders the author creates a female character who is notable because of her life’s twists and turns. Moll starts her life in challenging circumstances, having been born to an imprisoned mother. It is almost as if her mother’s criminal behaviors rubbed off on Moll, as she begins her extensive criminal career relatively early in life. Conning men into marrying her and becoming a thief so skilled that she was legendary, Moll Flanders could have easily been an unlikeable character. These behaviors, coupled with her rather loose notions of sexual relationships and fidelity, might, under other authorial circumstances, have made her very unappealing. Nonetheless, there are many characteristics that make Moll endearing to the reader and which elicit the reader’s sympathy, even against one’s better judgment. Defoe develops Moll’s character in such a way that the reader cannot help but feel aligned with Moll, despite her indiscretions. By avoiding judging Moll Flanders or turning her experiences into fodder for a preachy morality tale, Defoe maintains a neutrality that allows the reader to arrive at his or her own judgments. In effect, Defoe invites the reader to admire Moll’s positive qualities: her ingenuity, her independent streak, and perhaps even the ways in which she challenges traditional gender roles and social expectations. Also, Defoe permits Moll to have a level of intimacy with the reader which allows her depth and her capacity for insight and growth to be exposed. Often, especially in literature preceding the period of the eighteenth century in which Moll Flanders was written, sexually or criminally deviant characters were as marginalized and as one-dimensional as their counterparts in the real world. Yet the narrative structure of Moll Flanders gives the reader a direct connection to Moll and all of her complexity. The reader can see and understand that Moll is not one-dimensional. Early on in her story, Moll acknowledges that her life was, as stated in one of the important quotes from “Moll Flanders” by Daniel Defoe “not only scandalous…but [also] tended to the swift Destruction both of Soul and Body” (7), but by the novel’s end, the reader sees how even destructive or deviant individuals can become productive, worthwhile members of this eighteenth century society. The reader can forgive Moll for her indiscretions because, in some way, he or she can identify with Moll; we all make bad choices, sometimes, and we all have the capacity for penance and redemption.
Wycherley’s The Country Wife is handled as skillfully by the author as Defoe’s Moll Flanders is, though the author utilizes a different approach to address themes of sexuality in the eighteenth century. Wycherley treats his subject and his characters with such comic skill that the reader is more likely to laugh than to finger-wag, even though their lack of respect for marital relationships might, under other circumstances, be completely appalling. Wycherley seemed to grasp, however, that comedy could be a far more effective and interesting way to talk about sex and sexuality than by offering up a fictionalized narrative based on Puritan values. In this work of fiction that addresses themes of sexuality in the eighteenth century, Wycherely allows his characters to be utterly outrageous, and his attention to exaggerated detail, such as the ironically apt names of the characters, serves to underscore just how absurd Horner and most of the characters are in their reckless sexual pursuits. Like Defoe, Wycherley avoids editorializing in his narrative, and the effect is similar; the reader is able to come to his or her own judgments and conclusions about whether the characters are likeable, respectable, and whether they should be censured in some way for their immoral behavior. Wycherley approached the subject in this way intentionally; the opening of the play says as much in one of the important quotes from “The Country Wife” by William Wycherley: “Therefore his play shan’t ask your leave to live./Well, let the vain rash fop, by huffing so,/Think to obtain the better terms of you” (193). Mr. Hart, whose character delivers the Prologue, goes on to say that the characters “often…anticipate your rage” (193), but he continues assertively by insisting that everyone deserves a place on the stage or on the page: “We patiently, you see,/ give up to you/Our poets, virgins,/ nay our matrons too” (193).
Hogarth’s engravings, especially “A Harlot’s Progress,” exhibit similar skill, though through a different kind of narrative medium. In this series of six etchings, Hogarth tells a story about a young woman who arrives in the city seeking work. As early as the first etching, the scene is set; the emotions on each character’s face reflect their respective opinions regarding the exchange that is transpiring between the young woman and the older one, who has a vaguely sly look about her. The second plate, having already accelerated to the young woman’s life as a prostitute, confirms her trajectory and her willingness to engage in illicit sexual acts. Yet Hogarth does not demean her or shame her in any way. In fact, the follies and shortcomings of the other characters are exposed even more than those of the woman. This plate is entertaining because while the young woman maintains her calm and her charm, the other characters in the image are disturbed and upset; they hardly know how to react to the scene that is unfolding. In this way, Hogarth exposes a complexity of thought and emotion that is typically absent in Puritan writing. He seems to suggest that sexual mores and intimate relationships are more complicated and profound than traditional gender, sex, and social roles in the 18th century allow. The remaining four plates in this series confirm that position. Although the young woman is carted off to prison and though she has died in the sixth plate, she is surrounded by people who mourn her. By no means is she a social outcast, though she has clearly violated certain social expectations with regards to sexuality.
By comparing these three works, it is possible to gain insight into the ways in which these authors and some of their contemporaries began to change the literary and artistic discourses with respect to the roles of sexuality in literature. By avoiding moralizing and editorializing, Defoe, Wycherley, and Hogarth allowed their characters to stand on their own, subject to the reader’s own interpretation and judgment. Their authorial attitudes marked a shift and a new approach with respect to the representation of sexuality in society, giving the subject the space and complexity that it merits.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to the eighteenth century include : Representations of Children in Eighteenth-Century Literature Using “Moll Flanders” and “The Castle of Otranto” • The Multiple Cultural Identities of Gender in The Narrative of Mary Jemison • Candide by Voltaire: In the Context of the Enlightenment • Essay on Narrative Strategy and the Construction of “Otherness” in Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Ware: Wordsworth, 1993.
Hogarth, William. “A Harlot’s Progress.” Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 19 Feb. 2007 http://www.ackland.org/art/exhibitions/reasonfantasy/harlot.htm
Wycherley, William. Love in a Wood; The Gentleman Dancing Master; The Country Wife; The Plain Dealer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.