Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNumérosvol. XIII-n°3(Dé)peindre l’Autre (et le Soi) :...Defoe’s Mothers of Alterity : Mol...

(Dé)peindre l’Autre (et le Soi) : peinture et littérature

Defoe’s Mothers of Alterity : Moll Flanders and Roxana

Maternité et altérité chez Defoe : Moll Flanders et Roxana
Katerina Kitsi-Mitakou


Moll Flanders et Roxana, les deux héroïnes de Defoe, résultent du mélange de divers « Autres ». Cet article se propose d’explorer quelques-unes des voies par lesquelles ces deux héroïnes font l’expérience de l’altérité au point de l’incarner. On se concentrera principalement sur le concept du « soi », pensé comme une cellule engendrant des doubles, des paires jumelles mères-filles, engagées dans une lutte constante l’une contre l’autre. Plus précisément, je voudrais montrer que le « soi » / corps de la mère est comme une cellule carcérale pour l’Autre dans Moll Flanders, tandis que Roxana illustre l’urgence de créer un soi maternel qui devienne, selon les termes de Homi Bhabha, un troisième espace hybride permettant à la différence de co-exister. En ce sens, les mères créées par Defoe au début du XVIIIe siècle anticipent la thèse fondamentale de Bhabha sur l’altérité, puisqu’elles insistent sur la dimension interne de l’altérité et sur le fait que celle-ci est indispensable au soi. Dans le sillage de Bhabha et de la théorie féministe moderne – notamment des thèses de Luce Irigaray sur la tolérance placentaire – cet essai présentera le ventre de la mère comme un troisième espace dont procède l’altérité et au sein duquel les frontières entre le soi et l’autre sont si brouillées qu’il devient nécessaire de redéfinir les notions de subjectivité et d’altérité.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, David Blewett (ed.), Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1989, 37.
  • 2 Daniel Defoe, Roxana, David Blewett (ed.), Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1987, 35.
  • 3 Homi Bhabha, “The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha”, in Identity : Community, Culture (...)

1The autonomous individual is a dominant Enlightenment concept and the birth of subjectivity a central idea in Defoe’s narratives. His 18th-century self-governing heroines, however, are in interesting ways a mixture of diverse Others. If Moll Flanders is an incestuous, adulterous, sexually insatiable picara, thief, and also economically successful plantation owner, Roxana is likewise a complex concoction of conflicting identities: a lascivious, Amazonian, monstrous mother, French by origin, but also defined by her Oriental disguise, she becomes a free economic subject, and is dangerously identified with her plebian servant Amy. Moreover, while being, or perhaps because they are the “Off-spring of Debauchery and Vice1, as Moll confesses, and fully enmeshed in debauchery, wickedness and vice themselves, they are also profound educators, as they promise to offer profitable tales that both delight and instruct the reader2. Moral, racial, classed, or sexual otherness is fully exploited by Moll and Roxana in their struggle to survive and mark out their subjectivity. My aim here is to explore some of the ways in which these two heroines experience and embody alterity, focusing mainly on concepts of the self as a cell that generates doubles, pairs of identical mothers and daughters that are involved in constant battle with each other. More specifically, I would like to examine the mother’s self/body as a prison cell of the Other in Moll Flanders, and the urgency in Roxana to create a maternal self that becomes, what Homi Bhabha has termed, a hybrid, third space that allows for difference to co-exist. Speaking of difference in relation to culture, Bhabha contends that “cultures are only constituted in relation to that otherness internal to them, which makes them decentered structures3. What Defoe’s early 18th-century mothers teach their readers is in a sense a pre-echo of Bhabha’s basic thesis on alterity, as they also insist that otherness is internal and indispensable to the self. Inspired by Bhabha and borrowing from modern feminist theory – in particular, Luce Irigaray’s statements on placental tolerance of the other within – this essay will investigate the womb as an alternative/third space where otherness originates and where the boundaries between self and Other become so blurred that the notions of subjectivity and alterity call for a redefinition.

Social Mothers as Hostile Others

2Social mothering was in the early Enlightenment a variable notion, influenced by the political instability of the era, an era marked by the decline of absolute monarchy, the celebration of individualism and the gradual prioritization of the nuclear family over the state. Defoe’s heartless, Rabelaisian mothers, with their remarkable reproductive potential, endlessly involved in the process of generating, neglecting, using and abusing their progeny, are products of a time that had not yet invented maternity, as most influential thinkers of the time, like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, or Bernard Mandeville, seemed to agree that it was self-interest that set the world moving, while individuals were hedonistic machines in endless pursuit of satisfaction and joy. In this atomistic universe the notion of maternal instinct was clearly under dispute, the relationship between mother and child was structured upon power and dominion, and, of course, maternal devotion and self-denial were consequently reduced to absurdities.

  • 4 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Richard E. Flatham and David Johnston (ed.), New York : Norton, (...)
  • 5 Eva Keller, “Making Up for Losses : The Workings of Gender in William Harvey’s De Generatio (...)

3In the materialistic Hobbesian universe, where pleasure ignited action and pain hindered it, it was only reasonable that human behaviour aimed at self-preservation and personal benefit, which was obtained from or through others. Similarly, the mother-child relationship was founded upon power structures. Challenging the natural origin of paternal political right, as “it cannot be known who is the Father, unlesse it be declared by the Mother”, Hobbes maintains subversively in Leviathan (1651) that “the right of Dominion over the Child dependeth on her will”. And, he concludes, “seeing the Infant is first in the power of the Mother, so as she may either nourish, or expose it ; if she nourish it, it oweth its life to the Mother ; and is therefore obliged to obey her, rather than any other ; and by consequence the Dominion over it is hers4. While on the one hand such an interest in mother-right authorizes the independent subject to counter the patriarchal right, and consequently the right of any civil ruler, on the other hand, it establishes a bond between mother and child based on antagonism and sovereignty. Moreover, as Eve Keller convincingly argues, this originary “mother-right quickly gives way in Hobbes’s theory to a collection of radically autonomous individuals5. Thus, the mother’s apparent leading part is destined to oblivion.

4Such disempowering representations of mothering resonate in the prevalent political theories of the time and register conflicts between Self and Other. John Locke, political thinker and father of the English Enlightenment, had concluded late in the seventeenth century that the mind is a tabula rasa and that man is entirely a product of learning from experience, through the association of ideas. Faithful to such principles, Locke stated categorically in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) that there are no innate principles and that mothercare is a duty. “[N]one, I think,” writes Locke, “can have a fairer Pretence to be innate, than this ; Parents preserve and cherish your Children”. To those who assume that love for children is either an innate principle, or a Truth imprinted on all men’s minds, this is what Locke replies :

  • 6 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 1, Chap. III, P. H. Niddi (...)

First, That it is not a Principle, which influences all Men’s Actions […] [we] need [not] seek so far as Mingrelia or Peru, to find instances of such as neglect, abuse, nay and destroy their Children; or look on it only as the more than Brutality of some savage and barbarous Nations, when we remember, that it was a familiar, and uncondemned Practice amongst the Greeks and Romans, to expose, without pity or remorse, their innocent Infants. That it is an innate Truth, known to all Men, is also false. For, Parents preserve your Children, is so far from an innate Truth, that it is no Truth at all ; it being a command, and not a Proposition, and so not capable of Truth or Falshood. To make it capable of being assented to as Truth, it must be reduced to some such Proposition as this: It is the duty of the Parents to preserve their Children6.

  • 7 Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, F.B. Kaye (ed (...)
  • 8 Ibidem, 75.

5In the beginning of the eighteenth century, another important source, which worked as a stimulant not only to Defoe but to modern economic thought on the whole, was Bernard Mandeville’s moral poem, The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714). This Dutch émigré physician in England believed that individualism was what motivated human nature, and declared unscrupulously that, “in all Civil Societies Men are taught insensibly to be Hypocrites from their Cradle7. Mandeville was even blunter in proclaiming that : “All Mothers naturally love their children : but as this is a Passion, and all Passions center in Self-Love, so it may be subdued by any Superior Passion, to soothe that same Self-Love, which if nothing had interven’d, would have bid her fondle her Offspring8.

6Attuned to such prevailing discourses of social mothering, Moll Flanders and Roxana (for most part of the book, as Roxana is a more complex heroine than Moll, as we shall see), both empty of any form of feeling or sensitivity, and, of course not having the luxury to be caring mothers in a society that made this financially impossible for lower-class women, perceive their children as hostile Others that threaten to usurp their existence. As long as offspring contribute to their mother’s well-being, they can be loved in Defoe’s universe. But this is hardly ever the case. Children in Moll Flanders and Roxana, whether they be the products of illicit sexuality, or incestuous, illegal and, more rarely, legal marriage unions, are always competing with their mothers in a harshly aggressive and hostile world that threatens them with impoverishment and extinction.

  • 9 Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, ed. cit., 102.

7Yet, even if only middle or upper-class mothers could afford to be loving and caring, child mistreatment is not always the result of extreme necessity. Moll has no reservations about abandoning her children in search for independence and active engaging in society. Announcing that her first “two Children were indeed taken happily off [her] Hands9. Moll embarks on the career of a woman who disentangles herself from reproduction in order to enter the public sphere of production. Social maternity is nothing but a consumer product to be bought at a certain prize, while a good mother, Moll Flanders instructs us, is always a paid mother.

  • 10 D. Defoe, Moll Flanders, op. cit., 233.
  • 11 Ibidem, 234.

8In a characteristic instance of double narrative Moll fakes tenderness for the children that must be forsaken: “But it touched my Heart so forcibly to think of Parting entirely with the Child, and for ought I knew, of having it murther’d, or starv’d by Neglect and Ill-usage (which was so much the same) that I could not think of it without Horror10. Denying children the natural maternal care and affection is murdering them, she argues in a rather lengthy and moralizing speech, which is, however, ironically subverted a few lines below. Mother Midnight, her surrogate mother dedicated to the trade of relieving women of their unwanted burdens in the belly, and “harden’d in these things beyond all possibility11, presents her with an irrefutable counterargument :

  • 12 Ibid., 234-5.

[Mother Midnight] was harden’d in these things beyond all possibility of being touch’d with the Religious part, and the Scruples about the Murther, so she was equally impenetrable in that Part which related to Affection […] . Do you think there are not Women, who as it is their Trade, and they get Bread by it, value themselves upon their being as careful of Children as their own Mothers can be, and understand it rather better ? Yes, yes, Child, says she, fear it not, How were we Nurs’d ourselves ? Are you sure you was Nurs’d up by your own Mother ? And yet you look fat and fair, child, says the old Beldam, and with that she stroak’d me over the Face; never be concern’d Child, says she, going on in her drolling way; I have no Murtherers about me ; I employ the best, and the honestest Nurses that can be had, and have as few Children miscarry under their Hands as there would if they were all Nurs’d by Mothers; we want neither Care nor Skill12.

  • 13 Ibid, 227.
  • 14 Ibid, 230.
  • 15 Ibid, 231.

9Mother Midnight’s maternity care packages, offering pregnant women a safe and comfortable house to “lie in” and then helping them to dispose of the “unwelcome Burthen of a Child clandestinely gotten13, may at first appear to be “a wicked Trade14. Yet, Moll soon learns that her generously paid “Governess did her part as a Midwife with the greatest Art and Dexterity imaginable, and far beyond all that ever I had had any Experience of before”, that “her care of me in my Travail, and then after in my Lying-in, was such, that if she had been my own Mother it cou’d not have been better15. Moll Flanders, Lois A. Chaber contends, exposes the paradoxical position of mothers in the new capitalist economy, which renders childbirth and maternity the only form of labour that not only remains unpaid, but also encumbers labourers with the additional load of having to provide for the product of their labour (their offspring) or pay for their disposal. However, Mother Midnight, having ingeniously turned the generation of children into the generation of money by exploiting women’s labour and marketing their children, helps her clients avoid the economic handicap of childbirth and childrearing.

  • 16 D. Defoe, Roxana, op. cit., 52.
  • 17 Ibidem, 143.
  • 18 Ibid, 142.
  • 19 Ibid, 171.
  • 20 Ibid, 272.

10A thriving woman of pleasure and business, Roxana, like Moll, allows her heart to harden against her own flesh and blood, when it proves to be nothing but an impediment, as in the beginning of the novel she forces her five children into her relatives’ homes after her first husband abandons them16. Being a mother, she realizes, is incompatible with financial progress, as “[I]f I bred often,” she reasons, “it wou’d something impair me in the Great Article that supported my Interest, I mean, what [is] call’d Beauty17. Moreover, Roxana scandalously confesses that child mortality can be extremely convenient at times : “after the first Touches of Affection (which are usual, I believe to all Mothers) were over, [I was not] sorry the Child did not live, the necessary Difficulties attending it in our travelling, being consider’d,” she declares when one of her sons dies18. She very bluntly observes that “If the Whore has any Children, her Endeavour is to get rid of them, and not maintain them; and if she lives, she is certain to see them all hate her, and be asham’d of her19, and admits cold-bloodedly her lack of any feeling for her son with the Dutch merchant : “I was asham’d that he shou’d show that he [the Dutch Merchant] had more real Affection for the Child, tho’ he had never seen it in his Life, than I that bore it ; for indeed I did not love the Child, nor love to see it; […] being privately resolv’d that when it grew up, it should not be able to call me Mother20.

Gestational (M)Others

11If social mothering in the eighteenth century was, as we have seen, a battle of the Self against the Other, the dominant theories of generation at that time also focused on an antagonistic relationship between mother and offspring. Individuality entailed a persistent clash with the Other, which originated in one’s in-utero life ; this is reflected, I wish to argue, in the prevailing imagery of the belly as a prison in Moll Flanders, or children as the mother’s prison in Roxana. Women’s biological role in the process of generation conforms with their role as social mothers, as the early 18th century rhetoric of embryology makes it evident. The discovery of the ovum in 1827 set the foundations for twentieth-century scientific theories of a combined contribution of the mother’s ovum and the father’s sperm to the formation of a human embryo. In times antecedent to this, however, the hypotheses of embryogenesis as well as the exact part offered by the male and the female parent, were multiple and conflicting. Yet, what is interesting to observe is that even in their diversity all of these competing theories converge at the point of defining women’s contribution to conception as secondary, passive, weaker and less efficient than men’s, or even non-existent.

12Such tendencies can be detected in the popular treatises on midwifery, where the revival of classical texts dominated from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In Aristotle’s “one-seed” theory, as well as in the Hippocratic and Galenic “two-seed” versions of generation, for example, woman is reduced to the material space (the jar, the pot, the “gaster,” the oven) that accommodates, sustains, “cooks” the male seed, which is the active, creative force that gives form to the child. In a similar manner, the scientific discourses, which throughout these centuries refuted the Aristotelian-Galenic tradition, also conflated women with matter and men with the spark of life and celebrated the male as the primary progenitor.

  • 21 Quoted in Eve Keller, “Embryonic Individuals : The Rhetoric of Seventeenth-Century (...)

13The two most dominant theories of conception in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, epigenesis and preformation, based on Cartesian concepts of the human body as a machine, described the body of the mother as a productive mechanism, and the womb as a lifeless vessel, a dehumanized box severely dissevered from the maternal body, in certain cases even having no connection with the fetus and, therefore, replaceable. In the preformationist model of generation, human beings are always already there, formed beforehand, either in the egg, according to the ovist preformationist version, or in the sperm, according to the animalculist preformationist variation. Growth in this case is perceived as an increase in size of a creature whose limbs and organs have always been there (in the egg, or the sperm), only in miniature form. What is important to observe in this theory, which prevailed during the last decades of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth century, is that even when the female is considered as the sole originator of the miniature embryo, its role is determined to be absolutely passive ; what triggers creation is some unnamed, supernatural power, a male God implicitly, responsible for the creation of the universe. Futhermore, the mother is reduced to the material space that receives this male igniting force, without, however, being in any way connected to the fetus that grows inside her. The foetus in utero, as Dr George Garden writes in his survey of seventeenth-century embryology, “for some considerable time after conception has no connexion with the womb, that it sits wholly loose to it, and is perfectly a little round egg with the foetus in its midst, which sends forth its umbilical vessels by degrees, and at last lays hold on the uterus21. In Garden’s account, the relationship between mother and child is not one based on nurturing care, but on antagonism and competition ; paradoxically, the fetus usurps his own motherland like a subjugator.

  • 22 Ibidem, 330-331.

14In the epigenetic model, on the other hand, growth involves morphological changes also, rather than only changes in size ; there is a “sequential production and development of embryonic parts from an originally homogeneous substance”22. This theory was first proposed by William Harvey in his De Generatione Animalium in 1651, but it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that it found fruitful ground for reception. The reason for this being that Harvey’s embryo was a totally self-determining individual growing independently of any patrilineal (or matrilineal) source, and therefore, in perfect harmony with the age of revolutions during which individual freedom and inherent, spontaneous development were celebrated. Strangely enough, though, despite the fact that in Harvey’s theory the complete origin of the embryo was the egg, which was produced exclusively by the female (and thus his popularization of the adage “Ex ovo omnia”, “All beings come from eggs”), the egg’s ability to develop independently and irrespectively of the mother, rendered the female a mere place in which the male “multiplies” himself.

15Such depictions of mothers as receptive and passive containers that are in no sense related to or interdependent with the autonomous embryo incubating inside their womb are markedly evident in illustrations in midwifery manuals and the graphic encoding in scientific books. Seventeenth-century anatomical engravings of the free-floating, fully shaped embryos in vase-like uteruses, as well as the absence of the umbilical cord, exalt fetal autonomy and reduce the womb to a mere claustrophobic container. The womb, cut off from the female body, is a prison-like jar in which adult-like fetuses have been captivated and are desperately trying to break free. Nature and science promoted the image of mother as the necessary evil in the process of gestation.

16Moll’s narration begins as a tale of various and multiple layers of encasement, using images that evoke both the prison-like wombs in 18th century theories of generation and emboîtement, a variation of the ovist preformationist model that first appeared in the 17th century, according to which children are coated like nested Russian dolls in the ovaries of their mother :

  • 23 Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, op. cit., 44.

[…] my Mother was convicted of Felony for a certain petty theft […] The Circumstances are long to repeat, and I have heard them related in so many Ways, that I can scarce be certain which is the right Account. However it was, this they all agree in, that my Mother pleaded her Belly, and being found quick with Child, she was respited for about seven Months, in which time having brought me into the World, and being about again, she was call’d Down, as they term it, to her former Judgement, but obtain’d the Favour of being Transported to the Plantations, and left me about Half a Year old; and in bad hands you may be sure23.

  • 24 Ibidem, 134.

17Both her mother and Moll are involved in a twofold incarceration : her mother’s imprisonment in Newgate, coincides with her confinement, i.e. her pregnancy, while Moll’s in-utero life is life within prison (her mother’s womb) within prison (Newgate). What is also significant here is that Moll’s mother appropriates her pregnancy in order to escape imprisonment and death by pleading her belly, a common practice at the time. It is the actual “burden” in her belly (a term coined by Roxana, as we shall see), that saves her life, and the abandonment of her daughter that enables her to flee to the colonies, and begin a new life there as an autonomous and successful plantation owner. “[M]any a Newgate Bird becomes a great Man24, Moll’s mother explains to her, when mother and daughter come together again after years of separation. Their finding each other again transforms them into each other’s double at this point, as when Roxana marries her half-brother she becomes twice her mother’s daughter, who also becomes twice her daughter’s mother. As her mother/mother-in-law pulls her glove to show Moll her branded palm, a mark of her past incarceration and indentured service, little does she know that this Other, most essential token of imprisonment, which she had long believed eradicated, her own child, is right there in front of her.

  • 25 Homi Bhabha, « The Third Space », op. cit., 208.
  • 26 Ibidem, 208.

18For her part, Moll is from the start her mother’s double, a preformationist germ that contains the rudiments of all the parts of the future organism, which gradually develops to full size. Moll Flanders could be read as a fascinating recounting of the emboîtement theory, if one considers the fact that its main heroine, is in a way a facsimile copy of her mother, as she has already and from the start inherited her mother’s traits, character and destiny, which simply grow in size as her life unfolds. As a child disposed of in a hostile and competitive world, Moll struggles to gain self-sufficiency; like her mother, she forsakes her own children on her way to financial success, is actually imprisoned in Newgate, and is later on in her life also transported to the colonies, a place that proves to be in her case as well a site of infinite capabilities and endless profit. Evidently, Defoe’s text problematizes the notions of Otherness, rivalry and enmity, which, as we have seen, both social and gestational theories of his time promoted as clearly demarcated categories, and hints at the urgency of – in Bhabha’s words – “a politics which is based on unequal, uneven, multiple and potentially antagonistic, political identities25. Mother and daughter are both same and different, both feeding on and saved by each other in diverse and disputable manners; they are what Bhabha has termed : “multiple identities [that] actually articulate in challenging ways, either positively or negatively, either in progressive or regressive ways, often conflictually, sometimes even incommensurably – not some flowering of individual talents and capacities26.

  • 27 D. Defoe, Moll Flanders, op. cit., 358.
  • 28 Ibidem, 357.
  • 29 Ibid., 348-9.
  • 30 Ibid., 354, emphasis added.

19The novel complicates even more this idea of an unorthodox symbiosis of multiple and conflictual identities when Moll returns to Newgate prison as an adult. Newgate becomes the place where Moll’s literal birth experience conflates with her metaphorical birth, or rebirth, when for the first time, as she says, she begins to feel guilty of her previous acts, and to think, an act which she considers a real “Advance from Hell to Heaven27. And it is actually her abhorrence of the place “and of the way of living in it” that enables Moll’s perfect transformation, her becoming “another Body,” as she claims28. Moll develops a strange attachment to the place, which, she believes “had so long expected [her]”. Her prison cell is reminiscent of her mother’s suffering, and of her own enclosure in her matrix ; it is “the Place where my Mother suffered so deeply, where I was brought into the World, and from whence I expected no Redemption, but by an infamous Death29. This womb/tomb-like place both instigates the idea of Otherness (when the mother distinguishes herself from her child) and muddles the binary self/Other. In her confused syllogisms, self and Other are both same and different, as Moll realizes that it is her mixing with the Newgate wretches that makes her one of them, while she simultaneously admits that she had always been one of them : “the continual Conversing with such a Crew of Hell-Hounds as I was […] had the same operation upon me as upon other People30. Likewise, this abject prison site is both acknowledged as the most familiar of all places, her place of birth, while at the same time Moll’s “as if”-clause in the excerpt below is indicative of her desire to obliterate the place from her memory and forget the fact that it was her actual birthplace :

  • 31 Ibid., 354, emphasis added.

I degenerated into Stone I turn’d first Stupid and Senseless, then Brutish and thoughtless, and at last raving Mad as any of them were; and in short, I became as naturally pleas’d and easie with the Place, as if indeed I had been Born there31.

  • 32 Ibid., 355.
  • 33 Ibid., 355.

20Moll’s complete identification with the stones around her and her bewilderment culminate in her twisted, tortured even, declaration : “so thoro’ a Degeneracy had possess’d me, that I was no more the same thing that I had been, than if I had never been otherwise than what I was now32. Even if her distorted conditional is decoded to mean : “I am so possessed by degeneracy that I now no more resemble my former un-degenerate self than I would, if I had been degenerate from the start and had never been pure”, her effort to distinguish between her former un-degenerate self and her present, abject self is defied by her life story. She herself admits a few sentences above : “my Course of Life for forty Years had been a horrid Complication of Wickedness, Whoredom, Adultery, Incest, Lying, Theft, and in every Word, every thing but Murther and Treason had been my Practice from the Age of Eighteen, or thereabouts to Threescore33.

  • 34 Ibid., 377.

21Yet, even if the borders between self and Other become fluid inside wombs and prison cells, the distinction is still valid in the novel. Mothers and daughters cannot coexist harmoniously in the same world, but prosper only if their lives can run separate and parallel courses. Moll has to part from her mother after her birth, she has to part from her when they reunite in America and she recognizes her as her mother, and when she returns to America, her mother is already conveniently dead. In the comic ending of Moll Flanders, inside/outside categories remain intact, as Moll, along with her former love and husband Jemmy, skilfully escapes the hellish, claustrophobic interior of prison, and builds a new life with him in the paradisal, open exteriors of Virginia. As a picaresque heroine Moll is allowed the freedom to draw convenient and portable lines between Self and Other, or even to present the self as a foreign Other in a manner that suits her best : “I told him [Jemmy] I far’d the worse for being taken in the Prison for one Moll Flanders, who was a famous successful Thief, that all of them had heard of, but none of them had ever seen, but that as he knew well was none of my name34.

22In Roxana, however, the Self/Other relationship becomes even more complex. The central heroine is a strange mixture of French origin and English schooling, a prostitute driven by vanity and avarice, and a combination of multiple Others, without which she cannot survive : Roxana cannot make it without her plebeian servant Amy, who stands by her through all her ordeals, without her Turkish slave, who teaches her how to dress and dance in Oriental fashion, or without her Quaker friend, who helps her out of difficult situations during the last phase of her life, facts which render racial and classed Others slippery categories. Roxana’s most influential Other, however, is her daughter Susan, who is desperately seeking to reunite with the mother she was parted from as a child. It is Roxana as an “Othered” mother I would like to examine here, by focusing on her relationship with Susan ; Roxana’s final ruin, due to her failure to acknowledge Susan, highlights the importance of the joining of two corporeal unities and their sharing of the same material space. The novel anticipates, in a sense, the need for a third, hybrid space, which, in Bhabha’s viewpoint, accommodates alternative identities, and, I would add, reverberates Irigaray’s placental model of mothering. In feminist theory, this new perception of the maternal order complicates the subjective framework of pregnancy and allows for new forms of subjectivity that challenge stereotypical definitions of Alterity.

  • 35 Daniel Defoe, Roxana, op. cit., 203.
  • 36 John Richetti, “The Family, Sex and Marriage in Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana”, Studies (...)

23To a large extent Roxana is compliant with the early 18th century generational definitions of mothering. Pregnancy for her is experienced as a form of incarceration, as it is in Moll ; it is an unavoidable, compulsory state, which as a woman she has to endure : “I wou’d willingly have given ten Thousand Pounds of my Money, to have been rid of the Burthen I had in my Belly,” she confesses when pregnant with child by the Dutch merchant, “but it cou’d not be; so I was oblig’d to bear with that Part, and get rid of it by the ordinary Method of Patience, and a hard Travel35. Children and mothers are in this novel also highly competitive individuals who, in case of emergency, are most likely to feed on each other. Roxana on the verge of starvation confesses in a half-mocking, half-serious tone, “we had eaten up almost every thing, and little remain’d, unless, like one of the pitiful Women of Jerusalem, I should eat up my very Children themselves”. Unlike Moll, however, this heroine possesses, as John Richetti has argued, a “more coherent psychological structure,” and has a “more sophisticated sociological understanding36. Roxana’s sincerity allows for no farcical resolution of conflicts in a happy end, and exposes the paradox of maternal love in a more overt and honest manner.

24Unlike Moll again, Roxana feels the need to provide for her abandoned children when she reaches a state of prosperity and need no longer feel antagonistic to them. It pains her to know that two of her five children by her first husband, the Brewer, died and that the surviving three were misused and neglected by relatives. Roxana is disposed to endow these children with the financial means that will enhance their lives, especially when she ponders that her own daughter also will most probably end up with a burden in her belly : “I was too tender a Mother still”, Roxana admits,

  • 37 Daniel Defoe, Roxana, op. cit., 239.

notwithstanding what I had done, to let this poor Girl go about the World drudging, as it were, for Bread […] she might, perhaps, marry some poor Devil of a Footman, or a Coachman, or some such thing, and be undone that way; or, which was worse, be drawn in to lie with some of that course cursed Kind, and be with-Child, and be utterly ruin’d that way; and in the midst of all my Prosperity this gave me great Uneasiness37.

  • 38 Ibidem, 247-8.
  • 39 Ibid., 358.

25As long as caring for her children can be done from a distance, Roxana is both content and successful in helping them. The problem, though, is her daughter Susan, Roxana’s first born child and her double (“she was my own name38), who demands more than just material compensation of her mother. Susan, bearing her mother’s name, for “Roxana” is a mere generic name suggesting a courtesan, is obsessed with detecting her maternal origin and establishing kinship with her. Her persevering and indefatigable chase of her mother, her denial to accept Amy, Roxana’s maid, as a surrogate traps her mother into a metaphorical arrest. Hunted by Susan’s hounding, Roxana turns into a homeless, spaceless mother, constantly on the move, as no house, no neighborhood, no town, or country can shelter her and hide her from her own daughter. “I was safe no-where”, Roxana realizes in dismay, “I was continually perplex’d with this Hussy, and thought she haunted me like an Evil Spirit39.

26Although there are no literal, nightmarish jails in Roxana, internment acquires a more modern definition here : our prisons are our Others/our children, the Others/the children we always carry inside us, and are trying to suppress. Paradoxically, what makes Susan Roxana’s prison is not only her obsessive pursuit of her, but, more interestingly, the mother’s inability to express her love for her daughter, as there is no discourse available that will allow her to voice her desire and no space either that will accommodate them. And while, on the one hand, the novel develops into a claustrophobic narrative, as Roxana comes to this realization, on the other hand, Roxana and Susan’s cheek by jowl encounter allows her to experience her child not as a burden, but as an Other that is both her own flesh and blood, and a source of ultimate pleasure. She almost re-experiences an alternative version of Susan’s birth when they find themselves in the same room after years of separation ; and it is as if in her “something-shot-through-my-blood” image Susan were released from her womb for a second time, this time, however, bringing Roxana to the verge of ecstasy :

  • 40 Ibid., 323, emphasis added.

[I]t was a secret inconceivable Pleasure to me when I kiss’d her, to know that I kiss’d my own Child ; my own Flesh and Blood, born of my Body ; and who I had never kiss’d since I took the fatal Farewell of them all […] No Pen can describe, no Words can express, I say, the strange Impression which this thing made upon my Spirits ; I felt something shoot thro’ my Blood ; my Heart flutter’d; my Head flash’d, and was dizzy, and all within me, as I thought, turn’d about, and much ado I had, not to abandon myself to an Excess of Passion at the first Sight of her, much more when my Lips touch’d her Face ; I thought I must have taken her in my Arms, and kiss’d her again a thousand times, whether I wou’d or not40.

  • 41 Luce Irigaray, Je, tu, nous : Toward a Culture of Difference, tr. Alison Martin, New York : (...)
  • 42 Ibidem, 39.
  • 43 Ibid., 39.

27Roxana’s unfulfilled craving as expressed in the last sentence of the excerpt above hints at a new model of mother/child dependency, which works outside the logic of 18th century theories of generation. The autonomous self can no longer prosper at the expense of its progeny, nor can it yet find the means to express its affection towards it. What this passage also makes clear is that Roxana does not only anticipate late 18th century and modern dilemmas concerning maternity, as a number of critics have argued. The text markedly suggests that the absence of a supporting scientific discourse renders the indivisibility of mother and child an unresolved paradox, and signals towards the urgency of the need for an Other mediating space between mothers and children. A space which, in Irigaray’s perception of placental spatial politics, ensures the growth of the self in the body of the Other without their fusion (i.e., “an ineffable mixture of bodies or blood of mother and fetus41), or any form of aggression (i.e., “the fetus as foreign body devouring from the inside, a vampire in the maternal body42). In this placental space, “the difference between the ‘self’ and other is, so to speak, continuously negotiated”, biology professor Hélène Rouch maintains when interviewed by Irigaray. And, in this harmonious symbiosis of difference, Rouch continues, “it’s as if the mother always knew that the embryo (and thus the placenta) was other, and that she lets the placenta know this, which then produces the factors enabling the maternal organism accept it as other43.

  • 44 Homi Bhabha, “The Third Space”, op. cit., 212.

28Irigaray’s feminist politics of a placental notion of alterity bears a lot in common with Bhabha’s liminal, third space in which there is no originary, holistic identity that has meaning in itself and for itself alone. If identities, as Bhabha claims, are only constituted in relation to that otherness internal to them, Defoe’s heroines are defined first and foremost through their Other daughters. This is a pattern which, in Moll Flanders’s picaresque narration, is too elastic to remain faithful to a consistent view of self and Other, as we have seen, while in Roxana it entails that self and Other are involved in a culture of difference that can only be based on “a non-sovereign notion of self44. It is precisely because Roxana fails to cast away her self-governing, independent self that she is unable to co-exist with her Othered double; in refusing to acknowledge her daughter, Roxana denies herself, and it is this realization that kills her and that brings the narrative to such an abrupt ending. As the early 18th century did not provide the frame that could host alterity and sameness in a decentered space, tragedy is the only possible scenario. The significance of Roxana is embedded in the text’s awareness that the existing model of difference is obsolete, as well as in its pressing necessity to devise alternative perceptions of alterity.

Haut de page


BHABHA Homi, “The Third Space : Interview with Homi Bhabha”, in Jonathan RUTHERFORD (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, London : Lawrence and Wishart, 1990, 207-21.

Bowers Toni, The Politics of Motherhood : British Writing and Culture 1680-1760, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Brown Laura, Ends of Empire : Women and ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature, Ithaca : Cornell UP, 1993.

Castle Terry J., “‘Amy, Who Knew my Disease’ : A Psychosexual Pattern in Defoe’s Roxana”, EHL 46.1 (1979) : 81-96.

Chaber Lois A., “Matriarchal Mirror : Women and Capital in Moll Flanders”, PMLA 97 (1982) : 212-226.

DEFOE Daniel, Moll Flanders, David Blewett (ed.), Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1989.

DEFOE Daniel, Roxana, David Blewett (ed.), Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1987.

Erickson Robert, Mother Midnight : Birth, Sex and Fate in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, New York : AMS Press, 1986.

Flynn Carol Houlihan, The Body in Swift and Defoe, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1990.

GREENFIELD Susan, “Introduction” in Susan C. GREENFIELD and Carol BARASH (ed.), Inventing Maternity : Politics, Science and Literature 1650-1865, Lexington : University Press of Kentucky, 1999, 1-33.

GREENFIELD Susan, Mothering Daughters : Novels and the Politics of Family Romance, Frances Burney to Jane Austen, Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 2002.

HENDERSON Andrea, “Doll-Machines and Butcher-Shop Meat : Models of Childbirth in the Early Stages of Industrial Capitalism”, Genders 12 (1991) : 100-119.

HOBBES Thomas, Leviathan, Richard E. Flatham and David Johnston (ed.), New York : Norton, 1997.

Horowitz Maryanne Cline, “The Science of Embryology Before the Discovery of the Ovum”, in M. BOXER and J. QUATAERT (ed.), Connecting Spheres : Women in the Western World, 1500 to the Present, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2000, 86-94.

Irigaray Luce, Je, tu, nous : Toward a Culture of Difference, Alison Martin (transl.), New York : Routledge, 1990.

JORDANOVA Ludmilla, Nature Displayed : Gender, Science and Medicine 1760-1820, London and New York : Longman, 1999.

KELLER Eve, “Embryonic Individuals : The Rhetoric of Seventeenth-Century Embryology and the Construction of Early-Modern Identity”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 33 (2000) : 321-48.

KELLER Eve, “Making Up for Losses : The Workings of Gender in William Harvey’s De Generatione Animalium”, in Susan C. GREENFIELD and Carol BARASH (ed.), Inventing Maternity : Politics, Science and Literature 1650-1865, University Press of Kentucky, 1999, 34-56.

KIBBIE Ann Louise, “Monstrous Generation : The Birth of Capital in Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana”, PMLA 110 (1995) : 1023-34.

KING Helen, HippocratesWoman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece, London : Routledge, 1998.

LOCKE John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, P. H. Nidditch (ed.), Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1975.

MANDELL Laura, “Bawds and Merchants: Engendering Capitalist Desires”, ELH 59 (1992) : 107-123.

MANDEVILLE Bernard, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, Vols 1, 2, F.B. Kaye (ed.), Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1924, 1966.

MAUER Shawn Lisa, “‘I wou’d be a Man-Woman’ : Roxana’s Amazonian Threat to the Ideology of Marriage”, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46.3 (2004) : 363-86.

MOGLEN Helen, The Trauma of Gender : A Feminist Theory of the English Novel, Berkeley : University of California Press, 2001.

NEWMAN Karen, Fetal Positions : Individualism, Science, Visuality, Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1996.

NUSSBAUM Felicity A., “‘Savage’ Mothers : Narratives of Maternity in the Mid-Eighteenth Century”, Cultural Critique 20 (1991-92) : 123-51.

NUSSBAUM Felicity A., Torrid Zones : Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives, Baltimore and London : The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

PORTER Roy, Enlightenment : Britain and the Creation of the Modern World, London: Penguin Books, 2001.

RICHETTI John, “The Family, Sex and Marriage in Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana”, Studies in the Literary Imagination n°15 (Fall, 1982) : 19-35.

Haut de page


1 Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, David Blewett (ed.), Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1989, 37.

2 Daniel Defoe, Roxana, David Blewett (ed.), Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1987, 35.

3 Homi Bhabha, “The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha”, in Identity : Community, Culture, Difference, Jonathan Rutherford (ed.), London : Lawrence and Wishart, 1990, 210.

4 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Richard E. Flatham and David Johnston (ed.), New York : Norton, 1997, 103.

5 Eva Keller, “Making Up for Losses : The Workings of Gender in William Harvey’s De Generatione Animalium”, in Susan C. Greenfield and Carol Barash (ed.), Inventing Maternity : Politics, Science and Literature 1650-1865, University Press of Kentucky, 1999, 49.

6 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 1, Chap. III, P. H. Nidditch (ed.), Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1975, 73-74.

7 Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, F.B. Kaye (ed.), Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1924, 1966, 349.

8 Ibidem, 75.

9 Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, ed. cit., 102.

10 D. Defoe, Moll Flanders, op. cit., 233.

11 Ibidem, 234.

12 Ibid., 234-5.

13 Ibid, 227.

14 Ibid, 230.

15 Ibid, 231.

16 D. Defoe, Roxana, op. cit., 52.

17 Ibidem, 143.

18 Ibid, 142.

19 Ibid, 171.

20 Ibid, 272.

21 Quoted in Eve Keller, “Embryonic Individuals : The Rhetoric of Seventeenth-Century Embryology and the Construction of Early-Modern Identity”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 33 (2000), 340.

22 Ibidem, 330-331.

23 Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, op. cit., 44.

24 Ibidem, 134.

25 Homi Bhabha, « The Third Space », op. cit., 208.

26 Ibidem, 208.

27 D. Defoe, Moll Flanders, op. cit., 358.

28 Ibidem, 357.

29 Ibid., 348-9.

30 Ibid., 354, emphasis added.

31 Ibid., 354, emphasis added.

32 Ibid., 355.

33 Ibid., 355.

34 Ibid., 377.

35 Daniel Defoe, Roxana, op. cit., 203.

36 John Richetti, “The Family, Sex and Marriage in Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana”, Studies in the Literary Imagination 15 (1982) : 30.

37 Daniel Defoe, Roxana, op. cit., 239.

38 Ibidem, 247-8.

39 Ibid., 358.

40 Ibid., 323, emphasis added.

41 Luce Irigaray, Je, tu, nous : Toward a Culture of Difference, tr. Alison Martin, New York : Routledge, 1990, 39.

42 Ibidem, 39.

43 Ibid., 39.

44 Homi Bhabha, “The Third Space”, op. cit., 212.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Katerina Kitsi-Mitakou, « Defoe’s Mothers of Alterity : Moll Flanders and Roxana »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XIII-n°3 | 2015, mis en ligne le 17 juillet 2015, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Katerina Kitsi-Mitakou

Katerina Kitsi-Mitakou is Associate Professor of English Literature in the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. She has been teaching and publishing on Realism, Modernism, and the English novel, as well as on feminist and body theory. She has contributed to the Reception of British and Irish Authors in Europe in the volumes on Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens. Among her publications are two special journal issues, “Wrestling Bodies” (Gramma 11, 2003) and “Experiments in/of Realism” (Synthesis 2, 2011), and three collections of essays : The Flesh Made Text Made Flesh : Cultural and Theoretical Returns to the Body (New York : Peter Lang, 2007), The Future of Flesh : A Cultural Survey of the Body (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), and Bodies, Theories, Cultures in the Post-Millennial Era (Thessaloniki : University Studio Press, 2009).

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search