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  • Thinking Parables: What Moll Flanders Does Not Say
  • Steven C. Michael

By 1644, rhetoric in England was still as deadly a weapon as the recent introduction of gunpowder and artillery. In book 5 of Paradise Lost, the debate between Abdiel and Satan anticipates the clash of sword and artillery in book 6, and it is certainly no accident that Abdiel finds it “naught but just, / That he who in debate of Truth hath won, Should win in Arms.” 1 Milton, of course, was only one of many pamphleteers in a politically-charged era, the tangled semiotic relations of which would have their indirect effects in the next century on Daniel Defoe. The fiction and nonfiction of the latter author—a skilled rhetorician in his own right—would test the “truths” of the first half of the eighteenth century, and frequently their rhetorical artillery would rely on, as well as target, perceptions of morality. Like Milton, Defoe evidenced deep concern for the condition of England—its economic strength, its prognosis for longevity among neighboring nations, and, often inseparable from these, its need to adopt or revive a course of “right thinking.” As in much of Milton’s writing, the state of the nation in Defoe’s work is largely bound up with the state of the soul, or moral rightness.

What I hope to show here is that an apparent absence of a moral center or controlling lesson about goodness constitutes the very presence of the center or lesson of Moll Flanders. This ambiguous operation of goodness can be at least minimally clarified by a brief look at Defoe’s moral psychology and by a workable, though admittedly incomplete, definition of goodness, which we will consider shortly. More pertinently, however, we may predict that a “non-solution” to the presence/absence mystery—that “truth” which the space signifies—can be located in a comparison of linguistic and monetary signs. The play and permutations of rhetoric in Moll Flanders confront the reader with the proposition that language is a form of capital. Language, in fact, functions as a resource for Moll because it becomes part of her economy of accumulation; it is constantly associated with capital, in the sense that capital is a resource for Moll’s continued identity as a “gentlewoman.” Indeed, [End Page 367] language becomes capital for Moll: as narrator and character, she withholds and spends information as both actions suit and profit her. 2

As a means of foregrounding the relations between rhetoric, morality, and Moll, let us take a moment to consider Stanley Fish’s reading of Milton’s Areopagitica, where Milton is assumed to believe that the danger posed by licensing consists in the idea that an external authority threatens to remove the means by which humankind arrives at virtue. Virtue, however, cannot be located either in books or in the human heart; it must be generated by the interaction of the two in the matrix of Milton’s “triall by what is contrary.” The Areopagitica itself, Fish says, serves as precisely this kind of matrix, continually intimating that the reader has at last touched on a final truth but repeatedly frustrating the reader’s security by dismantling that truth. Milton not only defends the process of schism as necessary for spiritual growth, but offers the paradoxical idea that never finding the truth (or, in Fish’s terms, “seeking and not finding”) is itself the truth: “Ironically it is only by permitting what licensing would banish—the continual flow of opinions, arguments, reasons, agendas—that the end of licensing—the fostering of truth—can be accomplished.” 3

This irony is certainly not unique. Any number of texts—both “literary” and “informative”—share this elusive pattern, and some readers argue that all texts, on careful examination, drive their readers from a core or center of truth. While Pierre Macherey would not claim that this activity applies to every text, one is nevertheless reminded of his insistence that the literary critic must seek out that which a conflicted text “does not say,” and of Derrida’s definition of center as “the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible.” 4 When we...

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