Repentant, Redeemed, & Reformed: Moll Flanders as a Clockwork Orange



Moll Flanders is a clockwork orange. But what exactly is a clockwork orange? According to Anthony Burgess, author of the novel of the same name, a clockwork orange describes one who “has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State” (xiii).

Moll Flanders’ entire identity-less life is made up of mechanical movements dictated by various outside forces, but never by Moll herself.

The theme of overarching powers of the state, God, and the Devil, in Moll Flanders is eerily similar to themes within another London-based tale of redemption: A Clockwork Orange, written centuries later, with the crucial difference being the ultimate fate of the narrators in each tale – one fated to forever being a clockwork orange, the other fated for true redemption of his own free will.

Two Moral Tales

Both Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange are presented as moral tales, as Defoe’s preface states that “as the best use is made even of the worst Story, the Moral ‘tis hop’d will keep the Reader serious” (4), and Burgess himself claims that his book “does also have a moral lesson, and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice” (xiv). Defoe and Burgess implore the reader to consider the aspect of free will conveyed in each novel, as the novels’ respective protagonists venture through very similar reformations, brought on by very similar circumstances, though with very different illustrations of free will.

How do two works, of very different genres and separated by a span of two centuries, both possess such striking similarities?

The answer lies in Defoe’s display of London’s criminal underworld; and unresolved issues of the treatment, punishment, and reformation of criminals, through the eyes of Moll Flanders. These unresolved issues comes back to life in Burgess’ era, this time through the eyes of Alex – an extreme, futuristic version of Moll Flanders.

Alex’s Road to Reformation

A Clockwork Orange is the tale of a young criminal’s immoral life, as perceived by the young man. Alex, an ultra-violent youth of futuristic London, is well into a criminal life of burglary, rape, and murder, by the age of fifteen.

A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)

The young “droog,” as he refers to himself and members of his gang, is finally caught by the city police and sent to the State Jail.

While incarcerated in “Staja 84F” (86), Alex is subjected to experimental, government-issued conditioning of his once ultra-violent mind frame, to one repulsed and sickened by any suggestion of violence or criminality.

Thus, Alex is rendered physically unable to commit, participate in, or witness criminal acts. Simply listening to classical music by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach, (which used to get the ultra-violent juices flowing) now sends Alex into paralyzing sickness.

Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)

Once he is believed to be “cured” of his droogish ways, Alex is released from the State Jail, free to live as a morally sound adolescent. However, the pressures that accompany being the poster-child for conditioned rehabilitation are too harsh for Alex to handle, as he is unable to defend himself against physical attack from former victims, cannot lay his eyes on an attractive female, or even enjoy a classical symphony like he used to without becoming fiercely ill.

In an effort to escape the impending music of Skadelig’s Symphony Number Three and the burden of his newly reconditioned life in general, Alex jumps from the window of an apartment building, falling to the sidewalk several stories below.

Rather than ending his life, the fall awakens Alex’s preconditioned state of mind, enabling him to fantasize about raping young “devotchkas” (193) to the music of “Ludwig van”(199) as often as his heart desires.

A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)

Yet after the regression to his original ultra-violent existence, Alex eventually develops a natural distaste for such a lifestyle, which he chooses to abandon of his own free will.

Throughout the course of A Clockwork Orange, Alex transforms from ultra-violent droog to moral model citizen twice in a matter of three years, thus presenting a question which similarly rises in Moll Flanders: did a truly reformed individual walk out of prison in the first place?


A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)

Like Moll, young Alex is a prominent figure within his criminal world, and after he and his droogs gang rape an innocent woman, he proclaims that “she hadn’t shut the door like she should have done, us being strangers of the night” (24), justifying his actions in the similar way that Moll justifies robbing an innocent child in an alley.

Moll tells the reader, “I only said to my self, I had given the Parents a just Reproof for their Negligence in leaving the poor little Lamb to come home by it self, and it would teach them to take more Care of it another time” (153,154).

Though both characters have strong identities within their criminal underworlds, neither of them possesses much of an identity in regard to what one would consider the real world.

Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)
Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)

Defoe’s readers never learn Moll’s Christian name, and Burgess’ readers are ignorant of Alex’s last name, who, for a time is referred to as simply a sequence of numbers.

Although both criminals lack personal identity, Moll and Alex appear to hold some similar personal morals. Neither of them care much for alcoholic impairment, as Alex claims he “could never stand to see a moodge all filthy and rolling and burping and drunk” (16), and Moll, when encouraged to drink two or three glasses of wine, declines the offer. However, being the imperfect and immoral characters that they are, Moll does admit to drinking one glass or two, and Alex sees no moral dilemma in liquoring up two young girls in order to “give the old in-out in-out” to them.

The most important similarities of the two tales are presented during the punishment and reformation of the characters (repentance for Moll, reconditioning for Alex); similarities displayed via the actions of the convicted criminals, the actions of the other characters in contact with the criminals, and the later actions of the criminals after their alleged reformations.

Moll, Alex, & the Prison Ministers

Despite their similar hellish incarcerations, both Moll and Alex take the first step toward their individual freedoms through befriending the prison minister, who they manipulate in very similar fashions.

Both Moll and Alex exhibit extreme self pity upon arrival at their separate institutions, Moll describing Newgate as “an Emblem of Hell itself, and a kind of Entrance into it” (215), adding that all her confused thoughts on that “Day of Misery” had left her “overwhelm’d with Melancholly and Despair” (215).

Alex experiences a similar feeling for Staja 84F, or the State Jail, which he calls a “grahzny hellhole and like human zoo” (86), and refers to this portion of his tale as “the real weepy and like tragic part of the story beginning” (85).

Moll influences Newgate’s minister through a retelling of her personal history and giving a “sincere” repentance, and Alex manipulates the state minister through feigned interest in the scriptures: “he was very fond of myself, me being young and also now very interested in the big book” (89).  The “friendships” of both criminals with their respective ministers prove to be fruitful, and in Moll’s case yields “a favourable Report from the Recorder to the Secretary of State… and in short … a Reprieve” (228).

Alex gains a similar result through his exploitation of the minister, who believes that Alex has “shown a genuine desire to reform” and tells Alex that “You will, if you continue in this manner, earn your remission with no trouble at all” (92).

It should be noted, that both Defoe and Burgess shed light on ministers working for personal gain in both Moll’s and Alex’s eras. The minister in Moll Flanders claims that “he did not come as Ordinary of the Place, whose business it is to extort Confessions from Prisoners, for private Ends, or for the farther detecting of other Offenders” (226).

The minister in A Clockwork Orange has a very different agenda, and who’s efforts are not unseen by Alex, as he tells the audience that: “The idea was, I knew, that this Charlie was after becoming a very great holy chelloveck in the world of Prison Religion, and he wanted a real horror-show testimonial from the Governer, so he would go and govoreet quietly to the Governer now and then about what dark plots were brewing among the plennies” (91).

A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)

This mention of corruption within the prison systems in both novels reiterates the notion of the overarching state, which remains unchanged despite the passage of roughly two hundred years between the two novels. 

Through Moll’s repentance and Alex’s reconditioning, it is obvious that both characters play the system to their advantage as a way of gaining their freedom, as Moll cannot even explain to the reader how exactly she became repentant, “I am not able to repeat the excellent Discourses of this extraordinary Man; ’tis all I am able to say, that he revived my Heart… I thought I cou’d freely have gone out that Minute to Execution” (227), but she can face death without fear — a convenient claim now that she most likely will not be executed.

Alex sings a similar tune after a few rounds of reconditioning, though his deceitfulness is more apparent: “I’d changed my tune a malenky bit in my cunning way… ‘I’ve learned my lesson, sirs. I see now what I’ve never seen before. Im cured, praise God’ ” (130).

Moll & Alex Free

Moll and Alex use their transformation experiences, accompanied by a sort of new found religion, as a means by which they claim to be changed, cured, freed from sin, and so on, though they both regress to their original cunning ways soon after the supposed reformations.

Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)
Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)

Moll immediately begins devising schemes to improve her station now that she is free, stating “ I could not think of going out of the Country, without some how or other making enquiry into the grand Affair of what my Mother had done for me” (256). She lies yet again to her husband, and describes her dishonesty as “having thus acquainted my Husband with the whole Secret so far as was needful to him” (257); and manipulates her newly reunited son into making money for her, “and withal, to be oblig’d himself to make up the Produce a hundred Pound a year to me” (264); all character traits of pre-Newgate Moll Flanders.

As for Alex – who (supposedly) cannot physically carry out the same type of criminal actions as he did before the reconditioning, and who’s mind should now be conditioned to a point where he cannot even have thoughts related to his former lifestyle – he is quick to do just that; revert to his ultra-violent criminal ways:

“There’s only one vesch I require’… ‘and that’s to be normal and healthy as I was in the starry days, having my malenky bit of fun with real droogs and not those who just call themselves that…Can any veck restore me to what I was? That’s what I want and that’s what I want to know” (183).

A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)

And though it takes jumping out of a window to “restore” him to what he was, Alex had given subtle signs of feigned conditioning prior to the jump. Through his ever increasing vulgar language as used before the conditioning and his ability to lie to a widower who lost his wife to Alex’s hands, Alex had already exhibited traits of the former immoral criminal that the new reformed Alex should have been transformed out of.

However, if a reader considers the possibility that Alex was not totally reconditioned by the state at all, thus his free will remains intact, Alex’s thoughts and desire for violence make sense.

Samuel McCracken, one of many critics of the treatment techniques used in the novel, claims that in order for Alex to sacrifice his free will, he would have had to have been brainwashed – which he was not. When brainwashed, the person must be given new values to replace the opinions and values which are being “washed” out of them, which Alex does not receive.

A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)

McCracken claims that Alex simply experiences an extreme form of aversion therapy, as he “is exposed to films of great violence and violent sex, to a background of the Beethoven which is his only love, while being kept in a state of extreme nausea. As a result, he can no longer wreak violence, experience sex, or hear Beethoven’s Ninth, without getting very sick to his stomach” (276). Therefore, even though Alex is conditioned to avert himself from violent situations, that does not mean the desire for violence has disappeared.

In agreeing with the angle taken by McCracken, the reader must accept that Alex’s free will and moral choice remain unaltered by the treatment process; a direct challenge to the novel and Burgess himself, who considers Alex’s treatment to be brainwashing.

Both Moll and Alex appear to be redeemed or reformed at the end of their tales, (Moll through her claimed repentance, Alex via his constant transitioning through his conditioned and reconditioned states) but one must ask, did they truly experience some form of redeeming transformation? Or are they simply clockwork oranges, wound by a power outside of themselves?

The examination of both texts, separately and in comparison of one another, show us that Moll is in fact wound by forces outside of herself, thus representing Burgess’ clockwork orange, whereas Alex is not – being the crucial difference between Defoe’s Moll and Burgess’ Alex.

Moll’s Road to Repentance

Moll is only eight years old when she is first “wound” by some sort of force outside of herself – fear. Moll has a fear of going into service, which she believes would prevent her from becoming a Gentlewoman. This fear of working at a lower level leads Moll to her first act of meeting a means to an end, which she gains through manipulation of her motherly nurse, whom Moll convinces to allow a longer stay.

Moll accomplishes this through feigned emotion and tears, saying, “I had no Policy in all this, you may easily see it was all Nature, but it was joyn’d with so much Innocence, and so much Passion, That in short, it set the good Motherly Creature a weeping too” (13), being the first of many instances where Moll has “no policy” in her actions or emotions.

Moll Flanders, MGM (1971)
Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)

As a young child, Moll appears to hold no policy in religion either, a fact she shows the audience long before her “religious” transformation at Newgate Prison. After staying for a few days at a Merchant’s House in Liverpool, Moll meets a large family nearly forty miles into the country.

The first discovery Moll makes of this family is that they are all Catholics, an attribute which Moll uses in order to gain favor from them: “I told them I saw little, but the prejudice of Education in all the Differences that were among Christians about Religion, and if it had so happen’d that my Father had been a Roman Caholick, I doubted not but I should have been as well pleas’d with their Religion as my own. This obliged them in the highest degree” (113).

She even goes as far as attending Mass with the family, and learns “to conform to all their Gestures as they shew’d me the Pattern” (113), literally going through the motions, or gestures, of a good, moral woman. Nevertheless, Moll once again has no “policy” in her actions, and confesses to the reader, “The Truth is, I had not so much Principle of any kind, as to be Nice in Point of Religion” (113). Moll Flanders wants to preserve the appearance of a “Widow Lady of a great Fortune” (113) to this family, thus allowing herself to be wound like a clockwork orange by such a desire.

Moll’s being wound by “necessity,” fear of poverty, loss of reputation, or whatever justification she forms at a given time leads her to the criminal lifestyle – a lifestyle she flourishes within.

Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)
Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)

Once within the deeper criminal stages of her life, Moll never takes blame for the actions she commits, but instead claims that the Devil made her do it: “THIS was the Bait; and the Devil who I said laid the Snare, as readily prompted me… ‘twas like a Voice spoken to me over my Shoulder, take the Bundle…” (151). She even contemplates murdering a little girl, asserting that “the Devil Put me upon killing the Child in the dark Alley, that it might not Cry” (153).

Moll’s fear of poverty echoes Burgess’ notion that a clockwork orange is simply a toy wound by the Devil, which Moll uses to justify her criminality: “Thus the Devil who began, by the help of an irresistible poverty, to push me into this Wickedness, brought me on to a height beyond the common Rate” (160). However, upon facing death in Newgate for her crimes, Moll appears to be overcome and wound by another outside force: God.

The claim that Moll does not truly repent while in Newgate has already been made, and although she is not repentant, that does not dissolve the fact that she is still wound by the notion of God. In fact, Moll Flanders’ lack of repentance further supports the claim that she is an instance of Burgess’ clockwork orange. She is clearly one “who has the appearance of an organism” redeemed for her sins and saved by the grace of God, though in reality, Moll is simply going through the mechanical motions of redemption in order to save her life – not her soul.

Moll’s notion of God before the immediate threat of death, “for all my Repentance appear’d to me to be the only the Effect of my fear of Death, not a sincere regret for the wicked Life that I had liv’d… or for the offending my Creator, who was now suddenly to be my Judge” (218), displays her lack of “policy” or belief in God, and proves that she will once again feign an interest in religion in order to meet an end.

Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)
Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)

It is not until meeting the prison minister that Moll, like Alex, sees an opportunity for freedom from her situation, as long as she appears to be repentant.  Moll knows that appearance elicits sympathy for her from the state, and the freedom she desires will be granted so long as she maintains this appearance; thus operating as a clockwork orange wound by the almighty state.

The last the reader sees of Moll, she has settled with her husband, and she claims that “we resolve to spend the Remainder of our years in sincere Penitence, for the wicked Lives we have lived” (267).

Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)
Moll Flanders, MGM (1996)

However, one must remember that the preface to Moll Flanders states that this story is a moral tale, and an “Author must be hard put to it to wrap it up so clean, as not to give room, for vitious Readers to turn it to his Disadvantage” (4). The reader should assume, then, that Moll’s final sentence is merely meant to “wrap it up so clean” for the audience, confirming that even in the end, Moll Flanders is a clockwork orange wound by her own audience. In a more literal sense, Moll is actually being wound by her author, Defoe himself.

Though, in order to accept such an assertion, the reader must challenge the ideals of Defoe expert, Juliet McMaster.

McMaster claims that “Defoe is detached from Moll and definitely judging her” (338), which would imply that Defoe’s is not the hand which winds Moll here. McMaster would most likely believe that such a thing (Moll being “wound” by Defoe) would be just a projection of the reader’s, and not a deliberate creation by Defoe.

However, other critics such as Maximillian E. Novak and Ian A. Bell also agree that Defoe is more directly attached to Moll. Novak claims that Moll’s language throughout the tale point to Defoe’s intentional innuendo, creating a sort of ironic narrative via Moll, and Bell also sees Moll as Defoe’s “agent of adventure.”

Free Will

With motifs of criminality, feigned sincerity of reformation, and ultimate freedom so similar to the themes within Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, how is it that Moll Flanders can be labeled as a clockwork orange, but Alex cannot? It comes down to a matter of free will. Alex has it, Moll does not.

Upon deconditioning himself to his former ultra-violent lifestyle, Alex looks to have no hope of future redemption.

A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Warner Bros. (1971)

However, after seeing one of his former droogs who now has a lovely wife, a job, and a bright future, something changes within Alex – he realizes that his energy is better spent creating, rather than destroying. He decides that he would ultimately like a family and a child of his own – an epiphany that Moll Flanders never has the pleasure of experiencing.

After that, Alex turns away from his ultra-violent criminal life, a decision which occurs organically and of his own free will — a stark contrast to the reasoning behind all of Moll Flanders’ life decisions.

After addressing what forces turn a person into a clockwork orange and what keeps them in that state of being, one must consider the forces acting outside of their own lives, and whether or not this label applies to them. Alex proclaims that “what I do I do because I like to do” (45), which is exactly how he possesses the power to decide his fate for himself, and how he becomes reformed of his own free will.

Moll proclaims that her actions are always out of “necessity,” and never takes responsibilities for her criminal activity –  meaning that she forfeits her free will and is forever wound by some force outside of herself. Had Moll been given the opportunity of a natural balance of her own accord, as the case with Alex, perhaps she would not be forever limited to the life of a clockwork orange.

Are we all just clockwork oranges? Wound by our own versions of God, the Devil, or the Almighty State? It may appear as if Moll’s actions are of her own free will, but we see now that she is simply wound by forces outside of herself. If in the end Moll is wound by Daniel Defoe, who do the hands belong to that are winding him? And in that sense, can the same question be asked for Alex? For Anthony Burgess? Perhaps, we all are really clockwork oranges. Though it is the question of what “winds” us that will always remain – is it our own free will, or something else?


Bell, Ian A. “Narrators and Narrative in Defoe.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 18.2 (1985): 154172. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2013

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: Norton, 1986. Print.
Defoe, Daniel, and Albert J. Rivero. Moll Flanders: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

McCracken, Samuel. “Free Will and Ludovico’s Technique.” A Clockwork Orange: Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Context Criticism. Ed. Mark Rawlinson. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2011. 275-281. Print.

McMaster, Juliet. “The Equation of Love and Money in Moll Flanders.” Moll Flanders: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Albert J. Rivero. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2004. 337-348. Print.

Novak, Maximillian E. “Defoe’s ‘Indifferent Monitor’: The Complexity of Moll Flanders.” Eighteenth-Century Studies. 3.3 (1970): 31-365. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange photos copyright and courtesy of Warner Bros., 1971.

Moll Flanders  photos copyright and courtesy of MGM, 1996.

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