A Harlot's Progress: Moll's Corruption Through People and Places

A Harlot’s Progress is a series of six plates by William Hogarth which follows Moll Hackabout, a young woman who becomes corrupted from her closeness to detrimental people and spaces through prostitution. The placement of criminal figures within the six plates parallels her descent into moral corruption. The plates begin with prominent figures from London's felonious social circle lurking in the background. As the plates progress, the morally corrupt individuals emerge from the background and move closer to Moll. She becomes a victim of this toxic circle as they slowly surround and consume her life. Hogarth’s inclusion of immoral people in each of the plates embodies Moll’s downfall through  the proximity of her relations to London’s criminals. This downward spiral satirizes ideas of capitalist progress through representation of alternative beliefs and means of accumulating wealth being associated with criminality exemplified by the known figures and spaces in each of the plates.

Moll’s fall from morality is presented in Plate 1 with the presence of Colonel Francis Charteris in the background. Standing at the doorway of a decaying building, the Colonel represents the initial instance of moral criminality. Known as an infamous pervert, nicknamed ‘The Rape-Master General of Britain’, Charteris was previously convicted for the rape of a maidservant in his employment (De Voogd 59). He fondles himself in expectation, suggestive of the inevitable life of prostitution for Moll. Similarly, the portrait of Thomas Woolston in plate 2 makes reference to the moral corruption lurking inconspicuously in Moll’s life. Woolston, a notorious free-thinker in the 17th-century, was condemned and incarcerated for his blasphemous beliefs concerning Deism (Dabydeen 138). Moll’s decline in moral status continues in Plate 3 and is represented by James Dalton’s wig box on top of the bed. This personal possession establishes his relationship with Moll. A couple years before the publishing of Hogarth’s plates, James Dalton had been accumulating notoriety through his escapades with a street robbery gang and his reputation as a regular with prostitutes. He had also been known for exposing and persecuting “Mollies” or homosexuals . James Dalton was later tried for highway robbery and subsequently executed (Cruickshank 15). The instances of criminality in Moll’s life, exemplified by the notorious figures in the background parallel her increasingly immoral behavior that ultimately leads to her death.

Plate 4 shows the emergence of Moll in the society of immorality by being surrounded by other condemned “criminals” in Bridewell Prison. Moll has been condemned because of her profession as a prostitute. As punishment she is forced to endure hard labour-beating hemp. The Prison itself was established in 1533 and was used to house many criminals like Moll. The majority of the inmates were women condemned for being prostitutes. Despite the prison’s aims of correcting its prisoners many citizens claimed that the prison was doing the opposite and was instead further corrupting its prisoners. The people that were condemned to prison were usually among the lower class, incarcerated by the Constables, Magistrates, and occasionally even parents (Hitchcock et al.). In Moll’s case, she was arrested by “Sir. John Gonson”, a man known for visiting gambling facilities, and brothels in order to condemn the people involved in such activities (Norton).  

In the foreground the jailers wife is depicted stealing items off Moll’s clothing because despite being in prison Moll is fairly well dressed in an elegantly designed gown. Behind Moll, sits a richly dressed gentleman, with a gambling problem (Hogarth, 21). He was sent to prison due to unpaid debts. He works alongside Moll in hard labour in order to“reform” and become integrated back into society (Hitchcock et al.). Because the majority of women condemned into the prison were prostitutes, the women likely had followed a similar life path of Moll’s before being found and taken to jail (Hitchcock et al.). Moll’s continued association with these criminals in this plate has led to her downfall because she is completely surrounded by the morally corrupt.

Moll’s life spirals out of control as she is let down by her “self-serving, uncaring and incompetent quacks”1 in Plate 5 and the clergymen in Plate 6 (Hoffbrand 143). In Plate 5, there are two well known, high society, self-opinionated, and financially successful quacks (Hoffbrand 147).  They are Dr. John Misaubin and Dr. Richard Rock, who are arguing about the forms of medication that are necessary to treat Moll’s venereal disease (Hoffbrand 143). “Being quacks they were more interested in their own reputations and medicines than they were in their patient” (Foster 358). Ultimately, their quackery fails Moll and she dies in Plate 6. In this last plate, Moll is surrounded by disreputable people even in death with the presence of a drunk clergyman. The clergyman in this plate resembles George Keith, a notoriously prolific minister at the time who performed so many “Fleet weddings” that it resulted in his excommunication by the Bishop Of London (Pelham 159-160). Unscrupulous clergymen were known to provide a forged or antedated certificates, or perform a wedding anonymously. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for the bride, groom and clergy to show up drunk. In her decline and death, Moll is enclosed by people who are incompetent and immoral, expressed through the uncaring quacks and the unethical clergyman in Plates 5 and 6.

William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress presents one woman’s descent into London’s criminal society as a result of prostitution and the morally corrosive impact the people with whom she associates affects her life. In the first plate, the criminal figures lurk in the corners, in the background ready to claim another innocent young soul, foreshadowing her fate.  As they increase their association with Moll, these figures emerge out of the background and into focus as they continue to degrade Moll’s moral nature.  Finally, Moll’s criminality overwhelms her completely, which is symbolically represented at her funeral by the thieving, syphilis-ridden, and morally questionable people crowded around her coffin in Plate 6. The representation of these known people and places in the plates highlights the supposed wrongful, and criminal, beliefs and actions in regards to capitalism in Hogarths time.

During this time, the distinction between a physician, a doctor or a quack was dependent on their public perception and method of practice. Dr. Misaubin (seen standing) was classed as a quack due to his arrogance and methods of practice (Foster 357). Similarly, Dr. Rock (seen sitting) was sometimes classified as either a quack or doctor (Foster 358).