A Harlot's Progress: Cycle of Corruption

A Harlot’s Progress, a series of paintings by William Hogarth depicts the cyclical nature of exploitation that rules the lives of prostitutes in London. The cycle follows an innocent young woman, Moll Hackabout, who falls victim to the ills of London’s sexual trade and eventually succumbs to her death as a result of her involvement. In the six plates, Moll progresses from innocence, to participant, and then to victim of the ills of the sexual economy. Hogarth engineers this depiction of the social world in order to expose the corruption found in the streets of eighteenth century London.

In Plate 1, Moll’s journey into London’s world of prostitution begins through the trickery of a bawd. She is “attired in a simple white country dress and straw hat, with a white rose of innocence pinned to her bosom,” (Momberger 49) to signify her symbolic purity. This purity is juxtaposed with the bawd, dressed in black, who is responsible for deceitfully bringing the country girl to the city. In London, Moll is lured “into the life of vice,” (Momberger 49) and this is the beginning of her “downfall as she is…searching for a means of survival,” (Kanter 123). Although representative of the deceit under which Moll becomes a prostitute, Hogarth makes a moral statement about it as well. The clergyman’s actions are two-fold. He “turns his back on prostitution and criminal activities,” (Kanter 123) as both an act of condemnation and another instance of exploitation gone unchecked in the streets of London. This religious man symbolizes society’s general unwillingness to interfere with ongoing wrongful activities and thus unknowingly allows newcomer Moll to fall into a dishonest path. This is Hogarth’s first depiction of how a cycle of exploitation centered within the sexual trade is allowed to blossom in the corrupt streets of London.

This cycle of exploitation evolves in Plate 2, with Moll herself now becoming an active participant in the corrupt sexual economy. Despite being the kept woman of a Jewish merchant, Hogarth depicts Moll taking advantage of this man, to illustrate corruptible human nature. The merchant has established Moll as his mistress allowing her to live a luxurious life. However, Moll is simultaneously “two timing her much older patron” (Momberger 50) -- a “respectable figure in eighteenth century London” (Erwin 681) -- by entertaining a second lover. She allows this duplicity to continue by strategically kicking over a table to conceal her escaping lover. The merchant’s respectability is also put into question since the act of keeping mistresses was criticized for “corrupting the natural bonds of marriage” (Molineux 499). Hogarth locates this pervasive degree of corruption at the center of the sexual trade in London, where all are affected and engaged within this exploitative business. The following plate however, captures the beginning of the prostitute’s ruin at the hands of the corrupt sexual economy where she is no longer profiting from the system.

Hogarth attempts to bring light to the immorality present in eighteenth century London by depicting Moll’s arrest in Plate 3. Moll embodies an unfortunate reality of daily life in London as, “...a prototypical character whose pivotal moments in life may have been very similar to those of any other girl of her condition” (Bartual 86). Moll is portrayed as a symbol for vulnerable women in London, and A Harlot’s Progress acts as a testament to their exploitation. Unlike the previous plate, where ornaments and expensive items surround Moll’s mattress, it is now the sole source of survival in Plate 3 and therefore positioned centrally as her moneymaker. Nevertheless, Hogarth makes a moral statement by contrasting the image of the sexual trade, i.e. the mattress, with the portraits of idols hung on the walls. Further, just like the slowly unraveling curtains, Moll’s lucrative life of prostitution is also metaphorically degenerating. Hogarth shows the corrupted nature of London and makes a moralizing statement about it through the juxtaposition of religiosity and the sexual economy, which has resulted in the arrest of the prostitute.

Moll’s cycle of corruption continues in Plate 4 with the depiction of her time at Bridewell Prison where exploitation is only more pervasive and central. The contrast between Moll’s appearance and her surroundings mark her fall from grace. Moll is now “beating hemp in a gown very richly laced with silver” (Nichols 195), while she is being robbed. Historically, Londoners of stature were able to bribe their way into better prison conditions and well-dressed women “[were] rarely met with in [...] a house of correction” (Nichols 194). Further, every part of the plate is filled with people engaging in corrupt activity, which seemingly normalizes it. For example, the jailer’s wife is pick-pocketing Moll’s silver deceptively, while winking at the woman who refuses to work. This corruption is evident across all social classes, as these characters that are in a position of authority continue to exploit the now destitute harlot at Bridewell. Hogarth exposes eighteenth century London as a society that is economically driven by corruption.

After exposing the prison’s corruption, Hogarth uses iconography in his depiction of “modern moral subjects” (Bindman 13) in order to convey anti-establishment sentiment. Moll’s death is a narrative of exploitation and moral debasement of the ‘vulnerable woman’ in London by respectable figures of society (Erwin 681). Moll’s ravaged condition is emphasized through the inclusion of the recognizable ‘quack doctors’ (Momberger 51) who treat Moll as a medical experiment rather than patient. By including real characters in Plate 5, Hogarth holds up a mirror to London’s morally corrupt social world and promotes an irreverence of belief in state structures - medical or penal. This heightens the level of topicality and creates a greater resonance for the moral message in A Harlot’s Progress. Other visual signs, like Dr. Rock’s advertisement for anti-venereal pills and the stolen shoes beside the bawd are emblematic of the corporatization of the sexual trade. Not only do the doctors, patrons, prostitutes, prisoners and other people in the harlot’s life benefit from her existence (and death as seen in the next plate); they also create and perpetuate the system that breeds this exploitation. Those who make highly public shows of morality – e.g. doctors who ‘treat’ and the bawds who ‘shelter’ – are truly the most immoral.

The final plate showcases the continuing cycle of exploitation, even after the visual reminder of corruption's consequences interpreted through Moll’s death. The harlot was not always a harlot; beginning with the first plate the innocent virgin Moll is gradually deteriorated by the cyclical process of corruption. At first she was an innocent virgin dressed in innocent colors, which symbolizes her untouched purity. Throughout the plates, Moll’s ‘progress’ is pushed into prostitution by her need to survive in the corrupt London economy that is driven by the sexual trade. Her journey ends in Plate 6 with fellow prostitutes scavenging through her items continuing to exploit her. The many dishonest gatherers are obvious and far from oblivious to what is happening to this once innocent woman. Just as the clergyman turned his back on Moll in the first plate, the parson in Plate 6 is bookending her death. This religious figure is not only blessing the harlot in death, he is also partaking in the vice. Hogarth paints this idea in an attempt to illustrate how deeply the corruption has embedded itself into London society and its continued progression. Collectively, A Harlot’s Progress provides a view of London propelled by corruption. This view is normalized by respectable figures of society and engaged deeply within the sexual trade that victimizes innocent, vulnerable women. Ultimately, Hogarth successfully exposes the multitudes of corruption seen by all the members of an immoral society.