The Moonstone Dual Narratives
Kendra Lynch English 1302 Ms. Olsen 15 March 2011 The Moonstone Wilkie Collins’s famous detective novel, The Moonstone (1868), takes place in the 1840s during the high-Victorian imperialist age, a time in which the British experienced a long period of contentment and prosperity. During this time, a strong sense of anti-feminism seemed to thrive in British society. Despite this fact, Wilkie Collins did not hesitate to make the women in his novel central characters that have a great influence on the plot.
Collins’s effort to balance the plot and characterization in his novel was a great success. The characters in The Moonstone are more than just fictional characters, as they portray various social and religious messages and scores of Collins’s personal ideas. The plot of The Moonstone is stimulated by secrecy, and its story line is further complicated by the suppressed voices of women in the story. Wilkie Collins’s unique narration, complicated social messages, and intricate symbolism are all separate features of the novel that make it outstanding.
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The novel begins with a prologue called “The Storming of Seringapatam (1799): (Extracted from a Family Paper)” (Collins 5), when the British are currently raiding the palace of General Baird. An English adventurer named John Herncastle obtained possession of a magnificent, yellow diamond that was sacred to the Hindus. In his last breath, one of the Brahmin men opened his mouth and spoke in his indigenous language saying “The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours! ” (Collins 6-7). After the prologue, the novel advances to fifty years later.
Herncastle willed the marvelous diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder, who is soon to receive the diamond as a gift for her eighteenth birthday from her cousin, Franklin Blake. “Herncastle’s gift of the diamond to Rachel was not a gift of love but a ‘gift’ of a curse and vengeance” (Grinstein 134). On the night of Rachel’s party, the diamond was stolen out of her room with no signs of how it may have vanished. This mysterious event can be seen as the turning point in the novel, as it causes the plot to accelerate and continue on in a whirlwind of false accusations, passionate emotions, several unforeseen eaths, and major trust issues between family members, including the servants of the house. The narration of The Moonstone is a very unique feature of the novel as it is told through the perspective of eleven different narrators. Collins’s use of multiple narrators “wrenches authority away from an individual first-person narrator or an ill-defined but omnipresent omniscient narrator” (Free 342). Because the story is told through various points of view, the reader is able to better understand Collins’s intricate plot by following the story through the eyes and minds of all his characters.
Patrick Brantlinger notes how the plot unravels “through the gradual discovery of knowledge, until at the end what detective and reader know coincides with what the secretive or somehow remiss narrator-author has presumably known all along” (Gruner 226). The reader only knows what the characters themselves knew about the events at the time they experienced them; this essentially puts them in a detective position. Not only does Collins keep his readers guessing, but he also uses his characters to present social messages to his readers throughout the story.
Ian Duncan states that “the characterological scheme expresses a historical and cultural crisis of national dimensions” (Duncan 300). In most Victorian novels, servants exist as background characters, and nothing more. Contrarily, several of the main characters of The Moonstone are servants who not only play significant roles in the story, but also discuss their social positions. Rosanna Spearman and Gabriel Betteredge are two examples of servants who frequently speak up and make various comments about social class.
Betteredge is a very stubborn, prejudiced man who does not trust any man other than a white Englishman. He believes that he is nothing more than the average man, and he feels that the rich have more “luxuries” than members of the working class: People in high life have all the luxuries to themselves—among … others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege. Necessity, which spares our betters, has no pity on us. We learn to put our feelings back into ourselves, and to jog on with our duties as patiently as may be.
I don’t complain of this—I only notice it (Collins 166). In other words, when a tragedy such as Rosanna’s suicide occurs, servants must force a smile on their faces and continue on with their tasks while the rich are allowed to grieve and mourn as long as they feel necessary. Rosanna’s suicide “shows how members of the working class are invisible to those they serve” (Heller 249). The only thing standing between Blake and Rosanna is her working-class status. Before taking her own life, Rosanna leaves a letter for Blake in which she describes her emotional pain and his apathy.
After Rosanna’s voice is finally heard through her letter, it becomes clear that she could not communicate directly with Franklin due her to position in society and her femininity. The Moonstone contains not only social messages dealing with society and class, but also social messages related to religious issues of the time. Wilkie Collins succeeds in mirroring the Victorian society through his diverse characters, as most English people in this era were searching for a moral truth to put their faith in.
Religion is significant in most of the characters’ lives; however, it plays a different role for each of them. In the first scene, three Brahmin men illustrate Hindu mythology to the reader. The introduction of Orientalism creates an atmosphere of theology and suspense which hinders English society rather than Indian society. Betteredge feels that the “devilish Indian diamond” (Roy 660) has invaded the sanctity of the English home. Ezra Jennings is a physician who bases his faith on medicine and scientific reasoning. Lady Verinder and her daughter, Rachel, are both affiliated with the Church of England.
Despite the fact that they are both Christian, Miss Clack habitually tells them that they must convert to her form of Christianity or they will go to hell. Miss Clack, along with Godfrey Ablewhite who also verbalizes his religion, is a complete hypocrite. As she preaches to the reader, she exclaims, “Oh, my young friends and fellow-sinners… Let your faith be as your stockings, and your stockings as your faith. Both ever spotless, and both ready to put on at a moment’s notice! ” (Collins 203). In other words, she implies that her devout faith is nothing more than a front that she can “put on” and take off.
Lastly, unlike most Victorian novels, The Moonstone contains female characters that are skillfully developed and unconventional. Many critics believe that Collins was genuinely feminist for his time and that he had a great interest in contemporary social issues of his time. Gender stereotypes are asserted by different characters throughout the novel, but the majority of them get repudiated. Collins gives his female characters a solid, sharp presence, unlike all the other delineations of literary heroines of his time period. In fact, the women lay such significant roles that “…the plot of The Moonstone is complicated by the silence of women,” as they “conceal their own motivations and what they know of others’ in order to protect secrets of their own, thus complicating and ultimately doubling the plot…” (Gruner 225). Another essential element of the plot is the use of symbols throughout the novel. The first and most important symbol that Collins introduces is, of course, the Moonstone. The diamond is described as a beautiful, yellow gem that is sacred to the Hindu people. It is a symbol of what most humans tend to spend their lives striving for—beauty and power.
The Moonstone’s history is also quite dangerous, as it can easily return and infect the present. The idea that an evil past may return quickly becomes a recurring theme throughout the novel. The Moonstone “is directly responsible for Godfrey’s death, and indirectly for Rosanna’s and Lady Verinder’s. It separates Rachel and Franklin. It baffles the law and the police. It destroys the peace of the household. In short, the diamond is dark despite its brightness…” (Lonoff 212). Many critics have discovered how the diamond also symbolizes Rachel’s virginity.
Rachel’s purity is accentuated in the text when she is referred to as a “lily on its stem” (Collins 157). The diamond is given to Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday, an age when a girl can truly be seen as a woman. During that same day, the diamond was stolen from her in the middle of the night and Rachel seemed to experience an enigmatic change. “The novel coyly plays upon the sexual metaphor of a precious, stolen gem, keeping its own secret from the reader as to whether Rachel’s virginity has been stolen along with the Moonstone” (Blumberg 175).
Collins continues to develop this symbol by taking it to a further level, focusing on the more complex themes of premarital sex and defloration. At one point in the story, Godfrey Ablewhite was planning to cut the diamond into small pieces and pawn them because the diamond would be worth more if it were cut into smaller stones. “Rachel and her (uncut) diamond are both more valued in a capitalist economy for their potential than for themselves” (Gruner 230). In other words, once a woman loses her virginity, she is no longer exchange value for men, which essentially makes her less valuable to society.
The repetition of the Shivering Sands symbolizes a place of comfort for some of the characters, but for others, the Sands are frightening. Rosanna admits that she is fascinated by the Sands as she says “Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it terrible? I have seen it dozens of times, and it’s always new to me as if I had never seen it before! ” (Collins 30). For Rosanna, the Shivering Sands are a place of disclosure and comfort where she can go to hide. Unlike Rosanna, Franklin Blake feels threatened by the Sands.
Being at the site of Rosanna’s death causes Franklin to feel susceptible to “the threat that this female sexuality poses to his masculine identity…” (Heller 253). Immediately after Blake sets foot on the quicksand, “his nerves are shaken, as if he were a neurasthenic woman, but he confesses to overpowering the fear at the moment he penetrates the quicksand…” (Heller 253). At first glance, the Shivering Sands appears to be nothing more than an area of quicksand; however, it is that and much more to several of the characters in the story, especially Rosanna Spearman.
The Moonstone may appear to be another ordinary mystery novel of the Victorian era; however, Collins’s complex plot consists of various twists and unexpected turns that keep his readers guessing. Many critics would strongly agree that “The Moonstone is…Wilkie Collins’ most remarkable performance. In this, above all his books, he achieved precisely what he set out to do, and more—for it is unlikely that he intended to produce the archetype of a new branch of English fiction” (Robinson 218).
http://www. jstor. org/stable/469430