Signet Essay Contest 2011
Samantha Whitney Carter
When detectives work to solve a mystery, they do not rely exclusively on one source. Rather, they conduct interviews with all persons suspected of involvement in the case, learning every detail possible of the events that transpired. Detectives consider every viewpoint and prejudice that may have had an impact on the stories that they hear. After all, when a witness is remembering a shadowy figure stealing down a deserted corridor in the middle of the night, he is more likely to remember the culprit as looking like a person who has recently insulted him than he is to remember the suspect as appearing to be his best friend. Wilkie Collins appreciated and even relished, in writing The Moonstone, the impact that can arise from these inevitably differing perspectives. He does not leave it to the readers to discern which parts of the information they receive are factual and which are tainted by an unconscious bias on the part of the writer. Instead, he allows eight different characters to share their experiences with the diamond and its story. In doing so, he also sheds light on the various preconceptions that could distort the truth of the events. For example, Franklin Blake is quick to suspect the Indians of stealing the Diamond; almost as soon as its absence is discovered, he tells Lady Verinder that “the Indians have certainly stolen the Diamond.” He has some evidence that other members of the household don’t, but his prejudices against Indians in general play a definite role in his inclination to blame these three Indians for the Diamond’s disappearance. On the other hand, Miss Clack demonstrates the human unwillingness to condemn a friend. When Mr. Ablewhite is confessing his happiness to be freed of his engagement to Miss Rachel, Miss Clack doesn’t consider his involvement with the Diamond at all.
In varying the narrators telling the story of The Moonstone, Collins is also able to demonstrate his aptitude for using many different voices. It is quite clear to readers which character is speaking. Mr. Betteredge’s amiable obstinacy contrasts distinctly with Miss Clack’s affected piety and with Mr. Blake’s well-intentioned candor. Readers are able to interact with all of the characters on a much more personal level and to see how they truly feel about the events and people that are involved. Especially in the Victorian Era, appearances were extremely important; as a result, they were often extremely deceiving as members of society attempted to maintain their perfect veneers.
Along with demonstrating Collins’s knack for writing from multiple perspectives, the use of eight narrators intensifies the suspense and ambiguity of The Moonstone. In the very first narrative, contributed by Mr. Betteredge, the reader discovers that he knows the Diamond’s entire story. He is precluded from revealing the events that passed outside of his presence by the nature of Mr. Blake’s request. Nonetheless, he refers to the events that readers will not see until much later in the novel, making comments like, “Looking back at the birthday now, by the light of what happened afterwards, I am half inclined to think that the whole cursed Diamond must have cast a blight on the whole company.” Other characters heighten the tension in different manners. Miss Clack, for instance, infuriates the reader with her exaggerated holiness, while Mr. Blake’s genuine remorse hurries the reader to find out whether or not he is truly guilty of stealing the Diamond.
If Collins had chosen to use a single, omniscient, third-person narrator, however, the novel would have been much more concise. Mr. Betteredge would not spend paragraphs describing his love for Robinson Crusoe, Mr. Blake would not detail his agonizing guilt in such detail, and Miss Clack’s inner monologue defending her own purity would be completely avoided. The reader would be able to focus on the details of the events, not the thoughts and emotions that the characters feel. The novel would lose its confidential nature but would gain a sense of brevity and succinctness. Readers would be more prone to deduce the mystery’s solution, since the frame of the story would be much broader than the limited view provided by each of the individual characters.
Though Collins’s reasoning in using eight first-person narratives to tell the story of The Moonstone, as opposed to one omniscient narrator, cannot be known, its effects are very visible in reading the novel. In doing so, Collins allowed the reader to escape the problems of subconscious biases and misconceptions, demonstrated his talent for writing from different perspectives, and intensified the suspense that encourages the reader to race to the novel’s stunning conclusion. Collins’s choice may have resulted in a longer, more winding path to the solution to the problem of the Diamond, but it was a sacrifice made willingly by all interested parties. The characters are more than just players in a story; they become friends (in most cases) for whom the reader wishes only the best.
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. New York: New American Library, 2009. Print.
For information on the 2010-2011 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.