Signet Essay Contest 2011

Sean Neill

Sean Neill

In his The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins employs a precociously modern approach to narration, an approach that appreciates and recognizes the fragmented nature of consciousness and of knowledge, an approach that benefits the novel as a whole in the amusing interplay it creates between subjectivity and objectivity. This method—telling the story of the Diamond through the points of view of eight different narrators, rather than through the voice of one omniscient, thirdperson narrator—helps to establish the fragility of what is known and what can be known, and calls into question the veracity and validity of experience. For Collins, the fallibility of the narrators is a technique in itself—it highlights the prejudices and biases we all bring to the table. In addition, more
than a vehicle for plot, the divided narrative is a vehicle for characterization. It is through the way they tell their stories and develop over the course of the telling of their stories that we learn about Gabriel Betteredge, Miss Clack, Franklin Blake, et al. When Gabriel Betteredge observes, “I am asked to tell the story of the Diamond, and, instead of that, I have been telling the story of my own self,” (Collins, 38) he is speaking truer words than he knows.

The great irony of The Moonstone, the irony from which much of the book’s comic and literary impact comes, is the contrast between what the various narrators see as their own objectivity and reportage of the truth, and what is, in actuality, grossly unreliable subjectivity. When Miss Clack says at the beginning of her narrative, “My sacred regard for truth is (thank God) far above my respect for persons…He [Mr. Blake] has purchased my time; but not even his wealth can purchase my conscience too,” (212) the reader laughs, knowing that Miss Clack is anything but impartial, blinded as she is by her own abrasive righteousness. Her narrative is colored, at every turn, by her view of herself as a religious martyr and her delusion that she is driven solely by spiritual concerns. She fails to understand the absurdity of her statement, “My nature is weak. It cost me a hard struggle, before Christian humility conquered sinful pride, and self-denial accepted the cheque,” (212).

Franklin Blake, too, places a high value on the pursuit of truth. After all, this is precisely what drives him to undertake the project of documenting the story of the Moonstone. He is an author (or, rather, an editor) himself. Through his coordination and compilation of the various narratives, he becomes an auxiliary to Collins. We are reminded of his presence by the interjectory note he makes in Miss Clack’s narrative, in which he says, “Nothing will be added, altered, or removed,” (212). In other words, though he is an editor, he is a hands-off editor; his influence and control will not be felt. And yet, the reader can’t help but think that even Mr. Blake, neutral as he claims to be, exerts an obtrusive presence. In choosing who gets to speak and, more importantly, who doesn’t (the most obvious omission being Rachel Verinder), Blake plays a very powerful role in the construction of the narrative, one that no doubt affects the way it is perceived by the reader.

All the same, Blake’s project is carried out under a strict empiricism. As he explains to Mr. Betteredge, “the idea is that we should all write the story of the Moonstone in turn—as far as our own personal experience extends, and no further,” (34). The hope, in limiting the scope of each
narrative to what is directly experienced by the narrator, is to avoid speculation and unreliability. This hope is so strong that Mr. Blake, in correspondence with Miss Clack, must remind her, “She is requested to limit herself to her own individual experience of persons and events, as recorded in her diary. Later discoveries she will be good enough to leave to the pens of those persons who can write in the capacity of actual witness,” (256). Blake hopes to achieve something approaching an objective perspective through the layering and piecing together of various subjective perspectives. He believes
that the former is made up of the latter (thus his repeated talk of the “Subjective” and “Objective”
views when trying to solve the mystery of the Moonstone). This method resembles the piecing together of a shattered mirror; through the gathering of disparate reflections, a holistic, accurate picture will be formed.

The result, of course, is not quite so veracious as hoped. Though the narrators, for the most part, stay within the bounds of their experience, it becomes clear that experience, and the documenting of experience, is not perfectly reliable. This disconnect between truth and experience is demonstrated
when Rachel Verinder says vehemently to Mr. Blake, “I saw you take the Diamond with my own eyes!” (356). While Mr. Blake did, indeed, take the Diamond, he is not the thief, or, at least, not the criminal. The presence of a psychoactive drug, opium (which Collins, himself, took for medical reasons), serves to point out the imperfection of sensory experience and the idea that there are different ways of perceiving the world and that one cannot necessarily be confirmed over another.

Furthermore, the idiosyncrasies, opinions, and deeply-ingrained prejudices of the characters make for a humorous spectacle in which the solving of the mystery of the diamond takes twists and turns that a third-person, omniscient narrator would not have taken. Gabriel Betteredge is warm and comfortable, though opinionated and, at times, ignorant. The suspect nature of Betteredge’s narrative is addressed when Mr. Blake says, “The picture presented of me, by my old friend
Betteredge…is (as I think) a little overdrawn. He has, in his own quaint way…persuaded himself that he actually saw those French, German, and Italian sides to my character…which never had any real existence, except in our good Betteredge’s own brain,” (305-6). Miss Clack is moralistic and didactic. Mr. Bruff is businesslike and unimaginative. Ezra Jennings, in whom the reader has the
most faith, is lonely, ostracized, and enigmatic; though an outcast, he is not without prejudice. This is perhaps where the one disadvantage of Collins’s narrative technique lies. Forced to characterize his narrators through their voices, Collins creates characters that are caricatures and exaggerations. Miss
Clack is so much the righteous, dogmatic old maid. Ezra Jennings is so much the brilliant, tortured mystery man. They often lack nuance and subtlety.

That being said, Wilkie Collins’s fragmented chronicle of the Moonstone is overall a masterful study in narrative technique and in point of view, calling to mind the efforts of William Faulkner and other literary modernists of half a century later. By telling the story through the eyes of eight different
narrators, Collins reveals the subjectivity and relativity of knowledge. In that way, it is ahead of its time.

 

Work Cited

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. New York: New American Library, 2009. Print.

For information on the 2010-2011 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.