Signet Essay Contest 2011
Arguably the first English detective novel, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone stands as a sensational paradigm for the perfect blend of suspense, satire, and sentiment. As Collins himself did not conform to the conventional lifestyle or ideals of the nineteenth century, it comes as no surprise that the “king of inventors,” as he was so aptly titled, was able to create such an array of unforgettable characters. However, Collins was further endowed with the extraordinary ability to develop characters that, despite their eccentricities, seem so naturally human. Some may have the misconception that detective fiction can have no lasting allure, that it is forever stale once the mystery is revealed. Yet, The Moonstone continues to retain every bit of intensity and distinction that it had when it was first published almost 150 years ago. One of the singular aspects of the novel that contributes to its lasting literary impact, is the use of multiple narrators. Through this compilation of personal accounts, Collins immediately beguiles readers with the mysterious theft of the brilliant diamond known as the Moonstone.
Not only does the use of several narrators effectively articulate Collins’s criticism of prejudices of the Victorian age, but also it provides comic relief and creates emotional connections to the characters. The blunt and unpretentious narrative of Gabriel Betteredge gives the novel a personal feel from the beginning. For instance, he explains that a person’s social superior is not necessarily a smarter individual “as a consolation and encouragement to all stupid people.” (41). Betteredge’s honest humor makes the novel enticing even when he is drifting away from the subject of the mystery, and it disarms any sort of barrier that a reader may feel with third person narration. Even the narration of the sanctimonious Drusilla Clack enhances the novel. She actively pursues a thinly veiled “Christian” agenda of meddling, thereby comically illustrating the pious obsessions of the Victorian age. However a stirring and emotionally wrenching narrative comes from the social pariah Ezra Jennings. His goodness in the face of a persecuting society causes readers to truly feel the cruelty of Britain’s class system. “Nobody likes him, sir,” (344) Betteredge tells Franklin Blake, because of his unusual appearance and dubious background. Nevertheless, Jennings’s narrative serves to emotionally invest readers at a critical point of the mystery when Blake is trying to prove his innocence of the theft.
The intensity of the mystery is also increased by the use of multiple narrators. One can only imagine how people must have anxiously awaited the next installment of the novel when it was first serialized in 1868. Even today, the excitement of the case resonates as readers analyze the accounts of the extraordinary theft. Essentially, readers are challenged to solve the mystery themselves, receiving the facts of the case as if they were the detectives. As each narrator gives his knowledge of the story, readers find themselves analyzing the characters and sorting through clues. All the while one speculates who stole the diamond, as everyone including the narrator is under suspicion. However numerous plot twists occur, making it difficult to form plausible theories. One of these twists includes the discovery by Blake of the nightgown which was supposed to lead to the diamond thief. Blake declares, “I had discovered Myself as the Thief” (332) when he sees that the nightgown bears his name. Readers are reminded that they not only have to analyze the clues placed before them, but also the credibility of the person who presents them.
Granted, there may appear to be a drawback to the unusual employment of several narrators. Rather than read an objective account of an omniscient narrator, readers inherit all the prejudices and bias of each personal account. Even the socially inferior Gabriel Betteredge displays his own share of condescension and prejudice toward Ezra Jennings and the Indians suspected of the crime. However, the portrayal of human flaws in this novel serves a much greater purpose. The Moonstone is a great novel for not only its mystery, but also for its relevance. The novel is truly pertinent to any time period for its depiction of the complexity of human nature and emotions. Collins’s use of eight narrators is so successful in The Moonstone, because he creates individuals with a distinct voice. The inclusion of the narrators’ imperfections, a revealing part of every human character, makes them seem realistic and modern in any time period.
To claim that writing detective fiction is simply difficult would be giving Wilkie Collins little credit. In The Moonstone, he has created a story that proves detective fiction is not disposable literature. Long after the mystery of The Moonstone has been revealed, this novel remains just as significant for its social criticism, humor, and contribution as the first in this genre. Furthermore, Collins’s employment of eight different narrators immediately pulls readers into the heart of the plot, rather than keeping them as outside observers. Once that occurs, readers cannot help being carried away by the “infernal detective fever” (147).
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. New York: New American Library, 2009. Print.
For information on the 2010-2011 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.
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