Signet Essay Contest 2011
Serina Lee Robinson
Religion, Rogues and Robinson Crusoe
Right from its ominous beginning, readers of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins are drawn into a conspiracy of foreign folklore, religious radicalism, and bizarre beliefs. Through the differing perceptions of an assortment of narrators, accompanied by a tone of eerie intrigue, Collins illuminates the many facets of Miss Clack’s hypocritical fervor, Gabriel Betteredge’s quaint superstition, and prejudice toward the Hindoos. Aside from helping readers understand the immediate environment of the novel, the motley collection of characters in the The Moonstone also serve as microcosmic representations which comment on issues of the mid-19th century, such as religious hypocrisy, imperialism, industrialization, and social prejudice.
In order to satirize religious behavior during the Victorian Era, Wilkie Collins creates the epitome of fanaticism and hypocrisy: the incorrigible Drusilla Clack. With a personality as abrasive as the sound of her name, Miss Clack displays an attitude of condescension towards “heathen” society, even towards her obvious superiors such as Lady Verinder, and daughter, Rachel, whom Clack describes as “vulgar,” “unladlylike” and “unbecomingly flushed” ( 193). Indeed, the name “Drusilla” was likely selected by Collins for its Roman derivation as “strong one” or “warrior”, thereby characterizing her personality as one that is both uncompromising and imposing. While constantly criticizing others for want of proper feminine modesty, as was expected in the 1850’s, Clack herself, with the aid of her absurd tracts such as “Satan in the Hairbrush,” is unshakably assertive and bold, thereby symbolizing the permeation of religious hypocrisy throughout society (211). Ironically, while the other characters are annoyed to no end by Drusilla’s impertinence, they react to her in a way that is far more Christian-like than Clack herself. Rachel attempts friendship with Drusilla after Lady Verinder’s death, Mr. Blake presents his compliments despite being sent a profusion of religious extracts, and Mr. Bruff even comically refers to Miss Clack as his “fair friend” (251). The reaction of others to Clack’s odd behavior emphasizes her role as a caricature of religious extremism, and results in satire that is humorous as well as deeply pertinent to mid-19th century English society.
Like Clack’s overbearing fanaticism, the superstition of Gabriel Betteredge serves as a medium of characterization and comic relief. In addition, Betteredge’s droll quirks, especially concerning his beloved Robinson Crusoe and pipe of tobacco, work to highlight the clash of old tradition versus modern realism. In a humorous episode between Betteredge and Blake after the latter has just returned from abroad and asks if the book predicted his arrival, the old steward replies “By the lord Harry, Mr. Franklin…that’s exactly what Robinson Crusoe has done!” (279). Indeed, the uncanny power of Robinson Crusoe to predict events in Betteredge’s life is likely based on the old man’s ability to skew the meaning of its words rather than any true supernatural ability on the novel’s part. However, Betteredge’s steadfast devotion to the book and its unfailing “remedy…in cases of doubt and emergency,” reveals the traditional stubbornness of old age in contrast to Franklin Blake’s jovial disbelief and dismissal of the behavior as an oddity (13). While this juxtaposition is employed by the author to fuel a theme of superstition versus objectivism in the immediate environment of the novel,Collins also uses it as a demonstration of conflict during the Industrial Revolution. Britain was witnessing unprecedented changes from rural farming life to fast-paced urban life, as represented by the antithetical personalities of Betteredge and Blake. At the same time, the powerful British Empire was establishing colonies around the globe. Gabriel Betteredge’s dogged reliance on a pipe of English-grown tobacco and Robinson Crusoe, a novel promoting the success of early imperialism, reveals the iron-fisted superiority Britain felt while establishing its dominance in the world arena.
As a corollary to imperialism and social stratification present in society during the mid 19th century, Collins uses the reactions of other characters towards three Hindoos to comment on English prejudice and lack of knowledge about foreign customs. An illustration of this stubborn ignorance is Gabriel Betteredge, who frequently displays prejudice towards the “snaky” Indians by referring to them as “rogues” and fearing their theft of the family plate-basket and Moonstone, while at the same time adamantly claiming he is the “last person in the world to distrust another person because he happens to be a few shades darker” (17). Miss Clack further highlights English bias through another absurd admonition: “How soon may our own evil passions prove to be Oriental noblemen who pounce on us unawares!” (188). In contrast, the wise Mr. Murthwaite serves as a foil to Betteredge, Clack, and society in general by truly understanding the mysterious actions of the Indians. During Murthwaite’s conversation with Mr. Bruff, it becomes clear that misinterpretations have resulted in blind prejudice. For example, the traveler explains that the employment of the clairvoyant boy is “a development of the romantic side of the Indian character,” and is “quite inconceivable…to the English mind” (269).
Through Collins’ portrayal of his characters as microcosmic expressions of the mid-19th century English society, The Moonstone has come to symbolize and satirize many aspects of the Victorian Era, Industrial Revolution, and Age of Imperialism. Despite being written over a century and a half ago, many of the issues that Collins expounded are still pertinent today. Indeed, the author himself acknowledges this in the epilogue by writing, “So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycles of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell?” (446).
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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