Book Review: The Moonstone by William Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone eBook by Wilkie Collins - 1230001902938 | Rakuten Kobo United  States

As a writer of the British Empire at the peak of the colonial era, Collins is immersed in the influence of colonialism and orientalism thinking mode. His image of the Eastern people inevitably shows the superiority of the subjects of the metropolitan country and the obvious racist attitude towards the colonial people. However, many factors in The Moonstone, such as the selection of time setting, plot arrangement, characterization and so on, can also be interpreted completely in the opposite way: Collins raises certain doubts and challenges to the colonial mentality. Collins’s choice of India as the setting is closely related to the Indian mercenary riots of 1857. The rioting started when the British authorities used butter and lard as lubricants for bullet clips that needed to be chewed through the mouth, and the mercenaries were mostly Hindus or Muslims. To them, touching the oil on these clips meant blasphemy against religion. Angry soldiers rioted, killing not only the British boss but also the innocent. Most of the reports in the British media distorted the facts of the case, and for a time, the name “bloodthirsty Indian” was constantly heard. Collins and Dickens collaborated on an article called “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners,” which exposed the insidious, cunning, and hypocrisy of colored people and praised the qualities of British soldiers. The Moonstone was written on the tenth anniversary of the riots, and newspapers and magazines are full of memories, memorials or reflections on the events. By this time, many British people had come to understand the truth and felt that the British authorities had been wrong to disregard the Indian soldiers’ religious beliefs, and Collins’s views had changed subtly. In the novel, his view of the relationship between Britain and India is no longer a simple tribute to the British empire, but an indirect expression of his deep reflection. The plot arrangement and characterization of the novel also reveal Collins’ questioning and criticism of the so-called noble morality of the colonists.

Several of the Englishmen involved in the jewel were from the upper middle class, but the cruelty and greed of Colonel Herncastle, who first grabbed the jewel, goes without saying, and the image of Abel White, the real black hand in the jewel theft, is ironic. The final collapse of the case exposed Abel White as a hypocritical English gentleman. He is the suitor of Rachel, the heroine. He is of noble birth, well-educated and has a noble career as a lawyer. He attends church regularly and is enthusiastic in organizing and participating in various charitable activities. He was a fine young man of uncommon appearance. He had a round, bright face, a ruddy complexion, and lovely blond hair. However, when the mystery is solved, his double identity is revealed: the bright surface conceals the dark inner heart, he not only leads a dissolved life, but also embezzles the client’s funds. After the financial crisis, in order to avoid ruin, he took the risk of stealing precious stones. It is intriguing that Collins has named such a sanctimonious figure Abel White. The image of an Indian was in stark contrast to Abel White’s imposing appearance. In the eyes of several narrators, the Indians are dark skinned, obtuse, and have a manner reminiscent of snakes. However, they had a clear goal and a firm belief. In order to retrieve the stolen holy moonstone, they broke the religious rules and sacrificed their lives to trace all the way to England, and finally returned the gem to its owner by tenacious perseverance, superhuman patience and shrewd calculation. The explorer concludes the novel by describing a grand Hindu religious ceremony celebrating the return of the jewel. His reverence rose to the page as he spoke of the three men going their separate ways, with the congregation around them making way for them in silence. The moonstone becomes a yardstick to measure the good and evil of human nature and a mirror to reflect the character’s morality.

Reflected in this mirror, the “barbarian” in the eyes of the Europeans became the guardian of virtue, while the English gentleman had forgotten what was virtuous. So when Abel White, the “capable white man”, is murdered by an Indian, the mood conveyed by the novel is not one of indignation, but of sympathy, admiration and relief that justice has been done. The moonstone is a sacred object of Hinduism. This gem is no longer just a physical indicator, but a spiritual and cultural sustenance. The twists and turns of its fate revealed that the economy of the English country estate was closely related to the colony. Events in the colony would eventually spread to the British mainland and cause social unrest in Britain. The moonstone exposes the brutality and greed of the colonists, reflecting their moral corruption and hypocrisy under the guise of religion and civilization. Moreover, through the influence of the gem on the family of the British gentry, the author implies that colonial affairs destroy the traditional social and family hierarchy order: only when the colonial gems leave the British mainland, the British family can restore normal order. Another theme of the novel is to celebrate Rachel’s pursuit of love, even though her pursuit is full of difficulties. She falls in love with Franklin before her birthday party, but on the night of the party, after witnessing him steal the moonstone, she begins to doubt their love. But no matter how sad she was, she chose to sacrifice her reputation for secrecy to protect Franklin. In the novel, there are three Indians who follow in the footsteps of the moonstone, and their task is to keep searching for the moonstone, without fear of sacrifice, even through generations of efforts, until the stone is returned to its original place. Rachel’s sacrifice was in the name of love, and the sacrifice of the three Indians was in the name of faith. The two kinds of sacrifice echoed and supported each other.

The horror and mystery reflected in The Moonstone is one of the important features of Gothic literature. Readers are always in the process of guessing the murderer, guessing wrong, continuing to guess and guessing wrong. Only by reading the ending did we discover who the real killer was. In The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins has a remarkably precise command of time and space, one of the basic abilities that most mystery novels have. In terms of narrative structure, the novel is just like drama and film shooting, which is divided into prologue, first part, second part and epilogue. In the second part, there are six stories to tell. The time of the narrative remains the same, and the gems are stolen one by one — the truth comes out, but after the jewel is stolen, the events in the second part are told separately by the six men, as if the police were looking for clues and inquiring about relevant personnel, and the parts of the six men’s separate stories seem to be independent. The overlap of time and the intersection of space weave an impenetrable web. Narration, flashbacks and interludes in space and time make the plot messy and complex, close and scattered, and the readers’ mood is controlled by the author. There are traps in Wilkie Collins’s narrative that draw the reader’s mind in mysterious and conspiring directions, yet he is so grounded in the goodness of human nature that, just when you want to believe in it, another well-reasoned accident pulls back a plot that has gone far. Finally, you seem to know how the gem came back to India, and you seem not to know. This kind of looming narrative is extraordinarily precise in its transformation of narrative vision. In the dialogue of the characters, the defects of the previous character are written back or made up, and the whole picture is reflected afterwards where random incident causes an uncontrollable scene.

-Coreen C.

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