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The Woman in White: Criticism and Interpretation

Updated on August 16, 2017
herrypaul profile image

herrypaul has a bachelor's degree in English Literature, he likes analyzing economic, political, literature, and religion views.

The Woman in White Background.
The Woman in White Background. | Source

The best men are not consistent in good—why should the worst men be consistent in evil?

— Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

Truly I do not know why I write this writing, perhaps I like The Woman in White's story so much or perhaps I observe so many people write and analyze The Woman in White's story.

If I talk further... actually The Woman in White was my Thesis which I wrote in 2006-2007, which was one of requirements for The Bachelor's degree in English Literature - that's why many my Hubs discuss about social, cultural, and historical in Britain.

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White.
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. | Source

The Woman in White is considered a masterwork and a bestseller novel; it's the same with The Grape of Wrath's novel which written by John Steinbeck. The Woman in White is a very popular name -and has so many versions in stories -and relates to an insidious story, a supernatural story, a ghost story, or a legend story.

As long as I read the novel, I draw conclusions:

Wilkie Collins is a master of mystery, and The Woman in White is his first excursion into genre. When the hero, Walter Hartright ( I sure Hartright is Collins himself), on moonlit night in London, encounters a solitary, terrified a beautiful woman dressed in white, he feels impelled to solve the mystery of her distress. The intricate plot is peopled with a finely characterized cast, from the peevish invalid Mr. Fairlie to the corpulent villain Count Fosco and the enigmatic women herself.

The Woman in White portrays Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco: they appear to be the genuine gentlemanly article, but this exterior respectability and elevated social status mark unscrupulous private behavior. Sir Percival's name suggests ancient heraldic honor, but his improper claim to the baronetcy is the pompous and unlikely titles; Madame Fosco's biography declares her dead husband to have been a martyr to the cause of defending aristocratic rights (p. 497), but this heroism is compromised by his having spied for a foreign power and thus having betrayed his radical principles. These reckless and roguish aristocrats are compared unfavorably to the sober, industrious Hartright: notwithstanding the fact that he comes from an artistic background, and decamps as a lovelorn adventurer to the wilds of Central America, he is able to earn a respectable professional income. He professes himself uninterested in financial gain when marrying Laura, but it is his son who becomes the rightful heir to the Limmeridge estate.. Hartright ruefully observes that the Law is the pre-engaged servant of the long purse (p. 3), and the legal process proves an inadequate substitute for individual action.

Collins's narratives emphasize various types of doubling and reversed, and the doubling of Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie is structurally central to The Woman in White, since their uncanny effects of the women's resemblance are heightened by their barely perceptible dissimilarities. The realization of their affinity first steals over Hartright as a disconcerting sensation: The doubt which had troubled my mind for hours and hours past flashed into conviction in an instant. That something wanting was my own recognition of the ominous likeness between the fugitive from the asylum and my pupil at Limmeridge House (p. 46). Anne is the something wanting in Laura, the ominous shadow that falls across and supplements her idealized image. In addition, Laura is confined in Anne's place, the propitiatory of the asylum finds perplexing but intangible differences in his returned patient (p. 331).

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White.
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. | Source

Women can resist a man's love, a man's fame, a man's personal appearance, and a man's money, but they cannot resist a man's tongue when he knows how to talk to them.

— Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

The Woman in White exhibits that the novel is divided into two parts: narrative and exposition. The narrative part tells about the Walter Hartright's lives, as the protagonist of the story, while the exposition part describes the background and Collins' depiction of events during 19th century.

In the novel Collins interweaves the narrative with the exposition. e.g., the first chapter gives a picture of London. Both the long hot summer and the hum of the street-traffic made the people of London thought of the cloud-shadows on the cornfield, and the autumn was blowing on the sea-shore. The following part might show this atmosphere:

The evening, I remembered, was still and cloudy; the London air was at its heaviest; the distant hum of the street-traffic was at its faintest; the small pulse of the life within me, and the great heart of the city around me, seemed to be sinking in unison, languidly and more languidly, with the sinking sun (p. 5).

In chapter two Collins introduces professor Pesca, one of the characters of the Walter Hirtright's friend. They met the first time when Walter helped Pesca suffering from cramp on the sea, he said,"who found me dead at the bottom of the sea (through cramp); and who pulled me up to the top, and what did I say when I got into my own life and my own clothes again?" this might bring a massage that an act is moral when it promotes an action's goodness. An action is the right one to perform. Walter refers to an unselfish or selfless person. He does self-sacrifice for helping a person needs it. A generous act is simply where a person wants to help someone else.

Chapter three deals with sympathy for someone. It describes that sympathy for someone is like the feeling of being sorry for someone that is helpless. In this context, Walter, who was on way back London, met a solitary woman, dressed from head to foot in white, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London (p. 16). Collins describes that sympathy for someone is our basic moral intuitions about justice, as the following:

What could I do? Here was a stranger utterly and helplessly at my mercy and that stranger a forlorn woman. No house was near, no one was passing whom I could consult; no earthly right existed on my part to give me a power of control over her, even if I had known how to exercise it. I trace these lines, self-distrustfully, with the shadows of after-events darkening the very paper I write on; and still I say, what could I do? (p. 18).

The examples of the first three chapters above reflect how Collins shows the attitude of human life is the interest of a individual that must take impartially as, at least, part of what it means to take a moral point of view, which we must look for it in any proposed moral principle. Each chapter contains a certain message or description which refers to etchings or high values, which are represented in life society.

Collins has been really motivated by biblical messages. He presents a character who usually quoted verses from the Bible in her statements. Hartright cites the biblical distum: "The sins of the father shall be visited on the children" (p. 440). Hartright is, representative of the religious people, regarded religion as an important part of his life.

The marks of the secret paternal crimes, illegitimate children, and fraudulent transmission property, also find symbolic expression Sir Percival Glyde's isolated home, Blackwater Part, where the genuine antiquity, sits uneasily alongside modernity. Hartright, Laura, and Marian in London and Limmeridge obliquely resemble unconventional relationship between Collins, Caroline Graves and Marthaad Rudd.


The Woman In White, published 1993 by Wordsworth Editions Limited 8b East Street, ware, Hertfordshire SG12 9HJ. Introduction and Notes added Scott Brewster in 2002.


Submit a Comment

  • rebelogilbert profile image

    Gilbert Arevalo 

    19 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

    I would love to read the novel and see the movie. I'll look out for the film on Turner Classics. Harry Paul, you did an excellent job getting me interested in the novel with story passage examples, description of characters, and outstanding images. The theatrical trailer didn't hurt any, either.


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