The Luminaries

by Eleanor Catton

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The Luminaries Summary

The Luminaries is a novel by Eleanor Catton that examines a series of mysterious occurrences in Hokitika, New Zealand, during the gold rush of the 1860s.

  • The protagonist, Walter Moody, arrives from Britain in 1866. In his hotel, he finds a group of twelve men discussing recent events.
  • A prostitute, Anna Wetherell, appears to have attempted suicide; a recluse, Crosbie Wells, has been killed; and Emery Staines, a gold miner, has disappeared.
  • After following the men’s conversation and subsequent events of the present day, the novel shifts back to 1865 to recount the backstory that led up to the novel’s beginning.


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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1523

Set in 1866 New Zealand during the height of the gold rush, The Luminaries opens with protagonist Walter Moody’s arrival on the West Coast of Hokitika in a bid to make his fortune from gold. When Moody arrives at the Crown Hotel, he enters a smoking room where twelve men are congregated in what appears to be a “party accidentally met.”

Moody hints that his voyage aboard the ship Godspeed is one steeped in horror and mystery, and he has flashbacks of a “clutching silver hand.” Walter has come to Hokitika following his father and brother’s deception. After Walter’s mother died, his father, Adrian, remarried; Adrian eventually abandoned his new wife, leaving her penniless. Later in the novel, Moody catches up with his father, a drunk and unforgiving man, and it emerges that his father and brother, Frederick, had arranged the abandonment together, leaving Moody feeling betrayed by the men he had thought closest to him.

The men at the Crown reveal that a series of tragic events has brought them together—the attempted suicide of a prostitute, Anna Wetherell; the murder of a local hermit, Crosbie Wells; and the disappearance of a gold miner named Emery Staines. Alistair Lauderback, one of the men, had been attempting to run for the Westland Parliament and, on the journey to Hokitika, discovered Crosbie Wells dead in his cottage and Anna Wetherell unconscious in the street.

The men’s retelling of events reveals that Crosbie’s wife, Lydia, and her lover, the villainous Francis Carver, stole Wells’s fortune. Carver introduced himself to Lauderback as Francis Wells, thus implying that he was the brother of Crosbie Wells. He used his knowledge of Lauderback’s affair with Lydia to blackmail Lauderback into giving him the Godspeed. Lauderback’s trunk, containing dresses weighted with four thousand pounds of gold, then disappeared, and Anna later purchased these dresses from the wrecked Titania. When Quee Long, a goldsmith, found out about the dresses, he took the gold and smelted it as if it had come from the Aurora mine, ensuring that some of the profit was returned to him.

Anna, who was apparently pregnant with Carver’s baby, was assaulted by Carver, which is thought to have resulted in the loss of the baby. Carver had been seen in the area surrounding Wells’s cottage with a vial of laudanum, and he had sailed for Dunedin shortly after Wells’s death. Lydia then turned up to claim her late husband’s property. While clearing out Wells’s cottage, Reverend Devlin discovered a deed of two thousand pounds intended for Anna. The deed was signed by Wells, the witness, but not Staines, who intended to give Anna the money.

Once the men have finished recounting their narratives, Moody reveals that while aboard the Godspeed, he heard a voice shouting “Magdalena, Magdalena, Magdalena” while down in the cargo hold. The voice—in addition to a “furious knocking”—was coming from inside a shipping crate, and when Moody pried the crate’s lid open, a bloodied man emerged. The men believe that this man was Emery Staines, and one of the men explains that the name Magdalena must refer to Anna, as it is “a name to give a whore.” Moody is unsure if the bloodied man was real or simply an “apparition,” but before they can reach a conclusion, the boy guarding the council bursts through the door and tells them that the Godspeed has been wrecked.

Sook, a Chinese man, reveals that his hatred of Francis Carver is linked to a family betrayal. Sook’s father owned a warehouse, and Carver framed him for the possession of opium that...

(This entire section contains 1523 words.)

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had been trafficked by Carver himself. Sook’s father was executed without trial. Years later, when Sook traveled with Carver to Sydney, Sook visited a brothel where Carver was staying and was assaulted in the street. A prostitute gave him opium, and Sook realized it was branded with his family name, signifying that Carver had betrayed him. When Sook went to try and kill Carver, he accidentally entered the room of the woman who helped him. The woman, named Margaret Shepard, shot her husband, Jeremy, in the head. Sook was caught running away and was consequently tried for murder, but when Margaret proclaimed that Jeremy committed suicide, Sook was freed.

Moody discovers that his recovered trunk belonged to Alistair Lauderback. He finds the deed from the sale of the Godspeed inside it. Carver has signed the bill ambiguously, so it could be read as either Francis Wells or Francis C. Wells. Moody also uncovers through letters that Crosbie Wells was Lauderback’s illegitimate brother.

Francis Carver and Lydia Wells are now engaged. Moody comes across Sook, who tells him of his intention to kill Carver that night.

Reverend Devlin goes to visit Anna with the deed that had been signed by Wells but not Staines. She takes the deed from him and, despite being illiterate, returns it with a perfect replica of Emery Staines’s signature. Reverend Devlin is furious by the act of fraud, but Anna insists that it is Staines’s signature. She says that she knows he is still alive, as she receives messages from him inside her head.

Tauwhare is walking through the Arahura River and discovers Emery Staines nearby. Emery has a gunshot wound and seems disoriented, believing that he has only been missing a few days. Tauwhare organizes medical attention for him. Meanwhile, Sook waits outside the Crown Hotel for Carver. Before Sook can attack Carver, George Shepard shoots and kills Sook. Shepard later confides in Reverend Devlin that his wife, Margaret, was the first wife of his brother, Jeremy Shepard. George married Margaret out of a sense of duty after Jeremy died. Despite Margaret’s testimony, George had continued to believe that Sook was guilty of killing Jeremy.

Staines, who set up the Aurora mine, a false or “duffer” claim, with Carver, is arrested on suspicion of fraud, embezzlement, and dereliction. Anna is charged with forgery, public intoxication, and “grievous assault,” as a bullet wound Staines received appears to have come from her pistol. Moody is engaged to represent Anna and Emery. Staines pleads guilty to the charges against him. He claims he did not bank the gold, as he did not want Carver to get fifty percent of their shared claim. Anna pleads not guilty to all of her charges.

The signature on the bill of sale for the Godspeed is shown to be different from Wells’s signature on his letters and Anna’s deed. Therefore, Moody declares that the signature on the bill of sale is a forgery by Carver. Consequently, Carver is found guilty of obtaining the Godspeed through impersonation and fraud. Staines is sentenced to nine months of labor, and Anna is acquitted. Outside the courtroom, the bailiff tells Tauwhare that they will be transporting Carver back to Seaview and asks if he wants to accompany them. He declines but stares at the latch on the carriage where Carver is. Moments later, the sergeant bursts into court and announces that Carver has been bludgeoned to death.

Moody’s father, Adrian, arrives in Hokitika to ask for Moody’s forgiveness. He explains that he left Britain due to debt. Meanwhile, Moody decides to set out once more to seek his fortune. He meets a man named Paddy Ryan who is also heading north, and the two pass the time by telling each other stories.

The novel shifts back to 1865. Lydia does Anna’s astral chart, and it is revealed that the man she just met on the Fortunate Wind, Emery Staines, is her “astral soul-mate.” As Lydia and Anna prepare for a party at the House of Many Wishes, Wells discovers that his gold is missing.

Carver plans to kill Wells, but Wells clubs him over the head. Wells carves a C, for Carver, into Carver’s face before fleeing. Staines comes across Wells, who claims that his birth certificate and fortune have been stolen. He only has a golden nugget left. Staines, remembering how Carver once changed his name to “Wells,” asks Wells if he knows Carver. Wells confirms that it was Carver that stole his identity, and Staines agrees to cash the nugget for him.

Carver comes upon Anna on the road. A gunshot nearby spooks Carver’s horse, which rears up, evidently knocking Anna unconscious and causing her to lose her baby. Clinch and Löwenthal, two of the twelve men from the novel’s beginning, come across her on the road and try to help. To protect Wells, Anna tells them that Carver was the child’s father. Staines goes to tell Wells that Wells’s baby has been lost, and the two draw up the deed for Anna.

Staines goes to visit Anna, whom he instantly has feelings for. He decides to buy her for the night so they can spend time together. The Luminaries concludes cyclically with the events that occurred at its opening: this is the same night that Wells is killed, Staines disappears, and Anna is found unconscious in the street.


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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1665

Author: Eleanor Catton (b. 1985)

Publisher: Little, Brown (New York). 848 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1866

Locale: Hokitika, New Zealand

Catton's nineteenth-century mystery/love-story takes place during gold rush days in southwestern New Zealand and involves multiple characters patterned after signs of the zodiac.

New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton's second novel, The Luminaries, broke two records in 2013: At the age of twenty-eight, she became the youngest author to win Britain's Man Booker Prize, and at over eight hundred pages, her novel became the longest book to win the prize.

The Luminaries has a scrupulous structure in which characters are patterned after stellar and planetary influences and therefore are highly determined in their motivation and action. The book therefore spreads itself out in multiple directions and then elaborately doubles back on itself, much like the ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a dragon, worm, or serpent eating its own tail. Indeed, it is perhaps the self-conscious and highly elaborated structure of the book that most attracted the Man Booker judges. Robert McFarlane, the chair, likened it to an astrolabe, an instrument sailors used to locate the position of the stars. Catton, fascinated with patterns and systems, has said that she started the book not with characters and plot, but with forms.

The reader is alerted to the self-conscious, possibly parodic nature of the book when it begins on a dark and stormy night. Walter Moody, trained as a lawyer and bound from Scotland to the New Zealand gold fields, arrives in the booming gold rush town of Hokitika after a harrowing experience in a shipwreck off the coast two weeks earlier. The reader is made aware of the conventional Victorian mystery nature of the novel by being told that while on board Moody witnessed an event so extraordinary that it called all other realities into doubt, while perversely withholding information about what he actually saw until the last half of the book. Moody encounters twelve men in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. They have gathered to share stories of their interest in several recent mysteries— including the death of a hermit, the attempted suicide of a prostitute, and the disappearance of a young man. Moody becomes the central "unraveler" as he plays the role of detective and tries to piece together the various strands of the stories into a coherent and intelligible pattern.

Catton says she used the zodiac as a structural device because she needed a situation in which twelve men would be fixed in their relationship to each other and seven other "figures" (she does not use the word characters) would enter and exit this fixed twelve-spoke wheel. The other seven characters are governed by planetary influences. For example, Walter Moody embodies reason, while Frances Carver is governed by force, and Lydia (Wells) Carver is motivated by desire. The dead Crosbie Wells is appropriately identified with terra firma. Although Catton says she was particularly interested in the historical context of the nineteenth-century gold rush in New Zealand because it marked a shift toward the individual, her decision to use the zodiac to determine the personality and motivation of her characters has been criticized for making the human figures in her book over-determined and thus lacking in individual freedom.

This elaborately structured fiction is told in the voice and language of a British Victorian novel, albeit a particular kind of melodramatic mystery novel popularized by Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868), peopled by two-dimensional characters with Dickensian names. The opening "Note to the Reader" introduces the zodiac motif and the Victorian point-of-view convention of a narrator identified as "we." Catton establishes the context of the novel as being in the "Age of Pisces," an era she says is characterized by "mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things." She uses many of the conventions of the Victorian novel, with Holmesian language such as "something was afoot." Victorian prudishness forbids any but the slightest suggestions about sexuality; if a rude joke is told, it is not shared with the reader; even the word damned is written as "d—ned." When one character utters several profanities, the author says they are too vulgar to set down in the novel.

Inevitably, when a twenty-first century novel is presented as if it were a nineteenth-century work, the assumption is that it is an outright parody. However, Catton's novel is more than that; it is rather like an exploration of the novel as a form, much as John Fowles's 1969 postmodern novel The French Lieutenant's Woman was. In this way, Catton can play slyly with the conventions of the traditional Victorian novel, while at the same time taking it quite seriously as a paradigm of the form.

Eleanor Catton's first novel The Rehearsal (2008) won the Montana New Zealand Best First Book Award for Fiction in 2009. Her novel The Luminaries won the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Canadian Governor General's Literary Prize.

The first section of the book, which is titled "A Sphere within a Sphere" and comprises the first half of the novel, contains twelve subsections with titles such as "Mercury in Sagittarius" and "Sun in Capricorn." It focuses on the stories of the twelve men in the conclave and is mostly told in dialogues between various pairs, although the "we" narrator generously takes over the point of view when one of the men proves to be a less-than-facile storyteller—a narrative device that allows the all-knowing first-person plural narrator to reveal the perspective of each of the men in turn.

This first long section provides an opportunity for the novelist to sum up the role that each character has played in the mysteries. It also gives the author the opportunity to sum up her own narrative methods thus far, noting slyly and self-reflexively that the primary character–narrator has not told his tale chronologically, and his narrative has been complicated by interruptions and clarifications that have been chasing each other in endless circles, creating a convoluted picture that is difficult to see in its entirety. Almost at the halfway point in the book, conflicting stories about the central events and the major characters involved in them have been established. It is now just a matter of unraveling it all—the job of the author and her spokesman, Walter Moody.

In the latter part of the novel, once the reiteration of the details of the mystery and the physical description of the locale and the characters have been established, the chapters become shorter and the plot, already thickened, thins to a breakneck speed as the reader rushes toward a of completion of the pattern that has, as is typical of Victorian melodrama, involved murder, blackmail, mistaken identities, whores with hearts of gold, rigged séances, and a courtroom drama in which Walter Moody serves as a trained, but amateur lawyer.

Catton is aware of the demands she is placing on her readers. She describes each character in detail and provides each with biographical context and their stake in the various mysteries of the story, even reminding readers of who the characters are and what their involvement is each time they appear on the scene. Catton engages her readers with a mystery that ends not so much with a resolution as with a reunion.

Catton guides the reader through the novel by shifting from one perspective to another with the Victorian convention of informing the reader, "we will leave" a certain character and "turn our gaze" to another. Furthermore, the characters often make tongue-in-cheek self-reflexive remarks about the progress of the novel's attempt at solution, suggesting that there is some design behind it all and that if they "trace" back far enough, they will find the "author," adding that everything is "all of a piece." They are always aware that they are "plumbing the depth" and are engaged in a "quest for the truth." When a character refers to something that "smacks of plotting," the reader is aware of the double meaning involving both character and author.

The novelist-narrator engages in quasi-philosophical ruminations and explanations, pontificating at one point, for example, that although a man is judged by his actions, he judges himself by what he is willing to do or might have done, thus evoking the Victorian novel convention of a wise old author somewhere pulling the strings and mouthing words of wisdom. Many of the characters are also allowed to make universal pronouncements; one character says, for example, that there are no whole truths, only pertinent truths, and that pertinence is always a matter of perspective.

The novel abounds in the trappings of melodrama—a fallen woman tries to shoot herself but fires a blank; another is shot to test the workings of the pistol and simply disappears, only to be discovered hundreds of pages later. Among the many things at stake is a four thousand pound fortune in gold, which sometimes becomes identified with, or distinguished from, gold powder sewn in Anna Wetherell's dress

Chapters are introduced with headings summarizing what is to follow, usually with the convention of the chapter title being followed by the direction "in which," as in, "in which several confusions are put to rest and a symmetry presents itself." Other Victorian novel conventions include chapters made up of letters, brothers who are not brothers, murders that are really suicides, and various acts of revenge and retribution. The final sections of the book are so brief that the "in which" introductory summaries are longer than the sections themselves.

Review Sources

  • Bohjalian, Chris. "Booker Winner." Rev of The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Washington Post. Washington Post, 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.
  • Hunter, Shaunna E. Rev. of The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Library Journal 1 Dec. 2013: 87. Print.
  • Maslin, Janet. "Following the Stars in a Rush to Riches." Rev. of The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. New York Times 24 Oct. 2013: C1–C6. Print.
  • Roorbach, Bill. "When the Gold Dust Settles." Rev. of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. New York Times Book Review 10 Nov. 2013: 17. Print.
  • Rev. of The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Kirkus Reviews 1 Oct. 2013: 286. Print.