Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572
The Moonstone diamond, stolen by John Herncastle at the fall of Seringapatan, India, in 1799 and bequeathed to his niece, Rachel Verinder, gives the novel its title. Its history, value, and disappearance prompt much of the work’s action.
When Franklin Blake, Rachel’s distant cousin, brings the moonstone to her for her birthday, it disappears. The list of suspects includes Franklin, Rachel herself, who obstructs the investigation to shield Franklin, and a trio of Indians sworn to return the stone to its sacred setting.
Rachel’s engagement to Godfrey Ablewhite ends abruptly when his gold-digging motives surface. Sergeant Cuff helps expose Ablewhite as an opportunist. Cuff also traces the diamond to a pawnbroker, a murdered sailor (Ablewhite in disguise), and clears the Hindus; but he does not recover the gem.
Collins gradually reveals, through a succession of narrators, that Rachel saw Franklin take the gem while he was sedated. Franklin gave it to Ablewhite to hold, and forgot he had done so once he awoke. Years later, once Franklin and Rachel have been married for some time, a traveler reports having seen the gem in the forehead of an Indian idol.
Collins not only fashioned the first highly wrought detective novel but also developed a prototypical figure in Sergeant Cuff, whose passion for growing roses gives him the touch of eccentricity characteristic of many of the most famous fictional detectives. Collins’ skill in plot construction, complete with the obligatory Victorian cliff-hanger chapter endings, is matched by his individualization of characters such as Cuff, arguably his most fully realized creation. Rachel vies for top billing in the novel: She is a spirited, intelligent, articulate, independent woman, a rare presence in nineteenth century fiction. Collins’ other characters, especially the feckless Franklin Blake and the opportunistic Godfrey Ablewhite, play superb supporting roles in this drama of mystery and love.
Heller, Tamar. Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Applies to Collins’ work, including The Moonstone, insights derived from feminist criticism, noting the influence on Collins of the gothic novel, one of the major nineteenth century genres associated with women.
Lonoff, Sue. Wilkie Collins and His Victorian Readers: A Study in the Rhetoric of Authorship. New York: AMS Press, 1982. In this study of the author’s relation to his contemporary audience, Lonoff finds in Collins’ work a covert rebellion against public opinion coupled with an overt desire to please. The book includes an extensive, lucid, and persuasive discussion of The Moonstone.
Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. A biography that is sensitive to the complexities of the man and appreciative of the accomplishment of the artist.
Taylor, Jenny Bourne. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth Century Psychology. London: Routledge, 1988. Explores the ways in which nineteenth century theories of the workings of the mind permeate Collins’ fiction. Discusses The Moonstone as crucially shaped by the process of interplay and transformation between models of the unconscious derived from these theories.
Thoms, Peter. The Windings of the Labyrinth: Quest and Structure in the Major Novels of Wilkie Collins. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992. Posits the quest for design as the thematic link among Collins’ major novels. In The Moonstone, no governing order is glimpsed behind the apparent disorderedness of life; design can therefore only be constructed out of the needs and desires of the characters.