Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790
Often called the first Victorian detective novel, The Moonstone explores a fascination with the Orient—here embodied by British Imperial India—and a priceless diamond that turns into deadly obsession. The author’s meticulous attention to detail is displayed in the plotting and in the now-classic setting of an English country house. The novel centers on Sergeant Cuff’s investigation of the theft of a fabled diamond nicknamed the Moonstone, while developing several subplots that feature intrigue and romance.
The prologue, supposedly extracted from an eighteenth-century document written by a cousin of the supposed current possessor of the stone, lays out the Yellow Diamond’s mysterious heritage in Seringatam, India. It traces the fabulous stone’s divine origin from the forehead of the Indian Moon God and relates that the stone owes its name to its fabled changing of color and luster depending on the moon’s cycle. The writer explains how the Hindu deity Vishnu laid a curse on the priceless stone and how it was then stolen by the Muslim (“Mohammedan”) invaders.
Vishnu the Preserver appeared to the three Brahmins in a dream. . . . The deity commanded that the Moonstone should be watched, from that time forth, by three priests in turn, night and day, to the end of the generations of men. . . . The deity predicted certain disaster to the presumptuous mortal who laid hands on the sacred gem, and to all of his house and name who received it after him. . . .
After several exchanges, all of which brought the predicted bad luck to its temporary possessor, it landed in the hands of the Sultan Tippoo, who mounted it in an ornamental dagger. During the wars for English control of the Subcontinent, a hot-tempered English officer named John Herncastle stole it and killed the man guarding it, who with his last breath called down a curse:
The dying Indian sank to his knees, pointed to the dagger in Herncastle’s hand, and said, in his native language—“The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours!” He spoke those words, and fell dead on the floor.
Back in England, Herncastle keeps the stone in a vault but lets it be known that it will pass to his niece, Rachel Verinder, upon his death. When this occurs, following its presentation to Rachel at her birthday party, the stone disappears. Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard now begins the intricate process of solving the mystery of the theft. His considerable powers of deduction are evident as he explains to Rachel’s mother, Lady Verinder, that Rachel’s hostility toward him when he began the investigation indicates that she may herself be involved, perhaps needing proceeds from selling it to pay a debt, such as from gambling.
My own experience explains Miss Verinder’s otherwise incomprehensible conduct. It associates her with those other young ladies that I know of. It tells me she has debts she daren’t acknowledge, that must be paid. And it sets me asking myself, whether the loss of the Diamond may not mean—that the Diamond must be secretly pledged to pay them.
Rachel’s cousin and suitor, Franklin Blake, soon becomes involved in the investigation, intent on clearing her and himself of suspicion. He learns from Jennings, assistant to the local doctor, that he had been drugged with opium, in the form of laudanum, the night of the theft, which blurred his memory. Jennings suggests, a year later, that he repeat the dosage and they recreate the scene of that night, hoping to shed light on what actually transpired. When they do so, Jennings describes Blake’s symptoms.
So far as it...
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is possible for me to judge, he promises (physically speaking) to be quite as susceptible to the action of the opium tonight as he was at this time last year. He is, this afternoon, in a state of nervous sensitiveness which just stops short of nervous irritation. He changes colour readily; his hand is not quite steady; and he starts at chance noises, and at unexpected appearances of persons and things.
These results have all been produced by deprivation of sleep, which is in its turn the nervous consequence of a sudden cessation in the habit of smoking, after that habit has been carried to an extreme. Here are the same causes at work again, which operated last year; and here are, apparently, the same effects.
Further complications arise as Blake, the next day, does not recover his memories. Cuff resumes the investigation, which ultimately leads them to a mysterious bearded sailor. When he turns up dead, he is unmasked as Godfrey Ablewhite, another guest in the home the earlier night, to whom Blake had given the stone while in his opium-impaired state.