Wilkie Collins Long Fiction Analysis
At its best, Wilkie Collins’s fiction is characterized by a transparent style that occasionally pleases and surprises the reader with an apt turn of word or phrase, by a genius for intricate plots, by a talent for characterization that in at least one instance must earn the epithet “Miltonic,” and by an eye for detail that seems to make the story worth telling. These are the talents of an individual who learned early to look at things like a painter, to see the meaning, the emotion behind the gesture or pose—a habit of observation that constituted William Collins’s finest bequest to his elder son.
Narrative style and plotting
The transparency of Collins’s style rests on his adherence to theconventions of the popular fiction of his day. More so than contemporaries, he talks to readers, cajoles them, often protesting that the author will recede into the shadows in order that readers may judge the action for themselves. The “games”—as one critic has observed—that Collins plays with readers revolve about his mazelike plots, his “ingenuous” interruptions of thenarrative, and his iterative language, symbolic names, and metaphors. Thus, at the beginning of “Mrs. Zant and the Ghost,” published in Little Novels, the narrator begins by insisting that this tale of “supernatural influence” occurs in the daylight hours, adding, “The writer declines to follow modern examples by thrusting himself and his opinions on the public view. He returns to the shadow from which he has emerged, and leaves the opposing forces of incredulity and belief to fight the old battle over again, on the old ground.” The apt word is “shadow,” for certainly, this story depicts a shadow world. At its close, when the preternatural events have occurred, the reader is left to assume a happy resolution between the near victim Mrs. Zant and her earthly rescuer, Mr. Rayburn, through the mood of the man’s daughter: Arrived at the end of the journey, Lucy held fast by Mrs. Zant’s hand. Tears were rising in the child’s eyes. “Are we to bid her good-bye?” she said sadly to her father. He seemed to be unwilling to trust himself to speak; he only said, “My dear, ask her yourself.” But the result justified him. Lucy was happy again.
Here, Collins’s narrator has receded like Mrs. Zant’s supernatural protector, leaving the reader to hope and to expect that Mrs. Zant can again find love in this world.
This kind of exchange—direct and inferred—between author and reader can go in other directions. For example, when, near the middle of The Woman in White, one realizes that Count Fosco has read—as it were—over one’s shoulder the diary of Miss Halcolmbe, the author surely intends that one should feel violated while at the same time forced into collusion with the already attractive, formidable villain.
Because Collins’s style as narrator is so frequently self-effacing, it sustains the ingenuity of his plots. These are surely most elaborate in The Woman in White and The Moonstone. In both cases, Collins elects to have one figure, party to the main actions, assemble the materials of different narratives into cohesive form. It is a method far less tedious than that of epistolary novels and provides for both mystery and suspense. Although not the ostensible theme in either work, matters of self-identity and control over one’s behavior operate in the contest between virtue and vice, good and evil. Thus, Laura Fairlie’s identity is obliterated in an attempt to...
(The entire section is 1458 words.)