The Woman in White

by Wilkie Collins

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Student Question

How does Victorian society impact Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White?

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There are many ways in which Victorian society is important in understanding the novel The Woman in White. First, while the story is primarily a mystery, it also has Gothic or sensational overtones. This was an important and growing genre in Victorian society, in part as an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and the decline of the mystery and reverence surrounding the essential place of religion and the Church in the wake of the Enlightenment movement. Gothic fiction formed an integral part of people’s reading going back to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto in 1764. Jane Austen alluded to and even satirized Gothic literature in Northanger Abbey, whose heroine, Catherine Morland, is riveted by Ann Radcliffe’s sensational writings.

Thus, when The Woman in White protagonist Walter Hartright meets a young woman dressed all in white who appears suddenly in the luminescent light of the night moon as if by magic, it plays to the popularity of Gothic literature—particularly seemingly Gothic or supernatural themes that eventually can be explained away by facts and reality.

Another way in which understanding Victorian society is key to understanding the book is that the woman is clad entirely in white. In Victorian society, it was imperative that women—particularly women of a certain class—be pure, as signified by the white dress in which this mysterious woman is clad.

Moreover, another key trope during this time period was that women were helpless. They relied on men for almost everything. Consider how certain heroines in Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charlotte Bronte bent this trope. Elizabeth Bennet, Margaret Hale, and Jane Eyre, for example, took agency and responsibility for their lives and actions, which makes them noteworthy. Thus, the mysterious woman appearing in front of a man in The Woman in White and begging for his assistance plays to the Victorian era helplessness trope. The story even begins with,

This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.

This underscores the resolute action of the man who has agency and acts versus the passive “patience” of the woman who must endure and wait for the man to come to her rescue.

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