Looking through the Racial Lens: Wilkie Collins in The Moonstone

by Joshua John

Wilkie Collins’ novel, The Moonstone, is set during a time when Britain’s crown jewel of their empire, India, was under constant turmoil, threatening to break free from its captors. With events like the Sepoy Mutiny, the annexation of Punjab, and the Opium Wars fresh in the mind of the British public, Britain’s collective opinion on colored people, specifically Indians, was not favorable. Trailokya Mukharji best captured this attitude by explaining that “[E]very nation in the world considers other nations as savages or at least much inferior to itself,” a perspective especially true of Britain, whose racist agendas were necessary to justify its colonial conquests (702). Though this judgmental attitude was widespread in Britain, Wilkie Collins held a far more sympathetic view toward Indians which he showed through his treatment of the Indians in The Moonstone.

            Indians were often seen as mindless savages that were inferior to the English in both mannerisms and language, but Collins portrays the Indians as dignified individuals, defying English stereotypes of Indians. Perhaps the most obvious example of Collins’ sympathy and respect toward Indians was their interaction with Gabriel Betteredge near the beginning of the novel. During the opening scenes of Betteredge’s written account, he comes across three Indians who want to perform for Lady Verinder. While Betteredge does turn them away, he notes that one of the Indians “exhibited… the most elegant manners” (Collins 16). In Victorian society, appearance was of the utmost importance in maintaining class distinction. As a member of Victorian society himself, Collins was aware of the importance manners played in the social constructs of his time, so he provides the Indians in the novel with enough grace that even Betteredege, an Englishman’s Englishman, is impressed by their social conduct. This reference to the Indian’s proper manners suggests that Collins believed that Indians were more than the simple-minded savages Britain thought them to be. A far more common view of the Indian man would have looked more like the following excerpt from Sumanta Banerjee, where he describes the Victorian view of Indians as “a group of immigrants who typically used their skills to engage in such games, that helped them to overcome their sense of inferiority” (62). The language employed in this interpretation of the Indian man in Britain is telling of the common opinion held at the time: the words “immigrant” and “inferiority” highlight the alienation and disrespect the Indians faced. The Indian juggler stereotype is reinforced by Collins, but the skills and games the Indians play as jugglers are not for escaping the suggested inferiority as a result of being an Indian. Instead, Collins demonstrates how the Indians use the juggler disguise to achieve their main objective, suggesting his respect for the Indians’ intelligence and their tactics. By attributing proper etiquette and intelligence to the Indians, Collins crafts a respectable figure that defies the stereotypes of its group. Furthermore, Collins represents the Indians as capable members of a Victorian society, able to maintain their manners and appearances in public, something the common English opinion would deny was possible for an Indian savage.

            To reinforce his positive portrayal of Indians, Collins showcases the inappropriate behavior of upper-class British society to show how far removed the Indians were from savages. During the events of The Moonstone, Rachel Verinder and Franklin Blake demonstrate their poor behavior and step out of their expected roles as upper class citizens. One of these instances is recalled by Miss Drusilla Clack, a relative of the Verinders; she witnesses an encounter between Rachel and Godfrey Ablewhite, writing, “‘I will hear it!’… She started to her feet with a scream…. ‘Don’t speak to me! Don’t touch me!’ she exclaimed” (Collins 207-8). In her response to Godfrey, Rachel loses her temper and yells at a man. Her behavior is unacceptable on two counts: her position as a member of the upper-class and her role as a woman. On the first count, her behavior is inappropriate because she is meant to represent the “good breeding” of her family (Collins 260). Secondly, Rachel violates the role of a woman in the Victorian household. The Victorian woman was, as Deborah Gorham elaborates, “reared for domesticity, and prepared… for a dependent and subordinate position…. [playing] the complex role of Angel in the House (102). Instead of upholding these values, Rachel defies both of the roles of an Angel and a subordinate to man through her vocal demands of Godfrey. Her expected domesticity is abolished through her abrupt yelling, and her offensive stance in her argument with Godfrey further alienates her from the typically submissive Victorian woman. Rachel’s rejection of these cultural norms would have her labeled as savage and uncouth. Moreover, Franklin exhibited behaviors that were almost animal-like when he saw Rachel again after her departure. In this meeting, Franklin approaches Rachel and the following scene takes place: “I saw nothing but the woman I loved coming nearer and nearer to me. She trembled; she stood irresolute. I could resist it no longer—I caught her in my arms, and covered her face with kisses” (Collins 338). Although Franklin was originally with Rachel to discuss the details of the Moonstone’s disappearance, his attraction to her as a woman comes first and foremost. Franklin’s description of the encounter even hints at a hunter stalking his prey. Employing words like “caught” and “trembled,” Collins strengthens the allusion to an animalistic hunter-prey relationship (338). To stress that Franklin’s action is involuntary, Collins also adds that Franklin “could resist it no longer,” showing that his outbreak of lust is purely instinctive (338). Driven entirely by his sexual instincts when confronting Rachel, he wholly ignores the Victorian view that such contact should not be based on raw impulse. Collins critiques Victorian society through both Rachel’s outbursts and Franklin’s impulses, showing that the members of the British upper class often fit the stereotypes of the savage animals they claimed Indians to be. Had either of these instances been from an Indian, he would immediately face British scrutiny and fall into the stereotype of the common Indian savage. However, by attributing such character flaws to the white members of British society while giving none to the Indians, Collins strengthens his belief that the Indian is no more a savage than the boldly rash and impulsively unrestrained main characters.

Collins also shows his sympathy toward Indians through his use and description of violence throughout the novel. Violence is a significant theme that is seen through various attempts at obtaining the Moonstone. While both the Indians and the British use violence to secure the possession of the diamond, the way Collins describes these violent acts contributes to his sympathetic attitude toward Indians. The first connection between violence and the Moonstone happens during the Storming of Seringapatam when John Herncastle attacks the Indians. Setting up a disturbing image of the battle, Collins writes, “A third Indian, mortally wounded… and I saw John Herncastle, with a torch in one hand, and a dagger dripping with blood…. [and] [t]he dying Indian sank to his knees” (4). The death of the Indians paints a cruel picture of colonial Britain’s invasion of India. Through his grotesque picturing of the Storming of Seringapatam, Collins is “call[ing] attention to imperial crime—lawless acts committed in the name of the empire” (Nayder 140). Herncastle in the Storming of Seringapatam personifies colonial Britain in its prime, wreaking havoc and destruction on the native people for personal gain. The allure of the “virgin-like” Moonstone develops the analogy of “the colonial rape of a feminized India” as a result of the “male theft of the moonstone” (Munjal). With England as the overbearing assaulter, the feminine India is constantly subject to these unrighteous colonial actions. With the strong allusions to the questionable and criminal acts of the colonization of India, Collins drenches the narrative with innocent Indian bloodshed by the British. However, Collins’ sentiment toward the Indians and colonization were not shared by his employer, Charles Dickens. Upon hearing of the Sepoy Rebellion, where around 100,000 Indians died, Dickens relished the fact that “wretched Hindoos [were] [being] blown from an English gun” (qtd. in Sutherland xii). He supported quelling the rebellion, and, unfortunately for the Indians, this opinion was widely shared by the rest of colonial Britain. In truth, Dickens was likely the best representation of the dominant view in Britain since he was a male of the middle class. During this time, colonial Britain’s racist views were widespread, as Catherine Robson explains: “The citizens of Great Britain were thus welded into a more cohesive whole. But few of them were ready to accept the peoples of the colonies (and especially indigenous nonwhite populations) as truly ‘British’” (685). It is Charles Dickens’ view, representative of the overwhelming majority in Britain, that Collins chooses to challenge in his writing. By emphasizing in the prologue the violence and bloodshed in India, Collins immediately brings into question the legitimacy and justification of Britain’s actions toward the Indians instead of following the racist bandwagon colonial Britain rode.

In another example of violence regarding the Indians and the Moonstone, Collins emphasizes the intelligent and nonviolent nature of the Indians as they complete their objective of obtaining the Moonstone, showing that they are worthy of respect. The Moonstone, ever since it was in the custody of Septimus Luker, a dealer in ancient gems and carvings, had been in London under the close and conniving watch of the Indians. Around the same time, during his stay in London, Godfrey receives a note for him to visit a house for his charity work, and upon arriving at the house, he “felt himself suddenly seized round the neck from behind…. his eyes were bandaged, his mouth was gagged, and he was thrown helpless on the floor by (as he judged) two men. A third rifled his pockets, and… searched him” (Collins 196). The Indians needed to conduct a search of Godfrey’s pockets, and in order to search his pockets, the Indians had to carefully plan a scheme that involved using a letter to deceive Godfrey into arriving at the house. Collins uses this short interaction between Godfrey and the three Indians to emphasize the thoroughness of their actions. The amount of time the crime took is also worth noting, as the description of the events only occupies four sentences, suggesting the crime was committed swiftly and efficiently. Godfrey also had no recollection of the Indians ever talking during his detainment, which pointed to the level of organization the Indians had before committing the crime. Collins could have portrayed the interaction as a typical street robbery, but this would only affirm the poor opinion the British had for the Indians. By instead showcasing a well-executed plan, Collins gives the Indians a level of intelligence that most of the British would deny. The same occurrence takes place in the home of Luker, where “[e]xactly what had happened to Mr. Godfrey in Northumberland Street now happened to Mr. Luker in Alfred Place” (Collins 198). The Indians carried out their attack and search in the quickest way possible, much like the first attack on Godfrey, but in this case, the Indians’ endeavor was successful: they found the slip of paper they were looking for. Both of these had taken place similarly, in each case with minimal violence. In both of the searches, they refrain from using any weapons, and the only forceful tool is the “tawny naked arm” of one of the Indians. Collins, again, could have easily given the Indians some sort of weapon, but instead, he chooses to show them unarmed, or rather, bare-armed. As Ashish Roy describes, this connection between unarmed Indians and innocence is rooted in the “Sepoy Revolt of 1857-58, which began as… an uprising and ended in widespread… [b]loody reprisals,” where hundreds of thousands of innocent unarmed Indians died to British hands. Collins also employs other examples of the Indians’ innocence, showing how the Indians do not kill or permanently harm Godfrey and Luker, something that may have occurred if the perpetrators were British and the perpetrated were Indian.  By representing them in this manner, Collins brings out two key aspects: the Indians are intelligent and efficient in their crimes, and the Indians are characterized by innocence and nonviolence.

Collins uses great detail to elicit a reaction of, at the least, severe questioning of Britain’s violent actions in India; Godfrey’s murder is the third example of violence in connection with the Moonstone. The lack of detail here shows a level of innocence and righteousness from the Indians. Godfrey’s murder is given scant detail: Collins dedicates hardly a page to describing the Indians committing the crime. In a correspondence with Franklin Blake regarding the murder, Sergeant Cuff affirms, “[H]e was killed (while he was asleep, or imeadiately on his waking) by being smothered with a pillow from his bed –  that the persons guilty of murdering him are the three Indians” (Collins 445). Even though the Indians did kill Godfrey, they did so in the most nonviolent manner possible: smothering him using a pillow. After going to great lengths to make the method of killing as mundane and innocent as a pillow smothering, Collins even adds the possibility of Godfrey being asleep while he was murdered, giving an even softer image of death. The fact that the death happened without the readers witnessing it in the text also lessens the severity of the killing when compared to the killings by John Herncastle at Seringapatam. In contrast, every violent action from the Indians seems to be covered by a film of innocence, as the killings are never gruesome. Collins’ suggestion of the possibility of a painless death seems to hint at his support of the Indians’ struggle, even if he is not supportive of the crime itself. When given an option on whether to support the Indians or the British, Collins clearly chose the Indians through his depiction of violence.

Collins contrasts the main characters’ selfish motivations to that of the Indians, who act to reclaim their religious centerpiece, rather than greedily yearning for self-gain. The first character with a clear motive to find the Moonstone is Franklin. Although the Moonstone has great monetary value, Franklin’s interest with the Moonstone relates to his honor. When the Moonstone is first declared missing, Franklin is the first to go out and fetch the police, making the search for the diamond a personal matter. Betteredge recounts Franklin’s actions, explaining, “he first sent for the servants… Mr. Franklin suggested next extending our inquiries to Miss Rachel, and sent Penelope to knock at her bedroom door” (Collins 79). Franklin is the character who steps up when the knowledge of the lost diamond reaches the Verinder household. His immediate reaction of attempting to find it while other characters remain in a state of shock is because of his honor. Franklin makes it clear to Rachel that his main concern is with his honor when he approaches her a second time about the Moonstone, confessing, “If my honour was not in your hands… I would leave you this instant” (Collins 339). Franklin’s obsession with preserving his honor is a driving force in the novel, but it ruins many relationships and family ties in the process, such as his relationship with Rachel for more than a year. Another example of a character trying to obtain the Moonstone for his own self-gain is Godfrey. He led a double life that he had trouble keeping up with financially, buying “a villa in the suburbs which was not taken in his own name, and with a lady in the villa, who was not taken in his own name, either” (Collins 448). Godfrey’s expensive tastes and life of pleasure led him to need a large sum of money to make up for his expenditures, which he sourced illicitly from his beneficiary (Collins 449). Godfrey’s actions throughout the novel in pursuing the Moonstone were all a result of his one goal: to get out of the financial disaster he led himself into. Out of all of the characters in the novel, the Indians’ motivation for obtaining the diamond is the only one that does not serve their own interests. Long before the Moonstone was known to the New World, the “deity commanded that the Moonstone should be watched… by three priests in turn… to the end of the generations of men” (Collins 2). The entire lineage of the Indian priests was dedicated to the one task of keeping the precious stone safe. It is with this heavenly mandate of being keepers of the stone that the Indians were prepared to lose their highest class of a brahmin priest in the caste system by “crossing the sea; secondly, in disguising themselves as jugglers” (Collins 71). By showing they are readily willing to make profound sacrifices, Collins ennobles them, demonstrating their devotion to their holy duty. Collins crafts their narrative throughout the novel as virtuous and self-sacrificing, worthy of an English gentleman defying the stereotype of Indian inferiority.

Throughout The Moonstone, Collins goes to great lengths to place the Indians in the best possible light, and even when he uses common images such as the Indian juggler, they are far from the classic stereotypes widespread in Victorian Britain. To develop his different narrative of Indians, Collins gives the Indians novel attributes that go completely against English stereotypes, presenting the Indians with traits of manners and intelligence. He even contrasts these with the downfall of the white main characters, who, at times, act like the savages Britain likens the Indians to. Although Collins never voices his concerns over British colonialism and the treatment of the indigenous population, his characters and his descriptions of their behavior lead the reader to question the acts of the British. By going against the common picture of an Indian and defying stereotypes at every turn, Collins develops the Indian as worthy of respect and care, showing that Collins, at the least, had a degree of sympathy and did not agree with the racism toward the Indian community and the actions that Britain took against India.

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