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The Woman in White
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2013 Group Reads - Archives > The Woman in White - Part 2

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Sarah | 269 comments Here are some discussion questions to possibly consider for this section. In cases where I felt that the question would give away aspects of the plot, I marked it with a spoiler. I will continue to do this for all of the threads.

How does Marian’s narrative differ from and compare to that of Walter and Mr. Gilmore?

How is the dark tone and atmosphere of the novel coming into play, and how does it affect the characters?

(view spoiler)

What do you make of Blackwater Park—its name, the household, etc.

Thoughts on Count Fosco and his pets? His wife?


Sarah | 269 comments I am again posting my own comments here early so that they can be viewed whenever you are ready. Please note that, while I have hidden spoilers, anything that the novel mentioned in the previous section is fair game, so please don't read it until you have reached that point in the novel if you want to be surprised! (The same applies, of course, to the later sections as well.)




As the story progresses to the narratives of Vincent Gilmore and Marian Halcombe, Collins really begins to cast shadows over the atmosphere of the novel. There seems to be a continuity in doubting Sir Percival’s goodness, brought on by the mysterious letter about the dream and the subsequent suspicious mindset toward him. It may be that Marian’s reservations about him derive from Laura’s reluctance to marry him because of her doomed love for Walter. At any rate, Sir Percival has maintained a façade of righteousness among the community, but this is, by my observations, dependent on his knowledge of how to manipulate people such as Laura. He knows how she will react, and he takes advantage of this by making it seem as though she is making the decisions when, in fact, he is in control. Here Collins illustrates the theme of appearance vs. reality, which becomes a strong undercurrent throughout the story.

(view spoiler)

Collins doesn’t seem to be trying to disguise the grim atmosphere of Blackwater Park. Its very name evokes murky, mysterious, bleak images. I think it is safe to say that, between his portrayal of Sir Percival and the description of the estate, something is amiss and troubled waters lie ahead.

Marian’s narrative is quite different from the preceding two in that hers takes the form of a diary. As such, it is not surprising that it is more emotional and more revealing. Her vacillation in her opinions of both Sir Percival and Count Fosco are interesting, as they give us both sides of the men’s characters, but at the same time I would argue that it indicates her prejudice as a narrator. Whereas in Gilmore’s, and to a lesser extent in Walter’s, narrative, we found a professional distance, we are now confronted by a narrator who is very closely attached to Laura and who therefore displays more bias.

Anne Catherick’s role in the story is, at least in my opinion, very interesting. She doesn’t actually appear, yet she has a strong hold over the minds of the other characters. For Walter, Marian, and Laura, it is her mystery which is enthralling, while Sir Percival is obsessed with returning her to the Asylum’s custody. What is it about her that makes her such an object of interest? Does her insanity make her dangerous?


Casceil | 220 comments Sarah wrote:
How does Marian’s narrative differ from and compare to that of Walter and Mr. Gilmore?

Walter and Mr. Gilmore were both telling their stories after the fact. Marian is keeping a contemporaneous diary, so we see her thoughts change as she learns more. We also see the gloomy Blackwater Park from her point of view, and get her impressions of the staff, including one particularly stupid housemaid. As Sarah commented, she is a biased narrator, but we the readers are on her side.


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Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4452 comments Mod
I am enjoying this read so much that it's hard for me to wait for the next section.

I think Ann Catherick does appear in the story; just not this segment.

Re Percival's goodness, I think he puts on a good show for society to get what he needs most - money. But his reaction to the letter, his continue search for Ann, plus the nervousness he shows when this subject is brought up indicates to me a guilty conscience.

Collins has done an interesting thing with the pets. He makes one react very negatively to Percival - an animal that usually likes everybody growls and cowers from him. Then he puts Marian at Blackwater Park and starts her stay there with a dog being killed in a very unhumane way. For me, one was foreshadowing of the bad in Percival and the cruelty he allows in his household.

Definitely there is the white/black color representing good and evil in this segment. Very noticeable in my opinion.

Regarding the different narrators. I didn't find Marian to be unreliable because she acknowledged her possible bias at one point and tried to fight against. She also goes from being charmed by Percival to worry. I'm always amazed at how different Collins makes his narrators sound. It truly feels like different people are writing the story for you.

I agree that Percival is manipulative; as is Mr Fairlie.


Douglas (douglasgperry) Deborah wrote: "Collins has done an interesting thing with the pets."

Pets also play prominently in the characterization of Count Fosco. Marian Halcombe remarks in her diary of the count's "extraordinary fondness for pet animals. Some of these he has left on the Continent, but he has brought with him to this house [Blackwater Park] a cockatoo, two canary-birds, and a whole family of white [that color again] mice. He attends to all the necessities of these strange favourites himself..."

Count Fosco's kind doting on these animals contrasts with Sir Percival's household policy of cruelty and indifference to animals.

Count Fosco's behavior towards animals perplexes Marian, whereas Sir Percival's behavior towards animals--of which Marian thoroughly disapproves--doesn't perplex her at all. This alludes to her complex feelings towards the count, to whom she is at once attracted and repelled, as she confesses in her diary. So far in this stage of the narrative, Count Fosco is the most enigmatic character of all.


Sarah | 269 comments As Casceil mentions, so far only Marian’s narrative is recorded as the events are actually occurring, as opposed to that of Walter and Mr. Gilmore. Thinking about this, it occurs to me that perhaps this makes her more reliable because she doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight. Also, as Deborah points out, Marian does realize that her feelings might influence her perception and does try to take that into account.

I agree that Collins is very adept at using different narrative voices in a convincing manner. The subject of pets is interesting. They are used for the purpose of foreshadowing, but I think that they also contribute to the mystery. As Douglas mentions, pets are a defining attribute of Count Fosco’s character, which I find to be the most complex of all the people in this novel so far. The other major characters, with the possible exception of Anne Catherick, seem to be pretty clear-cut and almost shallow, but the Count is different. I don’t know how to assess him or categorize him. Are his intentions good or bad? What does his fondness for pets say about him? I think that his treatment of his wife is worth discussing, too, as we get to that part of the novel.


Lynnm | 3027 comments I also enjoyed the fact that Collins was able to change is voice when the narrative shifted from character to character.

Mr. Gilmore was dry, much like his profession. And Mariam's narrative showed her strength as a person but also the fact that she was powerless to change much of the course of events.

The fact that Sir Percival asked to shift the capital of Laura's money to him in case of her death is obviously troubling. Also, he doesn't care that she is in love with someone else - only cares about her money. Both show why he wants to marry her, but the legal documents regarding her money is rather ominous.

As for Mr. Fairlie, he is more than awful. I would say that he is a spoiled rich brat, but that let's him off too lightly. Treats his servants horribly, doesn't care about what happens to Laura. Only cares about himself. Self-centered, selfish.

I actually felt more empathy towards Laura in this section. Like many women of her time, she is resigned to her fate, but is trying to bear it stoically. I suppose that she could have just ended the engagement and not married Sir Percival, but I think she is trying to do what is right, what she thinks her father would have wanted.

One of my favorite lines is when Marian says, "Who cares for his (Sir Percival's) causes of complaint? Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease? No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! they are the enemies of our innocence and our peace - they drag us away from our parents' love and our sisters' friendship -- they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?"

Sounds like it was written by a woman more than a man. And obviously shows what Collins thought about marriage!

And lastly, I miss Hartright. Off on an expedition in South America when he needs to be there helping Marian and Laura.


Casceil | 220 comments There have been several comments about how manipulative Sir Percival is. When he is maneuvering Laura into not breaking the engagement, he reminds her that her father wanted her to marry him. I am wondering how Sir Percival persuaded Laura's father to agree to the match.


Sarah | 269 comments Although Sir Percival doesn’t seem to care that Laura doesn’t love him, he does use this knowledge to torment her and to try to further manipulate her. My guess is that he put on his charming façade when he convinced Laura’s father that he and Laura should marry. I wonder, too, how much Laura’s father may have been similar to Mr. Fairlie, his brother, who obviously is too “nervous” and self-absorbed to care what happens. I don’t get the impression that Laura’s father was like that, but I wonder if to some extent he did have a rose-colored view of life.


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Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4452 comments Mod
Douglas wrote: "Deborah wrote: "Collins has done an interesting thing with the pets."

Pets also play prominently in the characterization of Count Fosco. Marian Halcombe remarks in her diary of the count's "extra..."


Thanks for reminding me. I finished this section early and forgot about Fosco's menagerie.


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Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4452 comments Mod
Sarah wrote: "As Casceil mentions, so far only Marian’s narrative is recorded as the events are actually occurring, as opposed to that of Walter and Mr. Gilmore. Thinking about this, it occurs to me that perhaps..."

Fosco's wife certainly appears to be somewhat afraid of him.


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Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4452 comments Mod
Lynnm wrote: "I also enjoyed the fact that Collins was able to change is voice when the narrative shifted from character to character.

Mr. Gilmore was dry, much like his profession. And Mariam's narrative showe..."


I miss Hartright too.


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Amanda Garrett (amandaelizabeth1) | 154 comments Lynnm wrote: "I actually felt more empathy towards Laura in this section. Like many women of her time, she is resigned to her fate, but is trying to bear it stoically. I suppose that she could have just ended the engagement and not married Sir Percival, but I think she is trying to do what is right, what she thinks her father would have wanted.
"


This is the first time I have read The Woman in White and I must say I am much more impressed with Wilkie Collins than I expected to be. I assumed that I would be reading a gothic horror story. I never expected Collins to take on the issue of women's place in society in the 19th century, which he does quite well and very sympathetically.

He makes all three of the major female characters -- Laura, Marian and Anne Catherick -- well-rounded human beings with distinct personalities. The fact that someone as intelligent and capable as Marian is basically powerless to someone as slimy as Sir Percival really shows the low status of women in Victorian society.


Zulfiya (ztrotter) | 1596 comments Deborah wrote: "Douglas wrote: "Deborah wrote: "Collins has done an interesting thing with the pets."

Pets also play prominently in the characterization of Count Fosco. Marian Halcombe remarks in her diary of the..."


The menagerie, especially the mice, is in the novel to create the feeling of repulsion and to warn the reader. The name of Count Fosco is equally employed by Wilkie Collins to serve the same function. If I am not mistaken, it means dark, murky, or sinister. So he is indeed a very murky character, but he is also a character with some depth. It is also interesting to note that we witnessed the first death on the novel, even if it is the death of the animal, but this death is a significant detail when it comes to the evolution of the plot - it is a link that connects the previous plot line with the current one.


Sarah | 269 comments Zulfiya wrote: "Deborah wrote: "Douglas wrote: "Deborah wrote: "Collins has done an interesting thing with the pets."

Pets also play prominently in the characterization of Count Fosco. Marian Halcombe remarks in ..."


Fosco's name does mean dark or murky; it goes along well with the overall atmosphere and name of Blackwater. The use of pets as foreshadowing interests me, as does the possible correlation of pets and women in the novel. Both are treated as subservient possessions with which the men can do as they wish.


Zulfiya (ztrotter) | 1596 comments Looking through my notes,there are still some more points I would like to mention. Marian is definitely an emblematic character - she might be a precursor of future inevitable changes in the society. According to her discourse, she is definitely a suffragist. The Countess used to be one, but now she is a surprisingly compliant individual. Is she also an exhibit in Count Focso's menagerie?

The next point has something to do with the discussion we had last week. Reading the opening lines in the narrative by Mr. Gilmore, it is easy to notice that Mr. Hartright asked Mr. Gilmore to present his part of the story, so it is easy to assume that Mr. Hartright knows the whole story and asks the narrator to provide the relevant evidence. Thus, all the technicalities of the settlement will be important.

Finally, correct me if I am wrong, but I suspect that the book is abundant is sexual innuendos.

Marian "I dread the beginning of her new life more than words can tell ...."

Marian again "Before another month is over our heads she will be HIS Laura instead if mine! HIS Laura!'

Marian "Sir Percival looked over her shoulder familiarly at the new card which had already transformed Miss Fairlie into Lady Glyde - smiled wit the most odious self-complacency, and whispered something in her ear. I don't know what it was - Laura has refused to tell me - but I saw her face turn to such a deadly whiteness that I thought that she would have fainted"

Laura "If my confidences could only end there . But they could not - they would lead me into confidences about my husband too; and now I am married, think I had better avoid them, for his sake, and for your sake, and for mine. I don;t say that they would distress you, or distress me - I would;t have you think that for the world. But - I want to be so happy, now I have got you back again, and I want you to be so happy too -"

And finally, what about Mr. Fairlie. He is a lazy, decadent, spoiled individual, but what about his sexual orientation? This topic was a huge taboo in Victorian England, so is it right to read between the lines?


Sarah | 269 comments I think that Marian does symbolize the coming movement for women’s rights, and as for Count Fosco’s wife, I have the impression that she is indeed on display and that her purpose is, at least partly, to demonstrate the Count’s power and persuasiveness.

Regarding the sexual innuendos: Yes, I definitely noticed that there seemed to be many throughout the novel. I read somewhere (the actual article is escaping my memory) that the love between Marian and Laura was described almost erotically at times. I have come across this before in Victorian literature, particularly in relationships between women, and I am not sure if it is meant to signify homoeroticism or just a very deep friendship. Analyzing it from one point of view, throughout their lives it seems that Marian and Laura have really only had each other, for lack of steady male guidance, and in a male-dominated world it seems that they would have to stick together, particularly in such distressing circumstances as are being presented at Blackwater. Overall, though, I really can’t answer whether their relationship goes beyond that; looking at it from a twenty-first century viewpoint seems to indicate that it might, but I’m not sure how it would have been analyzed during the Victorian era.


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Deborah (deborahkliegl) | 4452 comments Mod
I must admit to a curiosity about Madame Fosco. How does one go from being an outspoken champion of woman's right to a docile, always being or doing what the husband wants? I'm beginning to think that change is a suspicious one, and she will have something to do with some of the nastiness ahead.


Lynnm | 3027 comments I remember that when I was studying Gothic literature in school that the "bad" guys were usually Italian, and that went back to the tensions between Protestantism and Catholicism in England. Italians obviously were Catholics so it worked well making them "bad."

Can this be a throwback to that era? Something that people even in Collins' time would have put together - Fosco, Italian, therefore, bad guy?


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Lynnm | 3027 comments Zulfiya wrote: "And finally, what about Mr. Fairlie. He is a lazy, decadent, spoiled individual, but what about his sexual orientation? This topic was a huge taboo in Victorian England, so is it right to read between the lines?
"


Good point. And almost everything that he does reminds the reader of something that a woman of that time might do. Shutting himself away in his room, not being able to deal with or to make decisions about things that might upset him.


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Douglas (douglasgperry) Lynnm wrote: "Zulfiya wrote: "And finally, what about Mr. Fairlie. He is a lazy, decadent, spoiled individual, but what about his sexual orientation? This topic was a huge taboo in Victorian England, so is it ri..."

Hartright's description of his first impression of Mr. Fairlie depicts him as "beardless...skin transparently pale, but not wrinkled...feet effeminately small...clad in silk stockings and womanish slippers...delicate hands...unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man, [yet] not appropriate for the appearance of a woman..." (Some these quoted phrases have slight excisions made on my part.) And of course, Mr. Fairlie--the surname itself is effeminate--is "single." He is nothing so much as a eunuch, which, to the Victorian mind, might have meant the same thing as homosexual.


Sarah | 269 comments Lynnm wrote: "I remember that when I was studying Gothic literature in school that the "bad" guys were usually Italian, and that went back to the tensions between Protestantism and Catholicism in England. Italia..."

Regarding the use of Italian identity as villainous, my edition’s introduction says the following: “but the Count is in keeping with a long line of Continental villains in the English novel, and his Italianness is illustrated with stereotypical ethnic activities, such as…participation in organized crime.” Collins reportedly said that “I thought the crime too ingenious for an English villain, so I pitched upon a foreigner.” Also, because most villains were depicted as very thin, he made the Count obese. I think that in this novel, as with so much other literature, it is the issue of “the other,” the foreigner, that is so frightening and thus villainous.


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MichelleCH (lalatina) | 6 comments Douglas wrote: "Deborah wrote: "Collins has done an interesting thing with the pets."

Pets also play prominently in the characterization of Count Fosco...."


Fosco has trained his pets to perform and he is absolutely in control, it feels like a parallel to the humans he is around, and especially the Madame Fosco. She is clearly trained to do as she is told. Human relations are fascinating!

I too am having difficulty in characterizing him. I am enjoying this section very much.


Douglas (douglasgperry) Great point, Michelle. Even Sir Percival, a dominating tyrant to others, is under Fosco's control.


Lynnm | 3027 comments Sarah wrote: "Lynnm wrote: "I remember that when I was studying Gothic literature in school that the "bad" guys were usually Italian, and that went back to the tensions between Protestantism and Catholicism in E..."

Sarah - thanks for the information...very helpful.


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