The Woman In White Essay Research Paper

The Woman In White Essay, Research Paper


I had now arrived at that partcular point of my walk

where four roads met – the road to Hampstead, along

which I had returned, the road to Fichley, the road

to West End, and the road back to London. I had me-

chanically turned in this latter direction, and was

strolling along the lonely high-road – idly wonder-

ing, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies

would look like – when, in one moment, every drop of

blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch

of a hand laid lightly on my shoulder behind me.

I turned on the instant with my fingers tighten-

ing round the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-

road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of

the earth or dropped from Heaven – stood the figure

of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in

white garments….. (p.47)

An analysis of the above passage will illustrate why The Woman in White and

novels of a similar nature have been labelled `sensational’ and denied any

significant status as realism. Most obviously, the extract shows the main

characteristic of sensationalism: the sudden shock or surprise – every drop

of Walter Hartright’s blood `brought to a stop’ on encountering the figure on

the highway: he grips his stick nervously in anticipation of the unknown. The

aspect of mystery and the ghostly, too, can be seen – the Woman is described

as being `out of the earth’, otherworldly, her white garments, too, evoking a

ghostly overtone. The text, here, highlights yet subtler aspects of

sensationalism which I wish to discuss. Walter comes to a point where there

is a network of roads, where `four roads met’. The number of directions in

which he can travel mirrors the multi-faceted and intricate plot of Wilkie

Collins’ novel. This importance of plot has become – rightly or wrongly – a

trade mark of `sensational’ fiction. A further aspect of this genre is

fatalism, the predestined, the notion perhaps that is not mere chance that

Anne Catherick appears on Hartright’s `lonely high-road’ and not on the other


The `characteristics’ of the sensation novel which I have touched

upon superficially above have, critically speaking, prevented it being

bestowed with any notion of `realism’. Though I do not desire necessarily to

challenge the notion of sensationalism in the novel but I do wish to question

the apparent `lack of realism’ in The Woman In White. I hope therefore to

illustrate the sensation paradox – that Collins’ novel is bound in realism as

well as being `sensational’. I would like to suggest also that the result is the

creation of a new, higher realism, different to that of writers such as Eliot

and Trollope.

I believe it would be appropriate, initially, to define the traditional

connotation of the term `realism’. The common view is that the main function

of realism in fiction is mimetic; that to be realistic is to attempt to convey

an accurate imitation of life as it is: we are supposed to be left with the

impression that these realistic characters have lived and breathed. I first

want to demonstrate the degree to which The Woman in White defies this

traditional code of Victorian fictional realism.

When reading Collins’ novel we cannot fail to be struck by the

intricacy of the plot. This is what grips us so, what makes us read on, what

forced Anthony Trollope to stay up all night to finish the book. It is the

design and plot that is uppermost in our minds; we are not necessarily

concerned about the feelings of Marian Halcombe or Walter Hartright.

Undoubtedly in The Woman In White, character is subordinated to plot. The

former is dictated by the latter. It is Anne Catherick’s initial confrontation

with Hatright on the road to Limmeridge House that sets the whole chain of

events in motion. In fact it could be traced back to Hatright’s association

with Pesca; it is the Italian – returning a favour to Hartright for saving him

from drowning – who secures his position as Drawing Master employed by

Frederick Fairlie. The first narrator observes:

If I had not dived for Professor Pesca when he lay

under water on his shingle bed, I should…never

have been connected with the story which these pages

will relate. (p.37)

Contemporary critics tended to link – wrongly I believe – novels of incident

such as The Woman In White to sensationalism and novels of character to

realism. I will illustrate later how I feel this judgement is flawed but I am

merely pointing out here that the supremacy of plot breached the realistic


As an adjunct to this, it must be admitted that depth of character

(with the possible exception of Count Fosco) and plausibility of motive is

wanting to a certain extent within The Woman In White. Frederick Fairlie is

just a hyperchondriac; Marian Halcombe’s characteristics are seen to be

those of strength and bravery; Laura is weak-willed and sensitive while

Hartright is a combination of the latter two. It would be a mistake to say

that the figures which populate the novel are colourless – they are not – but

they do lack the complexity of, say, a Dorothea Brooke. In addition,

traditional realism demands that the actions of a character and motives

behind them be plausible, be `believable’. Plausibility does seem lacking in

sections of the novel. Walter Hartright’s sudden move to Honduras is a prime

example of this. He becomes timid, frail and effete, deciding to go to `another

country to try a change of scene and occupation’. He is merely said to be

making `excavations among the ruined cities of Central America’. There is no

real description about the thought process behind such a decision.

Pyschological realism appears, on a superficial inspection, to be neglected.



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