The Woman in White Essay Questions

Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Describe the narrative strategy of the novel. What are the benefits and the limitations of this narrative style?

    The Woman in White is written in the epistolary style which tells the story through a series of documents, letters and first-person narrators. This narrative style provides many different perspectives because each narrator offers a unique observation. A story told through various first-person narrators allows each first-person narrator to speak in a unique style and to offer an unique point of view. However, Walter may not be a reliable narrator because he has an agenda of his own. He exhibits considerable patronizing attitude towards women, especially towards Laura Fairlie. Under his pen, Laura Fairlie is described as a defenseless child devoid without any spirit and vigour. It is possible that Laura in fact possesses more self-assertiveness than Walter is willing to acknowledge. Marian Halcombe is Walter’s co-narrator. However, Marian can hardly be considered as an honest narrator because she displays a superhuman memory in her dairy. She often records entire conversations, down to the last detail. Her perfect record of the conversation between Fosco and Percival is especially doubtful, because it is impossible to render such a conclusive report of the conversation which she was eavesdropping. It is possible that Marian deliberately embellishes her dairy in order to demonize her enemies. It is also possible that she rewrites her dairy in semi-fictional style in order to spice up her narration. Her description of Percival and Fosco may have been tainted by her obvious dislike towards them.

  2. 2

    Marian Halcombe is plain to the point of ugliness. However, she is able to win the love and admiration of her greatest enemy Fosco. Why is this? What is the source of Marian’s attractiveness?

    Fosco is not alone in his attraction towards Marian. After the story’s publication, a reader writes to the author, inquiring after the inspiration behind Marian’s character. This reader says that if a woman like Marian truly exists in this world, then he would very much like to marry her. His view is shared by many of his contemporaries. Although Marian’s physical plainness may repel people, her fascinating character wields an irresistible appeal to the people around her. Beauty may strike the sight, but it is merit of one’s character that wins the soul. Even Walter Hartright, who was briefly repelled by her plain face, could not resist the charms of her vivid personality. Marian is highly intelligent, perceptive, bold, brave, opinioned and strong. She is not daunted by domineering men and possesses a stubborn courage to defend her interests. Fosco is someone who worships the sophisticated skills of an expert criminal. Therefore, Marian’s brilliant qualities struck a resonating chord in Fosco. He admires her intelligence and penetrating insight. He sees his own reflection in the shrewd Marian, and regards her as his match and equal. Fosco and Walter’s attraction towards Marian indicates that the celebrated feminine ideals of passivity and meekness are rapidly losing their appeal. Women are beginning to be valued by the intelligence of their mind and the vivacity of their character. Fosco and Walter’s attraction towards Marian show that attitudes towards gender are undergoing changes. The image of the passive “angel of the hearth” is beginning to fall out of favour with some forward-thinking men in Victorian society.

  3. 3

    Laura Fairlie symbolizes the image of the perfect Victorian woman. However, the author uses Anne Catherick, an emotionally deranged person as her double, what does it say about his view on gender?

    Laura and Anne are represented as doubles. They are half-sisters who bear a striking resemblance to each other. Anne’s only difference from Laura lays in her deranged emotional state and sickly appearance. Laura is an unassuming and uninteresting character. She possesses little spirit and vivacity. When Laura is imprisoned in the asylum under Fosco’s conspiracy, she literally takes up the identity of Anne Catherick and become transformed into the image of a madwoman. By using the “madwoman” Anne Catherick as Laura’s double, the author provides an unflattering portrayal of the conventional feminine virtues. The author is certainly not an eager proponent of the conventional qualities of femininity. The passive Laura is presented as someone who can easily lose her sanity under the influence of manipulation. By transforming Laura into the image of the deranged Anne Catherick, the author shows that the idealized image of femininity are creative of spiritual weakness and an unstable identity. By showing Anne as Laura’s double, the author shows that a passive and unenergetic woman like Laura Fairlie could not muster enough strength to defend herself and could easily lose her self-identity under external pressure. On the other hand, a strong and resolute woman like Marian is in full command of her self-identity and will not lose her sanity under the evil forces of male conspiracy.

  4. 4

    Is this novel a moralistic novel? If so, please explain.

    Like many mid-Victorian novels, The Woman in White certainly carries a deep moral undertone. In this novel, the virtuous characters are rewarded and the evil ones are punished. The arch villains like Percival and Fosco both met an untimely and violent death. The greedy, self-absorbed and obnoxious Frederick Fairlie also dies at the end of the book. Percival and Fosco are men who have committed a crime in their early days. Percival has faked his parents’ marriage registrar while Fosco has betrayed his political organization. Even though these two men were able to escape punishment for many years, their crimes eventually caught up with them in the end. On the other hands, the characters who embody the Victorian virtues emerged triumphant in the end and are rewarded with wealth and status. Walter Hartright, the most industrious and morally upright male character in the novel, succeeds in climbing the social ladder by marrying into the upper class. After the death of Frederick Fairlie, the Limmeridge House becomes inhabited by three virtuous characters: Laura, Marian and Walter.

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