The Woman in White is the story of distressed damsels who are suffering from the abuse and persecution of men. Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick are the damsels in distress who endured great physical and psychological pain under the tyranny of patriarchal society. Most people around them are indifferent to their suffering and plight. Laura’s uncle is unwilling to safeguard Laura’s property and marital happiness while Anne’s mother is indifferent to her daughter’s imprisonment in the asylum. The story shows that women have little power to shape their lives to their liking. Laura and Marian are denied the chance of a higher education and must content themselves with learning the feminine subjects of painting and music. They cannot venture outside of their house and seek useful employment in the wider world. They are secluded in the domestic sphere under the guardianship of men, such as their uncle and their solicitor. They cannot freely choose their marital partners and have to comply with the wishes of their domineering fathers and uncles. Their mobility and freedom are constrained by the cumbersome Victorian-style dresses consisting of numerous petticoats, tight corsets and wide skirts. However, this world order arranged by men is totally dysfunctional. By obeying the wishes of men, Laura becomes trapped into the most disastrous marriage imaginable. Upon entering this wretched marriage, she is subjected to physical abuse, poison, imprisonment and the loss of her legal identity. In the story, Marian repeatedly rails against the injustice women suffer at the hands of men. Marian believes that women have to take matters into their hands to defend their interests, since the men around them are mostly dysfunctional, careless and cruel. Marian is a proto-feminist who deeply resents the tyranny and the injustice of the patriarchal order.
The emergence of the “New Woman”
This story was published in early 1860s. At that time, the idea of the “new woman” was yet to be formed. Most middle- and upper-class women in the 1860s were still confined to the domestic sphere, their main activities consisting of bearing child, educating children, organizing the household, and socializing with friends. Women at that time were denied the chance to have a higher education. The New Woman was an unconventional figure who emerged at the end of the 19th century, and who defied the oppressive patriarchal world order. The new woman challenged the conventional gender expectation and embraced many activities and characteristics that were previously reserved for men. Marian Halcombe is thus a proto-feminist who perfectly embodies the characteristics which later would become the definition of the “New Woman.” She is acutely conscious of the injustice of patriarchy. She cares deeply about women’s rights and uses her courage, resolution and wit to protect women’s interests. Her masculine facial features, her “piercing and resolute” eyes and her “bright, frank, intelligent” expression challenge the characteristics of the conventional Victorian women. In short, she is a woman who possesses agency and power. Marian is not daunted by the rigid restrictions of the patriarchal system. She believes that a woman in possession of courage and strength could not be easily awed and oppressed by the men around them.
The decadence of civilization
The Victorian era was marked by great advancement in industry, science and aesthetic pursuit. In the 1860s, the Victorians were increasingly concerned about the decadence and the over-refinement of their society. The image of Mr. Frederick Fairlie perfectly embodies this anxiety. Mr. Fairlie is a wealthy man who idles away his days as an invalid. His sole interest is an obsessive appreciation of the aesthetic, which is reflected in his impressive collection of artwork. His character shows that wealth and civilization can lead to indolence, idleness and decadence. It shows that when civilization reaches its advanced stage, it threatens to waste itself away through extreme refinement in taste. Obsessive aesthetic pursuit among well-to-do people can be harmful because it is not socially productive.
The mistreatment of mentally disabled people during the Victorian era
Anne Catherick is described by many people in the story as being mentally underdeveloped and strange in her conduct. Mrs. Fairlie, Mrs. Clemens and Laura Fairlie all believe that there is something slightly abnormal in Anne’s emotional state. When Percival suspects that Anne is in possession of his secret, he takes advantage of Anne’s disturbed emotional state and imprisons her in the asylum. However, Walter Hartright believes there is nothing wild in her conduct, and thus that she should not be imprisoned in the asylum. Anne has suffered much in her life. She is an illegitimate child born to a tyrannical mother who does not care for her. She has suffered wrongful imprisonment in the asylum and great emotional tribulation. It is possible that Anne is emotionally unstable, but her unstable mind might also be caused by her lifelong suffering and happiness, rather than any inherent mental illness. In the story, most people are too quick to dismiss Anne as mentally ill, and thus fail to account for the factors of her unfortunate experience and upbringing. During the Victorian era, psychiatry had not yet been fully developed. During this period, society was cruel to people who manifested the symptoms of emotional unbalance. There were few attempts to understand the causes of these people’s suffering. Victorian society was eager to imprison these people in the interests of public security. The Victorians often tend to dismiss the emotionally distressed and the mentally underdeveloped as insane, and use the means of imprisonment to seclude them from society, and thus reduce what might otherwise be seen as broad social problems to mere individual and unfortunate "insanity." As Walter observes, there is in fact nothing abnormal and wild in Anne’s behavior; her speech is coherent, her manners are almost ladylike. Anne is distressed and nervous because she is in constant fear of persecution by Percival; she is unhappy because she is cast out of her home and leads a rootless existence. Her anxiety is thus perfectly understandable, and has nothing to do with insanity. Even Laura Fairlie, who was in a perfectly sound mental state before her marriage, suffers a total mental breakdown after her imprisonment in the asylum. This shows that Anne’s emotional disturbance can be explained by her external environment, for example abuse, unhappiness and imprisonment, rather than some inherent flaw in her mind.
The celebration of middle-class values
So-called middle-class values were highly celebrated qualities during the Victorian period. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were fierce proponents of middle-class values. They believed that the aristocratic unproductiveness, indolence, vice and wantonness are not conducive a healthy society and a powerful country. The middle-class values are classified as industry, hard-work, honesty, modesty, and prudery. The Woman in White discredits the upper class by creating three despicable upper-class characters, namely Sir Percival, Count Fosco and Mr. Frederick Fairlie. These three men are characterized by their laziness, unproductiveness, cruelty, vice, and dishonesty. Sir Percival fakes his parents’ marriage and usurps his father’s property. Count Fosco betrays his organization and uses various means of deception to achieve his evil ends. Mr. Fairlie is a lazy invalid who wastes his time through useless aesthetic pursuit; apart from amassing artwork, he can do nothing else. On the contrary, the characters of Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe are middle-class figures. They are not in possession of great fortune or grand estates, but they are brave, resolute, capable, hard-working and virtuous. Walter and Marian are the saviors of Laura Fairlie. Most of the courageous undertakings in the book have been accomplished by these two characters. Walter’s marriage to the wealthy heiress Laura shows that the middle-class virtues bring their rewards. The fact that Percival, Fosco, and Frederick Fairlie have all died by the end of the book shows that the indolent aristocratic lifestyles bring about their own punishment. Neither of the three men ever fathers children, which also suggests that their way of life is dying out, and will not continue on to future generations.
Many of the characters in the novel move around a great deal, both inside and outside of England. When Collins wrote the novel, it was becoming more and more feasible for people to travel rapidly, particularly due to the expansion of the railroad. The railroad also made it possible for women to travel more independently. Both of these trends are important in the novel: the plot of The Woman in White would not be possible if characters could not get rapidly and discreetly from one location to another. Transportation allows for free movement, and thus makes possible newly complex plots; for example, in Fosco's confession, when he describes how the conspiracy unfolded, he makes reference to the number of times both he and the Countess had to travel back and forth between Blackwater Park and London. While relatively rapid transportation opened new possibilities, the fact that it is mostly used in the novel for nefarious purposes also reveals the suspicions with which it was viewed. If people could move around freely, and without others being able to easily trace where they were, it was harder to control behavior or have clear knowledge of other people's actions. Much of the scheming and conspiracy in the novel stems from a lack of clarity around who was where at precisely what time, and more free travel increases this uncertainty. It also meant there were more likely to be strangers entering into contact with one another, and these individuals were often viewed with suspicion. For example, Walter is lucky to be able to post bail after being arrested; other than Dr. Dawson, no one else in the town knows him, or would be able to vouch for him.
The narrative of the novel is presented to the reader as being composed of many different documents, including retrospective narratives, journal entries, interviews, reports, and even the writing on a gravestone. Many of the plot events are also linked to the existence, manipulation, or disappearance of different documents: for example, the marriage register with the forged record of Percival's legitimacy, or the letter confirming the date of Laura's departure and thus showing that she could not be the same woman who had died the previous day. Documents are shown to be tools for achieving truth and accuracy, and as very important to the legal record. At the same time, the events of the novel also show that they can be damaged, altered, or faked. A reader should not necessarily assume that a written document is reliable. For a work of literature to show the theme of written documents as being unstable and possibly untruthful is interesting, because it may prompt a reader to think about his or her relationship to the fictional text they are reading. Despite the outrageous and improbable plot events, the use of multiple documents by different narrators creates the impression of careful accuracy and objectivity in the novel as a whole.
The Woman in White Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Woman in White is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.