The Woman in White

The Woman in White Literary Elements


Sensation novel with Gothic elements.

Setting and Context

England in the early 1850’s. Most events take place in old English country estates including Limmeridge House and Blackwater Park. Some events take place in London.

Narrator and Point of View

The novel is written in epistolary form, comprising various first-person narrators. Important narrators include Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe. Several peripheral characters are also narrators, such as Mr. Gilmore, Frederick Fairlie, Mrs. Catherick, the doctor and the housekeeper. However, three important characters, including Laura Fairlie, Anne Catherick and Sir Percival are not narrators.

Tone and Mood

The tone and mood of the novel is mysterious, uncanny, suspenseful, and unsettling. The entire plotline is charged with tension and readers are never sure what is going to happen next, or what new information is going to be received. There is the sense that characters are usually being threatened with some sort of danger and can never be entirely at ease.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe are the female protagonists. Walter Hartright is the male protagonist. Sir Percival and Fosco are the male antagonists.

Major Conflict

Walter and Marian try to protect Laura’s property and legal identity, while Sir Percival and Fosco try to usurp Laura’s wealth. Anne Catherick threatens to expose Percival’s secret, while Percival tries to silence and discredit her by placing her in the asylum.


Although Laura Fairlie has been pronounced dead, she appears as a living person while Walter Hartright is visiting her supposed grave.


Anne Catherick’s anonymous letter foreshadows Laura Fairlie’s unhappy marriage. Marian Halcombe dreams of Walter Halright suffering from pestilence and shipwreck, all of which Walter eventually encounters.


Anne and Laura’s imprisonment in the asylum are understated. The readers are not provided with detailed description of their sufferings in the asylum.


“I came, saw and conquered”:
Count Fosco visits Frederick Fairlie and tricks him into writing an invitation for Laura Fairlie. By doing so, Count Fosco is able to lure Laura Fairlie away from Blackwater Park and into his control. As Fosco describes the success of his trickery over Frederick Fairlie, he uses the famous expression “I came, saw and conquered Fairlie”. This is an allusion to Julius Caesar’s famous utterance “veni, vidi, vici.” This expression is used to describe a rapid and conclusive victory over the enemies. By borrowing an expression from the legendary Caesar, Fosco brings out the proud swagger of his character. It shows that a dull invalid like Frederick Fairlie stands no chance against the calculated schemes of a sophisticated criminal like Fosco. This allusion is in perfect keeping with Fosco’s expressive rhetoric and exuberant personality.

The allusion to sirens of ancient mythology:
Walter Hartright compares his love for Laura Fairlie to the the siren’s song luring him to destruction. This allusion refers to the beautiful female sirens of Greek mythology, who use their seductive singing to distract sailors, causing them to shipwreck their boats. By comparing his love for Laura with the destructive sirens' songs, Walter expresses his deep feelings for Laura and the impossibility of their love. Marrying outside of one’s class was not an easy affair during the Victorian period. Walter is acutely conscious of the fact that the socially privileged Laura could not marry an impoverished drawing teacher like himself. This allusion shows that Walter is a sensible man, who understands and respects the rigid restrictions of Victorian hierarchy. Despite his genuine feelings for Laura, he is conscious of the impossibility of this relationship, and is careful not to take advantage of Laura.


Count Fosco's appearance is painted through a vivid description. He has Napoleonic features, wears extravagant waistcoats, plays with mice and boasts of eccentric manners. The author uses highly colorful languages to describe his unique appearance and manners. He is described as a man with an exuberant personality and a fascinating character. He is an exotic spectacle and a fascinating image to behold.


When Marian informs Walter of Laura’s betrothal to Sir Percival, she says that she must give him pain in order to be kind to him. This is a paradox, because it seems impossible to be cruel and kind and the same time. However, this statement is true. Although Walter’s knowledge of Laura’s engagement may cause him pain, such knowledge is beneficial to him because it compels him to disengage himself from a romance which has no future.


Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick are described as parallel figures. Their striking physical resemblance turns them into each other’s doubles. Walter first meets Anne, but but falls in love with Laura. Even though Walter does not acknowledge this, it is possible that he first develops feelings for Anne, and revives this romantic feeling in Laura.

Anne’s emotional suffering and imprisonment in the asylum foreshadow the suffering and imprisonment Laura will soon endure, thus making Anne the perfect double for Laura. Anne’s imprisonment in the asylum indicates that Laura’s marriage is also a form of imprisonment which can turn a healthy woman into an emotionally deranged person. Laura’s intense suffering at the hands of her husband’s persecution indeed turns her into an emotionally disturbed woman. Laura loses part of her wit and memory after her imprisonment in the asylum. In the story, Laura endures all the sufferings which Anne had been subjected to.

The final revelation that Laura and Anne are actually half-sisters clarifies their physical resemblance to each other, and why they have shared parallel experiences. At the same time, Laura's fate eventually turns out to be happy because she is born legitimate, and therefore entitled to wealth, privilege and education. Anne's fate is much more grim because she grows up in poverty and has no one to help or protect her.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

When Marian expresses her resentment about having been condemned to "patience and petticoats" for life, she uses the rhetorical device of metonymy. A petticoat is a female garment which cannot literally rule over anyone. When Marian says that she is a slave to petticoats, she means she is a slave to the conventional gender role which forces women to wear petticoats. Petticoats are also a synecdoche, because the wearing of petticoat is only a part of the Victorian gender expectation. Apart from petticoats, Victorian women are also subjected to many other restrictions on their lives, such as the lack of education and career opportunities.


Count Fosco's mice are described as his best friends. The mice are attributed with human qualities. The mice seem to possess human minds and are able to understand Fosco’s orders and wishes. The mice are very obedient and crawl all over him like his children.