The Woman in White

The Woman in White Quotes and Analysis

Thus, the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness—with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect.

Walter Hartright, p. 50

This quote comes from Walter's narration, early in the novel, as he explains the story's unusual structure. Rather than the entire narrative being presented from a single point of view, the many characters' perspectives will be included. The complicated plot makes this structure necessary, since there are many times when a key character is not present and therefore cannot speak to what events were taking place at this time. However, this quote also reveals the deeper philosophical motive behind the novel's structure. Walter compares the narrative to court testimony and emphasizes the importance of truth. By suggesting that the highest standard of truth can be achieved when many individuals contribute their stories, Walter implies that it can be unwise to rely too heavily on any single perspective. In a sense, this implication foreshadows the events of a plot that turns heavily on lies, deception, and forgery—a plot that reveals how dangerous it can be to believe what someone is telling you, or what seems to be the truth. The insistence on the events of the novel being presented faithfully and accurately is important given that it would be easy for some readers to want to believe that nothing like the events of the plot could actually take place. While the novel's plot is undoubtedly sensational, it does also allude to questions of violence and disempowerment among women that were a reality for many Victorian women.

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.

Narrator, p. 63

This quote marks what is probably the novel's most famous scenes, and one of the most well-known scenes in all of Victorian literature. As Walter is walking home, he is startled by the touch of a hand and turns around to encounter the woman whose name will later be revealed as Anne Catherick. This scene would have been particularly striking to Victorian readers for a number of reasons. A woman walking alone in the middle of the night would have been highly unusual, and potentially in a dangerous position. The scene of Walter being approached by a woman in the middle of the night is interestingly ambivalent, as it is not clear which of the two might be in danger. The strange appearance of the woman makes her seem vaguely sinister, but she also seems fragile and vulnerable, leaving Walter unsure of how to respond to her. The scene also offers the possibility of sexual tension; at this time, it would have been quite rare for a man and a woman to be alone together, especially at night-time, in a secluded place. While Walter behaves completely honorably in the assistance he provides, the fact that he is alone with a woman and that she has displayed a rare boldness by reaching out and touching him, makes the scene exciting and a bit scandalous.

“Crush it!” she said. “Here, where you first saw her, crush it! Don’t shrink under it like a woman. Tear it out; trample it under foot like a man!”

Marian Halcombe p. 110

This quote is spoken by Marian as she gives Walter advice on how to cope with his feelings for Laura. She uses vivid and violent language to describe how he should suppress his feelings, since he and Laura will never be able to be together, and his love will only bring him suffering. The quote is interesting because it highlights Marian's androgyny; she speaks with a forcefulness that would be highly unexpected for an upper-class Victorian woman. She also suggests that individuals can choose to behave in ways typically associated with gendered expectations; she urges Walter to behave like a man, not a woman, and this implies that even though he is biologically male, he may or may not live up the culturally determined expectations of masculinity. Marian's speech suggests that an individual's behavior does not always line up with their gender identity; Walter is in danger of behaving like a woman unless he gets control of his emotions. At the same time, her speech reinforces stereotypes of feminine weakness contrasted with masculine strength and bravery. Finally, the speech is interesting because, due to the passion with which she speaks, it seems that Marian may have some experience with repressing her feelings for someone. Throughout the novel, there is never a love interest introduced for Marian, and the passion with which she urges Walter to give up on futile desires might support an interpretation in which Marian experiences feelings of attraction for Laura.

"Take you care how you treat your wife, and how you threaten me," I broke out, in the heat of my anger. "There are laws in England to protect women from cruelty and outrage. If you hurt a hair of Laura's head, if you dare to interfere with my freedom, come what come may, to those laws I will appeal."

Marian Halcombe, p. 312

Marian makes this speech to Percival when she is angry with the way he is treating Laura. The speech is partly correct and partly ironic. At the time that Collins wrote, attention was increasingly being turned to offering women legal protection and support in cases of cruelty and abuse. It was seen as a patriotic and moral victory for Englishwomen to feel they would be treated with safety and respect, especially because their situation was often implicitly contrasted with stereotypes that women in Continental Europe enjoyed fewer freedoms and less respect. The novel plays with these stereotypes by showing Count Fosco as a stern and authoritarian husband who has tamed his willful wife. However, despite Marian's insistence that the law exists to protect her and Laura, the novel also makes it clear how vulnerable women often were. The terms of Laura's marriage contract, which financially disenfranchised her, were determined by her male guardian. Once she was married, Sir Percival had immense amounts of control over her and problems between them were considered a private matter that other people did not want to interfere with. In general, as Anne's imprisonment in the asylum also shows, women were actually quite vulnerable in Victorian England if male authorities made decisions about them. Marian's threat is empty, both because of the scheme Fosco and Percival are able to get away with, and because, as Walter will later note, it is not the law that helps to restore Laura's identity.

"Human ingenuity, my friend, has hitherto only discovered two ways in which a man can manage a woman. One way is to knock her down—a method largely adopted by the brutal lower orders of the people, but utterly abhorrent to the refined and educated classes above them. The other way (much longer, much more difficult, but, in the end, not less certain) is never to accept a provocation at a woman's hands."

Count Fosco, p. 339

Fosco speaks this quote to Percival, explaining his philosophy of how to control women. The quote is significant because it shows that Fosco takes it for granted that women ought to be controlled by men, and his only consideration is the best way to do it. Given what other characters have observed of how obedient the Countess seems to be, it is also clear that Fosco practices these types of methods. Fosco offers a very sinister perspective on the possibility of physical violence: he does not think it is wrong because of the fact that it hurts female victims, but he thinks it is vulgar and inappropriate for upper-class men. His concern is with the social status of a potential abuser, not with the experience of a victim. Since he does not want to resort to physical abuse, he cunningly comes up with other ways to control and manipulate women. He believes it is important for a man to assert his dominance, and gradually break a woman's spirit as she learns that she has no control. This contrast between outright violence and more devious manipulation is evident in both how he treats the Countess and how he and Percival treat Laura. He never seems to physically abuse his wife, but he manipulates and controls her. He and Percival do not murder Laura, which would be the more brutal way to gain her money, but they are willing to imprison her for life in an asylum.

In the right of her calamity, in the right of her friendlessness, she was mine at last! Mine to support, to protect, to cherish, to reassure. Mine to love and honour as father and brother both.

Walter, p.423

Walter speaks this quote as he reflects on his new relationship with Laura after her escape from the asylum, when he and she and Marian are living together in London. At the start of the novel, their respective class positions had made it an impossible dream for Walter to think that Laura could marry a lowly art teacher like him. Now, she no longer has any money or social position or even a right to her own name and identity. Because she has lost everything, there is no more barrier between them. The quote also shows how Walter unwittingly participates in narratives of male dominance and control. Laura has just escaped from a husband who saw her as belonging entirely to him, and therefore subject to his control. In the asylum, she was also not independent and was controlled by others. Although Walter intends to take good care of Laura and keep her safe, he uses language that suggests he is also feeling a sense of control and ownership towards her. He compares himself to a father and brother, suggesting he seems himself now as the male guardian entitled to make decisions on Laura's behalf.

"You work and get money, Walter, and Marian helps you. Why is there nothing I can do? You will end up liking Marian better than you like me—you will, because I am so helpless! Oh don't, don't, don't treat me like a child!"

Laura Fairlie, p.480

This quote is spoken by Laura and represents one of the very few times in the novel that she acknowledges how she is treated in a childish and helpless way. Laura knows she is not contributing anything to the household, and wants to feel useful and empowered. These feelings of being kept helpless may remind her of when she was kept in the asylum and not allowed to make any decisions. The speech also hints at the possibility of jealousy; for most of the novel, Walter, Marian and Laura work well as a team and seem happy to share their lives. Here, however, Laura worries that because Marian and Walter are more equal, and share in decision making together, they will become closer, and Laura will end up being left out. Interestingly, Laura assumes that Marian's intelligence, competence, and ability to be an equal partner would make her desirable to Walter, whereas what Walter is really attracted to is the much more traditional characteristics of fragility and vulnerability that he finds in Laura. He respects Marian, but he would never love her.

"I came here a wronged woman. I came here, robbed of my character, and determined to claim it back. I've been years and years about it—and I have claimed it back."

Jane Catherick, p. 488

This quote is spoken by Mrs. Catherick to Walter when she proudly explains how she rebuilt her life after the scandal with Sir Percival. Even though it took a very long time, she is now considered highly respectable. The quote shows how important social appearances and conventions were in Victorian times, especially to women. Mrs. Catherick has almost nothing else in her life to be happy about, so she clings to her pride in being able to be part of a community. It also shows why she is so angry with Sir Percival and why she has hated him for so long: when he let her be treated as an adulterous woman, he cost her her reputation and it has been a very difficult thing to earn back. The quote is also important because it reveals a key theme in sensation fiction: how even seemingly respectable people can hide dark and scandalous pasts. For anyone who knows Mrs. Catherick now, it would seem impossible that she could have been involved in forgery and lies, but that is the reality of her past. Part of what made sensation fiction tantalizing to readers was how it suggested that dark secrets could hide behind respectable appearances.

All remembrance of the heartless injury the man's crimes had inflicted; of the love, the innocence, the happiness he had pitilessly laid waste; of the oath I had sworn in my own heart to summon him to the terrible reckoning that he deserved—passed from my memory like a dream. I remembered nothing but the horror of his situation. I felt nothing but the natural human impulse to save him from a frightful death.

Walter, p. 513

This quote reflects Walter's state of mind when he realizes that Percival is trapped in the burning church. Although Walter has many reasons to hate Percival, he does not want to see him die such a terrible death. This quote highlights Walter's noble and generous nature, and shows why he represents a good Victorian hero. While he is very committed to achieving justice for Laura and seeing her safe, he is not vengeful and would not take pleasure in anyone's suffering, even the suffering of a villain. His efforts to save Percival make readers even more sympathetic to Walter but because his attempts are unsuccessful, the audience also gets to see Percival pay for his crimes.

She knew that there was a Secret—she knew who was connected with it—she knew who would suffer by its being known—and beyond that, whatever airs of importance she may have given herself, whatever crazy boasting she may have indulged in with strangers, she never to her dying day knew more.

Jane Catherick p. 535

This quote, from Mrs. Catherick, reveals one of the central ironies of the novel: that Anne Catherick never actually knew that Percival was illegitimate and had committed forgery. Virtually all of the drama of the plot, and the various crimes and schemes, have been rooted in Percival's fear that Anne will reveal his secret. Many characters, but Anne in particular, suffer because of the assumption that she must have this knowledge. This revelation of her ignorance shows how many tragedies could have been prevented if there had been more transparency and clarity. It also further establishes the guilt of Mrs. Catherick for failing to protect or advocate for her daughter. Had she made it clear that Anne did not know anything, she might have made Percival less interested in persecuting her. Yet, because it was actually more convenient for her to have her daughter institutionalized, she did not make this knowledge available.