Which Comes First

In Reading for the Plot, Brooks asserts “in working out and working through plots, as writers and readers, they were engaged in a prime, irreducible act of understanding how human life acquires meaning.” How can this statement be applied as a lens in understanding The Moonstone and in particular Collins’s objective of tracing “the influence of character on circumstances”?  At first reading it would appear that the lens inverts Collins’s premise.  As P.D. James writes in her introduction to The Moonstone, “Character is to direct plot, not plot dominate character”.

Yet while character may be predominant and guides the reader through the plot, ultimately character is shaped as well by circumstances. In order to understand and reveal how human life acquires meaning, character can not only impose on plot but must be molded and formed and developed by situations and events.  Those influences on character then reveal how human life ultimately acquires meaning.

Taking just the Prologue in which to apply this lens, we would have the narrator repulsed by what he has witnessed: a theft and possible multiple murder. John Herncastle is the accused thief and murderer.  This plot reveals the absence of significance of human life for John (jewels are worth more than human life) while dictates the insurmountable importance of human life to the narrator who ultimately refuses a lifelong relationship with his cousin, John, after what he has witnessed.  The way it which the prologue has been structured would imply that plot is influencing character and not the reverse.

As the novel continues, we are lead through various stages of plot as narrated by different characters. Clearly this style of narratorship fulfills Collins’s objective in showing the imprint of character on plot.  The plot develops and is viewed and thus communicated to the reader through the eyes of each particular narrator.  To that extent, character does indeed direct plot.  However, ultimately if the prime and irreducible aim of plot is to understand the significance of human life, then the impact that plot has on character growth is preeminent.

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