Books in Books

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is a plot of discovery, unraveling a dense mystery surrounding opium use and social ties, but it also carries a lesson about the diffusion of knowledge through the written word. Books within the book itself carry valuable information, often only perceptible or accessible to certain characters, indicating how valuable knowledge can be lost when it is written down rather than communicated directly. Paying attention to the comprehension gatekept within the books in The Moonstone promotes an awareness of how the format of the novel itself contributes to the confusion abounding within the story.

In her book, The Ideas in Things, Elaine Freedgood explores the importance of “things” in Victorian literature, suggesting that they carry more weight than just contributing to a realistic setting. Things are abundant in Victorian novels, referred to as “thing culture”, which “survives now in those marginal or debased cultural forms and practices in which apparently mundane or meaningless objects can suddenly take on or be assigned value or meaning…” (Freedgood 8). Books themselves are valued highly in The Moonstone. Betteredge regards Robinson Crusoe as his gospel, seeking advice from its randomly selected pages. Ezra Jennings relies on Human Physiology and Confessions of an English Opium Eater as the basis for his understanding of what happened to Franklin Blake. However, the other characters don’t have access or a desire to obtain the knowledge within their pages, despite their crucial importance perceived by their respective owners. Thus, these books can be viewed as metonyms, they are concrete objects that take the place of knowledge and understanding–more fluid concepts. These metonyms “…allow for causal, material, and conceptual connections…outside the frame of the narrative” (Freedgood 11). However, rather than encourage a connection outside the frame of the narrative, I would argue that the books encourage such about the frame itself. Collins’ novel is told through the written accounts of different characters involved in the mystery, and just as someone who doesn’t respect the wisdom of Robinson Crusoe can’t gain anything from its words or someone who hasn’t read a novel about opium use wouldn’t be aware of its stimulant effects, these same issues of comprehension occur because of written versus communication between the characters. Diffusing knowledge through the written word, just as Rosanna Spearman did in her letter to Franklin Blake or Sergeant Cuff did with his accusation placed in an envelope, relies on those who need the knowledge to both have access and a desire to read it. This conundrum is represented on a small scale through the book metonyms, allowing Collins to indirectly emphasize its pervasive nature in the narrative as a whole.

2 thoughts on “Books in Books”

  1. I love this idea of knowledge being gatekept through books and the written word in The Moonstone. It’s paradoxical because the form of the novel is a collection of “factual” written accounts meant to communicate the facts of the case. I wonder if this is Collins’s way of suggesting that Blake doesn’t actually think anyone will read this account, maybe because he doesn’t think anyone else is educated enough. This also connects to our discussion of how the book in focus changes throughout the novel. Robinson Crusoe is a novel of empire, which is the focus when the stone is first stolen and until the characters attempt to figure out how this was done. Then the books about the effects of opium take precedence, which reflects the shift from who stole the diamond and who it belongs to, toward how the stone can be recovered.

  2. This idea that written knowledge is privileged in the moonstone, even down to Cuff writing Ablewhite’s name on a slip of paper, makes a lot of sense. However, I’m curious about how that applies to Robinson Crusoe. It seems like you’re arguing that Bettteredge’s gospel really is full of valuable information which I think says something about Imperialism and Englishmen providing valuable information since that seems to be what the book represents. It’s true that the book always seems to be right but I wonder what we’re supposed to make of that?

Leave a Reply