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.

It was a dark and stormy night…Haunting in Great Expectations

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is a melting pot of many themes and types of plots. Class structures and social status are continually in question throughout the novel, most obviously during Pip’s rise to gentle-manhood. He becomes comfortable in his higher station, indulging in privileges reserved for higher society but punished in the lower classes, notably his reckless spending and lack of money sense. Pip benefits due to social stratification in London at the time, and those such privileges afforded to the rich. However, his comfort in this structure is shaken when he learns the source of his wealth: an ex-con, appearing like a ghost from Pip’s childhood. During Magwitch’s revelation scene, Dickens represents him in a haunting manner to emphasize the base fear Pip feels during his process of recognition and understanding; he realizes his expectations no longer coincide with those acceptable in society (and never did).

Dickens structures Pip’s discovery like a typical haunting scene. Pip is describing the awful wind, rain, and darkness striking his home, when suddenly, “I heard a footstep on the stair” (Dickens 334). The “sudden” nature of the initial realization that he is not alone is comparable to a jump scare towards Pip. Pip’s comprehension of the situation dawns on him slowly, first recognizing Magwitch as the convict from his past, then understanding the true nature of his circumstances. Dickens describes his bodily reactions to this new reality as comparable to the fear of being haunted, “I could not have spoken one word…I seemed to be suffocating…I shuddered…he took both my hands and put them to his lips, while my blood ran cold within me” (Dickens 339-341). These somatic symptoms point to the reality that Pip is experiencing terror in this scene, despite nothing truly frightening occurring. Avery Gordon, author of Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, offers an explanation for this phenomenon, “…haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws us affectively…into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition.” (Gordon 8). Thus, Dickens represents Pip’s recognition of his reality as a physical experience. He is confronted with information which prompts him to reframe his entire mindset towards his identity–past, present, and future. Rather than explicitly stating that his current life is essentially over, Dickens creates a haunting scene to demonstrate the transformation Pip undergoes once realizing he no longer has (and never should have had) a place in society. The over gloomy weather and Magwitch’s sudden apparition allow for a covert undercurrent of social status and class structure.

Tyrant or Traumatized?

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a novel rife with intensely lunatic characters, driven mad perhaps by their cloistered existences on the moors or their degrading need for vengeance–the latter pertaining mainly to Heathcliff. While many of Heathcliff’s actions and reactions can be perceived as depicting his manic personality, Alexandra Lewis’ text “Memory Possessed: Trauma and Pathologies of Remembrance in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights” offers a different perspective. Catherine’s death brings about a particularly manic episode from Heathcliff, which could be perceived as demonstrating his sheer madness and abnormal attachment to Cathy, but when informed by Lewis’ text actually depicts an understanding of traumatic processing.

Heathcliff is barred from being present during Catherine’s death yet can predict it when Nelly comes to inform him (Brontë 168). He acts insensibly towards Nelly, chastising her for grief, “’Put your handkerchief away–don’t snivel before me. Damn you all! She wants none of your tears!’” (Brontë 168), suggesting a possible reserve of emotion for his loss. However, this is immediately and violently contradicted, “He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled not like a man, but like a savage beast…several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hand and forehead were both stained…” (Brontë 169). In this scene, a typical reading would perceive Brontë’s invocation of the Gothic (describing Heathcliff as bloody and “savage”) as demonstrating Heathcliff’s otherworldly madness and desperation when his “soul” (Brontë 169) dies.

However, Lewis’ text complicates this more straightforward reading. Lewis argues that Heathcliff’s inability to witness Catherine’s death affects him as would a direct trauma, contributing to the way he processes his loss. She asserts, citing work from Geoffrey Hartman, “…while the traumatic event is not directly experienced…there is nevertheless ‘a kind of memory of the event, in the form of a perpetual troping of it by the bypassed or severely split (dissociated) psyche’” (Lewis 413-414). Heathcliff does not see Catherine die, and his reaction to her peaceful death is anything but. Rather than comprehending his reaction as a representation of his crazed, savage nature, Lewis allows insight into how this trauma in particular would affect Heathcliff’s mind. For example, rather than grouping it in with the Gothic trope of Heathcliff’s “otherness”, she asserts that Heathcliff’s repetitive head bashing is indicative of his dissociation with the episode (Lewis 414). Through Lewis’ lens, in contrast with a Gothic reading and understanding of the scene, Heathcliff is processing a trauma in this specific way because he didn’t experience it firsthand.

The Surprising Other in Wuthering Heights

In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is a prime example of the Other, perhaps one of the most potent in all Victorian literature. However, due to both her early relationship with Heathcliff and her drastic break from it, Catherine is also a form of the Other in the novel. Through Catherine’s delirious speech to Nelly during her fatal illness, Brontë uses the framework of the Gothic to convey the impossibility of escaping her role as the Other.

In her lament to Nelly, Catherine speaks plaintively and earnestly about the state she finds herself in. It is plain she regrets her choice to leave the Heights, “’…I had been wrenched…and been converted at a stroke into Mrs. Linton, the lady of Thrushcross Grange, and the wife of a stranger, an exile and outcast thenceforth from what had been my world…” (Brontë 125). By marrying Edgar Linton to escape her perception of a “dehumanizing” attachment to Heathcliff, Catherine has only persisted in again othering herself, just in a different setting. She identifies herself as a “stranger”, “exile”, and “outcast”, plainly demonstrating the detachment she feels from the life she has chosen for herself. However, in bemoaning the loss of her past, Catherine also represents that former status as Other. She says, “I wish I were out of doors. I wish I were a girl again, half savage, and hardy, and free…” (125). Her use of the word “savage” particularly emphasizes her perception of the otherness of her past as well as her present. Heathcliff, her former “all in all” (125), is also described as savage or less than human throughout the novel, mirroring Catherine’s vision of herself. Earlier in the novel, she declares “I am Heathcliff” (Brontë 82), suggesting that her original perception as herself as the Other stemmed from her association with Heathcliff; she is now realizing that she cannot escape this Otherness as she holds this attachment with her always. Despite Catherine’s best efforts to escape her liminal existence at Wuthering Heights, she only succeeds in thrusting herself into a different form of liminality, a very Gothic concept. The Gothic, as described by Richard Altick, “…is obsessed with establishing and policing borders, with delineating strict categories of being” (Altick xii). When one doesn’t fall into a category of being, they become an Other. The border between Catherine’s past and present is impermeable, but the border of her future as Mrs. Linton also remains closed–once Heathcliff’s return reinforces their relationship–resulting in “the abyss” (125) of liminality. Aided by this Gothic border trope, Brontë solidifies the line between Catherine’s wild childhood and her role as a wife. She is alienated into no man’s land, an internal crisis which is so powerful that it culminates in her illness, and eventual death.

Mary Barton, Bummer!

“This mourning, too, will cost a pretty penny,” said Mary. “ I often wonder why folks wear mourning ; it’s not pretty or becoming ; and it costs a deal of money just when people can spare it least ; and if what the Bible tells us be true, we ought not to be sorry when a friend, who’s been good , goes to his rest ; and as for a bad man, one’s glad enough to get shut on him. I cannot see what good comes out o’ wearing mourning.” (Gaskell 47)


In this passage, Mary’s critique of the practice of wearing mourning clothes is instigated by her ingrained awareness of the funds needed to purchase the new apparel, simply to fulfill societal tradition. Gaskell repeats the word “cost” throughout her thought process, implying how strongly money factors into Mary’s lack of appreciation for dressing in mourning. Her analysis of mourning begins with just the cost, but delves deeper, referencing the Bible and more emotional aspects of a loved one’s death. However, her thoughts quickly cycle back to lack of understanding of what “good” wearing mourning can accomplish, demonstrating that Mary’s thoughts simply cannot be detached from the omnipresent need for money. Gaskell makes Mary’s social status apparent in this speech, as it is governed by money (or really lack thereof). She associates death with lack of funds, likely because many deaths in her community were of the breadwinners (men) of households or due to malnourishment (which was due to poverty). Outside the microcosm of Mary’s community, mourning carries weight as a British tradition and demonstration of respect for the deceased. Starting with royalty, social traditions trickled down through the social classes, despite the stratification between them. However, for the upper classes (Queen Victoria’s long period of mourning following Prince Albert’s death comes to mind), the decision to wear mourning is a matter of choice, whereas for the poor, Mary’s speech demonstrates that it’s a matter of sacrifice, when one has already lost so much.


Furthermore, the mourning cost discussion is brought forward through Mary’s monologue, rather than just a passage from the narrator. Gaskell frames this concept within her character’s speech to cement it within the plot, rather than going on a personal tangent, which would lose traction with the reader. Mary’s frank speech about the unnecessary cost of mourning is indicative of the transparency of the entire novel. Gaskell does not try to cloak any criticism of society within metaphor or any other figurative language, because much like the frivolity of mourning, the poor can’t afford to hide behind the curtain of figurative language. Mary’s speech plainly represents an argument from Gaskell about the exacerbation of poverty through an attempt of social tradition but is more subtle because it’s woven into the plot by delivery through a character. Gaskell does not mask her economic and social opinions and push for reform in Mary Barton by using typical techniques like symbolism or metaphor. It is unnecessary to “read between the lines”. However, Gaskell’s choice of vehicle is a form of mask itself. Just as she impresses new concepts–such as the unnecessary cost of mourning–through Mary’s voice, Gaskell delivers her opinions through an entertaining novel that includes romance and near-death experiences. This novel was written to generate action within the lower class and hopefully empathy from the middle and upper classes, and Gaskell can achieve this by reaching a larger audience through the diverting nature of the plot while also delivering concrete opinions and transparent intentions about the need for equity in England.