A Man’s Resolution to Argue: Structure, Narrative, and Rhetoric in The Woman in White

In “A Man’s Resolution: Narrative Strategies in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White,” Pamela Perkins and Mary Donaghy investigate the authorial discrepancies between Walter Hartright’s claim over objectivity and his editorial footprint. They explain how, “[a]lthough he claims a social and legal sanction for his narrative, the novel itself provides ample clues that the defense of this authority is a hidden agenda” (392-393). Walter, both as an editor and, manipulates the story into a rhetorical framework. In this sense, not only does the novel explain how Walter came to possess Laura and the Limmeridge Estate, but it also serves to justify his acquisition of both. Perkins and Donaghy highlight how, “the imprint of Walter’s editorial hand lies on each account” (396), and accordingly, each piece of the narrative contributes to Walter’s claim over property and wife.

And yet, if we follow this logic, we inevitably face the narratives of Hester Pinhorn, the Doctor, Jane Gould, and a Tombstone. Together, these accounts seem to supply credited, ample evidence against Walter. Excluding the Tombstone, each narrative ends with an indication that the narrator “[s]igned” (Collins 404, 405) their story, implying that these testimonies once validated the death of Laura Glyde. The Tombstone, which appears after all the living accounts seems to compile and finalize this death. Both figuratively and literally, Laura’s fate is written in stone. However, it is precisely this structure which ought to raise doubt over Walter’s narrative.

Over the course of six hundred and eighteen pages, Walter Hartright posits a case for himself as the owner of the Limmeridge Estate and husband to Laura. In seven pages, he establishes what he needs to argue against—these legal documents. Structurally, these accounts function as counterclaim to his story. And in a rhetorical manner, Walter seeks to disprove them immediately by describing himself as dumbfounded when he apparently saw, “Laura, Lady Glyde, was standing by the inscription, and was looking at me over the grave” (Collins 411). Since by the time Walter has collected this story’s accounts, he would have known the full narration, his surprised tone here raises suspicion. Every aspect from Laura’s name to her action appears drawn out, as if to emphasize not her, but rather Walter. Besides pointing the reader at himself, his extra emphasis also helps reveal some of his goals. For Walter, it becomes not only important to relay the events, but to pose himself at just the right moment and with just the right reaction. Ultimately, when Collins opens with, “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve” (Collins 9) it showcases how Walter’s narratives surpass and erase what was written in stone. In a broader sense, Collins critiques a society where a Man’s resolution can both kill and raise someone from the dead, can defy what is written in stone, and can bend the narratives of others. In that world, what does anything mean when a Man’s resolution can erase and redefine what you knew?

2 thoughts on “A Man’s Resolution to Argue: Structure, Narrative, and Rhetoric in The Woman in White”

  1. I think it is interesting, in the context of this blog post,to consider the end note at the end of the Carolyn Dever article that articulates the possibility that Laura did, in fact, die and Anne lived with Walter and Marian at the end of the novel. Because the narration source is so unreliable and easily changed, it is possible that Walter did marry Anne Catherick in the end and there is no way to fact check who survived in the end. If a man’s resolution could change who died, they have complete control and can almost “play God”, changing the story however they please.

  2. I love this blog post and how you articulate the ways in which Walter completely controls the entire novel. I agree it is interesting and suspicion when Walter acts surprised or draws out certain parts to create such a colorful story. If this were actually a real case there is no way it would actually make it through, especially considering all of the extra details about the furniture and locations. Collins basically creates a story that allows Walter to get away with whatever he wants no matter who it affects. Therefore it is so ironic this story is called the woman in white because really it should be called the man named Hartright.

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