Characters as Id, Ego, and Superego

Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White expresses the three personality traits described by Freud, id, ego and superego, through the characters of Sir Percival, Count Fosco, and Laura respectively. Freud’s theory was not published during the publication of The Woman in White. However, critics can retrospectively notice patterns in characters, determine if they become increasingly simplistic like Freud’s model and begin to ask whether Freud drew his simplistic model of the conscious and unconscious from the observations of simplistic Victorian characters or whether the model demonstrates something innately human that many Victorian writers hyperbolized in their writing. This post will focus on mapping Percival, Fosco, and Laura based on their discussion of murder on page 231 in terms of id, ego, and superego. 

The id is described by Freud as being the unconscious, primitive mind. The id only wants to fulfill its own desires without delay or interference. Percival represents the id. During the scene, he speaks and reacts emotionally to the situation. When Fosco tells him the lake is a terrible place for a murder Percival gets defensive and says, “it would take to long to explain” (231). Likewise, when Laura says she believes that crimes cause their own detection he scornfully laughs at her and feels angry when Marian comes to her add. His explosive emotions increase as the book goes on. It is most notable in the following scene when Percival yells at Laura to sign the document that will only serve his interests.

Fosco, who acts as realistic council to Percival, represents ego. He his calm, collected, and looks at the realities within situations. Fosco’s practicality can be seen when he says the lake is too shallow and the sand would leave the murderer’s footprint behind if a murder were to take place. Likewise, Fosco interferes between Percival and Laura, the id and superego if you will. He follows the most rational path, though it may not be the most desirable nor the most moral.

Laura as the superego defends the ideality of humanity by claiming “wise men are truly good men and thus have a horror of crimes.” (231). Her willingness to believe and support “copybook morality” as both Fosco and Percival accuse her of believing. Fosco “admires” her optimism in humanity however, admonishes her for her naivety. Percival laughs at her naivety also, but more from his own disgust with her ideals than for any “rational” reason. The superego is considered the moral voice which speaks for the ideals of society. Laura, then, speaks to the moral notion that murder is wrong and all wrongs will be righted. 

We could say Marian acts as society and comes to the aid of her sister. Madame Fosco, having been identified as the same person as the Count himself, can be considered ego as well. The appearance of Freud’s model in a novel before the publication of his work begs the question, how did both novel and Freud come to a similar distillation of the human psyche.

Marian’s “Faithful Memory” and the Reliability of the Text


“Victorian Memory” Variety of Rose

Marian’s narration is preoccupied with assuring the reader of her account of the  “reliability of [her] recollection” (Collins 284). Collins inserts a seemingly redundant scene into Marian’s narration: Laura cannot remember the alternative of taking “bills at three months” presented to Sir Percival by his lawyer if he should fail in obtaining her signature. Marian responds, “‘You complimented me on my ready memory not long since–but you seem to doubt it now. I will get my journal and see if I am right or wrong'” (284). Indeed, Marian’s recollection was correct.

This short scene prompts the reader to wonder why Collins would include it– we, of course, are also privy to Marian’s entries and already know of the second alternative. A similar scene arises later, when Marian reports “the host’s anxiety for a little quiet talk over wine and the guest’s obstinate resolution not to sit down again at the table, revived in my memory the request which Sir Percival had vainly addressed to his friend earlier in the day, to come out of the library and speak to him” (312). While these scenes may seem to be superfluous reminders of plot details, perhaps a product of the novel’s serialization, in a novel that claims “No circumstance of importance, from the beginning to the end of the disclosure, shall be related on hearsay evidence” and events will be related “word for word” (9), we may also take these assertions of the prowess of Marian’s memory to be assertions about the reliability of the text.

These moments where Marian’s memory is discussed so blatantly seem to serve no purpose in the text other than to reinforce what the reader, and furthermore, the characters, already know. We are therefore encouraged to read them more closely and seek a greater significance. Marian reflects “In the perilous uncertainty of our present situation, it is hard to say what future interests may not depend upon the regularity of the entries in my journal, and upon the reliability of my recollection at the time when I make them” (284) and goes on throughout her diary to reference her “faithful memory” (318) and the necessity of recording events “while [her] memory vividly retained them” (335). Collins’s diction, particularly “regularity” and “reliability” make assurances of the authority of Marian’s account. While we might be skeptical of her ability to write conversations down exactly as they happened hours after the fact, Count Fosco commends “the marvellous accuracy of her report of the whole conversation [between the Count and Sir Percival] from its beginning to its end” (337). We can see that the text is making assertions of its own reliability, through Marian’s own claims and their corroboration by Count Fosco.

The Woman in White is therefore not only a text which we as readers must assess the reliability of, but also a text which is aware of its own reliability and takes pains to assure readers of its accuracy. Whether that purported accuracy is substantiated will be revealed as the novel develops and the viewpoints of other characters are incorporated.

Women in White

Throughout the novel thus far, our narrators occasionally pause their testimonies of the mysterious and sinister events at Limmeridge House and Blackwater Park to describe another character’s manner of dress. Clothes, in literature, are often metaphorically linked to themes of identity and selfhood. In a theatrical novel driven by instances of mistaken or concealed identity, I find such attention to clothing particularly resonant. The bulk of the references to clothing relate to Anne Catherick, Laura Fairlie, and Count Fosco—three characters who are central to the novel’s mystery plot. However, as the title of the novel indicates the importance of the women’s garb and my space here is limited, I will focus my current exploration of this topic on Laura and Anne.

Our first narrator, Walter Hartwright, introduces clothing as an important trope and plot device in the first epoch. For example, his description of Laura’s “white muslin” dress not only foreshadows her link to Anne, but also reveals aspects of Laura’s personality that become important for how we read her relationship with Sir Percival: “It was spotlessly pure: it was beautifully put on; but still it was the sort of dress which the wife or daughter of a poor man might have worn” (56). Hartwright’s allusion to class anticipates the future importance of Laura’s economic status. In an emotional conversation with Marian following her marriage to Sir Percival, Laura explicitly rebukes her wealth as a form of constraint and credits Marian’s “poverty” with saving her sister from the bondage of an unwanted marriage (258).

Furthermore, the simplicity of the dress, which Hartwright stresses, here echoes his description of the dress Anne wore the night of their initial encounter—a dress, “certainly not composed of very delicate or very expensive materials” (24). Hartwright’s implicit linking of Anne and Laura in this passage foreshadows the explicit connection drawn between the two women at the end of the chapter. This explicit association between the two women comes as Marian reads Mrs. Fairlie’s letter detailing her encounters with Anne as a child, noting the troubles the young girl faced. While listening to Marian read about young Anne’s love for the white clothes she inherited from an unknowing young Laura, Hartwright keeps his gaze on Laura: “There stood Miss Fairlie, a white figure, alone in the moonlight… the shape of her face, the living image, at that distance and under those circumstances, of the woman in white!” (62). I find it interesting that Hartwright comes to this startling realization upon learning that Anne grew up wearing Laura’s clothes. Laura and Anne’s identities seem to intertwine at this moment, the similarity in physical features and the sharing of clothes foreshadowing more connections to come. Since the white dress is so connected in Harwright’s (and therefore the reader’s) mind with his vision of Anne on the night of her escape from the asylum, it acts as a marker of sorts—marking Laura for some kind of impending suffering.

P.s. If you’re still looking for a pen name, this is fun:

Count Fosco and the Androgynous Mystique

The passage in which Marian describes Count Fosco reveals a Victorian anxiety and fascination with androgyny. On the surface, Marian begins her description of the Count by highlighting his masculine qualities: “His features have Napoleon’s magnificent regularity: his expression recalls the grandly calm, immovable power of the Great Soldier’s face” (218). While appearing to suggest the Count’s authority and stoicism, this comparison to Napoleon actually indicates the Count’s “perplexingly contradictory” (219) nature from the outset, since Napoleon was himself a contradictory figure in his short stature yet commanding demeanor.

Two paragraphs later, Marian explains the Count’s “contradictory” nature more fully: “Fat as he is, and old as he is, his movements are astonishingly light and easy. He is as noiseless in a room as any of us women” (219). As the simile “as noiseless in a room as any of us women” suggests, the Count’s incongruousness is rooted in his feminine attributes. Marian’s use of the collective first-person pronoun “us women” situates the Count in direct opposition to women; yet the comparative “as” linguistically bridges this gender divide, connecting the Count to the feminine through his “light and easy” movements.

Marian proceeds to emphasize the Count’s femininity through two more similes: “and, more than that, with all his look of unmistakable mental firmness and power, he is as nervously sensitive as the weakest of us. He starts at chance noises as inveterately as Laura herself” (219). Here, Marian successfully undermines the Count’s Napoleonic appearance of power by not only revealing his womanly nervousness but also linking the Count with the “weakest” of Marian’s sex. This superlative, along with the following direct comparison to Laura, highlights the Count’s feminine qualities.

This passage holds the key to Marian’s complex attitude toward the Count; she is at once fascinated and threatened by him. As Marian’s description reveals, he is both alluring and dangerous, not merely because of his increasingly suspicious behavior throughout the narrative, but because he unnaturally exhibits the qualities of both sexes. Even though Marian does not explicitly identify the Count’s androgyny as the reason for her discomfort with him, the novel’s keen preoccupation with identifying unknown figures by their sex illuminates the anxiety underlying Marian’s description of the Count. For example, when Marian and Laura encounter the figure at the boathouse, the first question Laura asks is, “Was it a man, or a woman?” (263). Marian asks the same question when Laura hears a noise outside of her room: “Was it a man or a woman?” (307). Clearly, The Woman in White, as evidenced by the title itself, consistently seeks to classify characters by sex, with “male” and “female” connoting a corresponding set of traits. Yet the Count complicates those binary categories, and, in true Victorian fashion, his deviance attracts simultaneous fascination and repulsion.

Written on the Body

In The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, the binaries that are used in society- male/female, virtuous/villainous, domestic/foreign- are repeatedly broken, confused and overlapped. One passage that captures this fun house mirror effect is in the discussion between Percival and the Count about Lady Glyde’s death. To Percival’s exclamation “you make my flesh creep!” (327) the Count replies “Your flesh? Does flesh mean conscience in English?” (327). This seems to be intended to tease Percival about his ‘conscience’ but when looked at with special attention to the binaries presented in the book the passage is more about how virtue and honor are thought of in Victorian England. The first assumption about flesh and conscience brings the readers mind straight to virginity. A virtuous woman is a virgin. In other words your conscience is clean if your flesh is clean. Is the Count then criticizing the English obsession with virginity? In addition to this he adds the addendum “in English” (327), not England. He seems not to be making a point about English culture but the English language. What ideas are conflated with virtue? What does virtue mean about a person? With this in mind I believe this passage is meant to make the reader question the language of conscience and virtue whenever it is brought up in the book.

However another meaning for this passage is a commentary on how throughout the story the truth is told on people’s faces. Often times a character just ‘knows’ when looking at someone’s face, especially with the character of Anne Catherick. Her every emotion and thought is clearly written across her face in a similar sense to Laura Fairlie (this seems to change when she is Lady Glyde, but that is a discussion for another time). Both of these women are praised for their feminine characteristics which seem always to include their lack of guile. Here flesh and conscience are clearly linked in ways that they are not with the male characters. Fosco and Percival both trick people by outward impressions of virtue and honor but are in actuality contemplating murder. It is interesting to me then that the ability for trickery seems linked with masculinity when women are often labeled as the more mischievous and treacherous of the sexes.

Conflicting Characterization of Sir Percival Clyde

The authorial decision to designate multiple narrators throughout a text influences the way a reader interprets a given scene and limits the amount of information available to the reader. In The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins creates smooth and seemingly logical transitions from one narrator to the next; however, thus far, Collins has not given the role of narrator to a number of the prominent characters. Therefore, there is a significant amount of mystery that still surrounds these characters—Laura, Sir Percival, Anne, etcetera. With each new narrator, these characters are described in distinctly different ways. In The Woman in White, Collins portrays Sir Percival in contradicting ways through the narrators of Mr. Gilmore and Marian Halcombe, which adds a level of mystery and uneasiness around his character.

Mr. Gilmore provides the reader with the first vivid description of Sir Percival’s character when he arrived at Limmeridge House. This provides the reader with his or her first impression of his persona. Despite his surprise at how old Sir Percival appeared, Mr. Gilmore describes him in a very positive light. According to him, Sir Percival is “easy and pleasant […] with perfect grace […and] a mixture of tenderness and respect” (130). Additionally, Sir Percival’s “tact and taste were never at fault on this or any other occasion” while Mr. Gilmore resided at Limmeridge House with him (130). From the perspective of the lawyer, Sir Percival embodies everything that a wealthy, well-educated man should be. It is easy to see why Laura’s father chose him as her future husband.

Even though Mr. Gilmore leaves with a lesser impression of Sir Percival after the negotiation over money, his overall description of him is exceedingly positive. However, when Marian Halcombe becomes the narrator, the overall impression of Sir Percival becomes convoluted because her portrayal of him is very negative. After attempting to have a more optimistic outlook on Sir Percival’s character for a few journal entries, Marian begins her entry on November 20th by saying, “I hate Sir Percival!” (191) She then precedes in describing him as “eminently ill-tempered and disagreeable, and totally wanting in kindness and good feeling” (191). Her rant over her renewed hatred of him that completely contradicts Mr. Gilmore’s description is prompted by him whispering something in Laura’s ear that made her face turn white. Since Marian is so willing and able to adjust her description of one of the other characters so drastically from one day to the next, she becomes difficult to trust as a narrator.

The juxtaposition of the various accounts and descriptions by the three narrators presented so far in The Woman in White have allowed more clarity to certain situations but have also made character analysis extremely problematic. Due to her close connection with Laura, Marian seems like a trustworthy narrator, but this bias often muddles her judgment. Additionally, Mr. Gilmore and Mr. Hartright have their own reasons for being biased towards or against specific characters in the novel.

Miss Halcombe’s Internal Confrontation with Female Identity

Miss Halcombe’s influence as an essential narrator and witness in The Woman in White causes the reader to consider if Wilkie Collins supported female rights during the Victorian era. Marian Halcombe’s voice is predominantly audible throughout the novel and is presented as rational and trustworthy, like the voice of a man. Mr. Hartright and Mr. Gilmore’s narratives comment extensively on Marian’s sensibility and astuteness. Marian’s most important moments of reason are obstructed, however, my her status as a women, and she is forced to sensor her opinion to please the men around her. For instance, after Sir Percival clears himself of all Anne Catherick’s allegations, Marian remains suspicious of his character and disagrees with Laura’s choice to continue with the engagement. However, after a conversation with Sir Percival about Laura’s happiness Marian explains that she “answered him- more because [her] tongue is a woman’s, and must answer, than because [she] has anything convincing to say” (175). Marian is expected to behave and speak as a woman and refrain from causing unnecessary controversy. If she expresses her true opinion on their engagement, which is defined upon her unsupported intuition about his character, it would be interpreted as female hysteria or irrational because her judgements are solely reinforced by her female emotions.

Another instance where Marian is barred from expressing herself rationally as a women occurs when she must legally witness Laura’s signature for Sir Percival’s business arrangement. Marian explains, when Sir Percival becomes angry at Laura’s desire to read the document before signing, that she will not “assume responsibility of witnessing her signature[…] unless [Laura] first understands what the writing” is about (245). From a legal standpoint Marian’s interjection is justified and unerring, but through Sir Percival’s perspective she has overstepped her boundaries as a woman. After threatening her ability to remain at his home with Laura, Marian explains that if she “had been a man, [she] would have knocked him down on the threshold of his own door, and have left his house, never on any earthly consideration to enter it again. But [she] was only a woman- and [she] loved his wife so dearly” (245)! Because she is a woman, Miss Halcombe’s relationship with Laura and her financial situation are dependent on remaining on good terms with Sir Percival. At this moment, Marian has no choice but to retreat into her thoughts and continuing advising Laura privately against his irrational persuasions to sign the document she is legally sanctioned to examine. Instead, she must use her wit to uncover legal support from a man, because as women in Victorian society they are powerless, expected to obey, and prone to hysteria. Why then does Collins have Miss Halcombe confront all these Victorian female stereotypes? Is he, by contrast, revealing the irrational, greedy, and sexist nature of Victorian men?

Ideas on a woman’s proper place

A passage in The Woman in White which I found to be indicative of the general ideas thus far was on page 232, under Marian’s narration, when she quotes the Countess. The passage reads, “‘I wait to be instructed,’ replied the Countess, in tones of freezing reproof, intended for Laura and me, ‘before I venture on giving my opinion in the presence of well-informed men.'” First, I think it interesting that in this section of the book, the Countess so easily submits to the will of her husband, intentionally setting an example for Laura and how she should interact with her new husband Sir Percival Glyde. It also demonstrates the ideal role for a woman at the time; the Countess is portrayed as the silent, submissive wife who only speaks when spoken to in contrast to Marian’s outburst, following the above passage, in questioning the Countess’ change of heart in advocating for the rights of women.

What struck me most about this passage is not that the Countess is passive to her husband’s wishes; that is to be expected of the time in which the book was published. Instead, I was shocked that the Countess sought to essentially shut Marian and Laura up and to discourage them from a further discussion with the Count and Sir Glyde. She, and, one can infer, Collins, believe that a woman should not speak until she is “instructed” to by her husband or the male guardian in her life. This yet again depicts a woman as inferior; Marian draws out the idea that the Countess once cared about the “freedom of female opinion”, yet no longer believes it since she has become the Count’s wife. It ties into the legal determinations that a woman is no longer a private entity when married, but that she becomes virtually a part of her husband and is subject to his demands as she technically no longer exists.

It is necessary, also, to look at this passage in context; the Countess’ comment takes place at the lake during a discussion of crimes which results in Count Fosco’s description that a crime is only considered a crime once it is discovered. It seems to me that this entire section is an incredibly overt instance of foreshadowing; one can infer that a crime, likely a murder, will take place or be attempted, and it may take place in this very location. I would even reach so far as to consider that the Countess may be complicit, or at least aware, though she would not see it to be her place to make anyone aware of what will or has occurred. This conclusion might be a stretch, but I think with all the foreshadowing in the lake section, it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw.