The Woman in White first appeared in Dickens' serial “All the Year Round” in 1859 and was published as a book the following year. It is good example of the sensational genre popular in the 1860's. Suspense is created by repeated reference to ominous things yet to occur, and an atmosphere of mystery and doom is created. Fate and chance play important roles in The Woman in White such as Walter Hartright's repeated encounters with Anne Catherick. The outcome of the book is perfectly happy. All wrongs are righted. The humble drawing master Walter Hartright never does anything bad. The vestry fire kills the evil “Sir” Percival and the Italian society finally catches up with Fosco. In the end, the hero and heroines live happily ever after at Limmeridge House.
The idea that appearance does not necessarily correspond with reality is central to The Woman in White. Laura Fairlie does not appreciate this distinction and her innocent naivete brings about her downfall when she accepts Percival. A similar theme is the lack of correspondence between word and meaning. For example, the name Anne Catherick on Laura's clothes in the asylum is presented by the nurse as evidence of her identity, the name engraved on the tombstone is wrong, and the brand on Fosco's arm belies his treachery to the secret Italian society. An extension of the idea of reality versus appearance is the role of propriety or social convention in human behavior.
Propriety represents conformity with social convention and a system of rules to govern social behavior. Propriety is good for society in that it promotes acceptable standards for human behavior but it can be deceptive and even harmful in that an individual person's behavior in a social setting may not correspond with the reality below the surface. It is this regard for appearances as opposed to reality that gets Marian and Laura into trouble when lower class Hartright falls in love with upper class Laura. Count Fosco has the appearance of propriety but is undeniably the most evil character in the book. Throughout The Woman in White, propriety and appearance are contrasted with reality. Although Percival is a deplorable character, his evil is quite visible on the surface and is merely physical. The evil of Count Fosco is much more dangerous because of his intelligence and deceptive behavior.
Several other themes are expressed in The Woman in White, for example, the impotence of the legal system. Law has little to do with the abstract sense of justice but rather is a formality (as is propriety) that serves the ruling groups of society. For example, Mr. Kyrle doubts that Hartright would have a case if he tried to prove Laura's identity in a court of law. Another theme is Collins' attitude about the inadequacy of the Victorian laws of marriage and inheritance. It is this inadequacy that leads to Laura's tragedy. Yet another theme is that knowledge and intellect are more powerful that brute strength. Consider for example, Marian's eavesdropping on the conversation between Fosco and Percival, the effect of Fosco's reading Marian's diary, and the meticulous research that Hartright conducts in his documentation of Fosco's deception. This contrast between the effectiveness of intellect versus force is embodied in the characters of Fosco as compared to Percival.
In what light are women presented in The Woman in White? In 1944, Dorothy Sayers said: "Collins is genuinely feminist in his treatment of women." Laura embodies the common representation of women in Victorian literature and what befalls her can be interpreted as Collins' dissatisfaction with this view of women. On the other hand, Marian is more of a modern woman. Her strength and resources rise above what is considered feminine by Victorian social convention. There is an ironic pattern of gender ambiguity in The Woman in White. Fosco is somewhat feminine and childlike (e.g. his taste for sweets and small pets) but he is the epitome of evil. Marian is masculine (see for example Hartright's original description of her). Even Sir Percival has a feminine nose. Thus, the categories of masculine and feminine are insufficient to cover the entire spectrum of human sexuality and gender. In this sense, Collins can be considered a feminist.
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