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THE "SHIVERING SANDS" OF REALITY: NARRATION AND KNOWLEDGE IN WILKIE COLLINS' THE MOONSTONE LEWIS ROBERTS Indiana University When Gabriel Betteredge, the faithful family servant and voice of English domesticity, first encounters the Indian Moonstone, his reaction testifies to the diamond's power both to fascinate and confuse: When you looked down into the stone, you looked into a yellow deep that drew your eyes into it so that they saw nothing else. It seemed unfathomable; this jewel, that you could hold between your finger and thumb, seemed unfathomable as the heavens themselves. We set it in the sun, and then shut the light out of the room, and it shone awfully out of the depths of its own brightness, with a moony gleam, in the dark. (97) The diamond seems to embody contradiction and mystery: it is easily grasped, yet unfathomable. Standing at the nexus of this detective novel, the jewel both reveals and conceals the reality of its nature. The Moonstone, a novel which presents the accurate re-telling of the diamond's history as a means toward the revelation and understanding of the mystery behind its disappearance, often works by calling the possibility of such objective knowledge, and such objective narration, into question. The Moonstone's critique of rationality and absolute knowledge rests not on a refutation of reality, but rather on an insistence that the alien, the unknowable, the mysterious are necessary components in any realistic narrative.1 The Moonstone is initially presented as an attempt to "trace the influence of character on circumstances" (27). In his Preface to the first edition, Collins insists that the events in his novel are not merely supposition, but rather spring from the real motivations of his characters — he has "so shaped the story as to make it grow out of what actually Victorian Review 23.2 (Winter 1997) LEWIS ROBERTS169 would have happened" (27). This concern with accurate, true-to-life story-telling is prominent both in the novel's narrative structure (its firstperson , eyewitness accounts) and in the scientific experiment which ostensibly reveals the motivations and events of the diamond's theft. This concern with realism is unsurprising in a detective novel, with its impulse toward uncovering the truth and reconstructing actual events; nevertheless, Collins presents us with an understanding of reality in which the familiar and the alien, the knowable and the unfathomable, are equally present. The Shivering Sand, like the Moonstone, is a phenomenon both fascinating and frightening, and exemplifies this contradictory notion of reality — the function of this threatening and mysterious location in Collins' narrative is to conceal and reveal secrets, and to complicate the characters' knowledge of each other and themselves. Both a grave and a hiding-place, a natural phenomenon and a preternatural horror, the Sand seems unfathomable, yet preserves and yields up some of its secrets. Collins buries crucial evidence in the Sand, evidence which is recoverable, but not completely understandable, evidence which confuses and merges guilt and innocence. In placing the Shivering Sand in the middle of a narrative which attempts to portray "what actually does happen" when recognizable characters are placed in mysterious circumstances (27), The Moonstone questions not only the possibility of arriving at an objective view of truth, but also the moral implications of domestic crime and British imperialism. L "but (alas!) I am not permitted to improve — I am condemned to narrate." — Miss Clack In his Preface to the first edition of The Moonstone, Collins expresses two aims for his novel. First, he says that he has attempted "to trace the influence of character on circumstances" (27). The narrative unfolds because certain characters make certain choices according to their individual personalities, desires, motivations, and perspectives.2 Previously, in his Preface to the second edition of The Woman in White, Collins had claimed that "it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters: their existence, as recognizable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told" (32). The "recognizable realities" of the individual characters are of particular importance to the narrative structure of The Moonstone, for the novel is not simply a single narrative narrated by the voice of a single narrator...


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pp. 168-183
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