Monday, May 5, 2008

White Washing Memories and Consciences

#95 The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I almost thought Tom Hanks was gonna make an appearance towards the end.

Semester's kill me. On account of all the fancy book-learning and Collegian (and Chevron Says) writing I do, the Lemon Disco blog falls to the wayside. Pretty sad stuff. However, with this post my triumphant return at pretending to be a literary critic is in place. I know that I noted something else as my next piece, but constraints on what the library had available six months ago forced my hand into reviewing The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (a dude).

Much like the previously-reviewed Dracula, TWIW utilized first-person journal entries as the means of telling a thrilling caper with numerous twists and/or turns. Although there are primarily two narrators, several are used. Unlike Dracula, though, Collins only employees first-person journal entries written in a collection for legal purposes -- newspapers, letter or tomb stones don't document this story.

When I picked up the book originally, I (erroneously) judged by its cover that it would be a lame love-story, a romance novel, a chick-flick in prose form. Thankfully, I was wrong and found an intriguing story of deception. The woman in white was not so much a character but instead, a ghost of a person that evildoers used as tool to do their evil. Her name was Anne Catherick, and I feel like she had less than eight pages of dialogue in the lengthy novel. She's more of a catalyst than a character.

We've seen this plot before: artist boy is poor, gets employed by rich English man to teach his niece to draw; boy falls for niece, and vice versa; conflict -- niece is betrothed to prude dude; boy dramatically leaves for America; wedding ensues; turns out prude dude is only in it for the money and, with fat Italian man, arranges a false death with a niece look-a-like; boy comes back from America to find his love is dead; not really, though, so it becomes his mission to clear her name and restore her legacy.

Typical English literature, right?

Many characters, plot turns and strong-armingnesss leads to a interesting read. Not light on the pages, but, unlike Dracula, these pages are more purposeful. Meaningless scene description is not included, and the plot continues to evolve right up until the end. Even after the climax, a solid denouement ties the loose ends together and answers all lingering questions one may have had about the resolution and characters.

There are a few themes and similarities with previous novels written about on this blog that I would like to go into.

I understand women were viewed differently in 17th Century England, but TWIW is not an empowering read. Certain feminist aspects exist, but on the whole, most women are depicted as weak and subservient to men. One of the biggest problems occurs because the niece, Laura, is too frail a figure to testify on the conspiracy regarding her faked death. Collins made the boy, Walter Hartright, jump through very elaborate and convoluted hoops to rectifying the wrong. Fat Italian man's wife is depicted as a viper in one sentence, but a faithful conjugal being in the next. All her actions are laid out by her husband, and she is purposeless without his guidance.

Two strong ladies are here, but they are brow-beaten with insults from the author. The niece's sister, Marian, is the strongest and most dynamic character in the novel. She is a constant source of strength for her sister and Walter, and she is instrumental in the restoration of her sister's legacy. However, Collins describes her, pretty much, as being ugly as sin. No man would ever be interested in someone as man-ish and independent as Marian. Maybe Collins was writing about how the world wasn't ready for the strong woman -- despite her existence -- but I wasn't buying it.

The other empowering figure defamed by Collins was the mother of the girl who's death allowed for Laura to appear dead -- Mrs. Catherick. This woman sold her daughter out, deceived a man into marrying her and in essence, was a cheap floozy that valued money and status more than humanity. But boy was she a tough cookie. Collins makes her out to be a bitch, but a strong bitch that I'd never want to fuck with.

Sure, feminism is a topic that I've delved into a few times before on this blog, but secret societies is an uncharted territory. About seven-eights into the novel, Collins introducing a da Vinci Code-esq group known only to the reader as the "Brotherhood." This group exists for political purposes and forces its members to be called upon at a given moment to achieve political ends -- namely, assassination. Its inclusion in TWIW is a little unnecessary and sort of a cop-out (the Italian man's membership in this group forces his other-wise unsympathetic hand to yield), but it is still interesting as hell. Collins effectively describes that throughout history, groups like the "Brotherhood" cause change, define what the status quo is and run countries without the public ever knowing or wanting to know. It made me a little uncomfortable, though, and cause me to wonder who is the man behind the curtain in our nation.

To tie this in with other books on this list, TWIW describes a hallmark of English literature: cold professionalism. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dracula and TWIW lawyers, policemen, doctors and citizens in general are very detached from the subjects they encounter. I've seen this in British literature outside this list in the works of Dickens; a character like Uriah Heep (not the band) goes about his work in a professional manner that is business as usual, no matter what the circumstances are. Maybe it is all about the benjamins, but white-collared workers in the UK are cold bitches.

Although Gone with the Wind has been my favorite thus far, I can say that The Woman in White runs a close second. When the lovers love, the bad dudes meet their reckonings or when people are simply hanging out, I intimately followed the characters in this piece. I'm glad I read this one and am even considering viewing the 1940s movie based on it.
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Up next:
Movies - Pulp Fiction (#95)
Novels - The Good Soldier Svjek (#96) by Jaroslav Hasek

1 comment:

Meg said...

it makes me so happy that someone else has discovered the wonderfulness that is "gwtw". trust me, i haven't read anything that tops it since i read the book almost ten years ago.