While reading Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, the narrative structure and voice forced me to question the idea of “truth” in the novel. The first-person narrator constantly reminds the reader that the he tells the story “in the interests of truth” (9). In the prologue, the narrator states, “And I declare, on my word of honour, that what I am now about to write is, strictly and literally, the truth” (1). When Gabriel Betteredge takes over the narration, he describes how he would systematically recall his memories of each day with the help of Penelope’s diaries. Throughout his narration he asserts his loyalty to the “truth” (17) and dedication to relay events “as things actually happened” (20).
The meta-fictional aspects of this text strangely seems to work with this dedication to the “truth,” but also complicated it in many (obvious) ways. Betteredge speaks directly to some “you,” or the reader, in his account within the fictional context of the novel. Strangely, however, Betteredge seems to be story-telling more than providing an account of events for legal purposes. He also literally refers to the structure of the novel: “Cheer up! – I’ll ease you with another new chapter here – and, what is more, that chapter shall take you straight into the thick of the story” (53). This narrative structure forced me to question the relationship between truth and reality in the novel.
I noticed another interesting passage that relates to the point. After Franklin tells Betteredge his account of Colonel’s death and questions the motive of his will, he states, “‘This question has two sides,’ he said. ‘An Objective side, and a Subjective side. Which are we to take’” (39). Ultimately, Franklin decides, “From all I can see, one interpretation is just as likely to be right as the other” (39). This question relates to the text as a whole. The entire “story” is related through a subjective perspective, yet claims a somewhat objective perspective. How do you think this relationship between the reality and truth works in the text?
I found an interesting article, “The ‘Shivering Sands’ of Reality: Narration and Knowledge in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone,” by Lewis Roberts, that begins to answer this question for me. While Roberts makes a larger-scale argument than I will relate here, he makes some interesting points that directly address my question. Roberts highlights the artificial nature of the text including Franklin Blake’s role as a “general editor” (170) and the layers of narration throughout. He highlights how these elements force the reader to question reliability and “truth.” Roberts addresses the novel’s concern with the realism and the truth: “his 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” (169). Robert’s point draws attention to his contradiction I noticed in the narration.
He highlights other binaries and contradictions that exist in the text concerning the “known” and the “unknown,” including the actual moonstone itself, the shivering sands, and even the characters: “For Collins, realism is not only a process of scientific discovery in which everything can be explained, in which all secrets will be revealed and all revelations will be apparent; but also, realism is a state of recognition of the complexities and the mysteries involved in ‘knowing’ anything” (177). In this way, Roberts argues that Collins recognizes the “unknown” as both inseparable and integral to the “known.”