Subjective and Objective Knowledge in The Moonstone

By L. Assad

In his study entitled Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel, Joseph Litvak explains that “the sensation novel is the most obviously theatrical Victorian subgenre” (129). Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, once famously declared that “the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the family of fiction” (Dedication of Basil 1852) and wrote thirteen plays of his own between 1850 and 1855. It is no wonder, then, that Collins was so drawn to the theatricality of sensation literature, a “powerfully subversive [genre] within Victorian literary culture” (Wynne 3) because of its tendency to stimulate the senses of its audience.

Collins’s serialized novel The Moonstone (1868), published in Dickens’s All the Year Round magazine, exists as an exemplary embodiment of the sensation novel in its attempt to lure even the most skeptical and rational of readers into the realm of mysticism and imagination. Like the sensation genre itself, The Moonstone privileges feeling over reason and provides us with carefully constructed arguments as to why it is sometimes important, and perhaps even necessary, to leave our reason behind and to submit to our intuitions and superstitions. In short, The Moonstone, with its critique of objective knowledge, enacts everything that the sensation genre aims to achieve.

An apparent dichotomy is set up in The Moonstone between characters who are driven by empirical knowledge and characters who pay closer attention to their intuitive knowledge. Characters such as Godfrey Ablewhite and Mr. Candy, who ignore the portentous stories surrounding Rachel Verinder’s moonstone, stand in direct opposition to characters such as Franklin Blake and Mr. Murthwaite, who respect the stories surrounding the stone. Rachel finds herself caught in the middle of this dichotomy, quite literally, in chapter ten, when she sits between Mr. Candy and Mr. Murthwaite at her birthday dinner. To her left sits Mr. Candy, the Frizinghall doctor, who teasingly suggests burning the Indian moonstone in the interests of science. To Rachel’s right sits Mr. Murthwaite, a celebrated traveler, who tells Rachel that she would be in grave danger if she brought the stone to India:

The fame of [the moonstone] seemed to have reached [Mr. Murthwaite], in some of those perilous Indian places where his wanderings had lain. After looking at it silently for so long a time that Miss Rachel began to get confused, he said to her in his cool immovable way, “If you ever go to India, Miss Verinder, don’t take your uncle’s birthday gift with you. A Hindoo diamond is sometimes part of a Hindoo religion. I know a certain city, and a certain temple in that city, where, dressed as you are now, your life would not be worth five minutes’ purchase.” Miss Rachel, safe in England, was quite delighted to hear of her danger in India. (Collins 78)

Murthwaite’s cool tone and disposition differ from Mr. Candy’s companionable and joking manner. Unlike Mr. Candy who sees the stone as nothing more than a rock, Murthwaite admires the stone for its dangerous reputation. It is clear that Murthwaite has surrendered to the hypnotic quality of the stone in the way that he stares at it, completely absorbed. He believes so firmly in the powers of the moonstone that he feels the need to warn Rachel of its energy and its influence.

In presenting Mr. Murthwaite as the more serious and worldly counterpart to Mr. Candy, Collins implicitly places subjective knowledge over objective knowledge. It is interesting to note, however, that although Candy is represented here as Murthwaite’s foil, he is still superior to his colleagues in the ways in which he practices medicine. Collins cleverly reinforces his defense of subjective knowledge by noting that Candy “[picks] up his discretion (as his enemies [say]) by a kind of instinct, and proving to be generally right where more carefully conducted doctors turned out to be wrong” (77).

Along with allegorizing the dichotomy between scholarly knowledge and experiential knowledge, this scene also illustrates the effects of sensation literature. Like the readers of this story whose hearts race as they read about the dangers of the moonstone, Rachel relishes in the ominous possibilities of her birthday present. Like fervent readers of the sensation novel, Rachel finds Murthwaite’s warning much more compelling than Mr. Candy’s jokes and talk of science.

Most importantly, however, this passage foreshadows Godfrey Ablewhite’s gruesome end. Upon stealing the stone and attempting to take it to Europe to have it cut and sold for great sums of money, Godfrey is killed by the stone’s rightful owners. Although he is in disguise, the rightful owners track Godfrey’s location, as if by magic, and punish him for his attempt to destroy the stone. With this conclusion to The Moonstone, Collins seems to be subtly implying that, had Godfrey chosen to fully submit to superstition, to listen more carefully to the portentous stories surrounding the moonstone, he would not have been killed.

Like its characters, The Moonstone’s narrative structure speaks to the instability of objective knowledge and the fluidity of reality. In his Preface to the first edition of the book, Collins notes that, in his former novels, he attempted to trace the influence of circumstances upon his characters. With The Moonstone, however, he has “reversed the process” and attempted to trace the influence of character on circumstance. “[The characters’] course of thought and action under the circumstances which surround them,” he explains, “is shown to be (what it would most probably have been in real life) sometimes right, and sometimes wrong” (3). The mystery of The Moonstone unfolds organically, just as it would in reality, and the fragmented and subjective nature of the narrative reflects the fragmentation and subjectivity of our own streams of consciousness. With its multiple, and diverse set of narrators, The Moonstone illustrates just how difficult it is to reach certain truth.

In the Preface, Collins writes that his second aim is to allow The Moonstone to grow out of realistic events. This desire for realism is most clearly reflected in Ezra Jennings’s knowledge of opium (Roberts 173). To alleviate the symptoms of gout and rheumatic pain, Collins took opium himself. In remaining true to the goals outlined in his Preface, Collins draws from real experience, and uses Jennings as a mouthpiece, in order to express his own scientific knowledge of the drug:

…read that account of a case, which has—as I believe—a direct bearing on your own position, and on the experiment which I am tempting you to try. Observe, Mr. Blake, before you begin, that I am now referring you to one of the greatest of English physiologists. The book in your hand is Doctor Elliotson’s Human Physiology; and the case which the doctor cites rests on the well-known authority of Mr. Combe. (Collins 390)

Lewis Roberts argues that by employing this professional and scientific discourse, Collins turns Jennings into the personification of objective knowledge. But Roberts goes on to shed light on the flaws in Jennings’s reasoning and what these flaws mean for the deeper narrative of The Moonstone. Elliotson, the doctor that Jennings references here, for example, was known “not for his theories on the unconscious workings of the mind, but rather for his questionable experimentations with mesmerism and artificial somnambulism … The linking of reputable and disreputable scientists over such a vital point in the novel’s plot structure” throws Jennings into doubt and leads readers to question how far scientific knowledge can be trusted (Roberts 175-76). Roberts also points out that because Jennings is also a mysterious stranger and an outsider, his seemingly objective knowledge is pushed even deeper into a shadow of doubt.

In the end, The Moonstone provides its readers with the opportunity to put their objective knowledge and their subjective knowledge into conversation. It encourages readers to listen to their intuitions and to learn from real-life experience, rewarding those who do and warning those who don’t. Like the sensation genre itself, The Moonstone challenges readers to find answers in natural sensation and experience rather than books and lectures, and congratulates readers of sensation literature for being brave enough, and ironically logical enough, to listen to their subjective knowledge.

Works Cited

Braddon, M. E. “The Shadow in the Corner.” All the Year Round [London] 22 Nov. 1879,     23.573, The Extra Summer Number, 1-11.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Ed. Sandra Kemp. London: Penguin, 1998. Print.

Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel.   Berkeley: U of California, 1992. Print.

Roberts, Lewis. “The ‘Shivering Sands’ of Reality: Narration and Knowledge in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.” Victorian Review 23.2 (1997): 168-83. Web.

Wynne, Deborah. “Tantalizing Portions: Serialized Sensation Novels and Family Magazines.” The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine, 1-37. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. I would argue that the trusting of subjective knowledge not alone but in combination with objective knowledge is the driving force behind the solving of the mystery of the moonstone. Ironically, it is objective knowledge combined with the rejection of subjective knowledge is what causes the crime and deaths in the novel in the first place. If Dr. Candy wouldn’t have been so obsessed with proving the power of medicine, he would never have secretly given Franklin Blake the opium, and Blake would never have put the diamond in a compromising situation. In addition, both Rosanna Spearman and Godfrey Ablewhite would both be alive had Mr. Candy not given Blake the opium. Ablewhite would never have been given the opportunity to steal the diamond without suspicion and Rosanna would not have sacrificed her life to save Franklin Blake. In addition the pure trusting of subjective knowledge combined with the rejection of objective knowledge would have led to the Indians as the culprits of the crime, which would not have led to the thief that (at least initially) took the diamond from Rachel. Also, the medical experiment (though unorthodox) would never have been conducted if the characters had only trusted subjective knowledge, and Franklin Blake would never have been proven innocent in Rachel’s eyes. Though the experiment was unorthodox, it was based off of Jennings’ objective knowledge regarding opium. Thus, a total trusting of subjective knowledge is also not effective.

    As you point out in your post, it is the people who reject subjective knowledge completely that suffer or cause suffering in this novel. As I stated earlier, it seems ironic that this would be the case. I wonder, then, if this novel is being critical of not only the critics of sensation literature by showing the importance of subjective knowledge combined with objective knowledge but also readers who become obsessed with subjective knowledge and begin to reject objective knowledge. Perhaps, this novel is meant to show the importance of cultivating imagination and “thinking outside the box” but also to serve as a caution against the total rejection of objective knowledge. Instead, it seems to call for a melding between the two to create more well-rounded thinkers.


  2. Jordan Osterman says:

    Kristine brings up some great points to even further illustrate the essay’s ideas about the interplay and “conversation” between objective and subjective knowledge throughout The Moonstone. To Kristine’s point, there are certainly aspects that reward some combination of objective and subjective approach, but there are many examples throughout the story where subjective knowledge alone is proven out as closer to the “truth” than objective: Lady Verinder’s faith proven right that Rachel did not steal the stone as opposed to Sergeant Cuff’s gathering of “facts” that lead him to a different conclusion; Penelope’s correct feelings about the source of Rosanna Spearman’s behavior in the face of Cuff’s prior, objective knowledge of her past as a thief; and Betterridge’s vindicated belief Franklin did not take the stone in the face of Rosanna’s damning buried evidence that he did.

    Collins does such a great job laying this conversation out in large part because of the meta process required by readers to contemplate their own valuation of subjective and objective knowledge in tracking the mystery of The Moonstone. Hearing accounts of peoples’ conversations between editions of the serial would have been absolutely fascinating to get a sense of what they felt Collins was telling them about the value of each respective path, subjective and objective, of the investigation: Would anyone have inferred correctly that Ablewhite was the eventual criminal because they intuitively felt it, despite the lack of explicit, objective signs laid out by Collins pointing to him? Even if they didn’t zero in specifically on Ablewhite, it seems very possible readers would have picked up on Collins’ cues across many examples in the book that subjective feelings need to play some part in seeing through a mystery such as this. That Kristine is close to the mark in saying it needs to be some combination of the two seems fair to assume; there can’t be pure reliance on subjective without some help from objective reasoning or readers and characters would slide purely into unsupported, random conjecture. This essay’s conclusion is spot on, though, in reference to readers of sensation literature in that they should be applauded “for being brave enough, and ironically logical enough, to listen to their subjective knowledge” in some capacity.


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