The Moonstone

The Moonstone

The Moonstone Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Wilkie Collins

The son of a prominent painter, Wilkie Collins was expected to either follow in his father’s footsteps or become a clergyman during his comfortable upbringing in London, Italy, and France. Although he tried his hands at his father’s profession and later went to law school, his interest in writing grew during a stint doing clerical work in his late teens. His career took off in 1951 when he met and befriended Charles Dickens, who would later publish nearly all of Collins’s novels (including The Moonstone) in his weekly magazine All the Year Round, in the serial format common in Victorian England. During the 1850s, Collins and Dickens acted together in a number of prominent plays and collaborated on fiction and playwriting projects. Collins also began publishing in a variety of genres during this period, writing stories and travel narratives, essays and criticism, as well as his first four novels. He won acclaim for the last of these, Hide and Seek (1854), and far more for his 1860 novel The Woman in White, which remains his best-remembered work alongside The Moonstone (1868). These novels cemented his reputation for developing complex plots and are considered foundational texts in the Victorian tradition of “sensation novels,” meaning works aimed at invoking emotional reactions in the reader (much like modern-day thrillers or telenovelas). From the 1870s onward, Collins’s work focused increasingly on social issues like class inequalities and the abuses of the British aristocracy—such as one novel, Man and Wife (1870), dedicated to exposing the absurdity of Scottish and Irish marriage and inheritance laws. In fact, he famously disliked marriage and orthodox organized religion, both of which he replaced with his own, more liberal variants: he lived most of his life with his partner Caroline Graves, but refused to marry her, and then started another family with another woman, Martha Rudd, in 1868. He also claimed to be religious but eschewed and criticized British Christianity throughout his life (including through the character of Miss Clack in The Moonstone).  Collins made a prominent tour of the United States in 1873-4, but most scholars and critics agree that his work worsened from this period onwards. This decline is likely related to the progressively worse attacks of gout (a painful joint disorder) Collins suffered throughout his life; these eventually led him to grow addicted to the laudanum (opium) he took as a painkiller, which also plays an important role in the plot of The Moonstone. His condition progressively worsened until he died of a stroke in 1882.
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Historical Context of The Moonstone

The Moonstone is set in the mid-19th century, which was a time of immense social, economic, and political transformation in England as well as a crucial period in the history of British colonialism in India. From Miss Clack and Betteredge’s differing forms of Christian moralism and Godfrey Ablewhite’s women’s charities to the economic pressures that threaten the old-money, landed Verinder family, the Industrial Revolution lays in the background of The Moonstone just like the imperial conquests in India that Collins directly cites as the source of the mysterious, cursed Diamond. With the rise of an economically powerful upper-middle class that challenged the old aristocracy and an increasingly miserable working class in Britain’s industrial centers, much Victorian literature responded to the changing social norms that accompanied these transformations both by reaffirming traditional morality (like the moral tracts Miss Clack obsessively collects in The Moonstone) and making progressive calls for social equality (like Collins’s own works). In fact, the rise of sensation novels—largely characterized by their length, intricacy, and serialized publication in newspapers—is often tied to the rapid expansion of the British newspaper media during this era, particularly after taxes on paper were greatly reduced in 1855. The Moonstone was daring not only for intervening in its time’s moral debates, but even more so for addressing India—arguably with a favorable eye—at a time when the mere mention of the colony threw many Britons into a fury. This is because the British had recently defeated their own Indian soldiers in the incredibly violent First Indian War of Independence (traditionally called the “Sepoy Mutiny” or “Indian Rebellion”) in 1857. The British used the conflict as an excuse to indiscriminately kill and torture civilians, as well as raid the treasuries of remaining Indian leaders and replace the East India Company that formerly ruled India with direct rule by the British Crown. However, most British commentators considered this completely justified and cheered the slaughter of Indians, who remained a sore subject for decades after. This makes Collins’s depiction of the three Indian Brahmins in The Moonstone as not just criminals, but also as noble men performing a mission to restore honor to their nation and religion, all the more astonishing. The 1799 Siege of Seringapatnam, in which Colonel John Herncastle steals the Diamond in The Moonstone, is an actual historical event that played a crucial role in the consolidation of British power in South India. The Diamond’s theft, as Collins explains in his Preface, is also based on the historical examples of the Koh-i-noor, a famous Indian Diamond taken and never returned by Britain, and especially the Orlov Diamond, which was formerly in the eye of a Hindu temple god but stolen by a rogue French soldier.

Other Books Related to The Moonstone

It is difficult to mention the work of Wilkie Collins without also mentioning his friend, collaborator, and publisher Charles Dickens, who remains widely-read and considered emblematic of his literary era. Some of Dickens’s most popular works were and remain The Pickwick Papers (1836-7), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1849-50), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860-1). Collins’s other most prominent work is The Woman in White (1859-60), but he is also celebrated for his two of his other novels from the 1860s, No Name (1862) and Armadale (1864-6), all of which (like The Moonstone) take up questions of inheritance, fraud, and personal identity in the controversial mystery format—known as “sensation fiction”—that Collins pioneered. Sensation fiction eventually set the scene for most later detective fiction, introducing tropes like mistaken identity, poisoning, love triangles, and the crime that uproots an otherwise ordinary British country house. A number of underacknowledged female novelists wrote prominent works of sensation fiction, including Ellen Wood (East Lynne (1861)) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863)). More prominent men captivated the Victorian readership with their works in the genre, including Charles Reade with Griffith Gaunt, or Jealousy (1866) and Thomas Hardy with his early Desperate Remedies (1871). An important predecessor genre is the Newgate Novels, a number of works like Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837) and William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839-40), which focused on and sometimes glorified the exploits of criminals, both imagined and real. The now-forgotten George W.M. Reynolds was the Victorian era’s bestselling author, with his lengthy popular thriller The Mysteries of London (1844-8) foreshadowing many of the mainstays of the sensation genre. And well-known works by the Brontës (especially Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights (both 1847)) also foreshadowed the sensation novel’s rise. Recent tributes to the genre include Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way (1987) and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (2013).
Key Facts about The Moonstone
  • Full Title: The Moonstone
  • When Written: 1868
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: Originally serialized Jan 4-Aug 4, 1868; first complete edition 1871
  • Literary Period: Victorian Novel
  • Genre: Sensation Fiction, Detective Fiction, Victorian Novel
  • Setting: Yorkshire, London, India
  • Climax: The protagonists discover the corpse of the disguised Godfrey Ablewhite and learn that he stole the Diamond from Franklin Blake
  • Antagonist: Godfrey Ablewhite, the three Indians, the cursed Diamond
  • Point of View: First person, multiple narrators

Extra Credit for The Moonstone

Adaptations. Owing to its fame, The Moonstone has seen numerous adaptations to formats ranging from the stage (first by the author in 1877) to films (most prominently the celebrated 1934 version), numerous radio plays (in the 1940s and 1950s), and various television series (including in 1959, 1996, 2011, and 2016 by the BBC alone). In fact, there is now even a novel about Collins writing The Moonstone: Drood by Dan Simmons (2009).

Opium and the Author. Opium is not only an important plot point in The Moonstone; Wilkie Collins was also deep into opium addiction while writing the book, so much so that he reported after publishing it, “I was not only pleased and astonished at the finale, but did not recognise it as my own.”

Forgotten First Novel. Wilkie Collins wrote his first novel at the age of 20, when he found himself utterly bored working for a London tea merchant. The book, Iolani: Or, Tahiti as It Was, met universal rejection from publishers and did not resurface until more than 150 years later, when Princeton University Press published it in 1999. Unfortunately, Collins never went to Tahiti in his life, and the book’s exaggerated, stereotyped depiction of a hedonistic, murderous nonwestern civilization lacking “mental virtues” lacks all the grace a modern reader might expect from a writer lauded in his time for his social awareness and progressivism.