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"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel-Part II

Societal Aesopianism

While she had our attention, Spearman also got off a remark that has considerable power. She turns to Franklin, at their last meeting and after having been rebuffed by his inattention, and asks whether he has no sympathy for the humiliation of being in domestic service. This might be an allusion to their sexual intimacy, in that a poor servant girl has no way to enforce whatever promises have been made or appease whatever feelings have been engendered. It might also just be a general though unsettling comment on the life of the servant class, ever deferential, ever concerned about the welfare of their betters, while themselves treated with indifference or disrespect. That is the way life is in England in these very many houses that employ servants.

This is very different from the point of view about domestic servants that can be attributed to Penelope Betteredge, the servantís daughter, who might think of domestic service as a kind of career in that she has grown up in it, and seems to be quite proud of herself. Her father thinks of it almost as a profession in that he recognizes himself as having the self-discipline to do what he is ordered to carry out even if that is not in accord with his own judgment and even if he has earned the trust of his betters well enough to give them his advice and then defer to them when they choose not to take that advice. They are not really better than him, just in a socially superior position with different rights and duties. This is more than possibly becoming the antiquated view because he is, after all, an old man mostly put out to pasture except in a crisis. Usually, he just presides over serving dinner.  

The views of Penelope and Spearman are never reconciled. That is part of a third type of aesopianism. It joins the first kind, which is sexual allusions that can be passed over, and the second kind, which refers to the fact that protagonists are not all that heroic, which the reader passes over that so as to get on with enjoying the story as if it had heroes and heroines. The third type refers to the state of England, which is not as grand as an audience would like to believe, and so is to be alluded to in ways that allow this message can be neglected.

The actual, reconstructed, story presents a very bleak picture of England. Franklin is responsible for at least two deaths, that of the maid who was taken with him and tried to protect him from being found out as the thief, and of his confederate, and he gets away with it and thrives as the husband of a woman with a great house. Everyone is out to let bygones be bygones because it serves their interests, justice having nothing to do with anything. And nothing of justice will ever be accomplished. Moreover, English society is still in the control of an aristocratic class who create no wealth themselves but live off their inherited fortunes and for whom the purpose of marriage is to secure a living. The gem is not a source for investment; it is only valuable as security on a loan and its value as such is there on the neck of the woman who wears it, part of her enticement.

There is a Romantic way to conceptualize English capitalism, one that would certainly appeal to a people whose imaginations are filled with the grandness of empire, something that could legitimately and not just cynically substitute or supplement their material improvement. It is grand to live in the grandest of empires and to enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of the world and to have at oneís disposal the riches of the world. That perception of life at the center rather than at the periphery of the world is the basis for the working class Toryism that Disraeli deployed to gain public support for the party of the wealthy.

Marx presented the most well worked out version of the Romantic view. Marx thought of capitalism as the creator of a civilization that outdid the one that created the pyramids. The concentration of wealth in those with an entrepreneurial spirit as opposed to placing that wealth in the hands of monarchs or adventurers would free even the residents of India from their ďrural idiocyĒ. Latter day Marxists think that the confiscation of the wealth of the monasteries by Henry VIII set England on the capitalist road, just as the capitalized value of slaves allowed the Ante Bellum South to prosper.

That Romantic view is not shared by Collins. When his jewel comes to England, it proves useless because of the legal constraints that have been put upon it. It canít be broken down and its parts sold for large profit until the mother of the woman to whom it has been bequeathed dies. It can be worn as an ornament but that is obviously a temptation to any thief, and not just the three Indians who want to recover it because of its religious significance to them. Its only use, however, is to be worn as a sign of the wealth and allure of the young woman who wears it. Displaying the gem in that way is essential even if dangerous.

The gemstone can also serve as security for a loan, and that is what happens to it after it is stolen. That a valuable is so because it is a temporary hedge against debt rather than the basis for the creation of wealth is to portray England in 1845, the time at which the novel is set, as working by some very different principle than turning wealth into factories that create even more wealth which would be the claims of both Marx and Weber, the first emphasizing the means by which rational people turn wealth into more wealth, and the latter emphasizing the ideology and emotion which drive people to do so.

An alternative theory to the Romantic one is supplied by Daniel Defoe, who gives priority to the ability of Englishmen to calculate their economic interests as well as their other interests and to be mindful of all of them at the same time. Capitalism is what results when people are conscious enough to think about how to improve their positions but not so self-conscious as to think about what motivates those interests other than wealth, social position and lust, as if these werenít enough to keep their minds occupied.

Betteredge is the author of the first memoir that gets compiled with the others to make up the novel. He fetishizes Defoe to the point of treating Robinson Crusoe as a kind of bible, in which randomly found sentences are to be read as omens and as an all flexible wisdom. That certainly is both a comical way of introducing Defoe into the novel as a point of orientation for what is going on. Collins is cluing the reader in on how to take his characters, at least on first acquaintance. They are also motivated by selfishness, whether having to do with lust, position, or wealth, though Collins will get on to a deeper sense of people than that.

The second memoirist, Mrs. Clack, in some ways carries out that plan in that she is selfish and self-righteous in her trumpeting of her own nations, presenting them as good works, and leaving her religious pamphlets everywhere, as if they were novels, though without the pleasures that reading Defoe provides. So Mrs. Clack shows that pamphlets are just like novels in that they can both be reduced to sources of platitudes and justifications of what one wants to do anyway rather than as windows into the truths of the world, which will certainly be the case here, where the mystery story will seduce the reader from seeing just how awful the two main protagonists are. Literature is no easy path to enlightenment, however much it might appear to be full of exemplary tales that tell you how good and bad people act so that you can take your cues from them. It doesnít work that way.

It might at first seem to be the case that Mrs. Clack is the other bookend to Betteredge. The two of them serve the same purpose as the two intellectual mentors of Tom Jones: one, a tutor, provides the enlightened views of the secular humanist and the other, the local cleric,provides the views of the Anglican Church. But that is not the case because the philosophies of Mrs. Clack and Betteredge are not in conflict and because Betteredge is not a hypocrite. His daughter and everyone around him find him to have a kind of old fuddy duddy charm, and thus comic in the sweet way the same can be said of Mr. Chips. Mrs. Clack, however, is just a case study in religious obsession, and the baleful nature of charity as the basis of religious sensitivity will come a cropper by the end of the novel.   

Despite being the center of the greatest empire the world had ever known, England seems to be stuttering or even standing still. The period portrayed is the Forties, India not yet absorbed into the Empire, and England still the great industrial giant by far and will remain so for another forty years until challenged by Germany and the United States. The Moonstone, however, does not dwell on what makes England great and powerful; it dwells on what makes England small and selfish: the manor house life of a landed gentry not much interested either in improving agriculture, as was the case with many of Jane Austenís male proprietors, or in hunting and politics, as was Lord Derby, who was Disraeliís mentor and predecessor as Prime Minister. Rather, like the servant, they lie around or haggle about settlement terms for marriages. There is no productivity nor any other basis for greatness.

The only ones who hold any promise of progress for English life are the lawyers and doctors and detectives. They come from inferior backgrounds and their training does not prepare them to do much that is useful. But they are not yet up to the task of being the progressive force in society. The lawyers know about wills and trusts and not much about people though they offer advice, and still do, about how to resolve human conflict; the doctors know how to tell when people are sick and so can tell them to bundle up or how travel might settle their nerves, but are too likely to pass off illness as some kind of bad mood or other, and the detectives know how not to unsettle the people they interrogate but do not thereby find out very much. What all three nascent professions pedal is platitudinous advice or quack cures or solutions to crimes that donít get to the bottom of what happened. They are known by their failures rather than their successes and yet they hold out the hope that sometime in the future they will come to know what they are talking about. So much for the idea that Wilkie is a prophet of forensic science; he is claiming, rather, that you donít need science to do what writers have always done, which is to plumb the human soul.

The Mystery of ďThe MoonstoneĒ

A mystery story is a different kind of story even than its near equivalents, the gothic romance and the story that contains a mystery. Those latter two are subject to multiple interpretations in that a critic can bring to the work a distinct perspective that provides a different though not contradictory interpretion than the one provided by another critic. As time moves on, Oedipus Rex, which certainly contains a mystery about what is the secret which is hidden from Oedipus, is understood as more or less about the burdens of state or depth psychology or how people in high places are bound to fall. The facts of the story, of the plot, remain the same, but what it amounts to differ. This is not a shortcoming of criticism, but rather a thribute to the fact that criticism is ever refereshed by intellectual and other forms of history and so more and different things are found across the ages in what are part of the canon of world literature. The literature doesnít change but what is made of it does, and so critics do not have to worry about running out of things to say about Sophocles.

A mystery story, on the other hand, is that special kind of story where the resolution of the plot of who killed whom is of central importance, even if one doesnít care about the characters or remember who they were after the murderer has been found out and the book put down. That is why a mystery story is like a puzzle: it cries out to be solved even if there is no point in solving it. If that point about the nature of the mystery is taken seriously, it means that the arc of the plot, not the facts, has to take account of the facts in the story so that there can be a resolution and that only one resolution is possible. Who killed Cock Robin is not a leftover but the objective truth of the story, however clever are the false clues and the other misdirections the author has put in so that the reader will find the solution to the puzzle not all that easy. There can be no disagreement about the arc of the story, even if the characters or suspects or the social situation is subject to alternative interpretations, even as the arc of the plot in other kinds of novels are subject to reinterpretation. Is the catastrophe at the end of Moby Dick preordained or the work of a number of intermediary decisions and events? Is Hamlet a procrastinator or always thwarted in his plans? There are numerous solutions to those riddles.

If that is kept in mind, then he deepest mystery of The Moonstone, which is supposedly a classic model of the detective story, is not the one inside the novel but the one that concerns its relation to its audience. Why is critical opinion unanimous in thinking that the Indian doctor solved the crime rather than simply cleared the prime suspect from what he had done by having him admit that he had done it? No critic, including this one, dispute what the facts of the case are and any reputable critic is capable of mastering the plot. Nor is there any dispute about the fact that a critic can bring along his own interpretative apparatus or theoretical commitment. One need only say one is investigating the state of England novel or the mystery novel and these interpretations supplement one another rather than contradict one another and that, new perspectives always arising, there is no exhaustion of the critical project.

The conundrum here is that the arc of the story itself is at stake rather than what has been brought to the story to make sense of it. Either Franklin is a thief or he is not a thief. Characters can be multi valenced, but in mystery stories, someone did something underhanded or didnít and puzzling that out is what makes this genre of literature appealing. And in that case, there can not be alternative interpretations, only the correct one, something that cannot be said of Dickens or others except when they are involved in producing mystery stories that are meant to be so rather than simply include some mysteries along the way, as who is Pipís benefactor, which becomes part of a larger and more problematic question about what are the different kinds of benefactors that assist Pip in making his life, including even Mrs. Haversham who does, after all, show him how the fancy people live, histrionics and all.

To do this, Collins has to be ever so clever at his task.  He leaves sufficient clues to unravel in his story that his story keeps our interest to the end and baffles the reader to find a satisfactory resolution to the mystery as well as what it all means. He even allows the doctor to be buried as a saint-like character who got to the bottom of things, and so vindicating the idea that Indians are not all rubbish, even if he was in fact a naif fooled by his own quackery, just like all those investigators of the extrasensory perception who were fooled by charlatans who were not immune to the analysis by fellow magicians of what they were doing. Collins is brilliant in considering the case against every one of the characters that by the time a reader approaches the end of the story the reader is anxious to have the mystery resolved that he or she is prepared to settle for a solution that would have seemed arbitrary if it had been offered earlier on.

That is true of only the best of mystery writers who can be outwitted by the readers who solve the puzzle on the basis of clues provided early on or are so unartistic as not to leave sufficient clues to unravel the mystery, in which case the resolution is arbitrary, the murderer found out an anticlimax to a story that has been satisfying for what it revealed about life along the way to its conclusion. Collins, however, has been so, so clever at his task that he leaves the reader with a different conclusion than the one everyone in the story (with the possible exception of Rachel) takes to have been the case. Professional literary critics, who are people who live outside the narrative, are not to be forgiven so quickly for having misunderstood the novelís mystery. They have been so preoccupied with their interpretive schemes that they do not attend to the crux of a mystery of detection, which is who done it.

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Issue No. 77
December 22, 2013

"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel- Part I
"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel-Part II
Earlier Issues

List Articles by Topic

The Political Ticker
The Hillary Coalition
  - November 19, 2014
Obama's Win in the Ukraine
  - April 5, 2014
"House of Cards" Politics
  - February 14, 2014
Birenbaum: The Day the President Struck Out
  - January 29, 2014
The Debate Over Inequality
  - January 27, 2014
Temporary Issues: "Stop and Frisk", Climate Change, Inequality
  - January 21, 2014

Previous Political Tickers

The Administrative President
  -January 12, 2014
Three Chronic Problems
  -December 19, 2013
Obama the Transformational President
  -December 13, 2013
"Homeland", "Alpha House" and the Tea Party
  -November 27, 2013
Off Year Election Post-mortem
  -November 7, 2013
Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad
  -October 31, 2013
Political Impasses: 2013 and 1936
  -October 7, 2013
Birenbaum on The Tea Party
  -October 6, 2013
Fifty Years Later: The Anniversary of the March on Washington
  -September 18, 2013
The Principled Obama
  -September 10, 2013
Obama Thinks About Syria Freshly
  -September 5, 2013
Syria and the Falklands
  -August 30, 2013
Public Opinion on Syria
  -August 24, 2013
Upward Mobility Through Educational Innovation
  -August 12, 2013
The Anthony Wiener Bubble
  -July 30, 2013
Racial Issues in 2013
  -June 29, 2013
The David Brinkley Era of Journalism
  -June 5, 2013
Republican Scandal Mongering
  -May 23, 2013
Benghazi and Two Other "Scandals"
  -May 14, 2013
Lackluster Politics
  -May 7, 2013

The Cultural Ticker
A Dour Cultural Week
  - February 4, 2014
Colonial Virginia
  - January 15, 2014
Birenbaum: The Joy of Middle European Posters
  - January 6, 2014
A Jewish Nipple
  - November 28, 2013
Birenbaum: My Oral Comprehensive Examination and the JFK Assassination
  - November 27, 2013
"12 Years a Slave"
  - November 12, 2013

Previous Cultural Tickers

Pinter and Shakespeare
  -November 8, 2013
Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"
  -November 3, 2013
The Hearing Impaired Student
  -August 17, 2013
Ideas and People
  -August 10, 2013
The Weekly Roundup of Morning Joe and Chris Matthews
  -August 8, 2013
The Zen of Dishwashers
  -August 5, 2013
The Profundity of the Second World War
  -August 2, 2013
The Trayvon Martin Bubble
  -July 20, 2013
Eliot Spitzer
  -July 9, 2013
The Study of Everyday Life
  -July 5, 2013
The Zimmerman Trial
  -July 3, 2013
Le Carre's "A Delicate Truth"
  -July 1, 2013
Zucker: A Madeleine (A Memoir)
  -June 23, 2013
Von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt"
  -June 7, 2013
The Armchair View of War and Disability
  -May 30, 2013
Birenbaum's Summers
  -May 24, 2013
Old Neighborhoods
  -May 21, 2013
Jackie Robinson
  -May 20, 2013
Barbara Spun's Catskill Vacations
  -May 16, 2013
An Old Friend in Her Eighties
  -May 11, 2013


A new issue of “w. end ave.: an e-journal of culture and politics” is published once every three weeks or so. It is edited, owned, and where not indicated as otherwise, written by Martin Wenglinsky. The rights to all materials published here are copyright © 2008 by Martin Wenglinsky