The Manipulative Novel

November 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White.

Wilkie Collins is manipulative.  All novelists are manipulative at some level; with the best of them, you don’t even think about resenting it.  (Others can make you feel creepy and weird.)  Collins seems to me to be a genius of manipulation: he twists the knife in the most delightful ways.

The best example of this is probably the “postscript” Fosco leaves in Marian’s diary.  What I love about this is how the manipulation works on multiple levels: at the level of Collins’ interaction with the reader, the postscript provides a shocking twist at the end of Marian’s narrative, injecting suspense — about Marian’s safety, the secret of Anne Catherick, and Fosco’s plans — into an already suspenseful situation.  As this thesis by Leanne Page suggests, the postscript also puts us in the position of recognizing that we, as well as Fosco, have been reading a private document: his glee at having stolen Marian’s secrets makes our glee at the twists in the story a bit unseemly.

But the real mystery here is why Fosco, a master manipulator himself, leaves his note behind, showing that he’s read the diary.  The reasons for this are unclear to me: is Fosco gloating?  Is he just not as bright as he seems?  Throughout the book, Collins is extremely concerned with maintaining the authenticity of the documents he presents, with the status of the text itself: evidence is presented in a variety of forms — letters, the diary, the statements of those who would have direct knowledge on the case.  Indeed, Marian herself is constantly referring in the diary to the diary, and to the time she’s had to write in it, and to her need to record events accurately.  (As an aside: as someone who works with real diaries all the time, I can tell you that a diary like Marian’s would make my head explode.  Every diary is interesting in its own way, but all diaries are, by and large, records of life being boring, or at least uneventful.)

All of this attention that Collins pays to his diverse texts further complicates Fosco’s postscript for the reader.  It could be that Collins simply fudged here: wanting to show the reader that Fosco had read the diary but having no way to do so inside Marian’s text, he introduces the implausible scenario that Fosco finds it irresistible to prove to Marian that he’s read the diary.  Perhaps we’re to believe that Fosco simply believes his ingenious plot cannot possibly be unraveled, and so it does not matter whether anyone knows that he was scoundrel enough to read the diary.  Or is it a matter of the status of the diary at the time: was the diary stolen by Fosco, and only recovered later, or did he lock it away where he thought no one could retrieve it until the plot could not possibly be unraveled?  (A fascinating possibility, Collins using the placement of his narratives to create tension at a metafictional level!)  Did Fosco believe Marian would not survive her illness — did he intend to use his “vast knowledge of chemistry” to poison her?  Did he leave the message for some other reason that the reader does not yet know, but will later, as more is revealed?

At any rate, I hope this shows what a complicated and delightful thing it can be to manipulate.  Collins is quite good, I think, at moving his characters in consistent, intelligent ways, which is what makes me question the status of Fosco’s postscript — Dickens, frankly, is often worse at this, especially in his early books, making his characters do dumb or inconsistent things and dropping little gods into the narrative just because he needs to make something happen.  If this were an early Dickens novel, I’d probably not bat an eye at Fosco’s postscript as a simple marker of irrepressible, monomaniacal evil; it may be such here too, but Collins at least makes me question it.  He’s also fantastic at concluding his episodes, one of the key spaces for manipulating the reader: the last page of the Second Epoch seems to me one of the masterpieces of suspense writing, in its pacing (the masterful use of paragraphs of a single word or sentence, and the staccato fragments set off with dashes), its scene-setting, and its “surprise” ending that seems, as you read it, both astonishing and inevitable.  If this is manipulation, who needs free will?

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