England and its Colonies in Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone"

Essay, 2011

14 Pages, Grade: 2,5


Table of Contents

1. Preface

2. The Depiction of the Three Indian Brahmins in the Novel

3. The Depiction of English Characters in the Novel

4. Conclusion

1. Preface

Duncan argues that empire can be determined nowhere in Collins’ novel The Moonstone, because it is everywhere. There was a strict geographical (England and its colonies) and also social (high, middle and lower class) order in Victorian England. Englishmen and Christianity were regarded superior to the subject races and their religions (e.g. Islam or Buddhism), those were considered barbaric and their believes archaic and of low moral. Most of Collins’ con-temporaries believed in the necessity and generosity of imperialism. Nayder even claims that racial hatred towards the subject races was the general, public opinion of the masses in En-gland, especially after the Mutiny in 1857 which motivated Charles Dickens to state: “I wish I were Commander in Chief in India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement … should be to proclaim to them, in their language, that I consider my holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties lasted” (Nayder, pp. 216/217). Collins distan-ces himself from the public opinion of the time and regards the oriental literature which tea-ches Muslim and Buddhist morals as equal to Christian moralistic teaching. This becomes clear when we take a look at his “A Sermon for Sepoys” from 1858, where he almost praises the oriental ideals of devotion to the service of god, unimportance of earthly properties and brotherly love, which will lead to an eternal life in paradise. Collins claims that the Indians should be taught their own literature instead of a foreign Christian morality by, at least in some cases, questionable English gentlemen.

In the Victorian era empire was an important part of the national identity and the empire was to be hold together by all means and ways. A global, imperial economy based on disposses-sions in the colonies had already been established and certainly many Englishmen left En-gland for the purpose of making money abroad through trade or even through plundering, if there were offered such opportunities to them. The wealth of many English noblemen was collected through means which would have to be considered unchristian or even inhumane these days. In the middle of the 19th century capitalistic ideals were, at least for some people, already more important than Christian morals or a traditional understanding of honour.

There was no modern media as we know it today, and so for most people England and its colonies were considered completely distinct, i.e. separated, from each other. The undeniable connection of England and its colonies had not been recognised by most people, but of course only Great Britain and the colonies together built the empire.

Free suggests that Collins chose the genre of sensational novel deliberately to disguise his cri-ticism, because it was considered absolutely implausible and therefore harmless. Through the variability of perspectives, the different narrators instead of one omniscient narrator, Collins leaves the reader with the necessity to evaluate the events on his or her own. Right at the beginning of the novel, in the prologue, he makes looting and massacring by the English troops a topic and questions the, at the time, unquestionable superiority of Englishmen. He was most probably aware of the injustice which empire was built on and throughout his novel he gives examples for morally depraved Englishmen (e.g. Ablewhite and Herncastle) and tries to make the reader aware of the unfair prejudices against and stereotypes of the Indians. It cannot be denied that in the end the Indians kill Godfrey Ablewhite and take the Moonstone back to India, but this act cannot be seen as stealing, when we keep in mind that it was their own diamond which they took back. Even the murder, which is of course a murder from a Western point of view those days and today as well, is justified. The Brahmins forfeited their caste in the service of their god who commanded them to restore the Moonstone. Altogether it becomes clear that Collins rather accuses the Englishmen for their falsehood in profiting from the suffering of the subject races in the colonies, when at the same time they still preach Christian ideals which seem to be only a farce under these circumstances, and justifies the acting of the Indians as common and justified in their cultural sphere and their religious morals.

Nayder claims that Collins attacks the imperial idyll built up in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for Betteredge, who sees it as his personal bible, is one of the most conservative characters in the novel, with many prejudices, he himself does not want or is not able to see.

Eventually we cannot say whether Collins really already had a modern, critical point of view considering empire in its whole complexity, defending the equality of nations and religions, or whether he was “just” shocked by some single events as the Mutiny or extreme racialist statements as by Dickens who wished “he could extinguish the whole Indian race by his own hands”. I think it is perfectly clear that Collins’ novel is, at least in some parts, a well made criticism on imperialism. Of course he also wanted people to buy copies of his work in order to live on his writing and therefore had to be careful with explicit criticism against the public opinion. The extent of his criticism also lies in the point of view of the reader, an Indian or Muslim would probably be more critical than a white European Christian.

2. The Depiction of the Three Indian Brahmins in the Novel

The first appearance of the three Indians takes place when Betteredge is having a walk around the terrace and accidentally meets “three mahagony-coloured Indians” who he judges as “strolling conjurers”. One of them, speaking English, asks for “permission to show his tricks in the presence of the lady of the house”. Although Betteredge claims that he is “the last per-son in the world to distrust another person because he happens to be a few shades darker than himself”, which is obviously not true when we consider his later statements about the Indians, he is nevertheless suspicious of a “strolling stranger whose manners are superior to his own” and he “warns them off the premises” (Collins, p. 26). Penelope and the lodge-keeper’s daughter who have also watched the three Indians passing out, assume that the boy in com-pany of the Indians is “ill-used by the foreigners”, an assumption which is immediately proved wrong when one of the Indians asks the boy “whether he would like to be sent back to London, and left where they had found him, sleeping in an empty basket in a market – a hun-gry ragged and forsaken little boy” (Collins, p. 27). Later in the novel we are informed that “the Indians look upon their boy as a Seer of things invisible to their eyes” (Collins, p. 286) and have no such intention as ill-using or abusing him.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


England and its Colonies in Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone"
Free University of Berlin
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Victorian Literature, Colonialism, British Empire, Racialism
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Bachelor of Arts Martin Boddenberg (Author), 2011, England and its Colonies in Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/182070


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