The Woman in White: Summary, Themes & Analysis Video

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  • 0:01 Introducing the Novel
  • 0:45 Summary
  • 6:00 Themes
  • 6:56 Analysis
  • 7:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

This lesson will summarize and discuss Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, one of the earliest mystery novels ever written. This lesson will also analyze the story and the thematic elements that Collins uses to construct the story.

Introducing the Novel

The Woman in White, published in 1860, is one of the earliest and most-beloved mystery novels, but at the time, critics were not exactly so positive. Novelist and critic Edward Bulwer-Lytton, for example, called the novel 'great trash.'

On the other hand, the public loved the mystery and intrigue behind the identity of the mysterious Woman in White and anxiously waited to read the continuation of the story each week as a new chapter showed up in the weekly publication All the Year Round. The story still intrigues people; it was turned into a PBS Mystery! presentation and an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in the last 15 years.

Summary of the Novel

The novel is split not only by chapters but also by narrators. Different narrators share only the parts of the story that they actually witnessed, making the book much like a written version of court testimony.

Walter Hartright's Narrative

The first narrator is Walter Hartright, who is in need of work in the autumn and is offered an opportunity to tutor two women in drawing by his Italian friend Pesca. Before he is to leave for Limmeridge House, where the women live, he meets a mysterious, frightened Woman in White while on a midnight walk. After helping her get to a carriage, an officer comes by and reveals that the woman escaped from a nearby mental asylum.

The next day, Walter Hartright travels to Limmeridge House, where he meets the two ladies that he is to teach, Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie. Marian and Laura are half-sisters. Marian Halcombe is the wise, strong sister, and Laura Fairlie is the beautiful, fair sister. Hartright also meets their uncle, Mr. Frederick Fairlie, who is a hypochondriac; he imagines that he has every possible sickness known to man and fusses about being left alone.

Walter falls in love with Laura, and she returns his love, but unfortunately, she promised her father before his death that she would marry Sir Percival Glyde, and they are engaged. As Walter and Laura try to control their feelings, Laura is scared by an anonymous letter that warns her not to marry Sir Glyde. When Walter and Marian investigate the letter, they find that the Woman in White is the one who sent it, and that the woman, Anne Catherick, is a former friend of Laura's and her now-deceased mother. They also take note that Anne and Laura look almost exactly alike, except that Anne is worn and sick from her mental illness and ordeal in the mental asylum. However, soon after, Walter leaves Limmeridge heartbroken as Laura's wedding date comes near.

Mr. Gilmore's Narrative

Mr. Gilmore, the family lawyer for the Fairlie family, completes a wedding agreement that gives all of Laura's inheritance money to Sir Glyde in the event of her death. While Mr. Gilmore protests having to make this agreement, Mr. Fairlie forces him to sign it.

Marian Halcombe's Narrative

After the marriage of Laura to Sir Glyde, Marian has moved to Sir Glyde's home, Blackwater Park, waiting for Laura to come back from her honeymoon. Laura and Glyde return home with two new houseguests - Glyde's friends Count Fosco, and his wife, Madame Fosco. Count Fosco is a strange, yet charismatic Italian fellow, and Madame Fosco, while silent and submissive, used to be a very jealous aunt to Laura and Marian.

Over time, Sir Glyde drops his mask of kindness toward Laura and Marian. Eventually, he tries to get Laura to sign a large amount of her money to him in order to cover some of his debt, but she refuses. After a number of arguments, Laura runs into Anne Catherick, who is trying to warn her about Sir Glyde, on the property. Shortly after that, Laura apparently falls sick, as does Marian when she is trying to find out where they have taken Laura to get well.

Several narratives follow, including Frederick Fairlie's, Eliza Michelson's, Hester Pinhorn's, the Doctor's, Jane Gould's and the Tombstone's. These all serve to track the illness and apparent death of Laura Fairlie through the eyes of these different characters.

Walter meets Marian and a sick Laura when he visits what appears to be Laura's grave. As it turns out, Fosco and Glyde captured Anne Catherick, who passed away from illness, and switched her with Laura Fairlie. With Anne Catherick in the grave in place of Laura, Fosco and Glyde have stolen Laura's inheritance.

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