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The Journal of English Language and Literature , Vol.67, No.1, 35 ~ 57, 2021
Victorian Values: Wilkie Collins, Debt, and Reading Suspense
Suzy Kim
This article argues that Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and The Moonstone present a plot structure that parallels a payment of debt. They show that the contractual relationship between debtor and creditor, and most of all the condition of debt marking a character as ontologically lacking, is a necessary, or even the primary element in the governing system of a narrative. The secret of the suspense plot in these two novels, is ultimately the secret of illegitimate money; the individual characters and their own happy endings pale in comparison to the emphasis that the plot puts on the exchange of credit and debt between them. This puts these novels in a particular tension with the form of the Bildungsroman by inverting the Bildungsroman’s established relationship between subjecthood and money. Money was tangled up with the idea of selfhood and its emergence in the Bildung plots of the Victorian realist novels; in contrast, debt was the shadow-money that was antithetical to successful self-making. Collins’s sensation fiction disregards that emerging selfhood for the plot of money. At first glance, the narratives construct a seeming upward socio-economic development in their two male protagonists; however, they ultimately undermine these stories of self-becoming to centralize the narrative action of paying off debt. Moreover, this twists the realist novel’s tradition of recognition scenes into a scene of comparing receipts, in which the debt of the villain is finally revealed, to the protagonist’s credit. By doing this, the novels present to us a severely contractual way of reading plots: reading for the payoff.
Key Words
Bildungsroman, Sensation, Suspense, Novel, Realism
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