by Wilkie Collins
Gabriel Betteredge is one of the most memorable narrators you'll ever come across: he's a stubborn old man, but he's also generous, smart, and funny. He always makes sexist remarks about how "all women" behave, but then, he makes exceptions for the individual women that he actually knows. He's obsessed with the novel Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. Lastly – and this is unusual for a narrator during this period of literary history – he's a servant. Betteredge is clearly a complex guy, and since he's the first narrator we meet in The Moonstone, and the one with the longest narrative, we figure we should start with him.
Sexism and Racism
The main complaint most readers have against Gabriel Betteredge is that he's prejudiced. He's always making sexist remarks about his dead wife, and he clearly doesn't trust the three Indians simply because they aren't white Englishmen like him. Let's take a look at some of those passages…
Betteredge makes a lot of sweeping statements about women in general. Take, for example, his description of Rachel:
She was unlike most other girls of her age, in this—that she had ideas of her own […] She judged for herself, as few women of twice her age judge in general. (188.8.131.52)
So, even as he's making gross generalizations about how most women behave ("most other girls of her age," and "women of twice her age"), he acknowledges that Rachel is an exception: she is "unlike" those "other women." He does the same in his descriptions of the other women he knows, too – like Lady Verinder, Rosanna Spearman, or his own daughter, Penelope. He seems to believe many commonly held, sexist generalizations about women – things that most men believed in those days – but he's also smart enough to see that individual women don't fit those generalizations.
So, Betteredge is bad about accepting commonly held prejudices at face value, but at the same time, he's observant enough to realize that most people don't fit into stereotypes. Let's see how he does with racist generalizations and stereotypes…
Now I am not a sour old man. I am generally […] the last person in the world to distrust another person because he happens to be a few shades darker than myself. But the best of us have our weaknesses—and my weakness, when I know a family plate-basket to be out on a pantry table, is to be instantly reminded of that basket by the sight of a strolling stranger whose manners are superior to my own. (184.108.40.206)
Whenever you hear someone start an observation by saying, "Now, I'm not racist, BUT…" you know they're about to say something that's totally racist. That's basically what Betteredge is doing here. But at the same time, he insists that it's not because the Indians' skin is "a few shades darker" that he doesn't trust them. He says that it's because they are "strolling stranger[s]" and their "manners are superior to [his] own."
So if we are to believe Betteredge, it seems like his distrust of the Indians has more to do with the fact that they're "strolling strangers" – they seem out of place. They don't belong on the property, and they're "strangers" in the country. And one thing that we know about Betteredge is that he gets very nervous when things and people aren't where they belong. For example, he is "unutterabl[y] astonish[ed]" when he sees Rosanna in the library in the afternoon, since "after the library had been swept and cleaned in the morning, neither first nor second housemaid had any business in that room at any later period of the day. I stopped Rosanna Spearman, and charged her with a breach of domestic discipline on the spot" (220.127.116.11). It's not that Betteredge suspects Rosanna of doing something bad in the library; he's upset because it's simply not where she belongs.
We don't want to argue that Betteredge isn't prejudiced – he is – but it's important to realize that his general prejudices tend to be tossed out the window when he meets with exceptions to his general rules.
Betteredge is always claiming that he's just an average guy. He's "an average good Christian," he says that he responds to things just as we (the readers) would. Is this really true? As we've seen, it's true that he tends to believe and repeat commonly held prejudices. But what about all the aspects of his character that are strange or eccentric? Seriously, what about his obsession with Robinson Crusoe?
Well, Robinson Crusoe is a novel by English author Daniel Defoe, written in 1719. It's about a guy who is shipwrecked on an island and manages to survive for almost thirty years – he domesticates the wild goats that live there, he plants crops, he builds a house…basically, by the end, he has all the comforts of home, including his very own servant.
During the nineteenth century, Robinson Crusoe was generally considered to be a good book for children because it's both an adventure story and teaches good life lessons (about the value of hard work and all that). It's unusual that Betteredge should be as obsessed with the book as he is, especially as an adult. Think about that classmate you know who is totally obsessed with the Harry Potter books, or maybe with Twilight or The Lord of the Rings. Now imagine that person as an eighty-year-old, equally obsessed with the same book. Got it? OK, now imagine that they use the book to tell the future. Ask a question, and then open the book at random. Whatever passage your eye falls on will tell you the answer to your question. Starting to get a little weird, right?
Actually, there's a name for what Betteredge does with Robinson Crusoe – using a book to tell the future is called "bibliomancy," and usually it's applied to a holy text like the Bible. Using Robinson Crusoe like this is pretty eccentric. So really, Betteredge is far from an average guy: he seems to try to be average, by repeating commonly-held prejudices and by frequently claiming to be a normal guy, but really, he's incredibly unique. The conflict in his character between his claims of ordinariness and his actual eccentricity help to make him both funny and memorable.