Study Guide

The Woman in White Gender

By Wilkie Collins

Gender

"My sister is in her own room, nursing that essentially feminine malady, a slight headache." (1.1.6.8)

Whoa, dated. Marian is either being snarky here (we hope that's the case) or really believes that headaches are pretty much a chick thing.

Miss Fairlie plays delightfully. For my own poor part, I don't know one note of music from the other; but I can match you at chess, back-gammon, accurate, and (with the inevitable female drawbacks) even at billiards as well. (1.1.6.10)

Critics over the years have made a lot out of Marian's androgynous nature and her "masculine" traits, from her fondness for chess to her mustache (the Victorians obviously didn't have laser hair removal, deal with it). Marian really carves out a unique gender space for herself in the novel by mixing together feminine and masculine traits with aplomb.

"Crush it!" she said, "Here, where you first saw her, crush it! Don't shrink under it like a woman. Tear it out; trample it under foot like a man!" (1.1.10.43)

Marian gets downright scary here when she orders Walter to stop being a namby-pamby crybaby. The idea that men shouldn't express their emotions and should "control" them is a rather dangerous stereotype, though one that proliferated in the Victorian era for sure.

"I may fairly expect Mr. Gilmore, as a gentleman, to believe me on my word [...] But my position with a lady is not the same. I owe to her, what I would concede to no man alive—a proof of the truth of my assertion." (1.2.1.19)

Sir Percival's take on gender relations is kind of odd. He apparently has to offer up proof to a lady, but a fellow gentlemen should just take him at his word? A very elaborate code of conduct for gentlemen existed in this era, and part of that code was an "honor system."

No sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of words with a woman. (1.2.2.75)

Words of wisdom from Mr. Gilmore here. While generally a serious guy, he does have his moments of levity… and his moments of realizing that women can be witty, too.

Most men show something of their dispositions in their own houses, which they have concealed elsewhere; and Sir Percival had already displayed a mania for order and regularity. (2.1.2.15)

Here Marian trots out the idea of a man being "king of his castle." But Percival pretty much acts the way we expected him to act at home (like a freaking nut), so this idea about "concealment" doesn't really hold up.

"I can never claim my release from my engagement," she went on. "Whatever way it ends, it must end wretchedly for me. All I can do, Marian, is not to add the remembrance that I have broken my promise and forgotten my father's dying words, to make that wretchedness worse." (1.3.1.12)

Laura's stubborn passivity gets out of control here. Even Marian is frustrated with her refusal to get herself out of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad situation. Laura here sort of takes a woman's helpless position to freakish extremes, which may be a form of social commentary on Collins's part.

Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats, for life, I must respect the housekeeper's opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way. (2.1.1.10)

We love Marian's sarcastic tone. She's clearly sick of having women considered to be "nothing," and she's sick of petticoats and patience, to boot.

I shall relate both narratives, not in the words (often interrupted, often inevitably confused) of the speakers themselves, but in the words of the brief, plain, studiously simple abstract which I committed to writing for my own guidance, and for the guidance of my legal adviser. So the tangled web will be most speedily and intelligibly unrolled. (3.1.2.2)

The fact that Walter narrates Laura's and Marian's traumatic, post-Blackwater Park stories for them is hugely important thematically. The two women are forced to rely on a man to tell their stories, a man who has the power to reinterpret them to make them more "intelligible." Telling your own story is a form of power in this novel, so having a man intervene on behalf of two women sets off all sorts of alarms.

But there was something so repellant to me in the idea—something so meanly like the common herd of spies and informers in the mere act of adopting a disguise—that I dismissed the question from consideration […] (3.1.8.31)

Remember how Laura called Fosco a spy and he got huffy? And how Walter decided that Fosco totally was a spy and acted like that was a huge black mark against him? In the Victorian era spies were considered the lowest of the low. (It goes back to all those identity issues whirling around.) Basically, any form of acting and pretending was viewed in a negative light, and acting or pretending was considered downright unmanly.

"In short, she is an angel; and I am—Try some of that marmalade, Mr. Hartright, and finish the sentence, in the name of female propriety, for yourself." (1.1.6.10)

Marian busts out some comic relief here and hilariously cuts herself off before making the logical comparison of herself to a devil (to contrast with Laura's angelic nature). Have we mentioned how much we heart Marian? Because we totally do.

Women can resist a man's love, a man's fame, a man's personal appearance, and a man's money; but they cannot resist a man's tongue, when he knows how to talk to them. (2.1.5.1)

Collins gets his groove on with another nicely flowing sentence here, this time courtesy of Marian, who makes some astute observations about men and the power they can hold over women with their (snicker) tongues.