Study Guide

The Woman in White Justice and Judgment

By Wilkie Collins

Justice and Judgment

If the machinery of Law could be depended on to fathom every case of suspicion, and to conduct every process of inquiry, with moderate assistance only from the lubricating influences of oil of gold, the events which fill these pages might have claimed their share of the public attention at the Court of Justice. (1.1.1.2)

Collins's "if" statement here really sets the tone for the way the law is treated in this book. The law is great in theory, but it's actually less than useful in Laura's case.

As the Judge might once have heard it, so the Reader shall hear it now. (1.1.1.3)

Walter really sets up the narrative style here and gives new meaning to the phrase "courtroom drama." In this case we get all the trappings of a courtroom drama—confessions, high emotion, lots of facts—but without the courtroom. Which is too bad—those British barristers are pretty fabulous in their wigs.

If, after due reflection on those two subjects, she seriously desired that he should withdraw his pretensions to the honour of becoming her husband—and if she would tell him so plainly, with her own lips—he would sacrifice himself by leaving her perfectly free to withdraw from the engagement. (1.2.2.12)

Mr. Gilmore's diction and style all point to his being a lawyer—he likes big words and legal-sounding phrases. Having Gilmore describe Sir Percival's actions as super-reasonable add to the tension in this scene though, since we already know how shifty Sir Percival is.

The poor girl looked so pale and sad, and came forward to welcome me so readily and prettily, that the resolution to lecture her on her caprice and indecision, which I had been forming all the way up-stairs, failed me on the spot. (1.2.2.29)

A good lecture is no match for a weepy Laura Fairlie, apparently. We're starting to think that Laura's superpower of emotional meltdown is pretty rad.

The principle I maintain is a recognized principle. If you were to apply at the nearest town here, to the first respectable solicitor you could find, he would tell you, as a stranger, what I tell you as a friend. He would inform you that it is against all rules to abandon the lady's money entirely to the man she marries. (1.2.4.29)

Mr. Gilmore lays the smack down here, legal-style. The book doles out a lot of negative commentary about marriage, but Gilmore raises a good point by noting that there are "principles" in place that can protect wives. Unfortunately, those principles only work if they are actually enforced.

Which gets on best, do you think, of two poor starving dressmakers—the woman who resists temptation, and is honest, or the woman who falls under temptation, and steals? You all know that stealing is the making of that second woman's fortune […] and she is relieved as the breaker of a commandment, when she would have been left to starve as the keeper of it. (2.1.3.77)

Ah, gather round children, it's time for moral lessons with Count Fosco! He's not exactly Mr. Rogers. Fosco here argues that breaking the law is okay, since laws are more like guidelines than written in stone. Relativism is Fosco's middle name.

A very little reflection, when the capacity to reflect returned, convinced her that any attempt to identify Lady Glyde and to rescue her by legal means, would, even if successful, involve a delay that might be fatal to her sister's intellects, which were shaken already by the horror of the situation to which she had been consigned. (3.1.2.32)

Marian has to make a hard choice here to not rely on the law and official channels to rescue her sister. The style here is worth noting: Marian tells her story to Walter, who relates it dispassionately to us, going so far as to refer to Laura as "Lady Glyde."

I knew that the motive of securing the just recognition of my wife in the birthplace from which she had been driven out as an impostor, and of publicly erasing the lie that still profaned her mother's tombstone, was far purer, in its freedom from all taint of evil passion, than the vindictive motive which had mingled itself with my purpose from the first. (3.3.7.63)

Walter clearly consulted his thesaurus before he started writing this section. The powerful language and imagery (especially the part about the "profaned tombstone") really drive home the stakes he is dealing with. Walter is on a crusade for justice here, but even he isn't immune to anger and a desire for revenge.

All remembrance […] of the oath I had sworn in my own heart to summon him to the terrible reckoning that he deserved—passed from my memory like a dream. I remembered nothing but the horror of his situation. I felt nothing but the natural human impulse to save him from a frightful death. (3.1.10.73)

This passage is really lyrical, which ties in nicely to Walter's sense of being in a "dream." Walter's epic quest for justice suddenly gets curtailed when faced with the horrible fire.

Other vengeance than mine had followed that fated man from the theatre to his own door, from his own door to his refuge in Paris. Other vengeance than mine had called him to the day of reckoning, and had exacted from him the penalty of his life. (3.5.2.18)

In The Woman in White, the most powerful reckoning comes not from the law, but from death itself.