Study Guide

The Woman in White Power

By Wilkie Collins

Power

Here was a stranger utterly and helplessly at my mercy—and that stranger a forlorn woman. No house was near; no one was passing whom I could consult; and no earthly right existed on my part to give me a power of control over her, even if I knew how to exercise it. (1.1.4.25)

First of all: um, creepy. Second of all, check out the difference between the stranger being helpless before Walter and Walter having a sense of power. Power is an action in this novel: Walter doesn't have power in this situation because he doesn't choose to exert it.

The lady not being at hand to speak for herself, her guardian had decided, in her absence, on the earliest day mentioned—the twenty-second of December—and had written to recall us to Limmeridge in consequence. (1.3.2.3)

Ah: gender fail, Victorian-style. The fact that women lack power is a common theme throughout the book and was actually a concern of Collins's in real life. Laura doesn't even have the power to decide when her own wedding day is going to happen.

I think I can guess; I am afraid Laura can guess; and I am sure Count Fosco knows. I caught Sir Percival looking at him for approval more than once in the course of the evening. (2.1.3.29)

Aww, even Sir Percival needs approval. He's human too! And in this novel, seeking approval means a failure to exert power. Bad move, Percy.

The confession of her heart's secret burst forth from her in those pleading words. I had no right to hear them, no right to answer them; they were the words that banished me, in the name of her sacred weakness, from the room. It was all over. (1.1.15.58)

Even a confession can be read as a weakness. It's a "sacred weakness," sure, but a weakness nonetheless. To be truly powerful, apparently, you need to banish all those pesky "heart's secrets" from your life. How boring.

"Oh, Marian, never laugh again. Thank God for your poverty—it has made you your own mistress, and has saved you from the lot that has fallen on me." (2.1.5.17)

The idea of poverty being empowering seems contradictory, but given how victimized Laura's marriage made her, it makes sense that she'd become a sudden advocate of poverty. Laura has become a fan of the "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" school of thought.

"My powers of memory, Marian, are not like yours. But I was so strongly impressed, so deeply interested, that nothing of any importance can possibly have escaped me." (2.1.6.119)

Laura ties together memory and power here. That may seem like an odd sort of power to have, but most of the book's scenes of power revolve around mental power: the ability to manipulate, to control, to convince, to remember, etc.

"Human ingenuity, my friend, has hitherto only discovered two ways in which a man can manage a woman. One way is to knock her down—a method largely adopted by the brutal lower orders of the people, but utterly abhorrent to the refined and educated classes above them. The other way […] is never to accept a provocation at a woman's hands. It holds with animals, it holds with children, and it holds with women, who are nothing but children grown up." (2.1.9.46)

Fosco's theory of power is terrifying. This scene probably sheds more light on Fosco's character than any other in the novel. His ego, contempt for others, cruelty, and need for control all come to the forefront here.