Walter Hartright in The Woman in White
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Walter Hartright is a bit of a Renaissance man: he dabbles in everything. He's a modestly successful art teacher, but he's also an amateur detective and a lawyer. He's a romantic, but also a realist. He's a would-be vigilante, but he also references principles of Christian charity and forgiveness. He's an adventurer (pulling a bit of an Indiana Jones with his globetrotting), but he's also a homebody.
The dude is a study in contrasts, especially between his more artistic side and his more logical, factual side. These contrasts serve as the foundation of the narrative, which often hinges on a split between emotion and facts… and they also just show off how cool our Walt is.
By being everywhere at once, Walter becomes a sort of everyman. We don't mean Walter is average or dull; we mean that he kind of appeals to, well, everyone. He's everyone's man. You like action and adventure? Walter's got you covered, with adventures in South America. You go for romance? Here's Walter with a star-crossed love story and some poetic descriptions. You enjoy a Law and Order marathon? Walter's got law and order written all over him.
We're going to play "spot the quote by Walter." Ready? Begin!
Death by disease, death by the Indians, death by drowning—all three had approached me; all three had passed me by. (184.108.40.206)
Oh, my love! my love! my heart may speak to you now! It is yesterday again, since we parted—yesterday, since your dear hand held mine—yesterday, since my eyes looked their last on you. (220.127.116.11)
We could live cheaply by the daily work of my hands; and could save every farthing we possessed to forward the purpose—the righteous purpose of redressing an infamous wrong—which, from first to last, I now kept steadily in view. (18.104.22.168)
So which quote was uttered by our man Walt? Was it the super-morbid musing on death (how brooding!), the romantic Valentine's-Day-card-style sweet talk, or the Average Joe thrifty straight-talk?
Psych—it was all three. All three of those disparate quotes came out of Walter's mouth (or pen). This guy seriously exists in all dimensions at once.
With a Dash of Charlie Brown
By trying to be everything at once, Walter misses the mark at times. We never said he was particularly good at any of the things he does, or tries to do. His vigilante career falls apart thanks to a vengeful political society and an even more vengeful God. And his sleuthing routine is less about good detective work than about a fabulously dumb error on Fosco's part. (Seriously Fosco, you couldn't manage to hide that stupid date somehow? Lame.)
But Walter kind of has to not perform all his assigned tasks and roles very well. If he had managed to go on a Kill Bill type of killing spree and had taken out Percival and Fosco, he would have lost the moral high ground. If Walter had turned into a ruthless, Sherlock Holmes figure, he would have become harder to identify with. No, it's better that Walter is kind of a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of dude… we like him better that way.
And liking Walter is the point of the character of Walter.
Storytime with Walter
Walt does double-duty in this novel. He's both a character and a narrator. He may be a semi-bumbling character (although one who is not afraid to try different experiences), but he's also the organizer of the story.
Walter isn't just the main storyteller, he's the person who compiles and sometimes relays everyone else's stories. He's the architect of the tale. Walter had to be as identifiable as he is (to everyone) because the story is so utterly in his control.
Wilkie Collins is being exceptionally smart when it comes to crafting Walter's personality. He's created the perfect narrator—identifiable, likable, and believable. This believability is especially paramount: ol' Walt is talking about some extremely wild things, and it's necessary to our reading experience that we take him at face value.
That's the main reason that Walter can't be a supersleuth and a genius and a world-traveler. We wouldn't believe him. We don't like beautiful, successful, brilliant narrators… because we don't believe in them.
Think of the most famous narrators around. Ishmael is just kind of a weirdo loner—he's no great whaler. Nick Carraway isn't a self-made millionaire—he's just a lonely guy who thinks his neighbor is cool and his cousin's friend is hot. Sal Paradise is adventurous, but he spends the whole of On the Road playing second fiddle to his way more interesting buddy, Dean.
These uber-famous narrators are intentionally made just a little ho-hum in order for us to believe their tales. The same thing is going on with Walter. He's not boring—that's for sure—but he's no prodigy. He's just a stand-up guy. And because of that, we're willing to lend an ear to his version of events.
Walter Hartright in The Woman in White Study Group
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