The Moonstone | Study Guide

Wilkie Collins

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The Moonstone | Context


Detective Fiction

While the detective story previously existed in the short form, The Moonstone is widely considered to be the first instance of the genre in novel form. Collins also wrote sensation fiction, most famously The Woman in White. The two genres share features, but detective fiction focuses on a mystery and the steps taken to solve it, rather than on the moody thrills and suspense that defined sensation novels; as such, detective fiction yields a more clearly defined and focused narrative. The Moonstone was the first novel to follow an entire investigation and highlight the detective rather than the crime or the criminal.

The tropes widely used in detective fiction are different from those used in sensation fiction, and most originated or were used in The Moonstone. Sensation fiction thrills and shocks, relying on the senses of both the characters and the reader. Typical sensation plots involve shocking family secrets, identity theft, madness, and strange illnesses. Detective fiction relies on investigative techniques and logical thought processes; often the detective is the smartest person (or at least more aware) than the other characters and the reader. There are still surprises and plot twists, but the action and narrative are grounded by the detective's intellect. British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes, is the literary descendent of Collins's Sergeant Cuff and Ezra Jennings.


The Moonstone begins and ends in India, bookending events that occur in Britain. The novel opens with an account of the siege of Seringapatam in 1799, rooting it—and the mystery at its heart—in the British conquest of India. With the defeat of the sultan, British expansion and occupation progressed swiftly; within 50 years, the British controlled all of India. Collins was well aware of the British dominance in India and the battles fought in that country at the time of his writing The Moonstone.

During the British conquest, numerous treasures were looted from Indian sites and brought back to England. Soldiers stripped artifacts from the cities they sacked, much like the scene detailed in the prologue. The Koh-i-Noor diamond was one such treasure, taken for war compensation and brought to Queen Victoria. It was displayed in the Crystal Palace before becoming a part of England's Crown Jewels. Collins acknowledges this diamond as a reference point in his creation of the Moonstone in his novel.

John Herncastle's theft of the Diamond can be read as the British conquest of India in microcosm. With the Diamond's return to India at the end of the novel, Collins seems to be saying that the natural order of things has been restored—a harsh commentary on the effects of British Imperialism.

Narrative Viewpoint

The Moonstone narrative comprises numerous first-person accounts via diary and journal entries, letters, and police reports. The narrators are from various social and economic classes: a gentleman, a house steward, a police inspector, a lawyer, an opium addict, and a judgmental spinster. Collins is able to vary the tone and attitude of the complicated plot as a way to keep readers interested. The narrators give their versions of events with particular, personal viewpoints, skewed not only by their limited knowledge but also by their own prejudices.

Such perceptions bring into question the reliability of the narrators. Can readers trust what each narrator is saying? This question adds another layer to the detective story: not only must readers absorb the information on the page, but they must also decide whose account of the events is trustworthy. The narrative itself functions as a kind of detective story, as readers sift through the narrators' versions of events to find out what they are trying to tell (or not tell). Readers must take in the biases of each narrator to piece together a clearer picture of the account.

Even the editor is not above suspicion. Franklin Blake serves as both an editor and a narrator. He is both compiling the narratives of others and adding his own to the mix. Though he claims he will not make any changes to the others' accounts, his power over the narrative cannot be taken lightly. Therefore, readers must examine his compilation with at least as much skepticism as the other narrators, if not more.

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