I’ve Got a Fever, and the Only Prescription is More Moonstone: Addiction, Reading, and “Detective-Fever” in Serial Narratives

Editor’s Note: Points welcomes a new guest blogger today for a nail-biting series on narrative form and addiction. Anne Moore received her PhD in English Literature from Tufts University in May 2012 with a dissertation (from which her guest series is derived) entitled “After the Break: Serial Narratives and Fannish Reading.” It considers the way that 19th-century novels and contemporary television use the serial format to worm their way into your heart and your head, turning readers into compulsive, over-enthusiastic fans. Other writing of Moore’s can be found online at Parabasis and In Media Res. She lives in Somerville, MA with her partner Ariel and their daughter Isadora. The television show to which she is currently addicted is “Friday Night Lights.”

It’s 3AM. Respectable people have long since been in bed. You think of yourself as someone who’d be in bed by now, too, but you’re not. Just one more, you think, then I’ll be done. The next morning, your eyes are red and you’re embarrassed to tell anyone what you’ve been up to. You finally started watching LOST on Netflix, and made it through the first season in the space of a weekend. All day long, you find your thoughts drifting back to the Island: what’s in the hatch? Will Kate choose Sawyer or Jack? Just watch the first episode, your friends told you, and you’ll be hooked.

Let’s Get LOST

This compulsive relationship to serial narrative is hardly a new phenomenon. As this joke on the website Hooded Utilitarian demonstrates, there is an intuitive parallel between the contemporary television serial and its closest formal predecessor, the Victorian novel. TV shows and Victorian novels share a host of formal characteristics: huge casts of characters, multiple story lines, twisty plots, fully realized settings, not to mention the most obvious parallel of their piecemeal mode of consumption. Although critics have rightfully called into question an easy equation of two such disparate forms, what I will be exploring here on Points for the next three weeks is how similar it feels to read a Victorian novel and watch a TV serial: both forms call up in their readers an oscillation between desire and frustration that mirrors the cycle of addiction.

If we understand the story’s ending as the moment of anticipated payoff, then serials are all about extending the wait for that moment (again, think of LOST). Each installment or episode contains its own moment of formal closure but also gestures toward some larger, more satisfying ending that is somewhere down the line. The structure of serial reading thus mirrors the structure of addiction: obsession with relief from obsession. For instance, the smoker who’s trying to quit knows all too well the conviction that a cigarette will cure her unbearable craving—even though the truth is that smoking the cigarette will only start the timeline of craving over again, stronger than ever. With each new installment, the promise of relief is renewed—and reneged upon.

In the following weeks, I will consider this mirrored structure of serial reading and addiction across time and medium, looking at the ways this relationship is affected by historical understandings of addiction and gender. This week, I will explore the way Victorian author Wilkie Collins set up a parallel between addiction and detection in his novel The Moonstone. Next week, I will continue my consideration of this relationship, this time filtered through the postmodern lens of the recovery movement in the HBO series The Wire. Both the contemporary television serial and the Victorian serial novel share the assumption of a final moment of closure that will hopefully deliver on the promise of its earlier installments; as such, I will examine at The Moonstone and The Wire as a pair, divided by time more than substance. My third post will consider the daytime soap opera as an example of a different model of “narrative addiction,” one that takes a more feminine form in its rejection of both episodic boundaries and traditional closure.

The Moonstone (1868)

The Moonstone is presented in the style of a deposition, as a series of narratives from parties involved in a central mystery—the theft of the titular Moonstone diamond from heiress Rachel Verinder. It is eventually revealed that Franklin Blake—her suitor and the novel’s central narrator—misplaced the diamond in an opium-induced trance after having been unknowingly dosed by the local doctor to cure his symptoms of tobacco withdrawal. Blake’s rival, arriviste Godfrey Ablewhite, then discovers the misplaced diamond and takes it as his own, rightly confident that blame will fall on Blake. To clear his name, Blake teams up with the assistant of the doctor who originally dosed him, opium addict Ezra Jennings, to stage a “bold experiment,” taking opium again and restaging the original theft. In the end, the Moonstone is returned to India and Rachel and Blake are happily married.

One of the most surprising things about The Moonstone to the 21st-century reader is the novel’s unconcern with the potential social and moral consequences of addiction. Instead, it focuses on the interplay between pleasure and frustration that characterizes the lived experience of addiction, highlighting the way that the frustration caused by waiting might intensify the pleasure accompanying the desired outcome.

This attitude reflects the emerging definition of addiction during the Victorian era. According to Virginia Berridge’s influential study Opium and the People, the “addict” was one of the medically and socially defined deviant identities that emerged in the nineteenth century’s rash of medicalization (along with the homosexual, the criminal, and the lunatic, among others). Government control of opium developed over the course of the last half of the century, just as The Moonstone was being written: “In the 1850s, opium could be bought in any grocer’s or druggist’s shop; by the end of the century, opium products and derivatives and opium-based patent medicines were only to be found in pharmacist’s shops” (xxix). Collins’ own experience with opiates illustrates their troubled position in the culture: although his habitual use of laudanum was one of the many factors that marked him as somewhat beyond the pale of bourgeois culture, it occurred within the culturally legitimized space of medical treatment.

Ask Your Doctor

Collins himself had a fairly blasé relationship with at least the idea of drugs—the story goes that, witnessing Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s difficulties weaning himself off of opium, Collins’ mother responded with the question: “Mr. Coleridge, do not cry; if the opium really does you any good, and you must have it, why do you not go and get it?” (Alethea Hayter 255). This attitude was reflected in Collins’ relationship with opium: he was prescribed the drug legally for a series of debilitating health problems, and although he did become physically dependent on it and experienced terrifying hallucinations like the ones described by Ezra Jennings, he never attempted to quit, nor did he seem to think abstinence a particularly desirable goal. Biographer Catherine Peters suggests that Collins’ “relationship to [opium and laudanum] was closer to the dependence of a chronic asthmatic on steroids, than to the romanticism of the ‘opium eater’ or the degradation of a heroin addict” (337).

The function and depiction of addiction in The Moonstone follows a similarly non-judgmental track. Franklin Blake’s decision to knowingly take opium is a “bold experiment” that pays off, leading him to see the pieces of the mystery in a new relationship to each other, one that was invisible without the revelatory power of drugs. But drugs are everywhere in this text, from the everyday to the momentous.  Most obviously, the circumstances of Blake’s original theft of the Moonstone arise directly from his addiction to tobacco. However, tobacco also works as a corollary to his case of “detective-fever” (one narrator’s phrase for the inescapable desire to solve a mystery). As Blake waits until he can unearth a central clue, he praises tobacco’s unique ability to both pass and mark time:

The interval of expectation, short as it was when reckoned by the measure of time, assumed formidable proportions when reckoned by the measure of suspense. This was one of the occasions on which the invaluable habit of smoking becomes especially precious and consolatory. I lit a cigar, and sat down on the slope of the beach (312).

The negative feelings associated with unwilling waiting (impatience, resentment, frustration) make the promise of relief offered by revelation more powerful, and make the waiting subject even hungrier for whatever kind of relief might be available. The shocking revelation found in the letter—that Blake himself stole the Diamond—and the immediate installment break that follows only increase the reader’s case of “detective-fever,” reminding her of her similar state of withdrawal from the object of her desire. Smoking takes the edge off of this need for Blake, in a manner that would be familiar to many of his readers, who might well be enjoying a cigar right along with the narrator.

This is a more positive reading of addiction than modern anti-drug rhetoric generally allows for. Different addictions are here presented as structurally equivalent: while a dose of opium might exert a greater pull on its reader than a cigarette or an installment of a serial novel, the oscillation between obsession and relief is the same. For Collins, however, this equivalence does not tend downward, marking reading as dangerous, but upward, suggesting that opium might be as harmless as reading or smoking, and that the desire engendered by addiction is its own end.

Lost in a Book

Drugs and reading both work within a logic of revelation in The Moonstone—reading is focused on the revelation of central mysteries, and drugs help reveal those mysteries’ solutions. Part of the pleasure of reading is the revelation of the depth of the reader’s own desire for the next installment, and the novel encourages its reader to revel in that pleasure. So stay tuned for next week’s exciting installment, when we will move from the muddy byways of Victorian London to the seamy streets of Baltimore. With a junkie as our guide, we will explore the radical potential of “recovering reading.”

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4 thoughts on “I’ve Got a Fever, and the Only Prescription is More Moonstone: Addiction, Reading, and “Detective-Fever” in Serial Narratives

  1. Great post. I’m curious whether there was a contemporary Victorian discourse that framed the experience of reading in terms of addiction the way we so easily describe our shame, agitation and surrender as “readers” of Lost or The Wire or Lip Service. My contemporaries instantly grasp all connotations of the metaphor when I say I mainlined the entire first season of The Walking Dead in one night. What would Victorians hooked on Wilkie Collins have said?

    • Victorian novels were certainly framed as addictive by self-appointed guardians of morality. As headmaster of Rugby school, Thomas Arnold railed against serial novels in 1837 and how their manner of part-publication “distill themselves into [the mind] as it were drop by drop.” The general impression that I get is that people were similarly embarrassed of their tendency to binge on serials–I’m thinking of Prime Minister Disraeli’s admission that he stayed up all night to finish The Woman in White, for instance.

  2. Pingback: “All in the Game”: Good Police and Narrative Recovery in The Wire. | Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society

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