Forms of Possession in The Legacy of Cain

“It is useless to dispute with a man who possessed his command of language….” ~Chapter 6, The Legacy of Cain

Wilkie Collins’s The Legacy of Cain is in many ways preoccupied with the concept of possession, in some ways that can be anticipated of the Victorian novel and also in some that are perhaps less obvious. The issue of husbands and fathers being in possession and command (or not) of their wives and daughters is certainly at play. But in addition, the narrative seriously considers the possibility that external elements (whether they be hereditary or environmental or social or supernatural or simply of some other unknown force) can possess, as it were, the individual being and determine his or her destiny. For instance, do people possess their own physical and mental attributes, or are they actually possessed by them, by what they inherit from their parents? Is natural selection a process that is leading to the perpetual and positive adaptation of species or to the recurring doom of innocent individuals?

In the quote above, the governor uses the term “possession” in reference to language, and yet I think it is related to these questions of bodily possession. What is implied by the governor’s comments about the doctor, as I interpret them, is that someone who possesses his command of language is someone in the utmost control of his thoughts and ideas. I think the question then becomes: could a person with that kind of control of language potentially reclaim possession of mental and physical control from those external elements mentioned above? Could he even deceive those around him by manipulating through language his own physical presence and mental persona in unanticipated ways. If you are in possession of a command of language, do you have the potential to mould your own destiny. Is that what the novel posits?

Given these queries, how does the narrative thus frame Eunice’s and Helena’s possession of language for the reader? Eunice at first seems wholly incapable of possessing a command of language, while Helena is far more calculated in her discourse with others and also in her diary writing. Her control is so pervasive that she even possesses Eunice’s language by copying her sister’s words into her own journal. And yet, Helena’s control does not lead to any kind of liberation but rather to destruction. What can we make of the narrative’s appraisal of the possession of a command of language then? How are all the different forms of possession working in the novel?

Erin Spinka

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~ by erinspinka on January 29, 2009.

One Response to “Forms of Possession in The Legacy of Cain

  1. It’s really interesting that the influence of Eunice’s mother is written as if Eunice is being possessed by a demon, which would be an external threat, rather than being consistently coded in terms of heredity, which would be an internal threat in the sense that what she’s inherited is part of who she is. The novel seems to really resist any clear classification of inheritance as either something outside of yourself or something within yourself. I think your focus on the word “possession” is really apt for drawing attention to these issues of possessing/being possessed at the same time.

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