In response to a considerable number of requests, I have decided to publish this summary of
the plot of Moonfleet.
This is an excerpt from "Moonfleet Notes" written by Lois Shayne, M.A. and published by Coles Publishing Co. Ltd. in 1965 and 1970. I'd be more than happy to thank somebody for their kind permission (which I have yet to obtain) to do this, were I able to ascertain whom to ask.
SUMMARY OF "MOONFLEET"
THE MAIN PLOT
The plot is a gradual unfolding of a succession of events divided by intervals of time. John
Trenchard, a fifteen year old orphan lad, lives with his maiden aunt, Miss Jane Arnold, in
Moonfleet, a rundown tiny fishing village. One day while John sits on a stone in the churchyard
gazing out to the sea, a crack in the earth running up the stone widens and discloses a large
cavity beneath. Recalling stories of a hidden Mohune diamond, owned by the treacherous Colonel
John Mohune, popularly known as Blackbeard, John explores the hole. Darkness forces him to give
up the search and he returns home to obtain a candle. Forbidden by his aunt to go out at night,
John waits until she retires and steals out of the house. In the hole, he discovers a passageway
leading to the Mohune vault under the church. In the vault John comes upon the coffins of the
dead Mohune family. He also discovers, much to his surprise, a hoard of casks and kegs and he
realizes that this is a smuggler's cache.
Hearing voices and footsteps in the passageway, John desperately climbs up behind one of the coffins for fear that he will be found by the smugglers and silenced. Overhearing their conversation, John deduces that Elzevir Block, the innkeeper, and Ratsey, the sexton, are the leaders of the smugglers. After they leave, John is about to get down when he slips and grabs the rotten coffin in an attempt to break his fall. His hand takes hold of what he believes is seaweed but turns out to be, to his horror, Blackbeard's beard. Searching the coffiin for the diamond, John finds a silver locket containing a piece of parchment on which several verses from the Bible are written. Convinced that the verses are merely a charm against evil spirits, John takes the locket and tries to leave. Unfortunately, the hole has been sealed and John is trapped. Two days later Master Ratsey and Eizevir Block hear a report of screams emerging from the churchyard. Finding John, they take him to the Why Not? Inn where Elzevir nurses John back to health. When Miss Arnold refuses to let John return home, Elzevir offers him bed and board.
At an auction at the Why Not?, the unpopular Magistrate Maskew successfully outbids Elzevir for the renewal of the lease of the Inn which has been in the Block family for generations. Maskew attempts to put an end to the smuggling and one night, eavesdropping at the Inn, learns of a prospective landing of a cargo of goods. The hour of the landing is changed and Maskew, who arrives two hours before the soldiers, is discovered by the smugglers. Since Maskew had shot Elzevir's only son, David, the smugglers depart leaving Elzevir to kill Maskew. Unable to stand by and see Maskew being killed, John spoils Elzevir's aim and the shot goes wild. At that moment, the soldiers arrive and accidently kill Maskew with one of their shots.
Since John has been wounded in the leg, Elzevir manages to carry him up a steep path on the side of the cliff to safety. For three months John and Elzevir hide in a sea-cave in an abandoned quarry as John's leg heals. One night when Elzevir is away, Ratsey comes to warn them to leave the country and, in the course of a conversation with John, unwittingly, supplies the key to Colonel Mohune's Biblical message. When Elzevir hears the story on his return, he is convinced that the diamond must be hidden in the well at Carisbrooke Castle.
At the castle, they locate the stone in the well, but the wellkeeper knows their identity and threatens to turn them in for the reward unles they give him the diamond. When Elzevir refuses, a struggle ensues and the well-keeper, losing his footing, falls into the well.
Hoping to sell the diamond in Holland, Elzevir and John journey to the Hague. There, Krispijn Aldobrand, a diamond merchant, dupes them into believing that the diamond is worthless. In disgust Elzevir throws the diamond out of the merchant's window. Back at their lodgings, John realizes that they have been tricked and he convinces Elzevir, against his will, to go back to find the stone. On their return, they find the stone gone but, dauntless, John climbs up on to a porch from which he sees the merchant go to place the diamond in a safe. Without hesitation, John breaks through the window in a desperate attempt to recover the diamond. An alarm is set off and Elzevir and John are overpowered by the jeweller's servants and thrown into prison. Convicted by the merchant's false testimony, they are sentenced to life imprisonment.
Seldom seeing each other for almost ten years, John and Elzevir toil at the construction of a fortress. At the end of this period, they are transferred to a ship for Java. A terrible storm arises after they have been at sea for a few days. The crew abandon the ship, and in an act of mercy, the gaoler offers the prisoners a chance to save their lives by giving them a key to their chains. On deck Elzevir and John see that they are in Moonfleet Bay and know that the ship will soon run aground. The other prisoners disregard Elzevir's advice to stay with the ship and take to a lifeboat. When the ship runs aground, John and Elzevir jump to the beach and run through the surf hoping to reach the life-line, thrown by men waiting on the shore, before the under-tow sucks them back out to sea.
Elzevir reaches the rope, but as he stretches out a hand to John, a breaker sweeps John back. Leaving the safety of the rope to help John, Elzevir manages to give John a tremendous shove that enables him to catch the rope. The next morning, John learns that Elzevir drowned saving his life.
Since the price on his head was removed years before, John is now a free man. Learning unexpectedly that he is the heir to the diamond merchant's estate, John puts the money to good use restoring the almshouses as Colonel John Mohune had intended. John marries Grace Maskew, his childhood sweetheart, raises a family and becomes Justice of the Peace of Moonfleet.
John Trenchard meets Grace Maskew, the daughter of Magistrate Maskew, at the old almshouse which
Reverend Mr. Glennie runs as a school. Attracted to her, John often wanders in the woods near
her home for an occasional glimpse or conversation with her.
After Maskew's death, John learns from Ratsey that Grace refuses to believe the report of Elzevir's and his own responsibility for her father's death. Forced to flee the country, John disguises himself as a ploughboy and returns to Moonfleet to see Grace. Grace promises to wait for John and tells him that she will put a candle in the attic window each night so that he will know, if he ever returns, that she remembers him. Before he leaves, Grace cautions him against using the diamond for any purposes other than restoring the almshouses. Over the years, John has occasion to recall her warning and be often wishes that he had listened to her.
Ten years later, as the Aurungzebe bears him towards the beach in Moonfleet Bay, John sees the light and knows that she has been true to her promise. The day after he is rescued, she comes to him at the Why Not? and puts aside his arguments against marrying her. Married, they raise a family of three and devote their lives to good works, living happily ever after.
The maxim inscribed on the backgammon-board at the Why Not? colours the angle of vision
from which each movement is to be observed: "As in life, so in a game of hazard, skill will make
something of the worst of throws" (Chapter 1). The adventures of John Trenchard embody a
perennial youthful dream of mystery, search for treasure, riches beyond comprehension, hairbreadth
escapes and ultimate reward. Beneath this exciting exterior is the gradual growth of a deep and
loving relationship between a man and an orphan boy which develops into a self-sacrificing love
of a father to a son, and provides a moving undertone to the story. The reader is left with the
feeling that great happenings may start as innocently and involve him as irreparably as that
initial discovery made by John in the churchyard.
The tale purports to be a literal account of the adventures of John Trenchard. The principle
figures in his own story, like Jim Hawkins, Huckleberry Finn or David Copperfield, John relates
what he has experienced, observed and learned. By choosing to tell his story as though it were
retrospectively set down by its boy-hero, Falkner achieves a sense of closeness, a feeling of
reality and an immediacy of appeal which emerge from the illusion that the reader is following
an authentic document. Immediate credibility is attained by the pretense of making a plain
record of actual happenings. The narrator can transmit his own sensations more vividly than a
novelist can report them. Nothing is recounted that may not have happened at the times and in
the places where the scenes are laid. The characters talk as they would in reality and everything
not relevant to the tale is eliminated. The tale is intensely subjective for the hero is hardly
viewed from the outside. Except for Elzevir, the minor figures are scantily drawn out individuals
playing their parts in events in which John has a starring role.
John Trenchard gives the story an air of unity by the mere act of telling it. Every part is
united with every other part by the simple fact that the adventures all belong to one boy.
The Village of Moonfleet, October, 1757 to April 15, 1758, and from January or February, 1768
onwards. Born and raised in this Dorset village, John Trenchard discovers (at the age of fifteen)
the Mohune vault, the hiding place of smugglers' contraband. This discovery leads to a series of
events which eventually culminate in a ten year imprisonment in Holland. At the novel's end, John
returns to Moonfleet, marries, raises a family and becomes Justice of the Peace.
Hoar Head, April 16, 1758. Located ten miles from St. Alban's Head in the County of Dorset, Hoar Head is the scene of the landing of smuggled goods. Pursued by soldiers as a smuggler and the killer of Magistrate Maskew, John is forced to make his escape by climbing Hoar Head.
Joseph's Pit, in Purbeck, April, May and June, 1758. A sea-cave in an abandoned quarry in Purbeck becomes the hiding place of Elzevir and John while John recovers from his bullet wound. Here, Ratsey furnishes John with a clue to the secret message of Colonel Mohune.
Newport, in the Isle of Wight, June to July, 1758. Upon leaving Joseph's Pit, John and Elzevir sail to Newport, at which place they make plans to secure the Mohune diamond from nearby Carisbrooke Castle.
Carisbrooke Castle, July, 1758. The castle, built in the eleventh century, became the prison of King Charles I and his children when the King was forced to abdicate the throne. At the time of King Charles' imprisonment, Colonel John Mohune, his jailer, was said to have procured a valuable diamond by promising to allow the King to escape, a promise which he did not keep. When John and Elzevir arrive at the castle, they find the banquet hall being used as a barracks for French prisoners. In the famous well in the castle, John and Elzevir procure the diamond at the expense of the accidental death of the greedy turnkey who allows them entrance to the wellhouse.
The Hague, Holland, August, 1758 to January, 1759. Elzevir and John journey to the Hague in order to sell the diamond. Duped by a diamond merchant into thinking the diamond worthless, they throw it away. In their attempt to recover the stone, they are jailed and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Ymeguen, Holland, January, 1759 to January or February, 1768. At this town not far from the Hague, John and Elzevir spend ten vears building a fortress, as part of their punishment. As convicts both men are branded with the letter "Y" (for Ymeguen) while they are there.
Aurungzebe, January or February, 1768. This ship on which John and Elzevir are being transported for slave labour on Java, founder and runs aground in Moonfleet Bay.
The time covered in the novel is from October, 1757 to January or February, 1768 onwards. John
carefully identifies the month and year of each of the most important incidents in his life.
To indicate the passage of time, John points out the time of year with an appropriate comment
such as "the chilly grey of a March evening" (Chapter 7). As John marches through the Hague on
the way to the Aurungzebe, he remembers his interview with Grace on "a July evening"
John's actions from the opening paragraphs in October of 1757 are carefully documented until January, 1759 at which time he and Elzevir begin their hard labour at Ymeguen. The ten years spent building the fortress are quickly passed over in the monotony of their labour and their inability to even see each other for long periods of time. The principal action of the tale, for all main purposes, comes to an end in the winter of 1768 when John comes home to Moonfleet. A synopsis brings the reader up-to-date with the future events of John's marriage to Grace and his charitable deeds for the benefit of the village. (For more detailed information as to the months in which much of the action takes place, see Settings.)
The style as a whole is simple and realistic. The language and the manner in which each
incident is presented are appropriate to John's background and education. Falkner's success
lies in his ability to have John, as the narrator, grasp and color each happening and relate
it back in his own words. The secret of Falkner's technique lies in the naturalness of the
telling, which is clear, apt and credible.
Falkner captivates the reader's attention and engages his emotions through suspense, mystery and surprise. Each conflict, discovery or change in fortune is a direct step in the plot. For examples of Falkner's ability to create mystery, surprise and suspense, see the last question in Questions and Answers. The use of the device of foreshadowing is also elaborated in the same section. Moonfleet, according to V. S. Pritchett, "has the sustained excitement, if not the richness of character of the best work of Stevenson."
Careful note should be given to the manner in which Falkner creates suspense. Falker carefully describes the history of the wicked Mohunes and, in particular, the legend surrounding the wickedness of Colonel John Mohune (Blackbeard). The end result is that the tall black-bearded man with the coppery face and evil eyes strides ominously through the tale until the very last pages when the almshouses are restored and he can rest in peace.
Falkner's vivid descriptions provide a background against which the more exciting adventures are played. The description of the flood and the storm in the opening chapters prepares the reader for the events which arise naturally out of these phenomena. The discovery of the hole in the ground follows logically from the drying up and cracking of the earth after the flood. The description of the abandoned marble quarries of Purbeck is static, but the part of the story set there flows on more swiftly because of it. The whole coast with its cliffs and the beach with its shingle roaring in the storms make the story more urgent, highlighting the exciting escape up the face of Hoar Head and Elzevir's final act of heroism. At other times, the description of the landscape serves a functional purpose, that is, to offer dramatic relief from the suspense-filled action of the story.
Falkner often sets characters against each other for contrast. Note the scene between Mr. Maskew and the Reverend Mr. Glennie or the contrast in behaviour of Elzevir to that of Miss Arnold in relation to John. Coincidence plays its part but never oversteps the bounds of possibility or credibility. Humour in situation and dialogue adds a light touch and provides dramatic relief after passages of mystery and suspense.
Falkner makes no attempt to indicate dialects. The sparing use of dialogue not only serves to underline high points in the tale but also gives the story a greater effect of continuous development. For example, Ratsey's conversation with John about charms against evil spirits offers humorous relief in a suspense-packed situation but also supplies knowledge leading to further action and developments.
Falkner uses few figures of speech but each simile or metaphor is simple, direct and vivid. Elzevir compares John, shot by the soldiers, to a wounded bird that cannot fly (Chapter 10). As he views the landscape in shades and colors, note how he creates the peace and tranquility of early day for dramatic relief after the harrowing climb up the cliff. John can now afford a moment to relax and to enjoy the breathtaking wonder of nature as the Channel stretches out beneath the cliff like "a moving floor." The cliff-face gleams white, "the sea tawny inshore, but purest blue outside" and the sunlight makes the stone sparkle like a mackerel's back (Chapter 10). The source of many of the figures is nature, such as the comparison of the cliff shining like the back of a fish or Elzevir comparing John and himself to "sitting guillemots" (Chapter 10).
The minute attention to detail and to a logical chain of events is evident from the manner in which Falkner has John summarize the happenings leading up to a particular action. John always lists the reasons in threes. For example, John explains why he left the house the night that the story begins: the parlour was chilly and his aunt would not let him make a fire; second, there was a rank smell of molten tallow in the house; third, he was too anxious to continue his reading. On top of Hoar Head, he again lists the events in threes leading up to his escape. The list usually comes after a particular action has taken place, when John has a moment to reflect on the proceedings leading up to the climactic event.
The verses at the head of each chapter establish the mood and appropriately guide the response of the reader to the events depicted in the chapter.
J.M.Falkner Main Page.