The Woman in Black is a piece of Gothic literature, which attempts to both horrify and enthral the reader through the use of gothic techniques. The story centres on a young solicitor named Arthur Kipps, who is summoned to the small market town of Crythin Gifford, to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow. Furthermore, the man has been instructed to manage the legal documents of the late widow. Whilst doing this, he stays in what was the woman’s residence, Eel Marsh House.
However, the property is only accessible by pony and trap, due to the fact it is situated on Nine Lives Causeway.
At high tide, the house is completely cut off from the mainland, with only the surrounding marshland and sea frets for company. Confined to the house, Arthur Kipps endures an increasingly terrifying sequence of unexplained noises, chilling events and hauntings, which appear to be connected to a mysterious woman he notices at the funeral. In the chapter, ‘In the Nursery,’ various traditional gothic conventions are used, in order to establish a sense of fear and insecurity.
The author, Susan Hill, attempts to balance gothic ideas, like pathetic fallacy and ominous connotations, with gothic literary devices, such as short sentences and repetition. Incorporating both elements helps to achieve the ultimate aim of Gothic literature- to terrify the reader.
Susan Hill evokes the fearful, sinister atmosphere using the surroundings and the weather- pathetic fallacy. This can be seen when the narrator, Arthur Kipps, states that: ‘…all was a uniform grey, with thick cloud lying low over the marsh and a drizzle.’ Therefore, the marsh could be a metaphor for the protagonist’s mind; Kipps is uncertain and confused, his mind is clouded over. This has a negative effect on the mind of the reader; knowing that Kipps is unsure makes the reader insecure. Additionally, the cloud emphasizes that all is not clear, and there is still a mystery to unravel. The colour grey symbolizes dust, grime and darkness. This suggests that the protagonist’s situation is rather difficult, and is unlikely to improve. Thus, the use of pathetic fallacy provides teasing hints which build up the tension.
Susan Hill occasionally uses this traditional gothic technique to provide the reader with a false sense of security: ‘The wind did not moan.’ The statement implies that the protagonist is safe, which could make the reader feel at ease. Although later on, Hill may shock the oblivious reader with a terrifying event, and therefore catch them off guard. However, the fact that there is no wind seems unusual, not right; the silence is haunting and inexplicable. Hence, the author establishes tension by playing on the reader’s curiosity.
The reader will speculate what might happen next based on clues from the surroundings. However, in this case, the reader is uncertain what the situation is like, and this makes them on edge. For that reason, pathetic fallacy is effective at foreshadowing and mirroring an event, or the mood of the narrator. It establishes the tense, chilling atmosphere. On occasion, the use of the weather entices the reader; it dares them to predict the way in which the story may or may not unfurl.
Throughout the chapter, ‘In the Nursery,’ short, simple sentences are used to effectively create tension. Moreover, this gothic literary technique emphasizes the key points in a clear, refined manner: ‘I heard a noise.’ The sentence is brief and sudden, and it is used for a dramatic yet tense effect. As it is so short, it gets the message across in an obvious way. Simultaneously, it forms a series of questions in the reader’s mind, which unbalances them. It highlights the fact that the narrator can hear a sound, yet cannot quite identify it. This draws on the reader’s interest; they would like an explanation as to why the sound is there. Furthermore, Susan Hill continues to use short sentences to illustrate the following events which occur due to the noise: ‘The door was now standing open. Wide open.’ Suspense is built due to the fact that the pace is fast, yet unsteady. This makes the reader feel anxious and uneasy.
The quotation stresses that there is a mysterious sound behind the door; it imitates the protagonist’s realisation of the sound. It deliberately describes the way in which the door is open at great length. This makes the reader frustrated, as they want the narrator to reveal what is in the room immediately. Yet at the same time, the reader is enveloped in apprehension and fear; their mind is in disorder. In addition, Susan Hill structures her writing so that these simple sentences are at the end of a paragraph. This subtle arrangement means that the reader is left hanging for a few seconds; this enhances tension. From this, it is possible to see that this gothic device adds another dimension to this genre of literature.
In general, animals seem to have a sixth sense, which tells them whether their situation is safe. Susan Hill cleverly incorporates this into her novel by having a dog, Spider, as a significant character. Throughout ‘In the Nursery,’ Spider expresses her fear when the situation appears dire: ‘…and began to howl, a loud, prolonged, agonized and heart-stopping howl.’ It is quite clear that Spider is not merely afraid by something; she is petrified. In most cases, an animal would have no reason to pretend to be afraid of something, which means that the reader can generally trust Spider. Moreover, animals are able to accurately portray their emotions depending on their safety.
Therefore, the dog’s behaviour acts like a warning to the reader. When Spider is terrified, the reader is terrified. This is because the reader knows that the animal has a reason to be alarmed and frightened. Even so, in this chapter, there are times when Arthur Kipps is afraid and apprehensive, yet Spider appears to be at ease: ‘But Spider trotted down the stairs eagerly and cheerfully.’ The adverbs ‘eagerly’ and ‘cheerfully’ clearly illustrate the calmness of Spider’s mind. The verb ‘trotted’ portrays her happiness and light-heartedness. Hence, the reader is likely to consider that all is well, and that nothing bad will happen.
Yet Susan Hill cunningly expresses the fact that the protagonist, Arthur Kipps, is fearful. This may unbalance the reader. Perhaps Spider is right to be calm, as she senses that the situation is safe. Still, doubt brushes the reader’s mind, as they know that Kipps is afraid. Therefore, questions stir within the reader; the reader starts to feel tense. Spider is used to give the reader an idea whether the situation is dangerous or safe. The dog acts like the reader’s barometer of fear. However, trusting Spider may lead to a false sense of security, which means that the reader is shocked if a horrific event occurs.
Connotations are the associations of a word or idea; or what the word stands for or symbolizes. Susan Hill uses ominous connotations to symbolize and suggest certain negative ideas. This can be seen when the narrator reminds the reader that: ‘There was neither moonlight nor any stars visible.’ The fact that it is night, and darkness is present, suggests there is danger. Moreover, as the protagonist cannot see, the author gives the implication that a mystery is yet to be solved. It is as if Arthur Kipps has no control over his fate; nor can he tell what is going to happen to him. All is hazy, dark, and unclear; the protagonist is confused and anxious. The fact that there is no light symbolizes that Kipps no longer has any means of reassurance. This additionally implies that Kipps’ situation is not going to improve.
Rather, things are likely to become worse as the night draws on. This makes the reader feel afraid, and also have empathy for the young solicitor. Susan Hill also creates fear and tension within the reader by having Kipps use a particularly brutal tool to attempt to force open a locked door. The author uses this tool because of its ominous connotations: ‘I had located the axe.’ An axe is a gruesome and violent. Also, the one using it must be strong, powerful and ruthless.
In general, skill is not required in order to use this forcing tool; an axe is rather random when it is used. For that reason, the reader is fearful, as they have no idea how or when Arthur Kipps will strike. Moreover, the fact Arthur Kipps is using such a vicious tool portrays his desperation to open the door. The reason the axe conjures up such terror is due its connotations. An axe is so violent, and its victim suffers such horrific injuries, that the reader immediately feels insecure and afraid. Hence, the ominous connotations used in this chapter are implicit negative references, which are effective at establishing fear within the reader.
Words or phrases which are deliberately used more than once give a dramatic effect. Furthermore, repetition reminds the reader of important ideas and issues: ‘Listening, listening.’ There is a continuous straining to hear the sound. The repeated word is used to show the reader that Kipps is always listening for the sound. He is desperate to understand more about the noise, and he appears to think that by continually listening for it, answers will unfold. Whether the sound is there or not, he is prepared to listen. The word ‘listening’ is quite a ghostly, menacing word, due to the letter ‘s’. It lingers on the reader’s mind, due to the long syllables. The repetition ensures that the reader is thoroughly aware how important it is for Kipps to hear the sound. Moreover, it is quite clear that the haunting sound controls the young solicitor.
Susan Hill portrays this by using the same phrase repeatedly, to get the message across: ‘Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. ‘ The repetition of the word ‘bump’ suggests that the ominous sound is what the protagonist constantly thinks about. It is difficult for the reader to forget the word; each repeat causes the word to sink deeper into their mind. The sound is ever continuous and hypnotising; it is always there. It almost imitates a heartbeat. The rhythm of it is similar to a heart as well. However, it is sinister due to the fact it is so even, and the pattern does not change. This is unlike Arthur Kipps’ heartbeat, which should quicken with fear and slow down with comfort. Repetition draws the eyes of the reader to the page, and highlights the key ideas of the chapter in the reader’s head. It gets the point across and provides clarity. The reader is almost haunted by the repeated words; the words do not leave the reader’s thoughts.
The story is recounted retrospectively, in the first person, by Arthur Kipps. Narrating the story in this way allows the reader to hear his thoughts and see the events from his point of view: ‘When I reached the end of the corridor, and saw what I did see now, my fear reached a new height.’ The protagonist tells the events while looking back to the past; this provides the reader with added information and foreshadowing. Tension is established as the reader wonders what the narrator could possibly have seen to make him feel so terrified. Because the reader knows that Arthur Kipps is terrified, the reader automatically feels a similar fear. Moreover, the reader is waiting in suspense to discover what the narrator now knows. Susan Hill also uses associations from Kipps’ past to add depth to the story.
This can be seen when the narrator states that the sound appears to: ‘…waken old, half-forgotten memories.’ The noise is seemingly familiar to Kipps. It brings him back to his childhood, and almost hypnotizes him. However, he should be afraid, as he still does not recognize the sound. The reader is fearful for the solicitor, for they sense that the sound could be dangerous. This fragment from Arthur Kipps’ retrospective narrative gives additional knowledge to the reader about the narrator. The novel is in his opinion, which makes it easier for the reader to relate to the character, as well as provoking a feeling of empathy. As events are told from the present, looking back to the past, the narrator knows how the story will end, yet the reader obviously does not. Therefore, the reader is tense; they are unsure how the plot will develop.
In conclusion, I consider that tension and horror in the chapter ‘In the Nursery’ is established quite successfully. Susan Hill uses various techniques to mesmerize and shock the reader, the majority of which are traditional gothic conventions. There is no primary technique, as they all work together fluidly. As result of the carefully planned structure, they can increase the tension most of the time. I think that Susan Hill manages to successfully balance gothic content, such as pathetic fallacy, with gothic literary devices, like repetition. Rather than any technique being the most important, the fragile combination of all of them is what really succeeds in building up the tension and keeping the reader interested. At various moments throughout the chapter, I was waiting in suspense, feeling fearful and tense; the use of gothic technique helped me to feel this way.
However, I would say that one flaw with this chapter is the fact that the pace is occasionally too slow. A swifter pace would have made the events flow more smoothly. Also, I do not consider that the reader’s interest is maintained throughout. Although I realise that tension cannot be present at all times, I think the author could have entranced the reader more, using less detail to describe the settings. I found that the chapter lacked horrific description, which I would have expected in this type of genre. Yet, the tone of the writing was haunting and mysterious, and I liked that. Overall, I appreciate the author’s attempts at making this chapter of The Woman in Black as captivating, intriguing and suspenseful as possible. In multiple ways, the chapter is one of success.
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