Narrative Techniques in ‘The Woman in Black’
Susan Hill’s eclectic use of many aspects of ghost stories makes her own story a typical one, which in the readers’ eyes would work, e.
g. having a ‘sensible, rational’ protagonist as well as even using titles of famous books for her chapters (Whistle and I’ll Come To You, taken from M.R. James’ tale Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’). However, in The Woman In Black, narrative techniques are used the most successfully in terms of Susan Hill’s representation of both the stages of fear and the protagonist, which I will look at in more detail during the course of the essay.
The protagonist Arthur Kipps himself is presented as serious and determined (‘the firmness of my resolve’). His naivety is also emphasised because when he expresses his annoyance at the secrecy of the townsfolk regarding Eel Marsh House, he feels that he is superior to Keckwick when speaking to him (‘he must have recognised’). He brands his former self as ‘rational, sensible’, therefore showing evidence that he himself can sense a change within him. His resolve that he ‘needed an explanation’ shows that he is still thinking rationally.
The frame opening chapter is an introduction to the book, and it occurs when the main plot has already happened to the protagonist. We are told that he is ‘prone to nervous illnesses’ which of course inflicts curiosity in the reader’s mind. The reference to Arthur’s character as ‘never been an imaginative or fanciful man’ is a key point in describing him because protagonists in ghost stories are often sensible, rational people, in order to make supernatural happenings more believable. This technique is further emphasised by the fact that despite his rational nature, he was still susceptible to the supernatural happenings and as a result suffered later from ‘nervous illnesses’. Moreover, he refers to his youthful character as a ‘sturdy, commonsensical fellow’, which again make the happenings more believable. In the first chapter Christmas Eve, Arthur mentions that he wishes to ‘exorcise’ the ghost by writing down the tale in order to get rid of the demons in his mind.
The fact that he wishes to do this displays Kipps’ need for equanimity in order to soothe his ‘piece of mind’. Hill’s narrative technique here therefore is to make the impact of Kipps encountering the ghost far more forceful and frightening, because it is happening to a ‘rational’ central character.Despite Kipps’ ‘rational’ approach to supernatural happenings, he also exhibits frequently the qualities of naivety and his ‘state of innocence’. Supremely, his declaration that ‘I doubt if the woman in black can have any animosity towards me’ displays proleptic irony; he simply has no idea as to the intentions of the ‘woman in black’ at this stage; namely, that the character of the troubled ‘woman in black’ Jennet Humfreye is rather like that of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, both having been hurt deeply and subsequently are seeking revenge, and not necessarily on the exact person or circumstances that hurt them.
Whilst Miss Havisham targets men after having been jilted by her lover in the past, Jennet targets children and their happy families, after having her own happiness shattered through the death of her child.The key developments we see in Kipps’ character occur in pages 43-45. In preparation for going to Eel Marsh House, Kipps mentions ‘But I was not afraid’, displaying his naivety. The reader can assume that this tough external appearance will most likely break down. When he arrives at Eel Marsh House, he ‘was aware of a heightening of every one of (his) senses’.
On first impressions, it appears he even likes his surroundings, romanticising about living there and his hopes and dreams for Stella and himself, a deep feeling being aroused (‘well being and contentment’). He ‘began to feel more like a man on holiday than one come to attent a funeral’; therefore feeling suitably in control of nature, but eventually we can expect for nature to take control of him; i.e. through the ghost of Jennet herself.The construction of the novel and technique of the narrator is such that the reader and protagonist’s fear is increased and intensified in a series of powerful waves interspersed with periods of relaxation. The fear begins through Kipps’ sense of ‘isolation’, from which he gets an ‘unpleasant sensation’ owing to him being ‘far from any human dwelling’, which happens when Kipps is sent on a journey north for his business regarding Mrs Alice Drablow’s property.
The narrator continues to manipulate the reader’s emotions, however the next stage of fear is not encountered until the protagonist Arthur Kipps hears a ‘slight rustle’ and encounters ‘another mourner’; i.e. the ‘woman in black’ for the first time. Through a rational explanation (by saying she is suffering from a ‘terrible wasting disease’), Kipps is exhibiting a naivety and innocence by showing sympathy for her (‘if I could be of any assistance’). The impact of the fear is therefore greater because it is more unexpected, and it returns when we meet the woman for a second time whilst Kipps is going ‘across the causeway’.
Here he no longer sees the woman looking ill; rather, she is wearing an expression of the ‘purest evil and hatred and loathing’ and in her eyes a ‘desperate, yearning malevolence.’ When Kipps as a result encounters true ‘fear’, he feels ‘possessed by it’ almost as if he has ‘become paralysed’, thus showing the true impact of fear because Kipps himself has always been presented as a ‘rational’ man. As a result, the stage of fear seems all the more believable and in turn frightening for the reader. Kipps’ need for a ‘rational explanation’ makes the whole experience feel more supernatural and spooky.The readers’ emotions are again manipulated to a large extent in the first hearing of ‘the pony and trap’; Kipps becomes ‘baffled’ by the sounds he hears (‘whinnying of a horse in panic’ and ‘a child’).
The sound of the ‘child’ in particular heightens emotions and fear, because a child is looked upon as naï¿½ve and innocent, making the situation far more vulnerable for the victim in particular. The fear is taken up several notches and is on the verge of high tension when Kipps feels ‘a sense of helplessness’; he becomes completely disorientated (‘I had lost my sense of time’) and cries ‘tears of desperation’ as well as feeling ‘frustration’. This peak is then followed by a relaxation of the tension where Kipps mentions ‘all seemed quite real’ and that he feels comfort in human company (‘never had I welcomed the sight of a fellow human being more in my life’). Kipps’ reflection on the experience adds to the fear because he feels that he has truly been changed by it, and he says he ‘knew’ the woman was a ghost, which is a real breakthrough for a ‘rational’ character. He feels truly confident which makes the happenings more believable (‘for certainty lay deep within me’) and his reference that he ‘would have sworn to that on oath, on any testament’ reminds us that Kipps’ profession is a lawyer, and he is using terms of law.The reader feels true respect towards Kipps’ bravery slightly further on in the story, when his calmness and equanimity are restored; he has renewed courage.
He feels far ‘more composed’ and intends not to run away; instead, he keeps his ‘determination’ and decides to ‘face it out’. The protagonist is exhibiting hubris; he has an arrogant belief that he is immune and that he can take on and overcome the forces of evil, but he can only meet his nemesis.After showing bravery, Kipps returns to Eel Marsh House and another frightening experience occurs regarding the ‘nursery’, the fourth stage of fear. At this stage, Kipps also has the ‘spirited, lively’ dog of Samuel Daily, Spider, as his companion.
The initial mood is in control (‘calm and cheerful’), and he feels as if all the ‘horrors’ have ‘quite evaporated’. When the first supernatural happenings occur (the ‘bump, bump’), Kipps gives a rational explanation yet again (‘I told myself it was a rat’). When he finally enters the nursery, and sees all the children’s ‘clothes and toys’ arranged neatly, rather than feeling fear he feels ‘grief’; a true sadness and a surge of empathy.However the next stage of fear reaches its peak. This peak of the fear and manipulation of the reader’s emotions occurs when tension rises and Spider falls into into quicksand; he hears whistling, ‘yet (he) would have sworn it had not come from any human lips’.
He experiences a breakdown of his rationality which is extremely frightening; he starts to wonder what is ‘real’ (‘At that moment I began to doubt my own reality’). Thus, a strong way in which the narrator manipulates the emotions of the reader and fear is by giving us a hubristic protagonist, who is bound to meet his nemesis. In this particular case it happens in spasms and peaks, which builds up the fear.In conclusion, the narrative techniques of The Woman In Black are displayed in terms of Hill’s eclectic approach. However, her representation of the protagonist as well as the stages of fear are where she uses her techniques most skilfully in terms of leading the readers to feel fear and become more drawn into the text as a whole.