The Superstitious Man’s Story by Tomas Hardy and Night-Fears by Leslie Poles Hartley
‘The Superstitious Man’s Story’ comes from a collection called “Few crusted characters,” and was written in 1894. Great changes that were affecting Britain at the time, such as the development of industry, came quite late to Hardy’s home village. This is why folk traditions and superstitions survived longer in Higher Brock Hampton than in other areas. This affected the content of his stories a lot, as there is a bit of superstition in all of them.
Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 and brought up in fairly poor conditions, where as L.P.Hartley, the writer of ‘Night-Fears,’ was wealthy enough to attend one of the best universities in England-the Oxford University. L.P.Hartley was born in 1895 and had a wealthy and privileged upbringing. His stories and novels often deal with the difference between reality and what people think is reality. This helps us to explain the character of the stranger in the story ‘Night-Fears,’ which was written in 1924.
‘The Superstitious Man’s Story’ is set in 19th century in South of England. A village called Dorset is all made up of superstition and people don’t believe or accept any other explanations that might be relative to the events taking place in that particular village:
‘The Superstitious Man’s Story’ is about a man called William Privett. He is said to be a very mysterious person: “…curious, silent man..,” with a cold soul:
“…without you seeing him, there seemed to be something clammy in the air, as if a cellar door was opened close by your elbow.” One day, he was seen walking out of his house after midnight and according to his wife-Betty Privett, William never came back. However, as she walked up the stairs, going to sleep, she saw William’s boots standing where usually. As a matter of fact, when Betty entered the bedroom, she saw William sleeping in the bed, as if nothing had ever happened. The next morning, William denied having had walked out of house, when asked by Betty. An involvement of superstition, in this story, helps to explain William’s death at the end of it. ‘The Superstitious Man’s Story’ is quite easy to explain, due to the presence of superstition, where as L.P.Hartly’s story-‘Night-Fears’ can have two possible explanations.
L.P.Hartley’s story is about a night watchman guarding a factory after First World War. He has not slept for two nights and lack of sleep together with loneliness starts taking over his mind. While the watchman tries to think about the good things in his, (to get away from fear) like family, money and his job, suddenly a stranger appears:
“…someone was sitting on the barrier, his back turned on the night watchman’s little compound.” The watchman feels strange, because he never heard the stranger moving close to his compound: “Strange, I never heard him come.” This is where the mystery starts in this story, because as the night watchman starts talking to the stranger, it is hard to tell whether he is talking to a real person, or talking to himself. Therefore it is possible that the stranger is just watchman’s fantasy and at the end of the story, the watchman commits suicide as a cause of being tortured by his own consciousness and fear. However, what makes the mystery even more powerful, is that the stranger is said to rise and walk away leaving footprints in the ground:
“Then he climbed back and crossing the street, entered a blind alley opposite, leaving a track of dark, irregular footprints…” Therefore, the two possible explanations are: There really was a stranger and by talking to him, the night watchman realised many true things about his life, which forced him to commit suicide. The other possibility is that, there was no stranger and the watchman was talking to his own consciousness. This depressed him and he committed suicide. In the end, no answer is given, it all becomes a mystery.
‘The Superstitious Man’ is supposed to be an oral story, which one of the characters in it, is telling to another. I believe, that this story is written from this particular viewpoint, because Hardy saw it as an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the superstition existing in his village. This story could be a typical example of those stories, which were told, when Hardy grew up. I believe, that stories that were similar to ‘The Superstitious Man’s Story,’ were the cause of the existing superstition in Dorset. This story is written in the third person, which is the way that makes the story sound real:
“Nancy did not answer yes or no…three days later William Privett was moving with John Chiles in Mr Hardcome’s meadow…” Obviously the teller wants the listeners to believe and live through it and therefore, all the story is written in this particular person. As the story is told, it is easier to add exciting bits to it and make listener amused:
“To he great surprise, and I might say alarm, on reaching the foot of the stairs his boots were standing there as they always stood when he had gone to rest…” It is hard to write in third person, but more people can be involved in the story and as the story is told, the listener can imagine it, like watching TV:
“…William not being a man giving too much speaking, and his wife being occupied with her work.” As you can see here, we get to know better about each character, when writing in this particular person.
The ‘Night-Fears” is also written in third person for the same reasons. The writer can easily describe, at the same time, the atmosphere and character:
“…they bristled like a barricade. The night watchman felt himself in charge of a fortress.” Perhaps, if the story was written in the first person, like the viewpoint of the watchman only, we would never see the two possible explanations. We would only see one and as people never realise that they are talking to themselves, then the stranger most probably would be seen as real. The ‘Night-Fears’ is more of a written story, because the result of what happens to the character is more of a historical event. So, people are more likely to read this somewhere, rather than hearing it.
There is something unusual about William in ‘The Superstitious Man’s Story.’ First of all, he is described as a curious and silent man: “William…was a curious, silent man…” What’s even more to it, when William comes close to somebody, that person, without seeing him, can unpleasantly feel him: “…as if a cellar door was opened close by your elbow…” William is described as a silent and preserved man: “…William not being a man giving too much speaking..,” and this makes his character seem even more mysterious. Apart from just being mysterious and unusual, there are some qualities that William’s character is said to have, that are perfectly normal. Qualities like, having a certain routine. For an example, after finishing supper, William takes of his boots, puts them in one particular place and goes to sleep:
“…her husband had finished supper, and gone to bed as usual…boots…where he always left them…” William and his wife have lived through an incident in the past, which helps the readers understand the end of the story. William’s little son had drowned in well while playing: “…little son, had been drowned in the spring..,” and after William had died, he was seen walking towards the well. This suggests us, that William went looking for his son’s spirit.
As an absolute contrary to William’s character is the night watchman, in the story “Night-Fears.” The watchman is said to be an ordinary man, caring, working, correct and good husband. As it is the end of the war, he is very happy to have the job and can’t imagine the sadness if he loses it. This tells us, that the watchman is very thankful and careful person: “The night watchman felt himself in charge of a fortress.” However, the night watchman’s worries, tells us that he is quite an unstable and searches for things that can go wrong in everything. As he proceeds in his search for bad, he figures out and comes to a conclusion, that all the bad will start from the new job. However, watchman always searches an explanation to the trouble, as if trying to tell himself the opposite, just to calm down:
-“I mean; it looks as if they don’t care about you very much, leaving you in the cold like this…”
-“Oh, it wasn’t that. They forgot it…” Even though he pretends to have an excuse for everything and to be a hard nut to crack, the night watchman is just the opposite. He is easy injurable and easy to convince. The ending demonstrates it very well. It also demonstrates, that the night watchman does not really have a very strong opinion of his own:
“The last word rang like a challenge; but the night watchman had taken the offensive, shot his one little bolt, and the effort had left him more helpless than ever.” Also the night watchman is looking to show-off. It is a very essential thing in his life and this is partly why he chose to do this job and why he is so proud of it:
-“…well you do look wreck…”
-“…the night watchman liked being addressed in this way and hearing his job being described as night work…” He needs to be admired by someone, in this case, his wife: “…he would tell her with the air of one who had seen much…he was very found of his wife…” In the end, I think it is his lack of confidence that kills him, the weakness of his spirit.
The language used in both stories complicates things a bit. Especially in ‘Night-Fears’. Some old expressions and words are used in both stories: “domain, ee, cuckoo, when the eye don’t see…” I think that the use of these words and the old and more difficult structure of sentence, makes these stories seem more mysterious. Some of these words, such as: “drab-coloured” expresses and imposes much more imaginary and descriptive image, than just simply saying: “dull brown.” The use of the words “drab-coloured” suggests a wet and cold image, where as the words “dull brown” doesn’t impose anything else except the image of the colour itself.
As a conclusion, I find ‘Night-Fears’ more mysterious and easy to believe. This might be because I don’t believe in much superstition and ‘The Superstitious Man’s Story’ is all about superstition and people who believe in it. ‘Night-Fears’ seems more realistic, because even in our days, there are people who die committing suicide, just as a cause of what they believe in. If people are easy to brake (spiritually) these days, then seventy years ago it would have had been even easier. The mystery in the story about the night watchman, crosses with reality, at some point. It is perfectly possible, that the night watchman committed suicide for his own reasons, where as William in ‘The Superstitious Man’s Story” just died because of a superstition people believed in.