Examine the presentation of Susan Hill’s Woman in Black using just THREE quotations.
This question needs careful organisation around just THREE moments in the text. These moments could be chronologically arranged so that the answer reveals the progressive characterization of the female figure in terms of her evolution and possible downfall.
Thus, we can see how the Woman in Black first appears in the novel; how she changes before the eyes of the first person narrator and how we may read her at the end of the text.
I would also like to look at the presentation of the Woman in Black in terms of just ONE quotation for each different moment, revealing to you how you can make just one quotation go a very very long way!
For if you can make the very most of a quotation then it proves to the examiner that you are possessed of excellent analytical powers!
So let’s start by thinking about the reader’s first meeting with the Woman in Black:
The first person narrator Arthur Kipps is recounting his attendance at the funeral of his company’s client Mrs Drablow in a church set amongst the dismal marshes near Mrs Drablow’s Eel Marsh House, when he notices a mysterious mourner enter the church for the service:
”…hearing some slight rustle behind me, I half turned discreetly and caught a glimpse of another mourner a woman…She was dressed in deepest black…its blackness a little rusty looking..”
I have used ellipsis here very pointedly as it allows me(and you) to ‘ensnare’ the revealing words with their unsettling and complex connotations.
Here, Arthur is distracted from the melancholy service by the sound of a woman’s skirts! Ironically perhaps her entrance is welcome as it gives him something new and feminine to focus upon. Hence his long winded description shortly after this quotation of her unhealthy appearance ; his desire to help her and go(knight like) to her aid.
Notice too the fastidious, self conscious language Arthur utilizes in order to recreate his slightly pompous, ‘superior’ younger self, all too keen to reinforce his new role as representative of the legal firm: ‘I half turned discreetly..‘ This seems rather self congratulatory to me and middle aged! Yet it is Arthur who is recreating his younger self and the terrible irony that he completely misjudged the situation and the woman in black too.
She is a ‘mourner’ of course but not for Mrs Drablow as we subsequently learn along side poor Arthur Kipps. Instead we notice the use of superlative ‘deepest black’ a detail that reveals far more with hindsight, because the retrospectively constructive narrative cannot help but ‘leak’ knowledge. The Woman in Black’s mourning is in fact so deep that her grief cannot be assuaged It is labyrinthine and complex, now misdirected relentlessly towards revenge.
The Woman in Black’s ‘deepest black’ reveals the dangerous inconsolablility of her grief. Her grief is a pathological need; a predatory need, that veils itself among her ‘rusty’ black. This ‘rusty’ black further intensifies the ambivalence of her grief; a grief that Kipps had no means of knowing at the time yet here seems to intuitively ‘leak’ more than he as yet consciously realizes.
We feel a disturbing texture of decay about her, exposed as she has been to the damp climate of the marshes where she lies in wait for vengeance. Her grief seems repulsive, yet we are thwarted as to why, shielded as we are behind the initial courtly concern of Arthur Kipps towards this damaged woman whom he wrongly describes in quaint rather than macabre terms.
When Arthur Kipps seees the woman in black again, her face is more clearly revealed. Yet what is revealed is a Miss Havisham like Gothic trope(device) that the gazer is actually not in control of this encounter at all, rather that the observer is actually being observed. Even devoured! (See Chapter 8 Great Expectations)
‘…as I stared at her, stared until my eyes ached in their sockets…I saw that her face did wear an expression…a desperate and yearning malevolence..’
The woman in Black bewitches Arthur; she ensnares her through her mesmerizing gaze of evil. (Think of Medusa!) Look at the repetition of ‘stared’. He cannot help himself; he has to look on the lonely, predatory figure because he has no choice. She makes him and she holds him in thrall to her power.
The juxtaposition of ‘yearning’ with ‘malevolence‘ works brilliantly as it is not an oxymoron. Yet we almost feel that it is. Why do we feel this? I think it is because the combination of words remind us that desire can take many forms and that goodness is precariously set against evil, here hijacked through the abject destructiveness of grief and transformed into insatiability originating out of an overwhelming feeling of being hurt.
The woman in black’s loss of a child has become transformed into insatiable vindictiveness-not unlike that of Lady Macbeth whose dead child becomes horribly resurrected as the murder plot for King Duncan.
Think about Arthur’s loss of composure here as he is devoured by her stare. Relate this to a terrible trope around ‘decomposition’. Think again of the ‘rusty’ black!
This is the final, seemingly ‘postscript’ sighting of the woman in black. We never learn if this signifies her final release, but we recognize that Kipps does not father any more children and this could be profoundly significant.
‘ I looked directly at her and she at me….she moved quickly, her skirts rustling as if to step into the pony’s path…Then silence. …The woman had disappeared.’
Recognition and acknowledgement are followed by a terrible encounter with ‘destiny’. The earlier ‘pony and trap’ chapter is played out again bringing a grotesque relief for the woman in black. Only violence against another mother and child can assuage her thirst for vengeance.The supposedly innocent femininity of her rustling skirts has become re- translated as the ghastly sound of an avenging she-devil.
We have no idea where she goes and what sort of liberty is attained through this final act, an act we realise she has been anticipating throughout the narrative and an act Arthur has been dreading revisiting For as he narrates his tale, he is literally reanimating the past, leading up to this event, an event that brings him a ‘silence…to last for years.’
Little wonder that a first person narrative seems a terrible form of self persecution! Who would want to witness this tale all over again?
The Woman in Black
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