Essay: Susan Hill – The Woman in Black (1983)

Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black (1983) is a fundamental example of women’s Gothic Horror. It successfully employs well-known Gothic conventions and tropes that have already been embraced by fans of the genre such as loneliness, gloominess, vengeance, death, the afterlife, the smudging of reality and fantasy, the descent into madness. The novel being a popular ghost story proffers a social critique of motherhood and contemporary rhetoric surrounding the family. Hill highlights the uneven status given to women who are not even allowed to live their lives the way they wish to and even sets out to outline the one-sidedness of the relationship between the sexes. The woman is not allowed to live freely as an active member and it is the masculine decisions which are forced upon her. The female character in the novel is revealed as an unfortunate woman within gender hierarchy in which a pre- defined female role is enforced on her and which she later proposes to demolish. The Woman in Black could be interpreted from numerous critical perspectives: psychological, feminist, intertextual, generic, historical and biographical. The Hill’s novel mediates women’s apprehensions about motherhood and self- independence during the early 1980s. In Britain, it was the time when there were apparent negations between social and political discourses and the institution of the family was an ideological battlefield. In her short stories and novels Hill comes up against the questions of female sovereignty and individuality and makes them part of her preoccupation with a much wider and inclusive circle of sympathy. The Woman in Black is somewhere a personal outburst which unveils the sub-conscious anguish that Susan went through after her miscarriage. It concerns the mental trauma which a woman experiences when she is metaphorically caged in free world. As Juliet Mitchell (1984) argues, ‘We have to know where women are, why women have to write the novel, the story of their own domesticity, the story of their own seclusion within the home and the possibilities and impossibilities provided by that’. (The Improper Feminine, 4) Susan Hill unlike traditional Gothic appreciably reworks on the Gothic trope of feminine captivity within the household space. As Kate Ferguson Ellis argues in the book the Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology that the traditional Gothic novels attribute gendered spaces:
Focusing on crumbling castles as sites of terror, and on homeless protagonists who wander the face of the earth, the Gothic, too, [that is, in addition to Milton’s presentation of expulsion from Eden] is preoccupied with the home. But it is a failed home that appears on its pages, the place from which some (usually ‘fallen’ men) are locked out, and others (usually ‘innocent’ women) are locked in.
The story is set in a remote and secluded location, and is packed with lush portrayals of creepy settings such as a shabby graveyard, a sinister house, a fog-choked causeway; and it uses the narrative framing device of having Kipps disclose his story years after it has happened in aspirations that he might expel his gruesome and ghastly memories. A narrative form is used generally in Gothic stories or fables as it sanctions for the story to be filtered through an individual’s psyche, thus unlocking the door for the assimilation of objective and subjective realism. Susan’s technique adds an expressionistic element that further puts in the stress between natural rationalizations and supernatural. Gothic tales often employs a number of luminal frames for instance, when the string between sanity and madness is distorted or when a character is sceptical if he is alert or asleep and further vague the boundary between realism and desire.
Susan’s novel The Woman in Black is even effectual on a thematic level as it concerns with ‘loss’ with which everyone can connect to. The intensity of the story can be enlightened by staring it through Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abjection. Using Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror, Jerrold Hogle asserts that ” the most multifarious, inconsistent and conflicted aspects of our beings are ‘thrown off’ onto seemingly repulsive monsters or ghosts that both conceal and reveal this ‘otherness’ from our preferred selves as existing very much within ourselves'( qtd in Margaret Atwood: Feminism and Fiction by Fiona Tolan, 138). Thus she delves deep into how horror is produced by an encounter with the abject, a theory which signifies something that must be ‘thrust aside’ ,’expelled’ or ‘thrown off’ so that human being can sustain an unified subjectivity. Kristeva asserts that the first encounter with the abject happens at birth which is a ideal state of primordial non- identity, to be in the condition of being half inside and half outside the mother or being half dead and half alive from the start and thus undecidably in motion between rationally contradictory state, including life and death. A child is a part of mother prior to his birth and must abject his mother once he is born in order to form a cohesive, objective identity as a human. In other words, the child must ‘abject’ the mother- discard or chuck out the primal connection to her, treat her as dangerous and suffocating- if she/he is to gain any sovereign subjectivity whatsoever. Even though we must seek to push the maternal figure away, we are also still drawn close to her. Thus, we get jammed in a vague situation that is a fundamental part of the human state. As Steven Bruhm remarks in his article on the contemporary Gothic that the threshold of child- parent bond should be taken care of and an attempt must be made to rid oneself of the dependent, in- between state of mother- connection in order to assert own autonomy:
That thrown- off mother, at least in the child’s fantasy, continually lures and seduces the child back to the primary bond where she/he is completely taken care of; in response, the child must demonize and reject her in order ‘to constitute [it]self and [its] culture”’. We come then not to be mere victims of the last object ‘ the mother ‘ but active agents in the expulsion of that mother. We are creatures of conflicted desires, locked in an uncanny push-me-pull-you that propels us toward the very objects we fear and to fear the very objects toward which we are propelled. We must bond with our parents, but not too much; we must distance ourselves from our parents, but not too much. (qtd in Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction by Jerold E. Hogle, 266)
The abject threatens us with vagueness and terrorizes the concepts upon which the identity of human being is built; but our affiliation with the maternal figure is not the lone condition that results in this haziness in our lives. Confronting or coming face to face with anything that drives us to doubt the borders that help us to coordinate and sort out our world bring about fright and terror. The abject offers both the feeling of repulsion and fascination as it epitomizes a violation of borders: me versus you, inside the body versus outside the body, life versus death. In her essay, the thing that Julia Kristeva portrays as the ‘utmost of abjection,’ for instance, is the corpse, because it compels us to face the borders of our own subsistence:
‘The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us. It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules? -The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.

The inevitable fascination with the abject is the spirit of The Woman in Black’s popularity. The binaries of attraction-repulsion are powerfully at work in Hill’s novel as fascination would be aggravated because the Woman in black is seen as oddity or monstrous being, summoning the feeling that the grotesque is stimulating. Repulsion on the other hand is provoked because the woman in black, in one way or another, goes beyond her female role and enters in realm which is not suitable or apposite for her.
So the woman in black is somewhere in amid situation as she intensely admits that she is a liminal figure whose facade generates psychological agony when she forces an encounter with something that lies at the border of understanding. Even though Kipps attempts to overlook or dessert the threat, he is still bond to believe and accept that something ominous gets stimulated by her appearance:
I was trying to make light of something that we both knew was gravely serious, trying to dismiss as insignificant, and perhaps even nonexistent, something that affected us both as deeply as any other experience we had undergone in our lives, for it took us to the very edge of the horizon where life and death meet together.
Additionally, Jennet and her ghost thrust under the category of being abject figures and their bodies show signs of ‘terrible wasting’ and ‘ravages of the flesh’ (Hill 1983:49). The breathing and ghostly Nathaniel’s mother is contaminated and repulsive and for that reason needs to be barred, or pressed to the margins. The dirt or the filth that clips to her feminine body makes her presence uncanny by defiling the so-called cultured and civilised society she inhibits. Being a spectre figure she is ghastly and dreadful and complies with the abject desires by causing the harm and bereavement to children. Kristeva’s theories of the abject not-I or Other contends that civilised society often fails to recognise and identify the uncivilised Other as part of itself. Her elucidation of abjection, as manifest in the maternal body (5), would imply a sombre reading of The Woman in Black. In the light of holocaust history, Kristeva’s theories entail that barbaric longings on a massive scale can no more be denied. The potentiality of similar barbaric behaviour in us creates a sense of terror at the appearances of the ghost of the woman in black.
The Woman in Black is set mainly during the 1860s when patriarchal society treated women as a commodity and exposes hypocrisy of Victorians concerning the unmarried mother, and tactfully explores the quasi-Victorian morals propagated in the 1980s, during the first term of a Conservative right-wing government. There was a disparity between two main sets of society: men and women. The male sex was seen as one who governed and ruled society and in order to maintain their high position, they established a social code for women, who were clearly seen as the weaker gender and only had limited rights. Men provided for their families, protected them against the evils of daily life and had rights. During early 1980s all political ideas of larger or smaller authorities which alleged to define the family were paradoxical. It became increasingly litigious to see the society’s cultural assessment about what might comprise a family and which roles its members should perform. This argument further unavoidably affected the base of femininity and maternity as women since ages and even now is the primary caretakers for children. This debate and controversy about the nature of the family necessarily influenced foundations of femininity and maternity because women have been, and often still are, the principal carers for children. Women with illegitimate or illicit children were often sweated workers, servants or factory hands, with few resources to support a family on their own. These women in short were paralysed without any source to live a life of independence. These unmarried women thus had no prospect to nourish their children, so they had to choose between two evils; either execute the infant and carry on with their lives (possibly with a sense of remorse) or turn to prostitution in order to be able to sustain their family. Similarly in the novel The Woman in Black, Jennet Humfrye (the eponymous woman in black) is one such victim of patriarchal society. The legend of the woman in black states that in her youth she had a child out of wedlock and in an effort to cover it up she left the child with her sister and denied her maternity. Realizing she could no longer bear to be apart from her offspring, the woman demanded her maternal rights be reinstated. Barbara Creed brings into play Kristeva’s concept of the mother of the semiotic chora and takes it a step further in her essay “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection”. According to her, mother’s relationship to the child is never normal and is always awkward as she doesn’t consent him/her to get separated from her. She desires her offspring to validate her own subsistence and to maintain some kind of relation to the Symbolic, from which she has efficiently been excluded. It is her helplessness and negation to let the child go that makes her treacherous and the ‘bad’ mother as is deeply evident in the woman in black. She became rebellious without much botheration about society as it’s unlawful to have an illegitimate child. Her sister is a married woman and it will be good for both (the baby and the jennet) to live separately from one another. As illegitimacy can be traced to the holy bible as-
‘one of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the lord, even to the
tenth generation; none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the lord.'(Deuteronomy, 23:2)
Illegitimate children had no inheritance rights and were second- class citizens. So no matter what they preferred, they ended up as a fallen woman. The attraction or charm that these women embrace for the Victorians poured in part from her deviation from the nineteenth-century view of ideal womanhood. The ‘angel of the house’ or the ideal Victorian woman was named or identified by her role within the house as the family performed as a haven or shelter for the conservation of conventional, ethical and sacred ideals. Female delinquency and transgression were defined mostly by how far a woman moved away or digressed from the Victorian impression of idealized womanhood and less by the misdeed perpetrated. Unfortunately, society pictured these women as fallen and as ethically and socially crooked, they were, in reality, sufferers of male dominion and seduction. The qualities allocated by Victorian culture to the ideal female were humbleness, virtuousness, purity, timidity, gentleness, self-sacrifice, submissive, tenderness, patience, modesty, passivity, endurance and altruism and men were correlated with public realm, with the wielding of power. The attributes associated with women were private and internal, their realm being the house and the family and conversely, men’s sphere included eccentricity, ego, hierarchy, ability, power, hegemony, production, responsibility, ambition and purpose. The middle-class Victorian woman was to have no aspiration other than to gratify others and care for her family. According to the Victorian ideal, Auerbach remarks: ”the only woman worthy of worship was to be a monument of selflessness, with no existence beyond the loving influence she exuded as daughter, wife, and mother” (qtd in Women and Evil by Nel Noddings, 80). The nineteenth century women inhabited a position of duality as she was either Magdalene or Madonna, ruined or pure, foreign or familiar. The fallen woman was described chiefly by her deviation from the ideal Victorian woman image who was passionless, virtuous, na??ve, innocent, docile and self-sacrificing within this cultural paradigm. On the contrary note, the woman who disregarded the idealized notion of womanhood, whether by sexual wrongdoing or illicit act, was perceived as abnormal and strange. She represented a disturbing anomaly that both repelled and fascinated the Victorians and it is this sense of repulsion and attraction which makes it an abject figure.
The term fallen woman in Victorian culture pertains to those feminine identities who were prostitutes, unmarried women interested in sexual relations with men, preys to seduction, adulteresses, as well as antisocial or criminal lower-class women. Acton’s portrayal of women incorporates women as ‘Proper’ Feminine and ‘Improper’ Feminine. Acton structures ‘proper’, normal femininity as passionless and passive. A ‘modest’ woman, ‘as a general rule’seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself'[and] submits to her husband’s embraces’principally to gratify him'[and] for the desire of maternity’ (The ‘Improper Feminine’ by Lyn Pykett, 15-16 ). On the other hand, active and vigorous sexual feeling represents masculinity, or an abnormal ‘improper’ femininity. Women are either non-sexual, or they are pansexual, wicked, madwomen, or prostitutes. Thus Acton’s representation attributes the ‘proper’ feminine to be domestic ideal or angel in the house; the madona; the keeper of the domestic temple; innocence; asexuality; self abnegation; devotion to duty; lack of legal identity; victim and ‘improper feminine as demon or wild animal; a whore; a subversive threat to the family; threateningly sexual; pervaded by feeling; knowing; self- assertive; desiring and actively pleasure seeking; pursuing self- fulfilment and self- identity; independent; enslaver; and victimiser or predator. Moreover, the fallen woman was frequently portrayed in the iconography of the time as essentially ‘falling.’ In 1858 Augustus Egg, the renowned Victorian artist expounded his trilogy of the fallen woman in his paintings entitled: Misfortune, Prayer, and Despair at the Royal Academy in London. The three paintings epitomize the fallen woman, opening with a demonstration of the treacherous wife stretching out in a prone position at her husband’s feet in Misfortune. Next the offspring of the fallen woman are pleading for their lost mother in the painting Prayer. Finally, Egg portrays the fallen woman as looking at the river in the painting Despair. The exhibition included the following descriptive narrative:
‘August the 4th. Have just heard that B’has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!’
(Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth by Nina Auerbach)
Being considered as a moral threat she was isolated from society by stigmatization and was time and again physically secluded from the gaze of reputable society, most commonly through her death. The dishonour she suffered was centred essentially on how far her sexual behaviour departed from the ideal woman who was the model of morality, decency, innocence, timidity and altruism. Consequently, a female ideal was developed called ‘the angel of the house’. This ‘angel of the house’ was the ideal mother and wife and by and large hold the following qualities: passive, compliant, affectionate, generous, ignorant (both sexually and intellectually) and lacking of any opinion. She was the counterpart of ‘fallen woman’ as classically; fallen women were those who essentially by having premarital intercourse (mostly prostitutes) or by adultery literally fell into sin. Even if a fallen woman may have paralleled the same persona of the ideal woman of decent inner virtues of self- sacrifice, altruism and virtuousness she was still admonished on the basis of her lack of sexual purity. Female wrongdoings were perceived through the distorted lens of social tolerability. Woman under certain gender- based customs is expected to follow apposite behaviour, and when a woman diverged from that Victorian construction of the ideal woman, she was disgraced and detached from society. As female misconduct corresponded to a contagion, the antisocial or aberrant woman is eliminated from reputable society as a menace of unevenness to an otherwise balanced society. The society viewed these women as ‘fallen’ and as ethically and socially repellent while the Victorian analysis was that the fallen woman lacked shame and humility but in reality, they were, not sufferers only of male supremacy and seduction, but of a social system that dishonoured and snubbed them for their fall. Stereo-typical figures of women as ‘maternal, emotive, and peace-loving’ are complicated by the ‘monstrous’ woman competent of violence.
Jennet Humfrye and her ghost may be interpreted as altered versions of the same woman (a conventional Gothic trope of the doppelganger) or as a pairing which questions the binary image of pure and ‘fallen’ women. Jennet, the eponymous woman in black, opposes the lot of the so-called fallen woman. In her corporeal or bodily form, she snubbed to yield to Victorian patriarchal values by making efforts to repossess her illegitimate child as Arthur asserts, ”girls in the Victorian England had, I knew, often been driven to murder or abandon their misconceived children’ (176). During her lifetime, Jennet snubs to be banished from ‘respectable’ society, often revisiting her sister’s home in an endeavour to retrieve her son. In spectral form, she has absolute autonomy of space and time to seize revenge and thus she repetitively inflicts suffering on families by causing the death of their children. She performs the role that is more often accredited to the wandering male Gothic central character. The woman in black is neither locked in nor locked out, but has the haunting power to ‘lock’ and unlock her son’s nursery in order to torture Kipps. Therefore, she might be deemed as a markedly transgressive Gothic ‘heroine’ as her excessive reprisal knows no compassion, and recognizes no boundaries of place and time. Her ghost is never at peace and the order doesn’t get reinstated even by the concluding pages. Thus, the novel being a popular ghost story questions postulations about women’s ‘natural’ submission and their unconditionally liberal replies to husbands, partners and children. The novel, The Woman in Black being shaped by the social ambience in which it was written promotes that mothers under acute stress or nervous tension have the ability and potential, like any other members of the family, for brutality to children and the novelistic portrayal of the fallen woman confirms her being condemned by society on the basis of her sexual behaviour, regardless of her character and values. The disgrace or dishonour she suffered was based chiefly on how far her sexual behaviour strayed from the ideal woman who was the archetype of uprightness, purity, innocence, simplicity, submissiveness, self-sacrifice and humbleness. The woman in black being a Jennet possessed all the inner qualities of the ideal woman, but her deviation from those set morals made her a fallen women or an abject figure as the novel portrays her as being judged on the basis of her sexual lapses, and she is eventually isolated from the society. Through its forceful rejection of either idealized or derogatory stereotypes of women, this novel belongs to the genre or a tradition of women’s radical Gothic horror. The novel reveals Jennet and the woman in black as different version of the same woman or the binary image of pure and ‘fallen’ woman. The woman in black at the end of the novel becomes the ruling figure, as a ghostly, furious virago. As illustrated by Kipps, her repeated and neurotic abduction of children is full of ‘malevolence and hatred and passionate bitterness’ and it replicates to a petrifying degree what was enforced on her in her earthly existence (158). The ghost in The Woman in Black is never at ease and is constantly in a revengeful state of mind. Even in the concluding pages she is still at large, having ranged without restraint across two centuries, uncontrolled by geographical restrictions and obsessed to bring misery to families persistently.
As both Jennet Humfrye and her ghost challenge the double moral standards of Victorian England and the quasi- Victorian family values that promulgated during the early 1980s, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s analysis of binary presentations of the angelic and monstrous female and their interpretation of the primal Oedipal family is significant here. Karen Horney, a German psychoanalyst is of the view that how, instead of responding to each woman as a unique, complex, and for that reason potentially formidable being, men have divided the concept of Woman into pairs of stereotyped antitheses: saint/sinner, virgin/whore, nurturing mother/devouring stepmother, and angel/witch. In patriarchal culture only the helpless; passive rather than active, selfless rather than self- assertive, submissive rather than bold are the women who have been acceptable. Jennet, despite being descended from social grace, is also righteous and considerate, or ‘angelic’. The woman in black, being Jennet’s ghostly counterpart is monstrous, but, simultaneously, cannot be kept outside ‘civilised’ boundaries. As a ‘fallen’ woman, Jennet is expelled from the ‘paradise’ of close connection or bond with her baby son and is forced to go away from her native village. Coming back or re- emerging as woman in black, she bears a resemblance with the mythic figure of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, rather than Eve. Lilith, being faced with either self-effacement and ‘feminine’ stillness or demonization took vengeance against Adam by slaughtering babies. She preferred to be an evil or monster rather than being an Adam’s cipher and Hill’s presentation, for that reason, splits binary and polarised images of women. By the means of Gilbert and Gubar’s interpretation of the fall from Eden, The Woman in Black could be examined as a fundamental Gothic text which refuses to accept the feminine stereotypes by portraying the considerate, maternal temperament of women as blended with the traits which might be depicted as ‘demonic’, freakish, nasty, haggish or witchlike. The novel questions the suppositions about women’s ‘natural’ compliance and their unconditionally liberal reactions to husbands, partners and children.
The larger component of abjection is often accustomed to describe marginalized sets and can thus be constricted down to women. Mainly, it is so-called grotesque woman who do not turns out well in meeting the hopes and anticipations of society. Kristeva associates the repression or restraint of the feminine to cruelty and in her essay In Power of Horror, Kristeva’s view on ‘defilement’ refers to that which is outside of the symbolic order and, as women are not part of the male symbolic order, they are linked with defilement. Further, the concept of the uncanny can also operate on these women; they are known or recognizable as they hold traces of women, but they are all together foreign or alien because their behaviour and manner of doing things is un-womanly. Me/not me, inside/outside become existential dichotomies for abjection to proliferate. Cultural exploitation of philosophies of the abject may question the limits of language through the attraction/repulsion of others. The danger or risk of the hyper- feminine becomes real. Leisha Jones observations on this: ‘To spit back the feminine in its adulterated state suggests that soft, wet, empathetic, small, gentle, loving, tentative, pliable, frivolous, flaky, and sweet smelling could kill you.'(Visual culture & Gender)
Every human society has a concept of the monstrous-feminine and grotesque women have been an imperative element of literature, as Creed claims, ‘all human societies have a conception of the monstrous- feminine, of what it is about woman that is hocking, terrifying, horrific, abject’ (Horror and the monstrous-feminine: An imaginary abjection by BARBARA CREED) and it is rooted in maternal as abject, mother as the vital agent of castration and for that reason horrifying. These monsters are fabricated and it is primarily the patriarchal traditions and customs that created woman as monsters, as abject figures and still we refuse to acknowledge their genesis, that the strain of the birth of the monstrous woman is the patriarchy. Woman is sent back to that point of ghastly birth, away from the safe and secure space of women, and to the heterosexual marital bed and to the domain of the patriarchy where she is made and remade into a monster but rebuked for being so. ‘Probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals’, Freud wrote in his paper, ‘Fetishism’ in 1927. Joseph Campbell, in his book, Primitive Mythology, noted that:
. . . there is a motif occurring in certain primitive mythologies, as well as in modern
surrealist painting and neurotic dream, which is known to folklore as ‘the toothed vagina” the vagina that castrates. And a counterpart, the other way, is the so-called ‘phallic mother’, a motif perfectly illustrated in the long fingers and nose of the witch. (Horror and the monstrous-feminine: An imaginary abjection by BARBARA CREED)
Horror always includes a monstrous other whose existence precipitates a redrawing of the boundaries between human and monster, ego and abject (Monstrous Bodies: Femininity and Agency in Young Adult Horror Fiction by June Pulliam, 10). As Creed (67) assert: ‘Classical mythology also was populated with gendered monsters, many of which were female.’ In Homer’s Odyssey, he explains an encounter with some sirens that can be perceived as grotesque females; they were both hazardous and dazzling creatures who engaged themselves with the tempting of sailors departing by with their bewitching music. Their primary purpose was to bring about a shipwreck and eventually the death of the sailing crew. Further it includes the furies; the goddesses of pain and Circe; the malevolent sorceress who changed men into animals. Creed (67) further offers the case of Medusa: ‘The Medusa, with her ‘evil eye’, head of writhing serpents and lolling tongue, was queen of the pantheon of female monsters; men unfortunate enough to look at her were turned immediately to stone.’ These grotesque females have influenced beyond the classical period; even Dante made use of them in his ‘Inferno’. He portrayed harpies as one with the body of a bird and the head of a woman; living in the infernal wood. The term metaphorically refers to nasty or annoying women who were cruel, vicious and violent. They were personification of the destructive nature of wind who being the agents of punishment abducted and tortured people:
Here the repellent Harpies make their nests, […]
They have broad wings, a human neck and face,
Clawed feet and swollen, feathered bellies; they caw
Their lamentations in the eerie trees. (wikepedia)
In the novel, Jennet Humfrye is shown as being so attached to her son that she couldn’t bear his separation. She felt so lonely and being an abject figure feels that she is an outsider to the mainstream, or what Kristeva calls a ‘deject’ or ‘ stray’ (8). By definition, she dwells in a zone of loss, absence and desire, since she has not resolved his primeval separation trauma. Undergoing abjection of the self she becomes powerless and incapable to identify with anything in the outside world and locates the site of meaninglessness and impossibility within itself. In Kristeva’s words, ‘There is nothing like the abjection of self to show that all abjection is in fact recognition of want on which any being, meaning language, or desire is founded’ (5). When allowed to visit the house with the condition that she must never tell the boy about herself Jennet’s love grew stronger for her son and she planned on escaping with him. And then, one day, the boy and his nanny were out riding with a pony and trap and there was an accident, and they both drowned. Jennet witnesses the whole thing (hatch, this is a horror story), wracked by grief and anger, died a slow death from wasting disease only to return in haunted, demented ghost form. The hate, remorse and need for revenge grew as she blamed her sister for her son’s death and even after her death her soul is agitated and people began to catch a glimpse of her ghostly appearances. Each time she is seen, something evil happens and a child dies, either by illness or in a terrible accident as the veiled spirit is claiming the town’s children one by one.
As discussed above, Kristeva makes a distinction between two types of mothers; the first category is seen as the positive mother and the other being the abject mother. Accordingly, Jennet at first in the novel is an ideal woman, an ideal mother who instead of so many adversities and hardships was not willing to quit. She gave birth to her baby knowing that he was illegitimate. She stood as tall as an oak against all the odds of the society and thus emerges as an ideal woman. But after her son’s death she ultimately turns into ‘other’ being; a woman who is selfish, cruel and egocentric and who hates and blames everyone for his son’s death. Her soul even after her death is not at peace and when she ultimately becomes a ghost she starts taking her revenge from the society by killing other women’s children. Although Jennet does not gain anything from killing innocent children but still she does it, because her thirst for revenge is towering and took over her whole being both after his death and into eternity. She yearns to retaliate and avenge her dead child and even kills Arthur’s child and wife: ‘I had seen the ghost of Jennet Humfrye and she had her revenge’. Her brutal acts very much justifies that she is no more an ideal woman and has ultimately turned into a fallen woman, who is merciless, ruthless, selfish, brutal, monstrous, heartless and a killing machine. As one of the locals tells Kipps, ‘Whenever she is seen, a child dies’ and this was what everyone has to say about her. It becomes unbelievable that the woman who once struggled against every accusation of the society for her son is now taking away the lives of innocent children. Being a mother herself she has lost all the sense of motherhood and all her inhuman actions have made her an abject mother. According to Susan Hill, the tenaciousness of Humfrye’s hatred is part of what makes the novel so gripping:
‘A fictional ghost has to have a raison d’etre otherwise it is pointless and a pointless ghost is the stuff of all the boring stories about veiled ladies endlessly drifting through walls and headless horsemen’for no good reason, to no purpose. My ghost cannot let go of her grief or her desire for revenge, she has to go on extracting it” (GCSE English teacher posted on December 9, 2013 ‘Some quotes about the woman in black)
Even when Kipps returns home, the woman takes her revenge upon him by causing the death of his young wife and infant son. Since then Kipps has remarried and has become stepfather to his new wife’s children, yet he has not been able to forget or disregard the past haunting events and tragedy caused by the woman in black. Jennet even after her death is not at peace and is not at the end of her war with the orthodox society; her being animate may not affect the lives of people around her as much as it does after her death. As Julia Kristeva’s asserts that ‘the corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life.’ It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. She is not alien to this place and its people and everybody is afraid of her presence as she is still present at every corner of the town. Once discarded from her motherly rights over her son she considers everyone as her enemy. She is taking revenge from everybody who directly or indirectly is responsible for her miseries. The novel The Woman in Black is jam-packed with such incidents which undoubtedly depicts the transformation of an ideal mother into the fallen or abject mother, ‘Her face, in its extreme pallor, her eyes, sunken but unnaturally bright, were burning with the concentration of passionate emotion which was within her and which streamed from her’ (5.24). Her eyes are filled with fire of hatred and vengeance. When Arthur encounters a malevolent being that manifests in the form of an enigmatic spectral figure- the woman in black at the funeral of Mrs. Drablow, he presumes that she is just a woman who is in very ailing physical condition and felt a strange fear when he looked into her eyes which even haunted him in his dreams:
[A]lthough I did not stare, even the swift glance I took of the woman showed me enough to recognize that she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for
not only was she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious, blue-white sheen, and her eyes seemed sunken back into her head.

Even the so proudly rational Arthur has trouble keeping track of what’s what when he’s wandering around Eel Marsh House as the strange sounds emanate from a securely locked room; a door that Kipps has been unable to move is found standing open; an empty rocking chair strangely begins rocking. What bothers and agitates Kipps most, though, is that he is confident that some of the screams are those of a young children and as the strange events multiply, Kipps becomes obsessed with trying to unravel the story of Eel Marsh House and of the woman in black. Here he comprehends that there is a ghost chasing him and that he is always surrounded by a strange presence. At Eel Marsh House he is not alone, a dead one (Abject) is also living there:
‘But what was “real”? At that moment I began to doubt my own reality.'(154).

The woman in black doesn’t just inflict psychological injury; she also muddled up all stuff. She is the victim of patriarchal society- a society which forced her to shun all the womanly attributes which were very much present in her. She is now a fallen woman, a ghost, who is there to haunt, to scare and to kill innocent people:
‘It was in a state of disarray as might have been caused by a gang of robbers, bent on mad, senseless destruction.’ (11.51).
The vision or image of her dying son got to be violent stuff on her old psyche that she never forgave the Drablows for the death of her son, and she declared vengeance on them and on everyone who somewhere directly or indirectly responsible for her misfortune as it has disturbed her to such an extent that she crossed the womanly attribute and became un-womanly, ” From that day Jennet Humfrye began to go mad’ (11.111).
But’we just have to point out’Arthur too watched his child dying in a horrible accident and managed not to go crazy. So what’s the difference? Even after his son’s and wife’s death Arthur never loses his senses. All he wanted was not to talk about the dead, because he had a horrible experience in past when he encountered an abject. It is basically because women were among the underprivileged oppressed section of society and thus according to Kristeva were more prone to be an abject. Jennet was also the victim of that very society which made her insane, ”Mad with grief and mad with anger and a desire for revenge’ (11.113). She wants everyone to suffer and endure the same and she did it by killing the innocent and blameless kids of the poor people. Being ‘Abject’ mother now, she wants that people should realise and become conscious of the pain which she felt at her son’s death. Her ruthless and unforgiving instinct was making things really horrible and miserable around her. She is not only furious or mad but flaming with the fire of revenge and nobody wants to discuss her or talk about her as they believe that she might be listening to their talks. She wants them to experience the same pain by watching their own children dying as once she herself saw the sad accident of her son. It’s not just betrayal that has made the woman in black the way she it, it’s in reality heartbreak. Sure, the accident was no one’s fault’but she’s desperate to blame anyone, and so she blames her entire community. Jennet gets no sympathy while she was alive, and thus reciprocates by showing no kindness to others when she comes back to haunt the town. To her that was not betrayal or something unreasonable in fact they’re just getting what they deserve. The woman in black wants to make someone, anyone pay for what she’s been through and she wants it so badly that it leaves a mark on the whole house. Moreover, that the intensity of her grief and distress together with her pent-up hatred and desire for revenge permeated the air all around. The reason behind her wickedness that led her to take away other women’s children is that she had lost her own. Her individual loss and bitterness can be understandable but not forgivable.
The Woman in Black thus demonstrate in its own way how a complex concept like abjection can be used to describe behaviour and relationships between individuals. The theme is especially suitable to apply on the Victorian age. As already mentioned in the introduction, Victorian women were considered to be inferior to men, thus one could argue that, in the nineteenth century, the entire female sex was already abject. Improperness of men was often neglected, especially when it came to sexual behaviour, because society tended to turn a blind eye to the debauchery of the male population. Women were less fortunate; even the slightest error could seal their fate and turn them into fallen women, making them perfect subjects for abjection. The encounter with the abject is a familiar theme in all Gothic texts as they concern with those gruesome and ghastly moments in life when a character is psychologically tattered asunder. Through her proficient use of the concept of abjection, Hill stimulates the very best of the Gothic genre and provides readers a pleasing experience, one that has made The Woman in Black a long- lasting favourite.
In conclusion, whilst exploiting popular Gothic tropes which in part explain its popularity, The Woman in Black is in dialogue with contemporary rhetoric about families. It explores social anxieties and apprehensions associated with hierarchies of authority in families, legal responsibility, the isolation of unmarried mothers and the rights of parents or those in loco parentis. Consequently, the novel contributes to new and less idealised perceptions about women and women as mothers. As Susanna Clap examines, ‘Like all really good ghost stories The Woman in Black is grounded not in horror but in human pain and loss.’ In this respect, Hill’s novel belongs to a tradition of women’s radical Gothic running from Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley, through the Bront??s and Charlotte Gilman Perkins, to Christina Stead, Sylvia Plath and Angela Carter.

Source: Essay UK - http://ntechno.pro/essays/english-literature/essay-susan-hill-the-woman-in-black-1983/


Not what you're looking for?

Search our thousands of essays:

Search:


About this resource

This English Literature essay was submitted to us by a student in order to help you with your studies.


  • Order a custom essay
  • Print this page
  • Search again

Word count:

This page has approximately words.


Share:


Cite:

If you use part of this page in your own work, you need to provide a citation, as follows:

Essay UK, Essay: Susan Hill – The Woman in Black (1983). Available from: <http://ntechno.pro/essays/english-literature/essay-susan-hill-the-woman-in-black-1983/> [19-10-17].


More information:

If you are the original author of this content and no longer wish to have it published on our website then please click on the link below to request removal:


Essay and dissertation help


Latest essays in this category:


Our free essays:

badges