Gothic Conventions in ‘The Woman in Black’

‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill is often described as a ‘ghost story’ and it’s eerie and considerably terrifying narrative falls well within gothic tradition. In this essay I will explore the gothic conventions used and the effectiveness with which they are portrayed through the employment of language, form and structure.

In this passage, Hill explores the complexity of human fear, in particular, that apparent in the protagonist, which is subsequent to the overwhelming sense of ambiguity that Hill creates and sustains throughout. From the beginning of the extract, Arthur excessively questions his surroundings, second-guessing himself with questions such as ‘How could there be?’ The repetition of rhetorical questions such as this one immediately establishes an uncertain tone and distinct tension, both of which are extremely prevalent conventions within the gothic genre. In doing this, Hill effectively evokes a response of panic from the reader, mirroring that of the protagonist, as Hill exploits the instinctive human fear that stems from any degree of ambiguity in a situation. Here, the use of first person narrative is significant in that it enables the reader to be empathetic of Arthur, heightening the emotional response. The atmosphere of unease prevails later in the passage as Arthur describes he ‘had simply the absolutely certain sense of someone just having passed’, which is disorientating for the reader as this declarative is preceded by several, equally emphatic imperatives of the opposite conclusion, as Arthur insists there had been ‘no movement’, ‘no brush of a sleeve’ and ‘no disturbance of air’. This style of juxtaposing narrative is often seen in gothic writing and is extremely effective in creating a false sense of security, which is later, or in this case, immediately, broken down. Because Arthur is unable to reach a definitive conclusion about the nature of the presence, the reader seeks reassurance that it is not sinister and through the uncertain tone, Hill subtly implies that Arthur’s fear could be an amplification of paranoia – a result of being isolated for so long – as the basis for his fear is tenuous. However, the juxtaposition employed here is considerably successful in ensuring the reader is suitably terrified, indeed one of the foremost aims of the gothic genre, as the inexplicability of the circumstance becomes overwhelming.

Additionally, more often than not in gothic literature, intrinsic human qualities inevitably lead to a protagonist’s downfall. This is seen famously in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, where the doctor’s curiosity and thirst to create life leads to the invention of the monster. Here, in ‘The Woman in Black’, Hill subtly makes the reader aware of Arthur’s innate paternal instinct as he is so receptive to the ‘familiar cry of desperation and anguish…from a child’ that he hears repeatedly from the marsh. Hill’s use of the considerably emotive adjectives here is significant as it they make it explicit to the reader that a protective instinct has been triggered within Arthur that has the potential to be exploited by whatever evil is present in Eel Marsh House. This is emphasised by the knowledge that the child is not real, but Arthur feels the need to help it nevertheless. Children carry strong connotations of innocence within gothic tradition and here it is no different since the child’s cry prompts a response of sadness in both the reader and the protagonist, as it is assumed that the ‘child’ is in some sort of danger that is underserved and tragic as a result of its innocence. Interestingly, later on in the extract, Hill again uses children as a motif for innocence, but does so when describing Arthur as he ‘was as near to weeping tears of despair and fear, frustration and tension as [he] had been since [his] childhood’. Here the reference to childhood is indicative of Arthur’s innocence and it was Hill’s intention to provoke a response of sympathy and fear for Arthur from the reader by emphasising Arthur’s naivety, even as an adult. Furthermore, this comparison to childhood, paired with the emotive adjectives, similar to those used in description of the child’s cry, implies that, subsequent to Arthur’s distressing circumstance, his reaction demonstrates that his ability to rationalise has regressed to that of a child. Again, this ensures the reader is considerably sympathetic towards Arthur as in this moment the tension reaches its pinnacle and Hill emphasises the shear horror of Arthur’s predicament.

Moreover, in keeping with gothic tradition, in this passage Hill challenges the boundaries of reality and mortality by hinting at the presence of a supernatural being in Eel Marsh House. Hill describes Arthur’s ‘wild, incoherent fantasies’ as he speculates an explanation for the illusive being that seemingly occupies the nursery. The use of the telling lexis ‘incoherent’, again implies Arthur is incapable of rational thought and therefore creates a sense of desperation, which is distressing for the reader – the first person narrative, once again, evoking an empathetic response. Hill effectively unnerves the reader at this point by exploiting the fact that humans actively seek an explanation for the unknown; by not providing an explanation for the woman in black that falls within the typical boundaries of reality, Hill encourages the reader to think beyond that. Indeed, this is something that scares the reader considerably, particularly since it is believed the novel is set during the early 20th Century, a time when superstition of the supernatural was far less widespread than it had been in the past, and thus the notion of a supernatural being would seem increasingly inconceivable. This notion is emphasised as Arthur begins to ‘doubt [his] own reality’. Here, the use of a possessive pronoun isolates Arthur and his setting as though they are separate from reality, as Hill implies that within the confines of the marsh, anything is possible. This is an extremely significant moment within the novel as it foreshadows the discovery of the woman in black and that she is indeed a ghost, an entity that transgresses the boundaries of reality and mortality.

To conclude, it is through the effective use of rhetorical devices, as well as the careful consideration of structural and contextual elements that Hill is so successful in employing gothic conventions, encouraging the reader to think beyond stereotypical notions and creating an overwhelming sense of the unknown, which in turn provokes both a physical and psychological response of fear.