This chilling ghost story, written by one of Britain’s outstanding writers, Susan Hill, was first published in 1989. It took just 6 weeks over the summer for Hill to produce this masterpiece. The Woman in Black maintains the reader’s attention the whole way through the book, keeping them hooked onto every word. Hill has written it in a very clever way, making the reader feel the greatest sympathy for The Woman in certain parts of the novel, but in other parts she makes the reader feel the complete contrast. Hill demonstrates this at the start of the book, when we feel sympathy for The Woman when Arthur sees her at her sister’s funeral.
We feel sympathy ‘that a women who was perhaps only a short time from her own death, should drag herself to the funeral of another’. This makes the reader feel sad for The Woman. Another reason the reader does not dislike The Woman is that even though she obviously feels hurt by her sister; she still makes the effort to go to her funeral. The reader also feels great sympathy at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral when Arthur realises that The Woman is suffering from ‘some terrible wasting disease’. ‘Only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained over [The Woman’s’] bones’.
We also feel sympathy that she is ‘quite possibly no more than thirty’, as a woman of her age would tend to care more about her beauty. The disease is also incurable which makes us again feel sympathy. The fact that her child was born illegitimately, meant that she had to give him up when he was very young, also makes the reader feel compassion for The Woman. Jennet was not even allowed to visit her beloved son and was forced to live ‘hundreds of miles away’. This obviously deeply upset her as ‘she threatened violently’ when she was told she could not see Nathanial.
We also feel that it must have pained her that it was her own sister that was keeping her away from her son. When she was finally allowed to visit her son she could ‘never see the boy alone nor ever disclose she had any relationship with him’. It must have been terrible for The Woman to not be able to tell her son that she was his mother. Another thing which would have saddened her was to see her son acting towards another woman like she was his mother but to her like a stranger. Hill makes us feel sympathy for The Woman when she had to witness the brutal drowning of her child, knowing she could do nothing to save her son. This must have been a truly terrible experience and the reader feels extreme empathy for her.
The noise of her son breathing his last breaths, his ‘cry’, ‘shout’ and then his ‘terrified sobbing’, must have haunted her for the rest of her life. This would have been worsened by the fact that she knew she could have saved her son if she had not let her sister take him out that day. Hill makes the reader feel compassion for Jennet that for most of her life she was mentally tormented by ‘desire for revenge’.
The Woman is described as a ‘crazed, troubled women, dead of grief and distress, filled with hatred’. This shows that Hill is again making the reader feel sympathetic towards Jennet, who had obviously loved her child so much that she was driven crazy by revenge to get back at Alice, who she believed, cruelly snatched her child out of her arms. We feel that The Woman was not responsible for some of her actions as her mind was clearly clouded. The writer then uses Jennet’s disease to make us feel understanding for her. Because of her disease ‘she looked like a walking skeleton-a living spectre.
When she went about the streets, people drew back. ’ This would be terrible for The Woman, that her appearance was enough to make people not want to even look at her, let alone talk to her, further heightening her feeling of being alone. The fact that ‘children were terrified of her’ would have been deeply saddening for a grieving mother. Susan Hill encourages the reader to feel sadness for The Woman when we learn about the circumstances of her death. She makes us pity The Woman because ‘she died in hatred and misery’ and she also died alone and isolated. Not one person loved, cared or even liked her.
Hill makes us sympathise with her as no one would like to die knowing that no one cherished them, and that no one would miss them. Even Arthur, who was severely affected by The Woman, sympathises with her. Near the end of the novel he refers to the reasons she went mad and says, ‘Was there any wonder? ’. This shows that even though Arthur bitterly disliked The Woman, he can understand that with the terrible, tragic events that happened in Jennet’s life, it was no wonder she went mad. However even though Hill makes us sympathise and pity The Woman, in many parts in the novel, she also makes us feel hatred and loathing towards her.
This is demonstrated when we learn that she has probably been haunting her sister for many years, up until her death. This would have been terrible for ‘old Mrs. Drablow’, as she was all on her own in a big, old, isolated house. It must have also been terrible for her to know that it was her own sister who was haunting her, someone who should have loved and cared for her. Hill also makes us feel dislike for The Woman when the reader discovers that Jennet ‘blamed her sister’ for Nathan’s death, when in fact it was ‘no one’s fault’.
Alice was kind enough to care for her child, yet Jennet gives her no thanks for that, only blamed her when something beyond her control goes wrong. Hill also makes us have no sympathy when she tries to take the life of yet another innocent being. This is when Arthur is at Eel Marsh House with Spider. The Woman whistles Spider to come, playing on his weakness. The vulnerable dog follows the sound, which almost leads to his and Arthur’s death. ill HHill makes us despise The Woman for this, because if Arthur had not been there to rescue Spider, Jennet would have succeeded in taking the life of another innocent being.
This also shows that The Woman is more than just a mental threat to Arthur and the other people she torments; she is also a physical threat. The way that The Woman gets her revenge is the thing that earns her the most hatred. How she takes innocent, blameless lives of children, the sole reason being that her child died, something which the children lives she takes have nothing to do with. The children do not die peacefully either; they die in ‘some violent or dreadful circumstance’. The fact that The Woman does all of this just so she can get her revenge, again, makes the reader feel no sympathy for what had happened to her child.
The Woman doesn’t just torment children; she also causes great distress to Mr. Jerome, a young man who was in no way to blame. Hill makes us feel hatred towards The Woman because of how severely she has evidently affected him. We can tell this because when The Woman is mentioned, Jerome goes into ‘a state of near-collapse’. Arthur also notices ‘how seriously he was affected’, when he tries to have a conversation with him about The Woman and his skin turned ‘a sickly greyish’ colour.
Hill does not encourage us to feel sympathy for The Woman as the novel is written from Arthur’s point of view and The Woman is horrible to Arthur. It appears that almost as soon as The Woman sets eyes on Arthur she feels hatred towards him. This is first demonstrated when Arthur encounters The Woman at Eel March House. The expression on her face was one of ‘purest hatred and loathing’. This again wills us to dislike The Woman, why would she detest someone so much, when he has done nothing wrong to her? Another way that Hill gets us to feel absolutely no sympathy for The Woman is when she comes after Arthur and his family.
The fact that Arthur is trying to get over her and start a new chapter in his life, and then The Woman appears and ruins it for him. She kills his innocent child, but still this is not enough. The Woman then goes on to give Stella, Arthur’s wife, ‘terrible injures’. This eventually ends in Stella’s death; however she does not have an instant death where she feels no suffering, but a painful, prolonged, miserable death. The Woman then forces Arthur ‘to live through it all’, makes him watch Stella gradually fade away, all-the-while he is grieving over the recent loss of his child.
The final way that Hill encourages us to feel no sympathy for The Woman is when she reveals what The Woman has done to the nursery. Whereas before The Woman set foot in it it was orderly and peaceful, after she did it was ‘in a state of disarray’. Hill uses this to symbolise that before The Woman appears in people’s lives, they are much like how the nursery originally was, orderly and peaceful. However when she intrudes in them, they quickly turn into ‘a state of disarray’. Some of the toys are also broken; this represents how some people cannot recover their lives.
Hill uses the nursery to makes us feel no sympathy towards The Woman because of the way she can destroy others’ lives. In conclusion I think that Susan Hill has been very clever in the way she wrote this book, encouraging us to feel sympathy for The Woman In Black in some parts or the book, and encoraging us to feel hatred and disgust with The Woman in other parts. I think that The Woman’s past explains her actions however it does not justify the terible things she did to all of those innocent, blameless people. By Ellie Vaughan
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