The Treatment Of Fate And The Supernatural In Aselection Of Prose Fiction written Before The 20th Century
In the nineteenth century, people had much more belief in forces outside the ordinary laws of nature. People were not only more religious but they were also more superstitious and believed that some things were controlled by unknown forces from beyond human life. The two paranormal concepts they believed in were fate and the supernatural. The belief of these things scared people.
Some people thought that their life and everything that happens in it was already predetermined from eternity, and that they could do nothing to change it because even if they tried to change something, that change was meant to happen. This scared people because the thought of not having control over one’s life means the future cannot be predicted at all. For example, somebody may go out and get run over but if they had known, they would not have gone out in the first place, but it is impossible to tell before it happens. This example is of how people believed in fate and destiny.
People were also scared of events occurring that defy the ordinary course of nature and cannot be explained scientifically; happenings that are abnormal or extraordinary. These events may alter or control things. Popular examples of this are strange sightings, ghosts or risings from the dead, or strange unknown creatures usually with an intent dangerous to humans. The belief that these things might happen made people scared because they did not know anything about them. This is how people believed in the supernatural.
Many nineteenth century writers found the concepts of fate and the supernatural a very interesting and new thing to write about so writers such as Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins looked into different ideas to do with the concepts and what causes fear and wrote some very interesting and scary stories about it. As the people living in the nineteenth century were much more superstitious than now, the stories could have really caused fear and suspense to the readers, which made the stories a very good read.
The stories are very different from each other but they all use the ideas of fate and the supernatural to create an exciting and scary tale.
I will examine and compare some stories from this era to see exactly how they use fate and the supernatural.
The stories I have chosen to write about are ‘The Ostler’ by Wilkie Collins, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by WW Jacobs and ‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens.
The first story I will examine is ‘The Ostler’ by Wilkie Collins.
The story starts off with a man witnessing an old man having a dream whilst he is sleeping in the daytime in a stable of an inn. The old man is restless and he is talking in his sleep. He says very strange and things such as “Wake up there! Murder! O Lord help me! Lord help me alone in this place!”. These things cannot be understood to have any meaning at this point in the story. The other man seems deeply shocked by what happened. The landlord of the inn tells a story to the man of what happened to make the old ostler get such horrible dreams. This takes up almost the entire story and is done in great detail. The purpose of the introduction with the dream is to give something to interest the readers immediately so they can get into the story quickly. The things said in the dream are very curious and it makes one want to find out what happened to the ostler previously. After reading the story, one finds out that the things said in the dream are mixed up but significant quotes from what happened before.
In the story the landlord tells about the ostler whose name was Isaac Scatchard; a few years before, the ostler had the same job of an ostler and he had very bad luck with getting jobs. When coming home from a job rejection the day before his birthday, he stayed in an inn for the night. In the night at two o’clock he had a dream that he thought was real, about a woman who came into his inn room and tried to kill him with a knife. There is something mysterious about this as it was at the exact same time as he was born. This could have been coincidence but there is a hint of something to do with fate; that he was meant to have that dream at that time. When his mother finds out she, being quite superstitious, does not take it as coincidence and writes down everything that had happened so they can remember it.
After the incident, Isaac starts to have better luck with his job and he goes away for seven years and makes enough money for his mother to live well on for the rest of their lives. When Isaac had come back, on his birthday he went out to get some medicine for his mother and he met a woman. Gradually they fell in love and got engaged. The woman then met Isaac’s mother who recognised her as the woman from Isaac’s dream. She is immediately terrified of her. The woman does not know what has happened before. Even if Isaac realised as well, he did not care and he married her anyway. In this part of the story, a strong element of fate is brought into it. There must be something strange if he vividly dreamed about somebody he had never seen and then he fell in love with the same woman. It is like fate had already set that he was going to meet her so it could put the dream into his head beforehand.
They got married but over the years grew apart and the woman became a drunkard. Isaac’s mother decides to confront her fears and meet his wife, Rebecca, never having done so since the first meeting. Rebecca had just bought a new knife and when Isaac’s mother went round she recognised the knife as the one from the dream and was extremely scared again and went home with Isaac immediately. Isaac realises that the dream was going to be carried out in real life so he goes back to try to get the knife but fails. He is scared to sleep in the same house so he walks about the streets in the nights. Isaac’s mother dies ten days before his birthday and when there are arguments about her going to the funeral he hits her. She leaves him. On his birthday at two o’clock his wife comes into the house with the knife and tries to kill him but he takes the knife off her and goes away. When he comes back, she is gone and he never sees her again.
Fate is used to a huge extent in this story as the dream at the inn foretells the eventual destiny of what happened. The pieces slowly fit together throughout the story. All the events that occur happen because of something that happened before. For example, because Isaac’s mother dies, Isaac does not want Rebecca to go to the funeral so she gets hit by him and they argue which may have been what made Rebecca decide to try and kill Isaac. So it all leads back to the dream. Eventually if the dream had not occurred, the reality of the dream would not have occurred. This is a very strange and scary concept to grasp and nothing could have been done to stop it.
The story has been written very cleverly for this idea to have been put over perfectly. There was a general dark and detached mood to the whole story which perfectly suited the disturbing concept. The story ends with the landlord explaining how on Isaac’s birthdays, he stays up because he believes that Rebecca is still looking for him. Fate however in the dream says that he escapes death and that she was not meant to kill him.
I will now examine ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by WW Jacobs and compare it to ‘The Ostler’.
The story begins with a family scene of a father, wife and son of the name White, inside their house with a fire and a storm outside. An expected visitor, Sergeant-Major Morris, then arrives and sits down. He talks about travels he had been on all around the world. Mr White asks about a monkey’s paw that the sergeant had said something about to him before. The sergeant tries to brush it away but the family are interested so he gets out a monkey’s paw and tells the family that a fakir had put a spell on it so that three separate men could have three separate wishes from it.
He told how the man before him had wished for death and that was how he had got it. The sergeant had apparently had the wishes granted for him but he seemed to feel almost ill when he thought about this. The sergeant then threw the paw onto the fire but Mr White grabbed it up and kept it for himself. The sergeant tried to warn him of the consequences of using it but Mr White ignored him. After the sergeant had gone, Mr White wished for two hundred pounds. The paw twisted in his hand but the family thought nothing of the wish and did not expect it to be granted.
The next day Herbert, the son went to work and got caught in the machinery and died. When the parents were told, the company their son worked for, as consolation money gave them two hundred pounds. Days passed then one night Mrs White realised they still had two wishes left so she almost forced the reluctant Mr White to wish that their son were alive. Again the paw twisted in his hand but nothing happened immediately. Later in the night there was knocking at the door. Mr White was scared and tried to ignore it but his wife went to answer it. Just before Mrs
White opened the door, Mr White wished a third wish on the paw and the knocking ceased. The door was opened but there was nothing there.
The beginning of the story has a nice, warm and comforting mood to it with the family around the fire but this slightly changes when the paw is brought out. The sergeant seems to hate the paw and something we do not know must have happened to make him want to destroy it and warn Mr White of the consequences of wishing on it. There is an element of supernatural in what the sergeant says about the paw and wishing, as this would obviously defy the laws of nature if it were true.
This makes the mood slightly darker but it soon brightens up again. Nothing serious is thought of the first wish but when Herbert suddenly dies, the atmosphere becomes much colder and darker as the parents are so upset. When Mr White’s wish comes true because of his son’s death, a huge element of fate is brought into the story. His son would not have died if he had not wished for the money. This shows similarities to ‘The Ostler’ as fate is used in the same way. Events occur because of events that happened before but it is all set out first. The wish worked but fate made it realistic by causing a possible coincidence to happen.
When the second wish is made Mr White is reluctant because he knows that there was a horrible consequence from the first wish so there will probably be from the second. Mrs White however is overcome by her love for her son so she does not think of the consequences. When the knocks come on the door, Mrs White still does not worry about what might have happened and one cannot tell but the writer leaves it to one’s own imagination to what exactly was there and what it looked like.
I would have guessed that the son was there, alive but in the state he was in after falling into the machinery. This brings back the supernatural side as it fills one’s mind with other images of horror and gore. It breaks the laws of nature, as one cannot be ripped apart enough to be dead yet being alive. Mr White thinks that this is what his son will look like so on the third wish, although it does not say, it is quite obvious that he wished for his son to be dead again as the knocking stops and there is nothing outside. He does this because he realises the consequences of fate.
I have discovered that this story uses fate mainly and supernatural in a very interesting but horrible way. It also shows the consequences of greed.
I will now examine ‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens.
The first words of the story are the narrator calling “Hallao! Below there!” down a cliff to a signalman by his box by a railway and a tunnel at the bottom. The signalman strangely looks down the line. The narrator repeats himself, then after asking how to get down, goes down to speak to him. He tries to talk to the signalman but the signalman keeps looking at a red light on the tunnel entrance and then at the narrator.
The signalman thinks he might have seen him before by the light but the narrator assures him he has not. The narrator then goes to the signalman’s box with him and they start to have a conversation about the signalman’s life. Twice in the conversation, the signalman with a fallen colour, for no apparent reason looks at his bell with which does not ring and then goes outside and looks at the red light again on the tunnel entrance. When the narrator is about to leave as it is late, the signalman tells him that there is something that deeply troubles him and he can come back the next day to hear about it so the narrator agrees to come back. Just before he goes, the signalman asks if there was any reason for him calling the words “Halloa! Below there!” like it was supernaturally conveyed to him but the narrator says the only reason was because he saw him below.
The narrator comes back the next evening and the signalman told him how once he saw a figure by the red light with one arm across his face and the other waving madly. It was crying “Halloa! Below there!” and “Look out! Look out!”. When he got to the figure it had vanished. Within six hours afterwards, there was a terrible crash in the tunnel and the dead and wounded were down where the figure stood. Six or seven months later he saw the spectre again and shortly afterwards a woman died on a train that came past. He then says how he sees the ghost regularly but there have not been any more crashes.
The next day the narrator goes back to find lots of men by the signalman’s post and the signalman dead. He had been cut down by a train. The driver of the train told the narrator that as the train had come up on him, he held one arm in front of his face and one arm was waving madly. He was calling out “Halloa! Below there!” and “Look out!” but the signalman was facing the wrong way.
At the start, the signalman seemed slightly detached and one can guess that he is troubled by something. The mood and atmosphere is quite dark as the scene is down a steep, shading cliff. Words such as “solitary”, “dismal”, “gloomy” and “depressing” are used well to describe this. The ghost that the signalman sees, cries the words “Halloa! Below there!” but the narrator does as well at the start. This could have possibly been supernaturally conveyed to the narrator without him knowing but it is more likely to have been a coincidence as this is a perfectly normal thing for the narrator to say at that point. The fact that the ghost says such normal things means that the signalman gets scared when anybody else those normal words because he automatically thinks it’s the ghost. This is what in fact gets him killed at the end.
Before the signalman tells the narrator about the spectre, one can feel a strange atmosphere from the way it has been written and from the peculiar behaviour of the signalman. For example, during the first conversation the signalman looks at his bell which does not seem to ring to anybody else but him. He then goes outside afterwards and looks at the red light. This shows that only he can see the spectre so it may just all be in his head, although it is odd that it seems to foretell a train crash every time. Unfortunately, the supernatural force that the ghost is, does not tell the signalman when or where a train crash will be, but it just marks that there will be one. This almost mentally kills the signalman, as he knows that there will be a crash yet he cannot do anything to prevent it.
The spectre does not alter the progress of the story much until the end when the signalman dies. The experiences the signalman had of it and then a crash were in the past. It is however an essential feature of the story as it is what is driving the signalman insane until he eventually gets killed.
There is a small element of fate in this story as the ghost can foretell a crash or death on a train. For the ghost to be able to foretell it, fate must have set out what was going to happen beforehand so it sent a supernatural force to the signalman unfortunately. This is a similarity to ‘The Ostler’ as fate in both of them foretells what is going to happen but the characters do not realise the consequences.
The supernatural has been used to a huge extent in this story, as it is what the story is based around.
In all these stories, fate or the supernatural or both have been used in a very important way that has certainly affected the outcome in a substantial way.
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