Woman in Black and The Withered Arm
Both the Woman in Black and the Withered Arm are well known pieces of modern literature, and utilize both different and similar methods to present a narrative of the supernatural. In this assessment of the two books I will be considering the pace, tension, description, structure, style, literature devices and the creative writing within the two books. However throughout my evaluation of the two pieces I will take into account the fact that although The Withered Arm and The Woman in Black are both considered short stories rather than novels, their lengths vary immensely.
This may help account for some of the differences but may also be a reflection of the author’s preferred style of writing, and therefore can be used to give us a better insight into their reasons and motives behind every literal device. Thomas Hardy, the author of The Withered Arm is probably one of the most effective and to the point authors of his time. Every single person, every single place and every single object in the book has a point, whether it is an obvious point or a more vague and ambiguous point.
Therefore person, place and object create a very effective example of the scenic code in The Withered Arm by Hardy. Hardy uses his flair for being succinct and concise to not only decrease the amount of words needed to tell the story, but to also increase the amount of hidden and inconspicuous messages in the written and spoken dialogue. This can explain the amount of detail in the book in relation to the length of the story. The concealed details give indications and suggestions into events further on.
An example of this is the hint surrounding the future of Rhoda’s son. Hardy describes him as playing with a knife, and returning from catching coneys, which implies that at this time, his life involves crossing lines with the law, and that his future will be linked with the law, crime and punishment. The Woman in Black’s author Susan Hill employs a different style of writing which is intentionally drawn out and long-winded then abrupt and unexpected to embark the reader on a rollercoaster ride affair within the book.
It is filled with changes in pace, tension and emotion that create dips, build ups, climactic peaks, and the eventual and inevitable “hangover period” of the come down. The rollercoaster ride within The Woman in Black is deliberate as to ensnare the concentration of the reader, keep them on their toes and heighten their awareness of the story. The dips occur during scenes unconcerned of the supernatural, such as in the second chapter, where the objective of the narrative at this point is simply to plot the way for the supernatural to transpire.
In this chapter concerning the assigning of Arthur Kipps to the estate of the lately deceased Alice Drablow, there is no hint of the sinister events to come, except perhaps of the ominous feelings created by the considerably described state of London’s fog. These ominous feelings are repeated by the portrayal of foggy weather later on in the book, where it is used to good effect to assist in the build-ups in pace, tension and emotion. There is an immense feeling of menace and apprehension during the build-ups, which help to accumulate a sense of foreboding.
This may be likened to the ‘Hollywood’ device of a background crescendo before a frightening event. The climactic peaks of a ghost sighting occur for only a short time, but Hill prolongs the events with detailed descriptions. These descriptions are recurring throughout the book, and at times can be described as a logorrhoea. These “excessive flows of language” are on occasion unnecessary, but understandable in terms of the purpose of varying the pace and tension. The ‘post-supernatural event’ calm allows the reader to recover from the event and lulls them back into a state of comfort.
The Withered Arm is in the third person, which has the benefit of giving the narrator a feeling of omnipotence. This is advantageous as it lends the narrative the use of describing everything that is occurring with a link to the story. The Withered Arm starts off in a simple, stable and somewhat controlled environment; however when Hardy throws in the bitter emotions of a discarded lover and the conflict between the supernatural and mere coincidence, the story becomes a lot more elaborate.
Whereas Hill states that it is actually a ghost story and offers no other alternative explanation, Hardy tries hard to keep this distinction vague and indistinguishable. He doesn’t define the story as being of the supernatural, but instead tries to make us believe the logic of coincidence. This could be a measure of reverse psychology, intertwined with the exploitation of human instincts. Saying that it isn’t a ghost story makes us want to disbelieve the statement and formulate our own ideas that it is a ghost story and it also immediately places the statement of a ‘ghost story’ into the brain due to instinct.
Hardy extends the argument for mere coincidence with Conjuror Trendle joking about his apparent powers and dismissing them as pure luck. Further evidence of his wish to leave the supernatural in shrouds of mystery is his modifications from his unsolicited first version in 1887 to the altered edition in 1888. Changes like from “she would not explain” to she could not explain” on page 64, and the addition of dream to precede scene on page 68 create hesitation as to the certainty of the supernatural event actually taking place.
The Woman in Black is written in the first person, which has the advantage of presenting this feeling of a memory rather than a story being told by the narrator. This leads to the hypothesis that, as a ghost story, one of the author’s intentions for the book was as a publicly performed storytelling book. This furthers its notion of a classic Dickensian story (such as A Christmas Carol) which has been made a part of modern literary culture and is widely associated with storytelling. However, the first person means that the story can only be describe through the eyes of the main character, Arthur Kipps.
Evolutions in plot can only happen under Arthur’s presence, but this does not lead to too much of a problem as all of the main events happen to Arthur and any necessary information is relayed through him to the reader by somebody else. These informing conversations happen with a number of people who are all reluctant to divulge all they know to Arthur. Hill uses their unwillingness to expand the changes in tension. Her use of the characters is not limited to increasing tension and the sense of foreboding but also to increasing comfort.
Stella is never ‘seen’ apart from the last chapter, but is frequently used as a mental comforter for both Arthur and the reader, when they are scared. She adds depth to his character, reminding the reader that Arthur is capable of love. She adds a facet to Arthur’s personality that gives the reader more to connect to. Samuel Daily is the only friendly person in Crythin Gifford, and is used as a Safety Blanket”, another means of comfort for Arthur that is physical rather than just mental, as with Stella.
He is also a means for Susan Hill to slowly describe the story of Jennet Humhrye, using Samuel to reluctantly release the details he knows about. This combats the problem of the 1st person limitations effectively. Events that do not happen to Arthur are being known to the reader in a manner which suits the story. Hardy uses his characters in a different way. Unlike Hill, where the moral classifications are immediately set, Hardy’s characters have no obvious categorisation into hero, friend or villain.
Even though it is a very short story compared Hill’s he manages to give the characters superior, making them mysterious in their personality traits. Both of the main characters are female, and have multi faceted personalities, which develop and change over the period of the book. Rhoda, the main character in the first half of the story, is initially disturbing and malevolent with her obsession towards Gertrude. It seems as if she is the token villain and the supernatural force, but Hardy casts doubts on this by conflicting the paranormal with coincidence, as previously mentioned.
Hardy thickens the plot by portraying the mystic as either an accident or as not occurring at all, that the events are due to “the freaks of coincidence”, and are not by Rhoda’s intent. Gertrude is the main character in the second half of the story distinguished by a six-year gap. She is initially modest, generous and beautiful, the ideal of a lady. But during the second half, the reader learns that she becomes fixated on “necromancy” as a cure for her disfigurement. The Withered Arm has an unoriginal structure, as it is in chronological order.
However, the second half of the story takes place 6 years after the first half, which signifies both that there is a change in the story (Gertrude’s actions become the focus of the narrative) and that Gertrude’s ailment in the first half was not serious enough to kill her, she simply declined into a loveless marriage. Hill employs an original structure to her story where a framing narrative precedes the main bulk of the story. This Love plays a major part in the two books; it serves as a reason for some of the events and gives motives for some people’s actions.
In the withered arm, love could be considered the driving force behind Rhoda’s initial hate for Gertrude. It is Gertrude’s deep desire to be loved again that forces her to take such extreme measures. It is Jennet Humphyre’s love for her son that makes her become a malevolently evil force. In conclusion I think that Hardy’s narrative of the supernatural is superior to Hill’s as although it is much shorter, using literary analysis, I have discovered that it contains far more in terms of detail, allusion, references, prophesies and obscurity and ambiguity.