A young boy recalls the first time he saw Hundreds Hall, the home of the affluent Ayres family. It is Empire Day, following World War I, and the boy is attending a party held at Hundreds. He remembers the property’s immense size, impressive look, and the Ayers family who live there. At the time, the Ayers were a three-person family with a young daughter named Susan.
The young boy is Dr. Faraday, the unreliable first-person narrator of this story. His experience at Hundreds during Empire Day makes a significant impact on him and will reverberate throughout the rest of the story. As its name suggests, Empire Day is a day of celebration dedicated to the British Empire. It was jingoistic in nature, and it became controversial when the Labour Party attempted to outlaw it.
Despite the boy’s impressions of the home, he saw very little of it. The party guests were not allowed inside, although he did get to see some of the basement because his mother was friends with some of the servants. Additionally, a servant took him to the first-floor landing, briefly letting him gaze upon a hallway with marble floors and elaborate furnishings. When the servant is not looking, the boy uses his pen knife to prise a tiny plaster acorn from a wall decoration. He puts the acorn in his pocket and does not mention it. The boy knows he should not have stolen the acorn, but he felt an impulse to take it as though he were “entitled” to it.
Immediately the class divide, which is a significant theme in the novel, is apparent. The Ayers family have servants, and although they will invite lower class people to their house for the sake of Empire Day, they do not let those guests inside. The plaster acorn Faraday takes from the decoration represents his desire to own a part of Hundreds Hall. Hundreds Hall is incredibly appealing to Faraday, and he never forgets his first time seeing it.
After stealing the acorn, the boy returns outside to his parents. While outdoors, the boy worries Colonel Ayers will realize what he has done and stop the party. However, that does not happen, and the party goes on without incident. On the way home from the party, the boy’s mother finds the acorn. She does not get upset or yell at the boy, but she is disappointed in him and tells him that he should have known better. The boy’s mother puts the acorn in the fire when they arrive home.
Faraday’s fear is childish in nature, and it highlights how significant the acorn is to him in comparison to Colonel Ayers. Faraday thinks he’s done something worth canceling the entire party, even though the acorn has almost no value to Colonel Ayers, and he will likely never realize it is missing.
This day is the boy’s only memory of Hundreds Hall. In the following years, the Ayers did not host Empire Day parties, primarily due to the unfortunate death of Susan. Years later, the Ayers had two more children, Caroline and Roderick. However, the boy never met them. When the boy is 15, his mother dies, and a few years later, he attends Leamington College, where he studies to become a doctor. Just after the boy graduates college, his father dies. Then, a few years after that, Colonel Ayers dies as well. Hundreds has declined in the years since Susan’s death, and the Colonel’s death only worsens matters.
Death and tragedy plague both the Faraday and Ayers families. Perhaps this is one reason Faraday feels linked to the Ayerses. Despite his lower class upbringing, Faraday manages to improve his social standing with the help of his parents. Meanwhile, the social standing of the Ayers family begins to go downhill, as Hundreds starts declining.
Many years later, following World War II, the boy is now a man; in fact, he is a practicing doctor in Lidcote, his hometown, as well as the home of Hundreds Hall. His name is Dr. Faraday, and one day he gets a call to go out to Hundreds Hall. His partner, David Graham, typically takes care of the Ayers family, but on the day in question, Graham is busy, so Faraday takes the call himself.
Here, a time jump of over 20 years occurs. Another World War occurred, and England is in a vastly different place than it was following World War I. At this point, the Labour Party rules England, and many significant social and economic reforms are underway. The majority of these reforms benefited the lower classes, at the expense of the upper class.
When Faraday arrives at Hundreds, he is shocked. The house is smaller than he remembers, and it has undergone immense decay. No one comes to greet Faraday, so he gets out of his car and rings the doorbell. Inside, Faraday hears a dog barking, but no one answers the door. After about a minute, Roderick appears around the side of the house and looks suspiciously at Faraday. Faraday explains that he is filling in for Graham, which eases Roderick’s reservations. Roderick thanks Faraday for coming out and invites him to follow him around the side of the house.
Faraday’s arrival at Hundreds stands in stark contrast to his first visit. When he was a child, Hundreds Hall had many servants who would have immediately answered the door. Now, for a short time, there is no one to be found. Among other things, The Little Stranger is a Gothic novel, and the strange and empty Hundreds Hall is the mysterious property at its center. Meanwhile, Roderick’s name is likely a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of the most famous works of Gothic literature.
As they walk, Roderick and Faraday discuss the reasons for Faraday’s visit. Evidently, one of the maids is ill, which Roderick finds annoying. As they walk, Faraday notices that the Ayerses’ garden is in shambles. Roderick leads Faraday to a service passageway and tells him to go inside, where he will find Caroline. Faraday takes the passage into the home and realizes it is the same one he used all those years ago as a child. Once inside, Faraday sees even more evidence of the estate’s decline; it is lifeless, dull, and disappointing.
Roderick’s annoyance at the ill maid is immediately annoying to Faraday because his mother was also a maid at Hundreds Hall. Again, Faraday’s entrance into Hundreds in this scene is contrasted to the first time he saw it as a child. Given how much Faraday loved Hundreds as a child, his disappointment demonstrates just how far Hundreds has fallen from its former grace.
A black Labrador, Gyp, hears Faraday enter and starts barking. The dog approaches Faraday, and close behind him is Caroline. Caroline and Faraday introduce themselves, as Caroline makes apologies for Gyp. Faraday notices that Caroline is much warmer than Roderick and immediately likes her more. He also internally notes that she is a “noticeably plain” woman who he does not find attractive.
Although he likes Caroline, Faraday is immediately judgmental of her appearance, something that will occur almost every time he sees her throughout the novel. His ambivalent reaction to Caroline is worth noting as the novel develops.
Caroline takes Faraday to Betty, the ill maid, who is only a teenager. Faraday introduces himself to Betty and asks her about her symptoms. Faraday examines Betty and, at one point, lightly touches her stomach, which causes her to scream. Betty says that she hurts all over and that the pain is excruciating. At this point, Faraday asks Caroline if he can be left alone with Betty. Caroline frowns but does as Faraday suggests.
Betty’s young age means she is likely a source of cheap labor. The fact that the Ayers family needs cheap labor once again demonstrates how much they have fallen from the lofty social status they once enjoyed. Faraday’s examination of Betty results in highly abnormal reactions, suggesting that something is amiss.
After Caroline is gone, Faraday tells Betty there is nothing wrong with her, and he knows her screams are fake. Betty does not want to admit her lie and insists she is ill, but she does not sway Faraday; he is sure Betty is faking, probably because she wants some time off of work. Although Faraday is annoyed with Betty for dragging him all the way out to Hundreds for a fake illness, he also has sympathy for her.
Betty’s lie is significant because it impacts how Faraday interprets her claims throughout the rest of the novel. Meanwhile, Faraday’s sympathy is likely a natural extension of his interaction with Roderick and from the fact that his mother worked at Hundreds.
Betty explains that she wants to go home for a while because she needs a break from the house. She thinks Hundreds is terrifying and claims it gives her horrible dreams, even worrying that she will “die of fright.” Additionally, Betty explains that she is 14 years old and never gets to see anyone her age. She only sees the Ayers family because they never have guests, and she is not allowed to leave the house.
This is the first mention in the novel that something is amiss at Hundreds. However, it is difficult to know how much Betty should be believed, given that the first thing she does in the novel is lie. Nonetheless, Betty’s life at Hundreds does seem rather isolating for someone her age, or any age for that matter.
Betty’s story reminds Faraday of his mother. He recalls that she was even younger when she started working at Hundreds. Faraday decides to make Betty a deal; he will recommend that Betty get the rest of the day off, and he promises not to tell Caroline that she is faking. However, he does not send her home. Betty accepts the deal and thanks him. Faraday leaves the room and finds Caroline. He makes up a story about Betty and recommends that she stay in bed, just as he promised. However, Faraday also mentions that Betty finds Hundreds “creepy,” which makes Caroline realize what is really going on. Caroline does not get angry, though she does assure Faraday that there is nothing unusual about Hundreds other than that it is quiet.
Here, Caroline’s intelligence is on display. Although Faraday lies to her, she is able to figure out the truth rather quickly. Her ability to do so suggests that she knows Betty is not happy at Hundreds. However, she rejects that there is something wrong with Hundreds Hall, meaning that there are already two conflicting interpretations about the manor home. More conflicting pieces of information emerge about Hundreds as the novel progresses.
Faraday asks Caroline to do her best to make sure Betty is happy. Caroline insists that they treat Betty well and that, in some ways, she has it better than anyone else in the house. This comment annoys Faraday, and Caroline quickly shifts her tone. She tells Faraday that the Ayerses treat Betty as well as they can because they cannot afford to lose her. Then, Caroline takes Faraday upstairs and invites him to stay for tea.
Here, Caroline comes off as entitled, just as Roderick did previously. Although life is not as good at Hundreds as it used to be, Caroline and Roderick are still incredibly privileged compared to someone like Betty, who is forced to work away from home at 14 years old because her family is so poor.
Faraday accepts the invitation because he wants to see more of Hundreds Hall. Faraday follows Caroline through the home and sees the areas he briefly explored as a child. Faraday also sees much more of the house, though it is not particularly impressive. Just like the outside of the home, the inside of Hundreds has not fared well over the years; the home is poorly lit and falling apart, and the Ayerses have shut up many of the rooms, meaning there is little for Faraday to see.
Again, it is clear that Hundreds Hall is on the decline. Notably, Hundreds Hall and the Ayers family are microcosms of their entire social class. The steady decline of Hundreds is indicative of the slow death of an entire social class in the post-World War II era.
Eventually, Faraday and Caroline arrive in a room that the Ayerses call “the little parlour.” The Ayerses spend most of their time in this room, and, despite its name, it is not small. Though the size of the room is impressive, like the rest of the house, it is falling apart—the floorboards creak, there are chips in the paint, and the sofa sags. As Faraday and Caroline enter the parlour, Mrs. Ayers comes in from outside, and Caroline introduces Faraday to her mother. Faraday thinks about how good Mrs. Ayers looks for her age and remembers the last time he saw her at Empire Day.
The name “the little parlour” could be indicative of one of two things. First, it could suggest that the Ayers family named the room out of a sense of false modesty. Alternatively, the name could suggest just how out of touch the Ayers family is with the rest of society. Either way, the room’s size would be impressive to Faraday, whose living conditions are rather modest.
Caroline fetches tea as Faraday, Roderick, and Mrs. Ayers spark up a conversation. Mrs. Ayers thanks Faraday for coming out to Hundreds and compliments him on his choice of occupation. Faraday appreciates the compliment and tells Mrs. Ayers that he worked in a military hospital along the way—a job he misses. Faraday performed electric muscle therapy at the military hospital, a detail he relates to the Ayerses because he sees that Roderick has a bad leg. Roderick explains that someone had previously tried to get him to do electric muscle therapy, but he refused. Roderick also tells Faraday that his injury happened during the war. He was a member of the Royal Air Force, and his plane went down. Roderick considers himself lucky because he only busted his leg, whereas his copilot lost his life.
Here, another connection emerges between Faraday and the Ayers family. Both Faraday and Roderick were active parts of the war effort, though one clearly sacrificed more than the other. Roderick’s leg is a significant part of his character, and it perhaps represents the crippled state of the Ayers family.
Mrs. Ayers says that the war seems far away at this point, even though it only ended two years ago. However, she worries about whether peace will last. She tells Faraday that she stopped listening to the news because it is too alarming. In response, Roderick tells his mother not to worry because they are safe at Hundreds. As he says this, Caroline and Gyp reenter, and Caroline serves the tea. While they drink their tea, the Ayerses begin telling stories about their old servants. Although the stories are not especially cruel, they are often at the expense of the servants, which rubs Faraday the wrong way.
Although Mrs. Ayers says she is worried about wars, she is likely equally distraught by the social and economic forces that are chipping away at the Ayers family fortune. After all, as Roderick’s response suggests, it is unlikely that anyone at Hundreds would be harmed if a war were to break out. Additionally, the family’s stories about their servants anger Faraday because his mother worked for the Ayers family. At this point, none of the Ayerses know about Faraday’s mother, so they are not self-conscious when telling the stories.
Mrs. Ayers sees that their stories are off-putting to Faraday, so she apologizes. She promises they treat their servants well because she suspects he is thinking about Betty. Faraday tells Mrs. Ayers that, actually, he was thinking about his mother. Mrs. Ayers tells Faraday that she doesn’t think his mother worked at Hundreds while she was there. However, Faraday assures Mrs. Ayers that she did. Mrs. Ayers thinks momentarily and then gets up to fetch a photograph. She hands the picture to Faraday and says that she thinks his mother could be somewhere in it.
This section of the novel recalibrates the relationship between Faraday and the Ayers family, as the class boundaries between them are laid bare. Despite their differences, Faraday and the Ayers family have a shared history, albeit one where an obvious power imbalance exists.
Faraday examines the photograph and attempts to find his mother. He looks carefully and sees someone who might be her, though he is unsure. Mrs. Ayers suggests that he show the photo to his parents for confirmation, but Faraday explains that he cannot because they are both dead. Mrs. Ayers apologizes and says that she hopes Faraday’s mother was happy while she was at Hundreds. Faraday doesn’t think that was the case but doesn’t say so out loud. Instead, he tells Mrs. Ayers that his mother made friends with some of her fellow workers. This statement prompts Mrs. Ayers to tell more stories about the past.
A lot goes unsaid in this interaction between Faraday and Mrs. Ayers. Although Mrs. Ayers says that she hopes Faraday’s mother was happy at Hundreds, she is worried that isn’t the case. Meanwhile, Faraday knows the truth, but doesn’t want to say it aloud. This is one of many moments in the novel where the class differences between the characters are obvious, but neither wants to address those differences openly.
While Mrs. Ayers speaks, Faraday keeps his eyes on the photograph. Although he is unsure whether the woman in the photo is his mother, something about the picture emotionally moves him. After speaking with Mrs. Ayers for a few more minutes, Faraday announces he must be on his way. Mrs. Ayers insists that he take the picture with him and its ornate frame. Faraday is hesitant, but Caroline urges him to take it as well, and so he does.
Faraday’s reaction to the picture is similar to his treatment of the plaster acorn. There is something about Hundreds that he feels connected to, even if he is not fully aware of what that connection is.
Roderick offers to show Faraday to the door. He struggles to get off the couch because of his injured leg, but once he does, they make their way to the entrance hall. The entrance hall impresses Faraday, especially the spiral staircase leading to the second floor. Faraday and Roderick go outside, and Roderick asks Faraday about his car. They also discuss how many calls Faraday takes daily, which can be over 30 if he is busy. Then, Roderick again thanks Faraday and asks him about the bill for seeing Betty. Faraday tells Roderick that the picture is payment enough, but Roderick insists on paying an additional fee. As Faraday leaves Hundreds, he watches Roderick limp back into the house.
The interaction between Roderick and Faraday is an odd reversal of their typical class roles. Faraday knows Roderick’s fortunes are declining, so he purposefully offers his services for free. Meanwhile, Roderick is eager to show that he is not a charity case, so he insists on paying Faraday. Another notable detail is that Faraday claims to take on 30 patients per day. Whether this number is accurate is worth keeping in mind as the novel progresses.
Later in the evening, Faraday has dinner with David Graham and his wife, Anne. Graham questions Faraday about the state of Hundreds Hall. Apparently, the Ayers have not called him out there in years, and he is curious to hear how it is holding up. Faraday says that the state of Hundreds is heartbreaking, and he doesn’t think Roderick knows how to run it. All three feel bad for Roderick; he has a lot to handle and has turned out relatively well, considering how much of a “brute” Colonel Ayers was.
David and Anne act as a sounding board for Faraday throughout the story. He comes to them whenever a notable event happens or when he is struggling with a decision. Here, they are gossiping about Hundreds Hall, which is a common activity among the residents of Lidcote. Although people have always gossiped about Hundreds, its fate in recent years means that their conversations tend to reflect poorly on the Ayers family.
Faraday tells a brief story about how he saw the Colonel kick in the headlight of a car one day because the car cut off his horse. Graham agrees that the Colonel was not kind, but he did not envy him. Throughout the 1920s, Hundreds was already losing money, and the Colonel had to sell off a lot of land. Given its recent history, Graham is surprised that the property is still functional.
Faraday’s story is one of the few glimpses Waters gives of Colonel Ayers. Here and elsewhere, he is, indeed, brutish, though whether he was always this way is unclear. Perhaps his attitude is directly related to the downfall of Hundreds, or Susan’s death.
Faraday switches the subject to Roderick’s leg. Faraday asks Graham if it would be alright if he tried a course of electrical therapy on Roderick’s leg—assuming Roderick will let him. Graham says that Faraday is welcome to treat Roderick. He also informs Faraday that Roderick had some “nervous trouble” when he first came home from the war. This information surprises Faraday. Graham says that Faraday doesn’t know about this issue because the Ayers family did their best to cover it up.
This section is the first reference to the Ayerses trying to suppress something from the public. Their decision to do so suggests that the family care about their public image and do not want it tarnished. Roderick’s “nervous trouble” suggests that more is amiss at Hundreds Hall than Faraday was led to believe.
Anne switches the topic to Susan, the Ayerses' daughter who died at only seven years old. Graham says that Susan died of diphtheria, which her doctors could not treat. Anne recalls how terrible the funeral was, and suddenly, Faraday realizes that he also has a memory of it. He stood with his parents and watched Susan's casket go by as his mother wept. This thought depresses Faraday, and although the dinner conversation moves on to more casual topics, Faraday cannot get the memory of the funeral out of his mind.
Again, Faraday realizes that the Ayers family is linked to his childhood. Although Susan dies before the story begins, she is an important member of the Ayers family because of how her death impacted them. Additionally, it is worth noting that Susan’s death roughly coincides with the beginning of Hundreds’ demise.
Faraday begins thinking about his finances. He worked under Dr. Gill for a long time, who paid him poorly. Eventually, Dr. Gill retired, and Faraday took over his practice entirely. Now, he is finally making a profit, but not a large one. However, England will soon begin a National Health Service, effectively wiping out private doctors. Faraday fears this new system will put him out of business for good. Faraday expresses his fear to Graham, who tells him not to worry. However, Graham's words do not assuage Faraday's fears. Faraday is insecure because he comes from a poor background. He believes his patients want to look up to their doctor, and they cannot because he is not as well off as his peers.
Faraday feels like he cannot win. He started life as a lower class person and worked his way up to a respectable position. However, with the instantiation of the NHS, Faraday feels like his job will be devalued, and he will begin slipping back down the social hierarchy. In this way, Faraday is not unlike the Ayers family. He desperately wants to cling to whatever social status he still possesses.
Again, Graham tries to convince Faraday that he is worried about nothing. Graham tells him to try to start a family so he can stop worrying about things that don't matter. However, once again, Faraday's words fall on deaf ears. Soon after, Faraday thanks the Grahams and then heads home. Faraday's home is an unremarkable place he has never taken the time to decorate. When he arrives home, Faraday pulls out a box of miscellaneous items from his youth, including the medal he received on Empire Day. He hopes to find pictures of his parents but only finds one, which has faded significantly with time.
Faraday’s dismissal of Graham’s advice provides insight into his character. His behavior suggests that he cares more about material wealth and social hierarchies than he does about ordinary milestones like starting a family. Notably, Faraday’s home stands in sharp contrast to Hundreds Hall. Although both could use some work, Hundreds Hall is enormous and elaborately decorated and furnished. Meanwhile, Faraday’s home is small, simple, and insignificant.
Faraday places the faded picture next to the photograph Mrs. Ayers gave him and tries to determine whether the woman in the Ayers photo is his mother. After some time, he gives up and decides he cannot tell. He also feels ashamed that he didn't preserve more mementos of his parents, given how much they did to ensure he had a better life than they did. After examining the pictures, Faraday heads to bed, where a fit of loneliness seizes him. Women have never featured prominently in Faraday's life, and although this does not bother him most of the time, it does at the moment. Although he tries to sleep, Faraday lies awake, thinking about life at Hundreds Hall.
An important feature of Faraday’s character is that he seems to have almost no connections with other people. Graham and Anne are the only friends he talks to regularly, and he does not have any family. The loneliness Faraday feels is perhaps yet another quality that connects him to the Ayers family. At the end of this chapter, Faraday dreams of Hundreds Hall, which is something he will do often throughout the book. Hundreds is always on his mind, for better or for worse.