The story at the dark heart of The Woman in Black is that not of protagonist Arthur Kipps, but of Jennet Humfrye—the titular spirit who, after having been forced to give up her illegitimate son to the care of her sister and brother-in-law, now haunts her late sister’s isolated estate, Eel Marsh House. As Jennet’s chilling, painful story—which culminates in the death of her son and her own descent into madness—emerges piece by piece, Hill demonstrates the isolating nature of trauma, and argues that those who have suffered extreme, deep traumas often feel a strong need to make their pain known and felt more widely—so much so that they traumatize others in the process, creating an endless cycle of isolating traumatization, pain, and suffering.
Arthur is pulled into Jennet’s story while clearing out the late Mrs. Drablow’s manor, Eel Marsh House. As he sets to work filing through the old woman’s things, he has already seen the woman in black twice—though he does not yet know her true story. As the full tale emerges, Arthur realizes that he is already in over his head—and in danger of being yet another one of Jennet’s many victims. When Arthur arrives in Crythin Gifford, any mention of Eel Marsh House makes locals quiet and nervous, though Arthur tries not to think too much of his new acquaintances’ odd responses to Mrs. Drablow’s name. When Arthur attends the old woman’s funeral, however, and sees a woman dressed all in black present at the graveside as her coffin is lowered into the ground, he realizes that perhaps something stranger and darker than just a reclusive old woman’s reputation as an oddball is afoot. When Arthur mentions the woman in black to his companion at the funeral, local solicitor Mr. Jerome, the man is horrorstruck. His reaction reveals both that Jerome is genuinely fearful of the woman in black, and that Arthur was the only one able to see the woman at the funeral—apart from the children attending the school next-door, who stare into the churchyard rapturously as the service takes place. At first, Arthur thinks the children are simply intrigued by the morbid funeral display; he will later learn that the woman in black has an odd and unsettling effect on children that relates directly to the core reason for her malevolent haunting of Eel Marsh House. After the funeral, Arthur heads to Eel Marsh, against the advice of nearly everyone in town—including the clearly-traumatized Mr. Jerome. After his own series of ghostly encounters, including another face-to-face confrontation with the woman in black herself, Arthur struggles with whether he will be able to complete the task laid out before him after all. He returns to the mainland, shaken and afraid, but ultimately resolves that he must confront the ghosts in Eel Marsh House. Already, Arthur has been pulled into the cycle of isolation and traumatization by the ghost of Jennet—he alone feels he can confront her, and yet is blind to the ways in which he has already been traumatized, and the many traumas that await him upon his return. After several more encounters with the otherworldly and uncanny, Arthur finds himself staring at the fearsome visage of the woman in black once more—this time, after she has made a direct attempt on Arthur’s life.
Arthur at last realizes that he has isolated himself in hopes of confronting an old, mysterious trauma, only to have fallen victim to the cycle of traumatization Jennet longs to perpetuate. Jennet’s malevolence, palpable and strong, finally affects Arthur to the point that he loses consciousness and must be rescued by his friend Samuel Daily. After returning to the Dailys’ house, Arthur believes he is out of the woods, and his life has been spared from a horrible fate of being victimized endlessly by the ghost of Jennet, who, having been forced in life to give her illegitimate son up for adoption only to lose him to a pony trap accident out on the marsh during a foggy evening, seeks to violently and malevolently create more and more suffering even from beyond the grave. Samuel, however, reveals that the worst may still be to come; every time Jennet appears, a child dies. This perturbs Arthur so greatly that he falls ill, tormented by a vicious fever and fearsome nightmare of the woman in black. The woman in black has, symbolically at least, defeated Arthur—she has traumatized him and caused him a great deal of painful isolation, as he cannot receive any comfort in the wake of his horrific ordeal and becomes literally quarantined due to his fever. Once Arthur recovers from his illness and returns to London, even more painful trauma is in store for him. Though he marries his fiancée, Stella, and welcomes a baby boy into the world with her, the woman in black is not done with Arthur. When he and his family attend a fair one day, the woman in black is there, and causes the pony trap Stella and the baby are riding in to crash, claiming the life of the little one and fatally wounding Stella. The woman in black has had her revenge, Arthur says—she has succeeded in at last traumatizing him so deeply that he will never escape the pain, in and permanently isolating him from his wife and child the way Jennet was isolated from her own son.
By creating a vicious cycle of pain, trauma, and isolation, Susan Hill invokes a swirling vortex of misery that cannot be avoided. Though Arthur does indeed go on to find happiness with his second wife, Esmé, the events that took place at Eel House Manner continue to haunt him—and isolate from the rest of the family despite his best efforts to forget the traumas that have plagued him since his youth.
Isolation and Trauma ThemeTracker
Isolation and Trauma Quotes in The Woman in Black
I had always known in my heart that the experience would never leave me, that it was now woven into my very fibers, an inextricable part of my past, but I had hoped never to have to recollect it, consciously, and in full, ever again. Like an old wound, it gave off a faint twinge now and again, but less and less often, less and less painfully, as the years went on and my happiness, sanity and equilibrium were assured. Of late, it had been like the outermost ripple on a pool, merely the faint memory of a memory. Now, tonight, it again filled my mind to the exclusion of all else. I knew that I should have no rest from it, that I should lie awake in a chill of sweat, going over that time, those events, those places. So it had been night after night for years.
Fog was outdoors, hanging over the river, creeping in and out of alleyways and passages, swirling thickly between the bare trees of all the parks and gardens of the city and indoors, too, seething through cracks and crannies like sour breath, gaining a sly entrance at every opening of a door. It was a yellow fog, a filthy, evil-smelling fog, a fog that choked and blinded, smeared and stained. […]
Sounds were deadened, shapes blurred. […] it was menacing and sinister, disguising the familiar world and confusing the people in it, as they were confused by having their eyes covered and being turned about, in a game of Blind Man's Buff.
I can recall it still, that sensation of slipping down, down into the welcoming arms of sleep, surrounded by warmth and softness, happy and secure as a small child in the nursery […] Perhaps I recall those sensations the more vividly because of the contrast that presented with what was to come after. Had I known that my untroubled night of good sleep was to be the last such that I was to enjoy for so many terrifying, racked and weary nights to come, perhaps I should not have jumped out of bed with such alacrity, eager to be down and have breakfast, and then to go out and begin the day.
[…] I do not believe I have ever again slept so well as I did that night in the inn at Crythin Gifford. For I see that then I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence, once lost, is lost forever.
"Well," I said, "if he's buying up half the county I suppose I may be doing business with him myself before the year is out. I am a solicitor looking after the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. It is quite possible that her estate will come up for sale in due course."
For a moment, my companion still said nothing, only buttered a thick slice of bread and laid his chunks of cheese along it carefully. I saw by the clock on the opposite wall that it was half past one, and I wanted to change my clothes before the arrival of Mr. Keckwick, so that I was about to make my excuses and go, when my neighbor spoke. "l doubt," he said, in a measured tone, "whether even Samuel Daily would go so far."
No car appeared. Instead, there drew up outside the Gifford Arms a rather worn and shabby pony and trap. It was not at all out of place in the market square—I had noticed a number of such vehicles that morning and, assuming that this one belonged to some farmer or stockman, I took no notice, but continued to look around me, for a motor. Then I heard my name called.
The pony was a small, shaggy-looking creature, wearing blinkers, and the driver with a large cap pulled down low over his brow, and a long, hairy brown coat, looked not unlike it, and blended with the whole equipage.
Suddenly conscious of the cold and the extreme bleakness and eeriness of the spot and of the gathering dusk of the November afternoon, and not wanting my spirits to become so depressed that I might begin to be affected by all sorts of morbid fancies, I was about to leave […] But, as I turned away, I glanced once again round the burial ground and then I saw again the woman with the wasted face, who had been at Mrs. Drablow's funeral. […] As I stared at her, stared until my eyes ached in their sockets, stared in surprise and bewilderment at her presence, now I saw that her face did wear an expression. It was one of what I can only describe—and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw—as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed—must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her. And, toward whoever had taken it she directed the purest evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was available to her.
So I thought that night, as I laid my head on the soft pillow and fell eventually into a restless, shadowy sleep, across which figures came and went, troubling me, so that once or twice I half-woke myself, as I cried out or spoke a few incoherent words, I sweated, I turned and turned about, trying to free myself from the nightmares, to escape from my own semi-conscious sense of dread and foreboding, and all the time, piercing through the surface of my dreams, came the terrified whinnying of the pony and the crying and calling of that child over and over, while I stood, helpless in the mist, my feet held fast, my body pulled back, and while behind me, though I could not see, only sense her dark presence, hovered the woman.
"It seems to me, Mr. Daily," I said, "that I have seen whatever ghost haunts Eel Marsh and that burial ground. A woman in black with a wasted face. Because I have no doubt at all that she was whatever people call a ghost, that she was not a real, living, breathing human being. Well, she did me no harm. She neither spoke nor came near me. I did not like her look and I liked the… the power that seemed to emanate from her toward me even less, but I have convinced myself that it is a power that cannot do more than make me feel afraid. If I go there and see her again, I am prepared."
"And the pony and trap?"
I could not answer because, yes, that had been worse, far worse, more terrifying because it had been only heard not seen and because the cry of that child would never, I was sure, leave me for the rest of my life.
I shook my head. "I won't run away."
As soon as I awoke, a little before seven, I felt that the air had a dampness in it and that it was rather colder and, when I looked out of the window, I could hardly see the division between land and water, water and sky, all was a uniform gray, with thick cloud lying low over the marsh and a drizzle. It was not a day calculated to raise the spirits and I felt unrefreshed and nervous after the previous night. But Spider trotted down the stairs eagerly and cheerfully enough and I soon built up the fires again and stoked the boiler, had a bath and breakfast and began to feel more like my everyday self.
In Scotland, a son was born to her and she wrote of him at once with a desperate, clinging affection. For a few months the letters ceased, but when they began again it was at first in passionate outrage and protest, later, in quiet, resigned bitterness. […]
"He is mine. Why should I not have what is mine? He shall not go to strangers. I shall kill us both before I let him go."
Then the tone changed. "'What else can I do? I am quite helpless. If you and M are to have him I shall mind it less." And again, "I suppose it must be."
But at the end of the last letter of all was written in a very small, cramped hand: "Love him, take care of him as your own. But he is mine, mine, he can never be yours. Oh, forgive me. I think my heart will break. J."
I picked things up, stroked them, even smelled them. They must have been here for half a century, yet they might have been played with this afternoon and tidied away tonight. I was not afraid now. I was puzzled. I felt strange, unlike myself, I moved as if in a dream. But for the moment at least there was nothing here to frighten or harm me, there was only emptiness, an open door, a neatly made bed and a curious air of sadness, of something lost, missing, so that I myself felt a desolation, a grief in my own heart. How can I explain? I cannot. But I remember it, as I felt it.
But she was alive and so was I and, gradually, a little warmth from each of our bodies and the pause revived us and, cradling Spider like a child in my arms, I began to stumble back across the marshes toward the house. As I did so and within a few yards of it, I glanced up. At one of the upper windows, the only window with bars across it, the window of the nursery, I caught a glimpse of someone standing. A woman. That woman. She was looking directly toward me. Spider was whimpering in my arms and making occasional little retching coughs. We were both trembling violently. How I reached the grass in front of the house I shall never know but, as I did so, I heard a sound. It was coming from the far end of the causeway path which was just beginning to be visible as the tide began to recede. It was the sound of a pony trap.
[…] I had been growing more and more determined to find out what restless soul it was who wanted to cause these disturbances and why, why. If I could uncover the truth, perhaps I might in some way put an end to it all forever.
But what I couldn't endure more was the atmosphere surrounding the events: the sense of oppressive hatred and malevolence, of someone's evil and also of terrible grief and distress. […] But I was worried, not wanting to leave the mystery unexplained and knowing, too, that at the same time someone would have to finish, at some point, the necessary work of sorting out and packing up Mrs. Drablow's papers.
The door was ajar. I stood, feeling the anxiety that lay only just below the surface begin to rise up within me, making my heart beat fast. Below, I heard Mr. Daily's footsteps and the pitter-patter of the dog as it followed him about. And, reassured by their presence, I summoned up my courage and made my way cautiously toward that half-open door. When I reached it I hesitated. She had been there. I had seen her. Whoever she was, this was the focus of her search or her attention or her grief—I could not tell which. This was the very heart of the haunting. […] It was in a state of disarray as might have been caused by a gang of robbers, bent on mad, senseless destruction.
I began to run crazily and then I heard it, the sickening crack and thud as the pony and its cart collided with one of the huge tree trunks. […]
They lifted Stella gently from the cart. Her body was broken, her neck and legs fractured, though she was still conscious. […]
Our baby son had been thrown clear, clear against another tree. He lay crumpled on the grass below it, dead. This time, there was no merciful loss of consciousness, I was forced to live through it all, every minute and then every day thereafter, for ten long months, until Stella, too, died from her terrible injuries.
I had seen the ghost of Jennet Humfrye and she had had
They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.