The Woman in Black is a story within a story within a story. The protagonist, Arthur Kipps, is prompted to share a ghost story during his family’s Christmas Eve celebration one year, but the only ghost story he knows is unfortunately true—and more macabre and upsetting than his family is perhaps prepared for. Confronted with an incident from his past he has fought so hard to shake, Arthur realizes he must at last face down his demons and bear witness to his own horrific story—just as he vowed, on his fateful trip to Eel Marsh House so many years ago, to bear witness to the horror within it. Through Arthur’s tale, Susan Hill—herself carefully reconstructing the Victorian Gothic genre in order to convey Arthur’s frightful tale—illustrates the power of storytelling, ultimately arguing that in the face of pain, trauma, and isolation, sometimes one’s story is all they are left with.
At the beginning of the novel, Arthur is hanging onto happiness and stability by a very thin thread. Things as benign as a few days of bad weather upset him and send him reeling back into the depths of his past; an invitation to contribute to a fireside ghost story contest with his family triggers him so deeply that he must remove himself from the room. As Arthur confronts the thin veneer of his happy front and the darkness lurking just beneath it, he realizes that his only chance of moving forward with his life is to tell his story; not for anyone to read or share, but simply for his own peace of mind.
Arthur’s story is not the only one that must be “exorcised” from him over the course of the novel—the woman in black’s own story, too, is all that remains of her. Jennet’s story is revealed in fits and starts—when he arrives in Crythin Gifford, Arthur does not know anything of the woman in black at all. When she first appears to him—and seemingly to him alone—it is at the funeral of Alice Drablow, who will eventually be revealed to be her sister. The woman in black seems to be there to bear witness to Alice’s burial as a way of adding to the narrative of her own life—or afterlife. When Arthur mentions the sight of a wasted-faced woman in black to his companion at the funeral, Mr. Jerome, Jerome becomes visibly frightened, and hurries Arthur away from the churchyard. As Arthur begins exploring Eel Marsh House, he finds a packet of letters that tell a story he is intrigued by but does not fully understand. The letters to Alice, from a woman named Jennet, reveal that Jennet bore an illegitimate son and was forced to surrender him to Alice for adoption. Jennet harbored ill will toward her sister, though, and warned her that the child would never truly belong to Alice. Arthur is touched by the story the letters tell, and feels deep sympathy for Jennet. He does not yet know that she is the terrible woman in black—the malevolent spirit-woman who has haunted Eel Marsh for years and has selected Arthur as the newest object of her hatred.
Arthur at last learns the full extent of the story after he has been rescued from Eel Marsh House. Having had terrible encounters with a ghostly presence in the home’s immaculate nursery, Arthur senses that the nursery, the woman in black, and the letters are all somehow related—but does not see how until he discovers three death certificates attached to the letters. The certificates tell their own story, and reveal that Jennet’s son, Nathaniel, drowned at the age of six in a pony trap accident in the marsh. Arthur thinks he knows the full story—but there is more to learn still. Samuel’s one true friend in town, the kindly landowner Samuel Daily, reveals to Arthur that Jennet, deranged by the loss of her child, died at the age of thirty-six and from then on haunted the town; her sporadic appearances always signaled the violent, untimely death of a local child. The full story now revealed, Arthur feels an intense mix of pity for Jennet and fear of her—her complicated and devastating story explains her hateful malevolence and desire for vengeance, but does not exonerate her crimes against the town. In a cruel twist of fate, Arthur—who leaves Crythin Gifford believing he has ended the woman in black’s cycle of violence (since no local child died this time) and thus her story as well—becomes another pawn within it. Upon his return to London, all seems well for many months, until the woman in black returns with a vengeance to murder Arthur’s wife and child in the very same way her own child was killed—in a pony trap accident. Arthur’s story, then, is the story of the woman in black—his and Jennet’s narratives are inextricably bound up with one another, and his suffering is begat of her own. All these two poor souls have to cling to—one in death, and one in a cursed, horror-filled half-life—are their stories, and Arthur’s fierce protectiveness and secrecy regarding his own story as the years go by reflects Jennet’s desire to change the course of her “story” and reclaim control of a narrative which ran away from her.
The layered narrative of The Woman in Black reveals the author’s faith in the power of storytelling from the outset—and ultimately engenders within its protagonist Arthur Kipps a faith in the power of his own story, even if that power is just to free himself from the torments of his past. Jennet’s own story, too, is a story-within-a-story; the “story” of Jennet’s sad life, a tragedy and even perhaps an embarrassment to the isolated, afflicted woman, continues past her death as she becomes the tormentor of the town of Crythin Gifford and creates a new narrative. No longer a sickly woman whose child was stolen from her not just once but twice, Jennet rebrands herself as a powerful figure able to steal other people’s children away from them at last. Their stories are all Arthur and Jennet have, and in this way, they are bound to each other by more than a mere haunting.
Storytelling 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.
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.
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."
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 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.