The past is such a forceful presence within Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black that it is almost a character in and of itself. The novel’s frame story forces protagonist Arthur Kipps to mentally return to his own past and confront his time as a young lawyer spending a fateful week at Eel Marsh House; during his tenure in Crythin Gifford, his younger self was similarly forced to confront the dark history of the haunted manor and the plagued town surrounding it. As Hill sends her protagonist tumbling through his own memories—and the collective memories of Crythin Gifford, as well—the novel’s bleak argument emerges: no matter how hard one might try to avoid it, the past is inescapable and demands to be reckoned with.
Arthur’s inability to escape his own past provides the novel with a feeling of claustrophobia and inevitability that heightens the sense of horror throughout its pages. From the outset of the novel, the reader can see plainly that Arthur is haunted by his past. During Christmas Eve celebrations with his family, Arthur is on edge due to the inclement weather—which, it will soon become apparent, reminds him of the sudden fogs and sea mists common in Crythin Gifford. Later, when his stepchildren begin trading ghost stories and ask Arthur to share one as well, he lashes out and abruptly leaves the house to go on a walk. Arthur has created a new life for himself since the horrors that transpired in his past—but though he has moved to the country, taken a new wife, and retired from law, he still cannot escape the memories of his ill-fated trip to Crythin Gifford. Arthur confesses, as he wanders the grounds of his new home in the wake of his outburst, that he has “always known in [his] heart that the experience would never leave him,” and that it was “woven” into the “very fibers” of his life. This demonstrates that Arthur has, for many years, been trying to shut out and avoid recalling his time at Eel Marsh House. Tonight, though, the experience fills his mind “to the exclusion of all else,” and he understands suddenly that his only chance of getting free of it “for whatever life remain[s] for [him] to enjoy” is to write it down and confront it in earnest at last.
At the conclusion of Arthur’s story, he at last reveals the great trauma that he has tried to block out for so many years—the fact that the woman in black caused the violent death of his first wife and child in a pony trap accident, mirroring the way in which her own child was killed many decades ago. After relaying the incident in stark uncompromising detail, Arthur concludes his narrative by writing: “They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.” Arthur has at last confronted the demons of his past, and seemingly at a great emotional cost—he seems exhausted and worn down from having relived his horrible memories and committed them to paper. Arthur was reluctant to confront his memories in the first place, and in the novel’s final sentences, he seems to feel that the past has defeated him after all; it has been a force of constriction, claustrophobia, and coercion just as frightening and suffocating as anything Arthur actually encountered in the ghostly Eel Marsh House.
Through Arthur’s painful and emotional confrontation with his fraught past, Susan Hill paints a portrait of the vividness of painful memories, the weight of personal history, and the power of the past to warp one’s future. As Arthur emerges from his confrontation with his past, he has not necessarily come out a stronger or better man—but he has admitted, at least, that the past demands reckoning, and will cause one perhaps even more suffering should one attempt to ignore it completely.
The Past ThemeTracker
The Past 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.
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.
[…] 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.
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.