The opening chapter, ‘Christmas Eve’, sets readers up for a ‘story of haunting and evil.’ The Woman in Black is a ghost story but features conventions of the gothic genre too. One method the writer uses to build tension during this chapter is contrast. Tension is one of the main emotions felt when a writer creates suspense. Suspense is a feeling of excitement, anticipation or uncertainty. The use of the framed narrative also allows Hill to demonstrate a change in Arthur (the central protagonist) over time.
Expectations based on the name of the chapter
The title of the chapter ‘Christmas Eve’ suggests a time of celebration, family and joy. The fact that Arthur cannot join in the fun suggests that something sinister is disturbing him. The mood at the start is ‘festive’, ‘happy’ and the main character has just enjoyed a good meal in the company of his wife and her children. But the start, there is a slightly unsettling mood as we, the r eaders, find out Arthur has lost his first wife in tragic circumstances and it feels as if Arthur’s life is still affected by something from his past. Hill uses foreshadowing to suggest events to come – ‘I was one who had been haunted and who had suffered – not the only one, but surely I thought the only one left alive,…’ (page 22)
In the opening chapter we might question Arthur’s reliability as a narrator. He shows signs of being rational and logical yet he is also very contradictory. He seems to be sensitive and melancholy – ‘my spirits for many years have not been effectively excessively by the ways of weather’. He mentions being ‘cursed as I still was by my indecisive nature’ (page 14) yet he is strongly drawn to Monk’s Piece stating he will be the owner of Monk’s Piece on Page 13. He is in a ‘frenzy of agitation’ (page 21) yet is calmed by a passage from Hamlet – referencing Christmas as a sacred time when ghosts dare not walk the earth.
Use of the weather
Ghost stories/gothic novels frequently use pathetic fallacy where weather symbolises characters’ emotional states. The narrator describes his love of all weather, starting with ‘sweet’ scents of summer, moving through autumn to winter, as if the writer is turning up the cold. Words like ‘chilling’ and ‘mist’ evoke emotional iciness and claustrophobia as Kipps says he can only see a few yards. With this genre claustrophobia is a key theme, as well as building tension when the main character is trapped either with ghosts of his own fears. His home takes on a melancholy and unfortunate air as the ‘cellar oozed damp’ smelled ‘sour’ and the fires ‘sputtered and smoked’. The narrator himself draws attention to the link between weather and mood, almost deliberately casting himself as a typical gothic protagonist where he says that weather often affects his moods. This knowingness, almost suggests that Hill is playing with gothic conventions.
The idea of the ghost story
The family start to tell ghost stories, which Hill has the narrator describe as typical eighteenth century melodramas: of ‘monastery ruins’ and ‘hooded monks’. The castle of ‘shriekings, groanings and scuttlings’ is described in an almost farcical way – similar to the Victorians’ negative attitude to over the top novels like ‘The Castle of Ontranto’ (recognised as the very first gothic novel). Dickens uses the convention of the ghost story also on Christmas Eve in ‘A Christmas Carol’ where the link between the darkest day of the year – the cusp of Christmas day – and being haunted by the past, and revenge is made clear. It becomes clear that Kipps is similarly haunted. Words like ‘unease’ ‘trouble’ ‘bitter’ and ‘nervous’ suggests a dark, underlying tension. Hill alludes to a terrible event which has haunted him for many years.
The use of time in the chapter follows gothic conventions of novels like Frankenstein where the framing narrative sets up a contrast between now: a ruined man, and the past where a young, whole, hearty man rushes towards a terrible fate. The first person style colours the events black – as we experience them through the eyes of his terror and agitation – while bringing us catastrophically close to them. The novel is told from Kipps’ point of view (first person) which, in the second chapter goes into the events of the past that have caused his nervous breakdown.
In tomorrow’s lesson we will be looking at Chapter 2 – the start of Arthur’s story. If you wish to get ahead you could read this chapter in preparation for tomorrow.