This section looks at the key themes in The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.
The most powerful theme in the novel is the individual fear of the unknown shown by Kipps and the collective fear of what is known (but not discussed) by the residents of Crythin Gifford and the surrounding area.
When Kipps first mentions his sighting of the ‘young woman with the wasted face’ to Mr Jerome at the funeral of Mrs Drablow, there is a ‘silence so deep’ that he can hear his own pulse and see Mr Jerome’s inability to speak, later described as having a ‘sickly greyish pallor’ when discussing the sighting of the woman.
The fear that clearly grips and silences Mr Jerome also keeps Mr Keckwick silent about his role in the affairs that led to the death of the child on the causeway. Kipps himself is exposed to the terror caused by the unknown during the episode involving the rocking chair in the nursery. He is possessed by fear at the thought of what he will meet inside the room whose door has mysteriously opened and later is chilled by the cry of the child on the wind.
The ghost of Jennet Humfrye is the source of all the fear and repulsion in the novel, not only for her spectral presence but for her deliberate act leading to the death of Kipps’ wife and child – foreshadowed by the warning from Mr Daily that a child died whenever she appeared. Susan Hill has created a novel here that almost reeks of fear and is introduced by the narrator himself as a means for the ghost to be ‘driven’ from his memory, to lay to rest the past through a frank exposure of what had remained hidden for years – an attempt to live the rest of his life without the weight of fear.
Supernatural literally means beyond natural, so supernatural events cannot be explained by reason or scientific theory. Although, Kipps frequently tries to reassure himself that he, “Did not believe in ghosts What other rational explanation was there?” (pg. 79)
It is clear that Kipps transforms throughout the novel from someone who is sceptical of the supernatural to someone who clearly believes in ghosts. This is apparent when he sees the Woman in Black for the second time and hears the tragic sounds of the Pony and the trap, “That the woman by the graves had been ghostly I now – not believed, no – knew, for certainty lay deep within me.” (pg. 97)
When Kipps sees the Woman in Black for the second time at Eel Marsh House he recognises in her expression that she is vengeful and wants to inflict harm on others, “What I saw – as a desperate, yearning malevolence.”
He later goes on to describe her as, “A poor, crazed, troubled woman, dead of grief and distress, filled with hatred and desire for revenge.” (pg. 75)
Kipps is sympathetic to the ghost of Jennet Humfrye when he learns that her actions are the result of losing her child Nathaniel, first as he was adopted by her sister and secondly when he died in the accident involving the Pony and the trap. This is ironic has we learn at the end of the novel that the Woman in Black’s appearance foreshadowed the death of his wife Stella and their baby son.
Isolation and the Conspiracy of Silence
Kipps’ isolation and vulnerability at Eel Marsh House is emphasised by the descriptions of the surrounding nature, “when the tide came in, it would quickly be quite submerged and untraceable.” (pg. 68)
Moreover, many of the characters in The Woman in Black are part of a conspiracy of silence which further isolates Kipps as it is clear that they deliberately withhold information about the Woman in Black.
Mr Bentley, Keckwick, Jerome, The Landlord and Samuel Daily are all part of this conspiracy of silence.