Author's Treatment of Fate and the Supernatural in Short Stories Written Before 1914

Author's Treatment of Fate and the Supernatural in Short Stories Written Before 1914

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Author's Treatment of Fate and the Supernatural in Short Stories Written Before 1914

Using a selection of short stories written before 1914, compare and
contrast their authors’ treatment of fate and/or the supernatural

I understand the term supernatural to be an event or being that is
abnormal in some way and for which there is no rational explanation.
Although traditionally the supernatural is confined to spiritual
beings, such as ghosts, I perceive it to have a much wider meaning. I
will be investigating how certain writers of short stories view the
supernatural and how they adapt it into their stories. The authors I
will be looking at in this essay are M.R.James, Thomas Hardy and
Charlotte Perkins Gilman; their stories, Lost Hearts The Withered Arm
and “Yellow Wallpaper,” respectively. I will be focussing mostly on
the supernatural in this essay, but will also investigate the question
of fate briefly. Fate is the suggestion that all events happen for a
reason, and that there is a greater power watching over us.

Both these subjects are ones that greatly interested the Victorians,
the era in which these stories are written. They were especially
intrigued by the spiritual world, and the upper classes held séances,
attempting to contact the dead. This preoccupation with the
supernatural, and indeed fate, is one that emerges repeatedly in these
short stories.

The first story that I will be looking at is The Withered Arm by
Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s style was very progressive for the time, but
also reactionary; conservative, even, in certain aspects. His stories
have a preoccupation with fate and the inevitability of death.

The main supernatural aspect is the vision of Mrs Lodge that Rhoda
sees. The vision taunts her, and Rhoda retaliates by grabbing its arm.
The vision appears sitting on her chest whilst she is in bed: “The
pressure of Mrs Lodge’s person became heavier,” and yet is not Mrs
Lodge as she should be – “But the features were shockingly distorted,
and wrinkled as by age.” Although Rhoda can feel its presence, it is
extremely strange that it should be sitting on her chest in the middle
of the night, and it is undoubtedly a vision or a distortion of a
dream. Harding even describes it as a “spectre.” This is further
confirmed by its sudden disappearance, “She looked on the floor
whither she had whirled the spectre, but there was nothing to be
seen.” The whole story really revolves around the actions of the
spectre or vision, and this is the definite supernatural element in
the story. Later on however, both women go to see a “Conjurer
Trendle,” and Mrs Lodge sees the face of the person who cursed her in

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a bowl of egg white and water, and it is Rhoda, the correct person.
This event does not have a very significant impact upon the story, but
is still an example of the supernatural.

The vision may not appear to be the evil in the story, but it
certainly was the cause of the evil (the withering of Mrs Lodge’s
arm,) and in that respect it can be quite rationally argued to be the
evil. The mutation of Mrs Lodge does not in any way help Mrs Lodge or
Rhoda; although it causes the deterioration of the Lodge’s marriage,
Mr Lodge does not return to Rhoda.

The supernatural element in Lost Hearts is the ghosts of two children
that were brutally murdered by Mr Abney, so that he could obtain
superhuman power from their hearts. They return to visit Mr Abney when
his next victim arrives, his eleven year old cousin, Stephen.

The ghosts return to the house repeatedly, but their first visit is
made to Stephen in a dream, very similar to Rhoda’s experience in “The
Withered Arm.” Stephen was asleep, and “He found himself gazing at a
figure which lay in the bath. The terror of the sight forced Stephen
backwards and he awoke to the fact that he was indeed standing on the
cold boarded floor of the passage in the full light of the moon.”
Again, the supernatural visitation was in human form, and yet, in
parallel to the vision of Mrs Lodge, it is warped: “A figure
inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour.” The
visitor disturbs both characters, although Rhoda’s vision does a lot
more damage to Rhoda than the figure in the bath does to Stephen: the
figure makes no human contact with him. Indeed, he cannot be even sure
it was simply a vivid dream, whilst Mrs Lodge seems to almost
suffocate Rhoda, and “She could feel her antagonist’s arm- the very
flesh and bone of it, it seems.”

The “ghosts” continue to visit Stephen, and start to make physical
marks on the human world – “a most destructive and apparently wanton
series of slits or scorings,” appeared in Stephen’s night gown after a
bad night’s sleep that he did not make himself, and gouged scratch
marks appear on his bed room door which were “Too high up for any cat
or dog to have made them.” This assertion of their physical state is
similar to the withering of Mrs Lodge’s arm that Rhoda’s vision
created, although the actual actions are very different.

Later on, the ghosts make themselves even more obvious to us. Stephen
sees them both in the garden, and sees them for what they really are,
and he is “Inexpressibly frightened.” In comparison to Rhoda’s vision,
this is different, as she is only visited once, whilst Lost Hearts
leads us to believe that the ghosts visit at least three times.

Abney’s motive for killing the children is one he learned from an
ancient text that he has in his library. This text tells him that
should a man kill three people who are all under the age of twenty
one, and “absorb,” their hearts, he will attain superhuman abilities:
“to be able to fly in the air, to become invisible or to assume any
form he wanted.” These views in themselves are supernatural, as there
is no logical explanation as to why these abilities could be acquired
from the hearts of three children.

The third text, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is
very different to the previous two texts. It is very difficult to
ascertain the supernatural element in this story, if there is one at
all. Perkins Gilman was a female American writer, who, in her
lifetime, wrote hundreds of poems, 200 short stories and nine novels.
After giving birth, she sank into deep post natal depression, and her
cure was to rest, which nearly drove her mad. It is thought that she
wrote The Yellow Wallpaper to show destructive such attitudes to
female depression.

The Yellow Wallpaper sees an ill woman tormented, and finally driven
mad, by the yellow wallpaper that covers the room she is staying in.
she turns the wallpaper into an object of supernaturalism. Her mind
twists it, until she is seeing things in it that are most definitely
abnormal: “A woman stooping down and creeping around behind the
pattern.” However, in her mind there is nothing abnormal in seeing
these shapes in the wallpaper; they may scare her: “I don’t like it,
I wish John would take me away from here!” but there is never any
question in her writing that it may not be normal to see them. This
poses a question of whether there is any supernatural element in the
story; is her mind just creating these images, and if so, is it her
mind, or the woman behind the wallpaper that is irrational and
abnormal?

I don’t think the fact that she is not well in the head, quite from
the beginning of the book can be argued with, but there is a question
as to whether the paper itself really did corrupt her, and whether
her actions a the close of the story, creeping around the room, as the
woman behind the wallpaper, are too extreme for anybody to have
performed without supernatural intervention. The woman behind the wall
could indeed have possessed her, causing her to perform these bizarre
acts.

However, I believe that the wallpaper may have had an element of the
supernatural, that it hypnotized her to such an abnormal extent, but
that the woman and the mischievous, never ending patterns are just
figments of her bored, already unsteady mind.

This makes The Yellow Wallpaper very different to either of the other
stories. In neither Lost Hearts nor The Withered Arm was there such a
question about the supernatural. In Lost Hearts the whole storyline is
so fantastic, that there is no question of it occurring in real life,
but in terms of the story, James puts us in no doubt that the ghosts
really did exist. Similarly, in The Withered Arm Rhoda is in no doubt
that the vision really did visit her, and there is physical proof at
the hands of both apparitions.

Throughout the story of the Withered Arm, there is a question of the
supernatural: the villagers accusing Rhoda of being a witch, Mrs
Lodge’s potions, Conjurer Trendle and of course Rhoda’s vision. Hardy
writes the supernatural seamlessly into the story, and the setting of
a sleepy “Wessex” village seems to be in perfect conjunction with the
idea of spiritual happenings. The event of Rhoda’s visitation is very
cleverly written, as whilst Rhoda undoubtedly sees, and feels, the
figure there is no question of it being a normal event. As a reader,
you feel sympathy towards Rhoda and Mrs Lodge, and almost anger
against the vision, as it has no positive affect on any character in
the story.

In Lost Hearts, however, the reader harbours very different feelings
towards the ghosts. James describes the ghosts as real, desperate
victims. They were once alive, and in contrast to Rhoda’s vision which
was certainly never human, and that, coupled with the fact that they
are children, throws them into a completely different light. At their
first proper meeting with Stephen, James describes the boy as “A
figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic.” They are described as a
“dreadful pair,” but their “appearance of menace and of unappeasable
hunger and longing,” fills you with wary sympathy for their dreadful
situation.

The way they pursue Stephen, shredding his night clothes and scraping
their nails down his door is disturbing, but the fact that they were
innocent victims originally at the hands of humans makes them
pathetic, rather than frightening in the manner that the vision was in
The Withered Arm. Their seeming quest to return their hearts to their
rightful places and their warnings to Stephen, even if they are a
little misguided, gives the reader relatively warm feelings towards
them.

The story treats them with a sort of strange respect; that James
recognises that their revenge is something that they have to undertake
in. Indeed, this story, unlike many others, puts man (Abney,) as the
evil, and the spirits themselves as the victims.

The supernatural in The Yellow Wallpaper is even more subtly entwined
than in The Withered Arm. As it is written in the first person,
unlike the other two stories we, the reader, get a much clearer view
into the mind of the main character. We can tell that she is unhinged
from the start of the story as her writing style is very staccato,
using very short sentences and paragraphs. She also repeats herself:
“Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that
congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.” She
also uses excessive exclamation marks, giving the impression of a
distracted mind: “I am glad my case is not serious!” “It does weigh on
me so not to do my duty in any way!” “Such a dear baby!” “He laughs at
me so about this wallpaper!”

Perkins Gilman also appeals to our sight frequently throughout the
story, describing the exact colour of the wallpaper- “The colour is
repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow.” This means
that we have an almost perfect mental picture of the wallpaper and the
room, drawing us into the story even more, whether we want it to or
not.

She also writes very conversationally, so the reader feels more
connected with her, as a character, than with any of the other
characters. This relationship with the narrator starts to make the
reader more and more uneasy the further the story progresses. She
becomes with a mundane object: the wallpaper, a situation that
everyone can relate to, although perhaps not in such an extreme case
as hers. Her obsession has been blown out of all proportion, and the
relationship Perkins Gilman has created between us starts to make us
feel more uneasy the more erratic her behaviour becomes.

The wallpaper is an invasion of the unnatural in an otherwise rational
world, and this worries the reader that this could possibly happen to
us. The wallpaper is so ordinary, commonplace, and yet also completely
uniquely disturbing.

As I mentioned before, the obsession with the wallpaper, and therefore
the question of the supernatural is very cleverly woven into the
story. At first, she despises the wallpaper: “that horrid paper!” but
there is already the question of some power it may wield over her:
“This paper looks at me as if it knew what vicious influence it had!”
Her interest, that then turns to obsession is gradual in its
transition, “I lie on this great immovable bed and follow that pattern
by the hour.”

The transition is so gradual, that you hardly notice it is happening,
until the final “scene,” where behaviour becomes so erratic that the
existence of madness and the supernatural is indisputable. She calls
the pattern “torturing,“ and claims “that is why I watch it always.”
She becomes obsessed by sub pattern, and is “quite sure it is a
woman,” who she then treats as a person and believes to creep around
the room.

She does make one very clear headed suggestion- “It strikes me
occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis that perhaps it is the
paper!” – showing that she does still have some sanity. At first she
was desperate to be taken out of the house, but then later on says she
does not want to mention she is feeling better to her husband as “he
might even take me away.”

She talks about the woman behind the wallpaper as if she knows her:
“It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight! I
always lock the door when I creep by daylight.” This really does show
how she has become obsessed, mirroring the actions of the woman. She
believes that she has human contact with the woman, helping her escape
from the wallpaper.

She also becomes very protective over the paper: “No person touches
this paper but Me.” The capital M is very telling – she feels she is
above other people. At the end of the story she is seemingly
possessed by the woman, and this is something that never happened in
the other stories – the ghosts were always much more real, and
separate to the humans in the stories. The question of her psychosis
and possible insanity is one that is intriguing, but also very
disturbing.

In the Withered Arm, the ghost appears to be mischievous: “The blue
eyes peered cruelly into her face; and then the figure thrust forward
its left had mockingly, so as to make the wedding ring it wore glitter
in Rhoda’s eyes.” The vision’s taunting leads to her seeming to tempt
Rhoda to attack it. The vision could be seen to play the role that the
snake did in Eden: concealing the devil and tempting Rhoda to “sin” in
a religious sense.

The vision may not appear to be the evil in the story, but it
certainly was the cause of the evil (the withering of Mrs Lodge’s
arm,) and in that respect it can be quite rationally argued to be the
evil. The mutation of Mrs Lodge does not in any way help Mrs Lodge or
Rhoda; although it causes the deterioration of the Lodge’s marriage,
Mr Lodge does not return to Rhoda. Consequently, you feel that the
apparition of the spirit really was an act of pure malice, with no
positive consequences. The supernatural causing upset in human lives
is certainly not unusual in a piece of fiction.

In Lost Hearts the effect the spirits have on the lives of the human
character sis very severe – they end one man’s life, and revolutionize
the other character’s lives. Although it is not usual for the murder
of a man at the hands of the supernatural to be thought of as good
fortune, it undoubtedly is in this story. Abney really was evil; his
murder saved Stephen’s innocent life and gave the ghosts of the
innocent children much needed revenge.

Although the spirits did change the lives of Stephen and Mrs Bunch,
and did disturb them to start off with, they most definitely improved
their lives, and saved Stephen from a terrible fate. This is the
complete contrast to the Withered Arm, when the spirit did appear
malevolent, whilst these ghosts do have hearts, if not literally!

The reader is not specifically told the overall outcome of the
supernatural intervention in the Yellow Wallpaper. However, we do no
that it corrupts the narrator, and turns her insane, although she was
certainly unhinged to begin with. She was so distressed by the end of
the series that it is rational to assume that she needed special
medical attention, perhaps even moving to an institution.

The possession of the main character will certainly have a negative
effect on her husband, her brother and the friends that are
occasionally mentioned. This destruction of people’s lives is very
similar to that in the Withered Arm, but is almost the opposite of the
positive change to the characters’ lives in Lost Hearts.

Hardy also explores the superstition and belief behind the
supernatural. The villagers are very superstitious, and Rhoda “had
been slyly called a witch since her fall (from favour.)” In contrast,
Mr and Mrs Lodge are at first dismissive of the idea of the
supernatural, indeed at first they laughed about the idea of “some
witch, or the devil itself having blasted the flesh.” This is surely a
distinction between the education gap between the lower and middle
classes.

As the story progresses, however, Mrs Lodge becomes more and more
superstitious and her “whole time was given to every quack remedy she
came across.” This is in stark contrast to her previous sceptical
manner. This shows how an experience with the supernatural can change
a person’s view and beliefs. Mr Lodge, however, remains as rational in
thought as before, saying “Damned if you won’t poison yourself with
these apothecary messes and witch remedies some time or another” Here
Hardy is possibly highlighting the difference between the two sexes.

Hardy also explores the superstition and belief behind the
supernatural. The villagers are very superstitious, and Rhoda “had
been slyly called a witch since her fall (from favour.)” In contrast,
Mr and Mrs Lodge are at first dismissive of the idea of the
supernatural, indeed at first they laughed about the idea of “some
witch, or the devil itself having blasted the flesh.” This is surely a
distinction between the education gap between the lower and middle
classes.

As the story progresses, however, Mrs Lodge becomes more and more
superstitious and her “whole time was given to every quack remedy she
came across.” This is in stark contrast to her previous sceptical
manner. This shows how an experience with the supernatural can change
a person’s view and beliefs. Mr Lodge, however, remains as rational in
thought as before, saying “Damned if you won’t poison yourself with
these apothecary messes and witch remedies some time or another” Here
Hardy is possibly highlighting the difference between the two sexes.

The reactions of the characters in Lost Hearts towards the
supernatural are slightly less complicated. The very comfortable, but
not particularly bright housekeeper, Mrs Bunch is worried by the
suggestion of spirits, but very practical: she is “much impressed,” by
Stephen’s recounting his dream, but immediately goes to Mr Abney.
However, her practically cannot necessarily be interpreted as bravery,
as it is unlikely that she completely understood what was going on,
and claimed that Mr Abney is “as kind a soul as ever I see!”

Stephen is understandably terrified by the ghosts’ visits, and when he
sees them both together is “inexpressibly frightened.” However, James
mentions in their first meeting that he acted “with a courage which I
do not think can be common among the boys of his age,” suggesting that
he was in fact surprisingly brave.

Mr Abney has, as was aforementioned, an unnatural obsession with the
supernatural, as is shown by his response to Stephen’s dream of the
ghost: “Mr Abney was greatly interested and made notes of the matter
in what he called “his book.”” This obsession is further explained in
the final stages of the story, where his reason for murdering the
children becomes clear. He does not appear scared or even worried by
probing into the world of the supernatural. Indeed, he only sees it in
terms of achieving his own means. Perhaps this is the utterly selfish
view of the completely ruthless.

In the Yellow Wallpaper the possibility of the supernatural even
existing is not mentioned once. The narrator’s brother and husband are
both doctors, and this profession revolving around logic and book
learning leaves no room for even the idea of the supernatural.

She says her husband is “practical in the extreme;” there even seems
to be a taboo surrounding the idea of a spirit, or anything not wholly
scientific having affected the woman. The narrator herself never
mentions the supernatural either; this, in the context of the previous
two stories, only leads to the reader feeling more uncomfortable and
increasing the feeling of taboo. However, to the irrational, unhinged
mind, everything has certain logic to it, and logic is surely the
opposite of the supernatural.

Although, in my opinion, fate is not the major theme in these stories,
it is still one that is important, and closely related to the
supernatural.

In the Withered Arm, fate plays a very large part in the ending scene,
where Rhoda, Mr Lodge, Mrs Lodge and Rhoda and Mr Lodge’s son all
meet, six years since they all did so together. The very gruesome, and
uncomfortable, situation in which they meet is such that it leads to
the assumption that fate is involved. Of all the hung men Mrs Lodge
could have chosen to touch her arm to, it is a very large coincidence
that it was her unknowing step son.

It seems as if Hardy had loose ends to tie up, and this was the most
effective way of doing so. Although the meeting is not a pleasant one,
essentially it leads to Mrs Lodge’s death; it gives the reader a
feeling of closure, as if fate truly has had the “last laugh” in the
story.

Although, in my opinion, fate is not the major theme in these stories,
it is still one that is important, and closely related to the
supernatural.

In Lost Hearts, Hardy investigates another off shoot of the concept of
fate: karma, which is also loosely connected to the supernatural.

Karma is the originally spiritual view that however you behave to
others, that same behaviour will be given to you, or, to put it more
bluntly: what goes around comes around. Mr Abney certainly deserved
the end that he received, and there is a feeling that he is getting
his comeuppance: he is certainly a victim of karma. He has brutally
murdered two innocent children, and he meets his end in the exact
gruesome way: his heart ripped from his body.

There is also a feeling that Stephen is fated the moment he arrives at
Abney’s house, from the imposing description of the house upon
Stephen’s arrival to Abney’s repeated questioning of his age.

Fate does not play a large role in Yellow Wallpaper, but this is
perhaps as it falls under the same blanket of taboo that the unspoken
quesitonof the supernatural does.

However, simlar to in Lost Hearts, you feel the narrator is fated in
her renting out the house right from the point that she commetns on
its low price. The fact that her husband is very unwilling to move
downstairs gives an omen of her being forced to stay in the
wallpapered room, that fate is doing its best to subject it to her.

In this story even more than the other two you feel the fate could
almost be personified as toying with her, worrying and frustrating her
in her wish to leave the room, until it finally gets bored and leaves
her to her fate.

Thus, I can conclude that all three authors treat the questions of
fate and the supernatural very differently. In all the stories the
supernatural is the underlying theme, and it is personified in the
same way in all three: ghosts, or spirits. The Withered Arm and the
Yellow Wallpaper both view it, essentially, in the conventional way
common in fiction: as the evil of the story, the undoing of the
characters. In Lost Hearts, however, the ghosts are viewed as the
victims, which is unusual.

In most aspects, Lost Heats and the Withered Arm contain many more
similarities than with the Yellow Wallpaper. The contrast between all
three stories’ involvement and use of the supernatural is complex, but
very intriguing.
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