The Little Stranger: Final thoughts for Readalong at www.EstellaSociety.com
Creep. When it’s a verb it moves slowly and often overtakes one by surprise. When it’s a noun, he -- she or it -- gives you the willies.
The Little Stranger is a creep who/that creeps up on the reader.
In my reading of Sarah Waters’ book, the Little Stranger is Faraday – although for much of the read I could be convinced otherwise. I thought that perhaps it was a figment of each character’s greatest desire. Now I know it’s both. The figments detach and take on a life of their own but, someone, as Caroline said, is at the root of it. She suspects her brother Rod at the time.
What’s marvelous about this revelation is that Waters keeps it from both reader and characters alike so long, and so artfully. Faraday, himself, never seems to get it as evidenced by the last sentence (which finally also reveals the identity of the ghost to the reader).
But back to the beginning.
As a 10-year old Faraday is a little stranger who visits the Hundreds on Empire Day with his mother. He is so taken with the house and takes a piece of it – a small acorn from the molding. “It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it—or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspect a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. It was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamored of.”
As a 40-year old he returns to treat a young servant, Betty, who is faking illness because she is afraid of the large, creaky house. At this point, I would agree with Caroline Ayers that the house is nothing to be afraid of ---- yet.
Faraday slowly insinuates himself into the household, first by attaching electrodes to Rod’s leg--- how creepy is that and how reminiscent of old-fashioned doctors, who were also called leeches (as in Hawthorne’ Scarlet Letter chapter “The Leech and His Patient”). This is the beginning of the similarity to Chillingworth for me (with a shade of Dr. Frankenstein tossed in).
While early Gothic novels featured perverted priests; the modern-day equivalent is the doctor.
How nice Faraday is. How safe he seems. How concerned he is. How understanding. As a doctor, he’s in the position to listen to all the patient’s concerns—the most intimate of one’s emotional, physical, spiritual and even supernatural complaints and to cater to them, dismiss them and exploit them. He knows the weaknesses of each member of the family.
Faraday is not so enamored of the family as he is of the house; the house, which is as another reader has said, is a character in the book. It’s the house Faraday wants to possess – and so the house becomes “possessed” by him.
The explanation of how such possession comes late in the book in two parts. First Caroline tells Faraday of two books of her father’s she has found. Interestingly she first thought they were “medical textbooks.” But Phantasms of the Living and The Night Side of Nature don’t describe physical but rather supernatural disturbances. These disturbances closely parallel what has been happening in the house. (P 372).
The books describe poltergeists. “They are not ghosts. They are parts of a person… Unconscious parts, so strong or so troubled they can take on a life of their own. The book says that when they’re unhappy or troubled, or they want something badly – Sometimes they don’t even know it’s happening. Something … breaks away from them. … Suppose it’s Roddie…. “Well if this book is right, then someone’s at the root of it.”
Faraday is the catalyst. He sets off each member of the household. First, the poltergeist gets rid of the dog – when he bites a “little stranger,” the wrong little stranger, but nevertheless an uninvited small guest.
Rod is afraid of fire – having been burned in the war and he is frustrated with balancing the books and running the manor. His undoing is a response to that.
Next up Mrs. Ayres—who loved her first child Sarah, and lost her at a young age. The piece of her that haunts her is the child calling her to join her in death.
Finally, the plain spinster Caroline, who is humiliated once when the gathering at which she is presented to a potential suitor, Mrs. Baker-Hyde’s brother, Mr. Morley, turns into disaster. (Curiously, this nearly doesn’t happen. The delay of the Baker-Hydes’ departure only happens because Faraday asks a question.) Her desire for marriage – and escape from The Hundreds takes up the final third of the book as Faraday courts her. And oh what a creepy suitor he turns out to be.
When does no mean no? He repeatedly convinces himself that Caroline’s no’s are only said because she is tired or not in her right mind. Increasingly we see him try to change her mind and that it's the house he wants, not her.
Faraday’s colleague Seely completes the explanation of how poltergeists work. He uses a family example: “But suppose the stress of my uncle’s injury, combined with the bond between him and my father—suppose all of that somehow released some sort of … psychic force. The force simple took the shape that would best get my father’s attention.’ He goes on to apply it to the Ayerses.
“Is it so surprising with things for that family so bleak? The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop --- to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self perhaps: A Caliban a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hunger the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice and frustration…. Caroline suspects her brother….”
Faraday considers this theory for a bit – but looks to Caroline as the catalyst, before dismissing the irrational with the rational explanations he so often prefers.
As it turns out the character most full of nasty impulses like envy, malice and frustration is Faraday.
As his courtship of Caroline -- and the motivation behind it – to takeover the Hundreds -- becomes increasingly frustrated, those impulses become clearer to the reader, and he becomes increasingly unhinged.
When Caroline leaps –or is pushed – from the stair landing, he is asleep in his car dreaming – and who knows where is unconscious is – he describes an out of body dream: “And in the slumber I seemed to leaved the car, and to press on to Hundreds; I saw myself doing it with all the hectic, unnatural clarity with which I’d been recalling the dash to the hospital a little while before. I saw myself cross the silvered landscape and pass like smoke through the Hundreds gate.”(p484)
During Betty’s testimony in court, Betty hearing Miss Caroline call out the word ‘You” “as if she had seen someone she knew, but as if she was afraid or them and then describes seeing Miss Caroline fall. During this testimony, Faraday grows so ashen; a colleague asks if he is all right. Betty goes on to describe her ghost theory saying, “The ghost hadn’t wanted her in the house, but it hadn’t wanted her to go either. I was a spiteful ghost and and wanted the house all for its own.”(P494-5)
Betty has described Faraday perfectly.
And then of course there’s the book’s final sentence. Faraday tells us if Hundreds Hall is haunted, he doesn’t see the ghost. When he looks in the window pane, the only face he sees is his own. He does not recognize the possibility that he may be the poltergeist; this reader however, begs to differ with his vision.
Final final thoughts: All I have touched on here is an answer to who is the stranger and how the poltergeist works. I was fascinated to read in the acknowledgments that Waters lists works of nonfiction she is indebted to and includes Phantasms of the Living (1886) and The Night Side of London (1848), among other books about poltergeists. I like it that these are real books.
The other aspect of this book that I admire is the larger theme of one age overtaking another and the diminishment of grander times, grand families, grand estates.