In this essay I will be discussing three short stories – Half Brothers and The Sexton’s Hero, both by Elizabeth Gaskell, and also Werewolf, which is written by Angela Carter. I will compare them, and discuss the overall question ‘What is a hero’, and see how and if the stories address this subject. Elizabeth Gaskell was a writer who looked deeply at the grim reality of life, something that no writers before her had dared to do. She created books that told what a struggle it was to survive, and this earned her the friendship of writers such as Charles Dickens.
Her novels, among them being ‘Mary Barton’, were extremely controversial and allowed the previously ‘sheltered’ middle-class to see what life was really like in the depths of the city. Angela Carter is a writer whose work nearly always falls within the fantasy genre. In particular, she is known for ‘ her attempts to deconstruct fairytales in terms of adult meaning, and to bring out an underlying subtext. ‘ (Quote from fortunecity. com) The first short story that I shall be discussing is Werewolf, by Angela Carter.
In folklore and legend, a werewolf is a person that changes into a wolf by the light of the full moon, but it is not a clear cut as that in this particular tale. As soon as the story begins we are drawn into a depressing, almost hostile place. ‘They have cold weather, they have cold hearts. ‘ The repetition of cold only serves to emphasise the point of how bitter it is there – almost as if the narrator is trying to discourage us from going any further. Straight away we are left with a question – who are the mysterious ‘they’ and why do they have such cold hearts?
It is something that we are left wondering about, as the answer is never given. As the story progresses, we are never told who the narrator actually is – do they simply not want us to know, or are they trying to protect their identity? One thing that we do gather is that the narrator may be an outsider. The use of the word ‘they’ gives the impression that the narrator may not be a central part of this; they may only be telling the story as they have been taught it. At this point in the story, the narration is in the third person, but the tense quickly changes from present to future.
‘Their houses are built of logs, dark and smoky within. There will be a crude icon of the virgin behind a guttering candle… ‘ The story goes on to tell us how the inhabitants of this place believe in the Devil, and often glimpse him. It tells how everybody knows that the Devil and the witches dig up fresh corpses and eat them, showing that this is common knowledge, a fact of life that everybody accepts. Beliefs are clearly taken very seriously in this place – garlic is used to warn off vampires, children born on St. Johns Eve will have second sight and any woman who appears ‘different’ to the others is presumed to be a witch.
The Devil brings a pagan aspect to their beliefs, leading us to wonder if there is going to be a darker side to all of this. Soon we find out that there is. As soon as the villagers find any sign that anyone among them is a witch, they search her for the ‘supernumary nipple that her familiar sucks. They soon find it. ‘ Maybe they find it because they want to, because they want to drive anyone who is remotely different out of their community. Throughout this beginning section, the narration draws the reader into an almost mythical plot, a plot that revolves around witches and the Devil, around spells and vampires.
As the story progresses, into this plot is added the realism of an apparently normal girl going to visit her sick Grandmother. It is here that the narration becomes quite strange. We have what appears to be the first and only direct speech in the story, but there are no speech marks at all. Go and visit Grandmother, who has been sick. Take her the oatcakes I’ve baked for her on the hearthstone and a little pot of butter. The next part of the story says: ‘The good child does as her mother bids. ‘ These extracts give us the first definitive characters in Werewolf – a child and her mother.
It is interesting that there are no male characters – in almost all fairytales there is a dominant male, and this is possibly our first clue to Angela Carter’s views on feminism and the woman’s role in society. It is interesting also that the mother was so willing to put her daughter into danger. In a community where the Devil and other pagan beliefs are taken so seriously, you would think that a mother would think twice about asking her daughter to walk five miles through a dangerous forest. Although this is the turning point in the story, the narration here seems to lack any real emotion.
It tells how the child faced the wolf, but it tells us sharply and pointedly, with no real feeling involved. ‘…. she dropped her gifts and turned on the beast. It was a huge one with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright. ‘ We are then told of the point when the child cut’s off the wolf’s paw: … but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off it’s right forepaw. ‘ When the child is confronted with the wolf, she is faced with danger but does not flee.
Instead, she cuts off the paw in a fearless and logical manner, and then carries on through the forest, showing us a degree of bravery. It is here that we can first bring in the issue of heroes in this story – the child didn’t panic, and only endangered herself, so does that make her a hero? Again, this gives us another insight into Angela Carters views on feminism. In this era of fiction, we do not normally see women succeeding no matter what, and here it could be seen as postmodern feminism. Another example of this is when it says ‘ any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright.
‘ The child is portrayed as strong, a contrast to the damsel in distress that we normally see in typical fairytales. By this point, the narration has reverted back to third person, but we still have no idea who the narrator actually is. If we look at the source and witness, we can come to the possible conclusion that the narrator is actually the child. It doesn’t mention anyone else being around to watch the incident, and so there is no witness, which means that the only possible source that this could have come from appears to be the child herself.
However, this really doesn’t seem very likely. There is no ‘ I ‘ used, and if the narrator was the child, she would be hiding behind a mask almost, wanting to protect her identity, and that again gives us another question – why? After the fight with the wolf, the child calmly wipes the blood off her knife, wraps the paw in her cloth and carries on towards her Grandmother’s house. It is here that we get the first inkling that all is not as it seems in this story. ‘Soon it came on to snow so thickly that the path and any footsteps,
track or spoor that might have been upon it were obscured. ‘ Why has the narrator made such a point of this? Is it simply to provide us with background information, or is it to make the point that all evidence of the fight (e. g. Paw prints) will have disappeared, leaving no clue as to what went on? When the child gets to the house, she finds that her grandmother is sick. We are given a description of how the child plays the doting granddaughter – she makes a cold compress and tries to make her grandmother as comfortable as possible.
It is also here that all realism comes to and end – the paw falls out of the child’s cloth, and to our horror and shock, we find that it has turned into a human hand. This links back to the pagan beliefs that we are given an insight into right at the beginning of the story. Surely only black magic could have transformed the paw into a hand? There is another twist in the story here – we find out that the hand belongs to the Grandmother. ‘It was a hand, chopped off at the wrist, a hand toughened with work and freckled with age. There was a wedding ring on the third finger, and a wart on the index finger.
By the wart, she knew it for her Grandmother’s hand. ‘ We are given many seemingly insignificant details about the hand, all of which lead up to the one most important detail – the Grandmother had a wart. Going back to the beliefs about witches, a wart was the one thing that in this community’s mind defined a witch. They saw it as a witch’s nipple, and killed whoever is belonged to. Is that what is going to happen here? Again, the only source here appears to be the child, although the Grandmother could be a witness. The narration here is extremely important.
It is full of description that allows us to get an insight into what the child is feeling, along with what is happening to the Grandmother. The child pulls back her Grandmother’s covers and sees that ‘there was a bloody stump where her right hand should have been, festering already. ‘ Again the child uses the knife, this time to hold down and restrain her Grandmother. We are also given a feeling of time – the fact that it says ‘festering already’ gives the impression that the amputation must have happened recently. Another twist comes in this already complicated story.
When the child sees what has happened, she crosses herself and alerts the neighbours. ‘… And cried out so loud the neighbours heard her and came rushing in. They knew the wart on the hand at once for a witch’s nipple; they drove the old woman, in her shift as she was, out into the snow with sticks, beating her old carcass as far as the edge of the forest and pelted her with stones until she fell down dead. ‘ Again, the narration is pivotal here. It allows us to see the ambiguous, different levels of this story, and makes us begin to ponder them.