The character of the Woman in Black

  • menacing
  • determined
  • unforgiving

The character of Jennet Humfrye appears throughout the story as a ghost: a woman in black. Every time she is seen, a child in the village dies. She appears to Arthur Kipps at Alice Drablow’s funeral, later at Eel Marsh House and again at the end in the park before the accident that kills Stella and Joseph.

We learn from Samuel Daily that she is the ghost of Jennet Humfrye, a young woman who had a baby out of wedlock. This was not socially acceptable during Edwardian times. Her sister, Alice Drablow, adopts the child along with her husband, in an attempt to hide Jennet’s situation.

When her child dies in an accident on the Nine Lives Causeway, Jennet is distraught, and afterwards she haunts the people of Crythin Gifford in revenge. Every time she is seen, a child in the village dies, either in an accident or from the sudden onset of illness.

How is The Woman in Black like this?EvidenceAnalysis
VengefulIn life, Jennet Humfrye's child died in an accident and she was driven mad with her desire for revenge.She blamed her sister who had let them go out that day.Her emotion is so powerful that she pursues revenge beyond her life and returns to haunt other people.
MenacingJennet carries her resentment beyond the grave.The woman in black seemed to haunt me, even here, to sit on the end of my bed, to push her face suddenly down close to mine as I lay asleep, so I awoke crying out in terror.Once she has found a victim, it seems the ghost is unrelenting and will not let them go until she finds a way to satisfy her desire for revenge.
UnforgivingThe Woman in Black appears repeatedly to Arthur Kipps and haunts him even when he leaves Crythin Gifford altogether.I felt all over again the renewed power emanating from her, the malevolence and hatred and passionate bitterness.When Arthur sees the ghost for the final time, he is struck by the energy of her unforgiving and powerful need for revenge.
FrighteningHer physical appearance is pale and sickly, and she shows herself to Kipps when he is alone and insecure. I had seen a woman whose form was quite substantial and yet in some essential respect also, I had no doubt, ghostly.Even though Kipps claims not to believe in ghosts, he is frightened by the appearance of the woman.

Social and historical context

An early photograph of an Edwardian family
An Edwardian family photograph

Although Susan Hill wrote The Woman in Black in 1983, the novella is set in the Edwardian era. This context makes the revenge story of Jennet Humfrye more convincing. In Edwardian society, the ideal woman was one whose moral values were strong. It was not considered 'proper' for a woman to have a child outside of marriage. A woman who did so, risked being cut-off by her family, especially if she was from the upper social class, as the Drablows with their vast estate appear to have been. In many cases babies were taken away from their mothers to hide the fact that they had engaged in sexual relations out of wedlock.

Analysing the evidence

quote
She was dressed in deepest black, in the style of full mourning that had rather gone out of fashion except, I imagined, in court circles on the most formal of occasions. Indeed, it had clearly been dug out of some old trunk or wardrobe, for its blackness was a little rusty looking. Kipps' first sighting of The Woman in Black
Question

How does Susan Hill first present the Woman in Black?

'She was dressed in deepest black, in the style of full mourning that had rather gone out of fashion except, I imagined, in court circles on the most formal of occasions. Indeed, it had clearly been dug out of some old trunk or wardrobe, for its blackness was a little rusty looking.'

  • dressed in deepest black - the emphatic blackness of the woman's dress seems to imply that her mourning is also of the 'deepest' kind. This is a woman whose grief is strongly felt.
  • full mourning that had rather gone out of fashion - she is shown as being from another time by the way she wears old-fashioned clothes to the funeral. The word 'full mourning' suggests she is deep in grief. Her clothes add to the impression we get of her isolation.
  • its blackness was a little rusty looking - there is something odd about the 'rusty' look to her clothes. We are alerted to the fact that she is strange in her appearance, perhaps worn out, as the word 'rusty' suggests.