John elicits a sympathetic response from the reader but he is not without flaws.
Though Crichton Smith depicts him as an attractive young man, with
a handsome and
good looking face, he also emphasises that
there was something childish about it with a
petulant mouth and eyes that were
as dangerous and irresponsible as a child’s.
We realise that John is emotionally immature and therefore ill equipped to deal with his mother’s constant berating.
His unhappiness stems not only from her perpetual hectoring, but also from a feeling he is not making progress with his life, and instead is consigned to a kind of purgatorial existence in the farmhouse.
As each of the other boys in the village begins to break away, taking jobs and having nights out, John is unable to escape from the cycle of abuse. A sense of duty compels him to look after her and their land. In doing so, his own dreams and ambitions remain unfulfilled.
Life in this rural village is bleak. Crichton Smith emphasises the hardship of such an existence in the opening paragraphs. John comes home with his clothes
dripping and with water
streaming down his cheeks… reddened by the wind and the rain. Yet as he comes home, he leaves one inhospitable climate for another in the cottage.
This is a home entirely bereft of any sense of warmth or comfort and the room is dominated by the
four poster bed with soiled covers.
John is overwhelmed by a sense of impotence and frustration at the way he is treated by his mother. As he tries to light the fire, he curses
vindictively and helplessly. This emphasises his exasperation and dissatisfaction with his situation. Yet he is unable to do anything about it.
John's relationship with his mother subverts our usual expectations of the mother and son bond. It has a deeply corrosive effect of his. The impact upon his psyche is severe and is revealed in feelings of intense bitterness coupled with a desire to tune out of her criticisms.
At times he can
halt and watch her out of a clear cold mind to try to numb himself from the pain of her jibes. Despite this he admits just how hurtful he still finds her remarks. While occasionally
her bitter barbs passed over him… Most often however they stung him and stood quivering in his flesh., John is no match for the psychological war waged by his mother and feels increasingly embittered and emasculated.
There are hints that even in spite of her relentless cruelty, he still seeks some sense of approval from her. He becomes
deferential to her at times as if
he were asking for her pity.
Here Crichton Smith highlights the particularly complex nature of the mother and child relationship. John’s relationship with his mother is toxic and dysfunctional but he still seems to be bound to her and want her blessing.
As the story continues, John eventually does reach his limit as the relentlessness of her attacks finally peaks.
terrible weariness takes hold of him till
he felt himself in a dark cave, trying to protect himself from her rage
burrowing into him and he experiences a moment of clarity,
Everything was clearing up… She’s breaking me up so that even when she dies I won’t be any good for anyone.
This realisation finally seems to bring a sense of peace to John,
His sense of loneliness closed round him, just as his house was on limitless moorland. There was a calm unspeaking silence, while the rain beat like a benediction on the roof.
As he observes the
bitter, bitter smile upon her face and his mind is once more in
a turmoil of hate, instead of lashing out at her with his clenched fists, John turns away, opens the door and listens to the rain.
In the end then, John finds release from her cruelty not through lashing out, but in withdrawing. The open door symbolises that finally he may find the strength and maturity to leave.