“The Signalman” (1866) is a ghost story by iconic English author Charles Dickens. If you’ve ever fantasised about leaving your open office or customer service job to work alone in a tiny box in the middle of nowhere, unbothered and free to get on with your straight-forward but very necessary job, this might be the story for you.
HOW DO I GET A JOB IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE AS A SIGNALMAN?
First, the bad news. You’d have to travel back in time.
A signaller is an employee of a railway transport network who operates the points and signals from a signal box in order to control the movement of trains. Some signallers are women. The job of signallers in boxes next to railways started in the early 1800s. At first they were called the Railway Police. They were as important as air traffic controllers today.
Early signallers would hang out in their signal box until a train passed by. Then they would check for the red tail lamp on the last carriage of a train to ensure nothing had fallen off. Then they’d write it down in a Train Register Book. These books were pretty large and heavy. Signallers recorded train movements and every communication that happened between other signallers at different boxes. They didn’t actually talk to anyone. They communicated via bell codes.
Sounds pretty cruisey, but this was a stressful gig! You had no computer back up. Keeping trains on the right tracks and apart from each other was entirely up to you and you had to stay awake.
Since the early 1800s, the job description of a signaller has changed a lot due to computerisation. Centralised Rail Operating Centres now do the work originally conducted in signal boxes. Old buildings are often repurposed by communities (e.g. for cafes or community projects) if they’re sufficiently distant from a working railway line.
You can still find many signal boxes throughout Britain and other British colonies, notably India, South Africa and along the three east coast states of Australia. (The Australian signal system is especially ridiculous because the signal colours weren’t shared between states!)
Oh, there was no good news, by the way. Death comes to us all.
Oftentimes in stories and metaphor, the train track symbolises our linear human experience of the passing of time. (Astrophysicists tell us that’s not actually how time works; none of the pop science communicators has ever managed to help my brain understand how space and time are the same thing. Congratulations and a stiff ticket if you are one of the few who can get your brain around that.)
What else do you associate with trains? Tunnels, probably. Tunnels (man-made caves) have a whole symbolism of their own. Train tracks are also frequently set either above or below the surrounding land. In this case, the narrator must go down a steep slope before reaching the train track. He descends into the underworld.
To get a sense of the setting, there’s a 1976 BBC adaptation of “The Signalman”.
Charles Dickens was himself in a railway accident. He was lucky to survive. This story is certainly an outworking of the trauma he experienced after that experience, and from which he never recovered. It is extremely creepy (though a coincidence nonetheless) that Dickens died five years to the day after the accident.
The Princess and the Pea was first published in 1835, one of a handful of satirical, colloquial fairy tales in an unbound collection by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. The colloquial language didn’t go down well with critics at the time, who also didn’t appreciate that Andersen’s silly little “wonder tales” failed to convey a moral suitable for children.
It took another 11 years for English speakers to read this story in translation, but it wasn’t the same story at all. Translator Charles Boner didn’t pick up on Andersen’s satire. Or perhaps he did pick up on it, but didn’t find it funny. In any case, Boner (great name, huh?) did not simply translate Andersen’s tale, he changed the ending and left English readers with something quite different.
“The Night Before Christmas” is an alternative title of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (controversially) by a guy called Clement Clarke Moore. The poem was first published anonymously in 1823 and only later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837, the start of the Victorian era. A Dutch migrant called Henry Livingston might be the true author. We don’t know.
A character is different from their family/tribe and feels utterly alone. Eventually they find their ‘people’ who accept them for who they really are. Understanding they are not alone in the world after all, the main character accepts themselves. Now they can be happy.
The Ugly Duckling is at its heart a transgression story. In any transgression story the mask must come off at some point, revealing the animal’s true self. Stories in which a character wears ‘someone else’s’ identity and remains hidden are rare and run counter to audience expectation.
This basic plot of loneliness to community to acceptance is ancient, and not surprisingly so, since humans are a social species. Separated from their tribe in the wild, a human won’t survive for long. Unlike all other animals species, the human woman cannot so much as give birth on her own.
Most non-human primates give birth unassisted with relatively little difficulty.
Partly for biomechanical reasons, loneliness for us means death, even more than for many other species. This age-old loneliness plot taps into the most primal of human fears. And in children’s literature in particular, stories very often begin with the empathetic main character in a state of loneliness, hence all the moving house/starting new school stories. The child character also quite often starts from a state of boredom, though some loneliness researchers include ‘boredom’ as a type of loneliness (called ‘existential loneliness’ — being without a purpose in the world).
Read a modern re-telling of “The Elves and the Shoemaker” and you might conclude it’s a tale in praise of gratitude: Gratitude is noble. If someone does you a kind turn, be nice in return.
But that was not the takeaway message for earlier audiences of this tale, told to people with a very different, supernatural worldview. Back when people sort-of-really did believe in fairies, “The Elves and the Shoemaker” tales offered a warning: Do not, whatever you do, make clothes for fairies. DO NOT DABBLE IN ELF-CRAFT. DO NOT ENCOURAGE THEM INTO YOUR HOME.
The Piano (1993) is a lyrical, fairytale film written and directed by Jane Campion, set and filmed in New Zealand near the beginning of white colonisation.
SETTING OF THE PIANO
Like many creative New Zealanders, Campion comes from Wellington. I don’t know why so much creativity comes out of the Wellington region, but I suspect it has something to do with the dramatic landscape and its harsh climate. I don’t dismissively mean that the weather is so terrible that people have nothing else to do but stay inside and make their own fun. I mean, when you immerse yourself in New Zealand’s most outdoors settings, you can occasionally be struck by a sense of awe, and that awe carries over into your work.
Interestingly, Nesbit was famously scared of the dark.
I spend a bit of time on book recommendation sites and modern parents are still buying Enid Blyton. I wish someone, once in a while, would place E. Nesbit in the hands of modern kids, if we insist that classics aren’t classics unless they’re 50 to 100 years old. You’ll find Nesbit’s children’s books have aged far less terribly than everyone else’s.That’s because Nesbit was a leftie feminist. And here’s the thing about leftie feminism: What looks radical today looks sensible after a few decades, even to conservatives.
Aside from children’s literature, Nesbit wrote short stories (for adults). “Man-sized In Marble” is her best-known example, though most people who know of Nesbit probably don’t know her for her short stories at all.
THE GOTHIC TRADITION
As explained below, Nesbit chose gothic conventions to convey her ideas. What are gothic conventions, exactly? I have wondered that myself and went into it here.
‘Man-Size in Marble’’ (1893) is both a successful Gothic chiller and a more politicized investigation of the plight of the artistically ambitious New Woman under patriarchy. It posits that while Gothic’s anti-feminism during the fin de siècle (end of the [nineteenth] century) is an increasingly familiar topic of study, little attention has yet been paid to the ways in which Gothic can also serve as a means of critiquing such attitudes. Through a close reading of Nesbit’s story and a comparison with other relevant texts of the era, the essay suggests that the author’s own radicalism, often overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children*, encourages her to expose the violence inherent within late nineteenth-century social systems. For Nesbit, the Gothic is the perfect instrument for such a project.
*Though it’s doubtful meant this way here, the phrasing of ‘overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children’ may encourage an interpretation that, had Nesbit ONLY been a writer for children, this would have indeed been a lesser thing. This is an attitude that has plagued children’s literature since the beginning of children’s literature. In fact, children’s literature must appeal to both adults and children and is therefore one of the most difficult things to write.
Mrs Dorman the housekeeper is a classic Gothic archetype. She’s the Cassandra figure who warns of impending doom but no one believes her. She’s the Madwoman or the Old Wife. However, in this feminist story she is more than an archetype. She is indeed old and wise with a deep store of local knowledge. She refuses the neat division between legend and history. She is presented as the inverse of a Londoner. Mrs Dorman has a symbolic name. She oversees the transmission of stories between the ancient village and its newcomers.
Laura is the virginal character (although not literally, since she’s newly married).
The narrator is the hero of his own story, according to him. If he wet his pants and ran away screaming, he’s not going to tell us, is he.
The setting of the church and graveyard is a classic setting for Gothic horror.
Your typical gothic horror includes members of the clergy. In this tale the clergy are conspicuous by their absence — the ending does not encourage us to believe there’s a God looking after us all, though that’s what Jack thinks.
By the 1890s gothic fiction was becoming increasingly violent. This story is quietly, off-the-page violent, but shocking for its time. There are several reasons why readers were developing a higher tolerance for gore — newspapers were reporting crimes in greater detail; the library system collapsed and this led to relaxed censorship; writers of realist fiction were pushing the boundaries with stark horror; magazines wanted shorter short stories which meant writers were cramming in more content via shock value.
The symbolism is Catholic, which makes this part of British Gothic tradition — a ‘Latinate, idolatrous and regressive world at odds with the progressive rationalism and secular statehood inaugurated by Henry VIII’s break with Rome’. (Women and the Victorian Occult).
This story belongs to a subcategory of the gothic tale, about sinister ceremonies, anniversaries and rites. These are pagan in origin. Other examples: “Pallinghurst Barrow” and “Wolverden Tower” by Grant Allen, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. In film we have The Wicker Man, which ends in fire. However, Nesbit’s rites have their origins in Catholicism.
Nesbit made use of folklore and Gothic conventions but some of it is her own invention completely.
STORYWORLD OF “MAN-SIZE IN MARBLE”
“Man-size In Marble” is set in Brenzett, which today has a population of about 400. There’s not much to it. Nesbit herself lived in Kent most of her life, though she was born in what is now Greater London. When I looked Brenzett up on Wikipedia I learned that this story is one of the most famous things about it. On the map you’ll find it about halfway between Hastings and Dover.
1893 was the era of the so-called “New Woman”. Even without the vote, British feminists were encouraging independence, and advised women receive an education of their own. Of course, it was only women from the middle and upper classes who could afford to take this advice. Almost all of the fertile women in England who remained unmarried in the second half of the 1800s were from the upper classes and I surmise they preferred it that way. But these women were considered useless to society (what is a woman for, if not to provide sex and children for men?) and some put forth arguments that these women should be shipped off to the colonies, where there was a wife drought. (I wonder how many women were shipped here to Australia for that reason, against their will?)
MEN ARE MEN AND WOMEN ARE WOMEN!
During the 1880s and 1890s, there was a moral panic about how they were living in ‘sexual anarchy’ (according to writer George Gissing). All the established rules about sexual identity and behaviour were felt to be breaking down. This upsets conservatives.
I believe we have entered another moral panic in the last five years or so, as trans people are finally having their moment, and as non-binary people are requesting we use their preferred pronouns.
The Catholic All Saints tradition is now expressed in America as Halloween. All Saints Day wasn’t the only date associated with the supernatural. People used to stay up all night ‘porch-watching’. They would stay up all night in the church porch hoping to see the wraiths of all the local parishioners parade by. This would let them know who would die in the coming year. However, this wasn’t an All Saints thing to do — most people would’ve done it on St Marks Eve (April 24).
Girls were thought to have special access to these supernatural powers. They’d be able to perform acts of divination and learn who their future husbands would be. People would light bonfires. Go back far enough (into the Medieval era) and Christians thought that souls in Purgatory would be purged by the holy fire. The feast of All Saints was an attempt to relieve the ghosts stuck in Purgatory.
Protestantism rejected all this supernatural nonsense and All Saints was removed from the English church calendar in 1559. Still, all of this remained useful to writers of gothic horror.
KNIGHTS IN CHURCHES
To better understand this story, it’s important to know the Catholic tradition of burying knights in important places — the closer to the altar, the more important they’d been. Supposedly.
Another impressive feature of [Saint John’s Co-Cathedral] is the collection of marble tombstones in the nave in which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. These tombstones, richly decorated with in-laid marble and with the coats of arms of the knight buried below as well as images relevant to that knight, often telling a story of triumph in big struggle, form a rich visual display in the church.
The plot of “Man-size in Marble” isn’t the most interesting thing. Far from it. If this short story contained only the surface layer of the spooks in a church, I’d have called it underwhelming. Instead, the most interesting thing about this story is the characterisation of the young newly wedded man, whose attitude towards his wife comes through during his night of indescribable terror. In true Gothic convention, the story opens with a paragraph in which the narrator tells the reader the events contained within are indeed true. As you’ll see below, we are to read this ironically. This is a story critiquing Jack’s ‘rationalism’. The narration is a first person male, which fooled quite a few people at the time into thinking the author was male. This was useful.
Man, I don’t like this Jack guy. How much of this was intended by Nesbit and how much is my modern interpretation? There’s an unanswerable question, even bearing in mind Nesbit was ahead of her own time. Jack has been described as a ‘floppy-collared aesthete’. I’m reminded of Nathaniel P from the following contemporary novel:
Waldman’s novel ‘offers a mercilessly clear view into a man’s mind as he grows tired of a worthy woman‘, which isn’t what Nesbit’s story does, but both offer insight into a man who, on the surface, is feminist but dig a little deeper and although he is not sexist, he is nonetheless constitutionally inclined to uphold the system of misogyny. (For a clear delineation between sexism and misogyny, go no further than Down Girl by Kate Manne.) Jack doesn’t treat women as adults. He treats his wife like a child by refusing to tell her what he has learned about the house from Mrs Dorman, as it might upset her. Nathaniel Piven, a thirty-something-year-old Brooklyn novelist and burgeoning public intellectual, is thoughtful yet careless, open-minded yet absurdly entitled.— The New Yorkerreview
Jack reminds me of Nathaniel P. because both are New Age Guys (for their era); neither are alpha males; both are aesthetes; both are writers and both appear to be in touch with their emotions. When Jack finds Laura crying he tries to comfort her with “don’t cry, or I shall have to cry too, to keep you in countenance, and then you’ll never respect your man again”. This snippet of dialogue tells us layers of things about Jack:
He is blithely dismissing his wife’s emotions
He makes a show of having emotions himself
But the code of masculinity dictates he couldn’t possibly give in to them
Because his job as husband is to be first and foremost respected by his wife.
Ergo, this is performative empathy.
As I read the opening to “Man-size In Marble” I’m reminded of that show Escape to the Country and all those city people who go touring various country houses — oftentimes none of the houses are good enough and we learn the city folk didn’t really want to move to the country after all. Well, these two do eventually find a house to their liking, fussy as they are, and then the husband complains they don’t have any money. Next minute they’ve employed a ‘peasant woman’ to do all the housework.
‘Poor’ is such a variable concept, isn’t it? These two aren’t poor poor. They are living in ‘genteel poverty’, like the women in Sense and Sensibility. I mean, if you can afford to employ someone from a lower class to do all your drudgery work, you ain’t poor. When the peasant woman housekeeper takes off, this guy won’t believe her reasons. She tells him her niece is sick. He doesn’t buy it because the niece has always been sick. It doesn’t occur to him that sick people often get sicker — no, it’s all about him.
Jack speaks for Laura and Mrs Dorman throughout the story, refusing to take either of them seriously. He loves folklore but treats Mrs Dorman as a Victorian anthropologist might a tribal elder — perhaps here, Nesbit is satirizing the folklore “collectors” of the period such as Edward Clodd — and patronizes Laura with a pet name “Pussy”. He also persistently trivialises her art despite the fact that it seems to be their only earned income; while Laura is writing, he passes his time in sketching “wonderful cloud effects”. Whether her tales are “little magazine stories” or stories for the little magazines that were so much a feature of the 1890s’ literary scene, Jack sees them as insignificant, fit only for the “Monthly Marplot”. His disdain for “the jingling guinea” is what one would expect from an aesthete of the period, but it shows, too, a worrying inability to face up to the economic realities of his marriage.
At this point I refer you all to The Wife (both book and film), by Meg Wolitzer. Jack’s rationalism is at odds with the outlook of the story’s women: it is his adherence to it that ultimately brings about his “life’s tragedy”.
The story begins with a confession of rationalism’s limits, a frequent Gothic device as well as a rebutt fo the positivism that was making Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes so pouplar in the early 1890s. … For much of the story, howeer, he is quite happy to live by rationalist principles, signally a clear divide between himself, the seemingly superstitious female characters, and maybe, by extension, the villages as a whole: the Irish outsider, Dr Kelly, is after all the “only neighbour” with whom Jack socializes. The more intuitive Laura is less imprisoned by this gospel, though…her sensitivity is not enough to save her from an awful fate, perhaps because her attitudes to social class are less radical than Nesbit’s own. The “village people” are, she says, “awfully sheepy”, and if one won’t do a thing, one may be quite sure none of the others will”.
His wife, Laura, is the one who won’t listen to the housekeeper (according to Jack), and is very much down in the dumps about losing Mrs Dorman — this means they will have to do all the housework themselves. And by ‘they’, we do mean Laura, don’t we. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” the husband tells her. “There will still be time to do art even if we have to do everything ourselves.” Meanwhile, it’s a point of pride that he’s useless around the house. He tells us he has surprised himself by doing an excellent job of washing the plates. Well, if you’ve ever seen that documentary series where they take a modern family and make them live like it’s 1900, you’ll already know this, but the loss of the housekeeper really does mean the loss of the young wife’s artistic life. The husband doesn’t realise it because he’ll be swanning around doing the bare minimum at home (a bit of polishing here and there, fixing what’s broken and so on) but the day to day drudgery of cooking, cleaning and washing will be the dawn-to-dusk job of his wife. Soon children will arrive and there will be literally no time for her to pursue her creative goals.
In short, this guy has plenty of Shortcomings. But it’s up to the reader to pick up on those, because it’s written in first person so we have no detached narrator to guide us in this direction. Would a guy from 1893 have had the same reaction as I just had?
They find themselves a housekeeper but it goes tits up when she leaves. Now he will have less time to pursue his creative goals. The Minotaur Opposition is of course the spooks in the church.
Faced with Mrs Dorman’s absence, Laura worries that “I shall have to cook the dinners and wash up all the hateful, greasy plates … and we shall never have any time for [creative] work.”. The statues will not stand for her transgressions, and a collision between flesh and blood and calcified tradition is inevitable. In this respect, it is notable that they no longer have names, for they are less individuals in themselves than representatives of a reactionary brutality that destroys those who oppose it.[…] Quiescent for most of the time, the forces embodied by the stone knights have not been wholly vanquished by those of progress and modernity and are yet capable of wreaking havoc when roused.
He will try to persuade their excellent housekeeper to come back. He will also wheedle out of her why it is she has left, presumably so he can tell her that her reasons for leaving are not adequate. He doesn’t exactly set out to solve the mystery of What Spooked The Housekeeper, but he does happen to wander into the church at the exact time on All Saint’s that the statues are meant to come to life. (Coincidence works fine in gothic fiction, which is inherently melodramatic.)
While the narrator is chatting to the local blokes about spooks his wife is busy getting murdered. This happens off-the-page. Though at first pretty comical, consider this a symbolic rape and the finger as phallus. Not so comical now. No wonder that was left off the page. Writers are often advised to put the Battle on the page, otherwise the reader feels cheated. A lot of build-up over nothing. Bear in mind that this story is a Gothic ghost story in the same way that Alice Munro’s “The Love Of A Good Woman” is a murder mystery — i.e., not at all. Readers expecting genre fiction may be disappointed. Why did Nesbit choose the husband as narrator, which meant he wouldn’t be there to see his wife get murdered? Well, first, what we can’t see is indeed more scary. So there’s that. But also, this isn’t about the spooky walking statues at all. It’s about the young husband and his patriarchal attitude towards his wife.
In her ghost stories Nesbit uses the supernatural as a catalyst to precipitate an emotional crisis. This technique achieved criticism of Victorian proprieties.
Nesbit has used Catholic iconography to critique traditions of divination. After we learn she is dead we realise Laura was not protected by all those candles at all. She is ‘wedded’ to the stone knights, not to her mortal husband. Nesbit’s marble knights were once men, part of a Roman Catholic tradition which allowed their wealthy relatives to buy them a place beside the altar, even though the knights had done terrible things (‘deeds’) in their lifetimes. Of course, they’re continuing to do terrible things beyond the grave. They have no place beside the altar. Nesbit is critiquing the practice. And if we haven’t realised it by now, we know that if Jack had treated his wife as a fully-functioning adult and warned her of impending doom, Laura might still be alive.
I extrapolate that this guy won’t be getting his housekeeper back. I guess he’ll leave the area and find another wife, and he’ll never be quite the same again. If the young woman was killed, can this be a feminist story? The question has been asked. I argue that it can because, as I keep saying, subversion works better than inversion (in which ‘inversion’ would result in an ending in which the vulnerable maiden toughens up and defeats her opponents).
“Man-Size In Marble” is instead an example of subversion, but not at a plot level — at a metaphorical level. Nesbit kills Laura not to punish her, but to demonstrate the latent violent inherent in the sexual politics of the period. Many New Women are confronted by representatives of the patriarchal order, but the encounter is usually staged in solidly realist surroundings like those of Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). By injecting Gothic fantasy into what seems at first an unexceptional tale of newly wedded bliss, Nesbit is able to provide both the shock expected of the genre, especially in short stories, and imbue her fiction with an underlying sense of ideological dissatisfaction.
If you like playing Red Dead Redemption, if you enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I recommend “The Outcasts of Poker Flat“, a short story by Bret Harte, published in the late 1800s as the century was coming to a close.
This short story was adapted for film in 1919, 1937 and again in 1952.
But the version with the highest rating on IMDb is the latest one — a TV movie from 1958. Good luck finding it, though.
Then [in 2009-10] the composer Andrew E. Simpson wrote a one-act chamber opera dramatizing the story. It was performed most recently in 2012 (to positive reviews), and from the summary appears to follow the source material much more closely than any of the cinematic adaptations.
This story remains interesting to a contemporary audience for its reminder that we thought quite differently about what it takes to live a good life, just 120 years ago. I really enjoyed most of it, though I want to rewrite the ending.
Content note for suicide, with a large dose of sexism near the end.
STORY WORLD OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”
The setting is a very specific November 22 1850, in a town called Poker Flat, in Northwestern California.
There are two towns that are known as “Poker Flat” in California: one that is located in Calaveras County and one that is located in the Sierra County near in the Sierra Nevada. While there has been minor dispute over which Poker Flat Harte’s story is set in, it likely depicts the latter town in Sierra County because Harte’s characters are forced to traverse part of the Sierra mountain range.
Here it is on Google Earth, if you’re viewing this in Chrome. There’s not much there now — but I do spy one ambiguous human structure. I hope there’s at least a plaque which mentions the short story.
I’m thinking of a town a bit like Deadwood(South Dakota) — full of men, drinking and gambling, without the moderating influence of ‘Sabbath’. The illegal town of Deadwood popped up 20 years after this story is set, comprising squatters after gold, and the services around them. While Deadwood has remained in our collective memory as a lawless, wild Western town, there must have been many more like it.
THE SEASONS OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”
At first it washes over me that the month is November, probably because I live in the Southern Hemisphere, when the end of November is warm, perfect for camping outdoors. Stranded outside in Australia at the end of November? You’d be fine — though covered in mozzie bites, probably. I don’t tend to associate California with snow, partly because I’ve watched Thelma and Louise and Animal Kingdom — no snow.
But I am reminded later in the story that, for Americans, November 22 marks the onset of winter, a month before winter solstice. Of course it snows in the mountainous parts of California, ie. The Sierras, the Cascade mountains.
There’s something curious about Harte having chosen to include “poker” in the name of the California town from which a poker player is banished and where the game is associated with other activities (thievery, prostitution) deemed “improper.” It almost seems like the people of Poker Flat are denying something essential about themselves when trying to rid the town of the game — or at least the town’s best player.
Never heard of him myself, but Millard Fillmore was sworn in as America’s 13th president. The guy before him died.
America had 31 states and 4 organised territories at this time. California had been an American state only since September 9 of that year.
In September the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by congress. This was a terrible law which required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate.
While this particular story is not about slavery and not about California’s new statehood, all of this provides an important cultural ambience which affords the contemporary reader an insight into how harshly humans could treat other humans back then. (And still do, in certain contexts.) For Bret Harte, writing this story almost 50 years later, America had undergone huge changes, most notably industrialisation, civil war and the abolishment of slavery. To Harte and his contemporary readers, 1850 would have felt like an entire lifetime ago, harking back to an almost mythic past. This marked the beginning of the age of the Western Story, actually. The Western was really popular with a male audience in particular, right up until the 20th century world wars, after which readers no longer really believed in expansionism and violence as an ideal, and since then we’ve only had ‘anti Westerns‘ (which we shorten to ‘Western’, forgetting how ridiculously racist and optimistic those early ones were).
HARTE’S OWN LIFE
As I already mentioned, Harte lived through an era of huge change. The America he was born into was absolutely not the America he saw as an old man.
For a time he worked as a reporter and was left in charge of a newspaper called the Northern Californian for a time. During that time he covered the 1860 massacre of 80-200 Wiyot Indians. He condemned the slayings, citing Christianity. He said no civilised peoples should be doing that to other peoples.
Not everyone agreed with that. After he published his editorial Harte’s life was threatened. He was forced to flee a month later. He quit his job as a reporter and moved to San Francisco.
In short, Harte knew what it was like to be shooed out of town. He’d also seen great brutality at close range. By the time he wrote “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” he had also seen great riches and also poverty as his writing income waned. He may have even contemplated suicide himself. From a letter he wrote to his wife, referring to the winter of 1877-1878:
I don’t know—looking back—what ever kept me from going down, in every way, during that awful December and January.
Harte had also fallen out with Mark Twain, previously a friend. Twain called him ‘a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery’. So it’s likely Harte felt some sympathy towards people who are thusly besmirched. Though the character of Mother Shipton is a crass woman, Harte eventually leads his reader to empathise with her and respect her.
By the time Harte wrote this story, he’d moved to England, where he stayed until he died. He left his wife and children in America and regularly sent them money from his writing income, though he maintained he couldn’t afford to travel back to America to see them himself.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”
In the story, John Oakhurst, an outsider from a place known as Roaring Camp, has enjoyed gambling success the previous night. Now it’s morning and the locals are regarding him differently. He’s calm, handsome — your archetypal Western hero. He probably keeps himself cleaner and tidier than typical cowboy types of the era. He is introduced to us wiping the red dust off his boots with his handkerchief. I’m thinking of Jake Spoon from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
The narrator offers the town’s recent backstory. There’s been a crime spree, including loss of life. A secret committee has formed to get rid of anyone suspicious, or ‘improper persons’. We infer that Oakhurst is this morning’s target, since he’s described as a ‘gambler’. If that’s his profession, he’s hardly respectable. There are two men hanging from a sycamore tree. Sex workers have been shooed out.
Somehow Oakhurst knows all this, and supposes that he’s ‘included in this category’. He’s especially targeted because he’s won large sums of money from the executioners, and if they could justify killing him, they’d raid his pockets and get their money back. A man named Jim Wheeler is named as the personification of all those who have lost money. They consider it against (‘agin’) justice to let a man carry away all of their money. Between themselves, they can justify killing him. However, some had also won money from Oakhurst, and Jim Wheeler’s suggestion is overruled.
The narrator skips the part where Oakhurst is apprehended and led to court. Instead we get the outcome — he’s banished from town.
Like a true antihero, Oakhurst receives this verdict with calmness, understanding the nature of fate. In this he reminds me of much more recent wild West heroes (if not ‘Western’ in the traditional sense), such as Cohle from True Detective.
Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, none the less coolly that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges. He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favour of the dealer.
Damaged heroes who embrace fate and live pessimistically are a favourite in crime stories set in desolate, flat places where ‘nothing can grow, nothing can become’, etc. (These characters are almost always men.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tliWDMrOjoQ
Annie Proulx also likes to write fatalistic characters, eking out their miserable lives in harsh Wyoming environments. See “Stone City“, “Electric Arrows“, “Dump Junk” etc. Proulx’s fatalistic characters also tend to be men. There is something highly gendered about a fatalistic outlook in fiction. Accepting death as a natural outcome of life is a sign of strength and therefore of ideal masculinity, as idealised by the communities themselves.
Do we still idealise a fatalistic outlook, or do we poke fun at it? True Detective does both. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8x73UW8Hjk
Back to Harte’s story. After sentencing, a body of armed men escorts a small group of individuals to the edge of town. Then the four of them are forced to make their own way to the next camp. The ‘criminals’ comprise:
A young sex worker known as “The Duchess”. She cries ‘hysterically’.
A woman known as “Mother Shipton” (a moniker also used by Alice Munro in her short story “Silence“). The name comes from English woman Ursula Southeil, born in the late 1400s. She was better known as Mother Shipton, and was thought to have been a soothsayer and prophetess. The moniker is therefore applied to women who are savvy enough to see what’s coming. She uses ‘bad language’.
“Uncle Billy”, a suspected ‘sluice-robber’. A sluice is a slanted channel used to filter gold out from dirt or sand. In gold digging eras, diggers would claim their own spot. If they found gold they’d leave it in the sluice for short periods on the understanding that they’d found it, so it belonged to them. But a “sluice-robber” didn’t respect this rule, and would steal gold from other people’s sluices when they weren’t looking. This particular sluice-robber is also a ‘confirmed drunkard’. (I’m guessing he tried to rob the sluices while drunk, hence was easily caught. Either that or the townsfolk used this excuse to get rid of him for his heavy drinking.)
Each of the other three escorted out of town are therefore presented as upset and emotional about their expulsion, in contrast to the calm and collected, fatalistic Western antihero of Oakhurst.
Oakhurst does a chivalrous thing and swaps his own excellent riding horse for “The Duchess’s” sorry mule (note that he has done this great favour for the young woman, not for the older one). For some strange reason she’s not all that grateful to him (and as an erstwhile young woman myself, I’d worry he might want to be repaid in kind, later. Don’t forget, they’re liquored up and have no food.
They’re on their way to a place called Sandy Bar. It’s a full day away, of harsh riding up a steep mountain range. (This really does feel like a sequence straight out of Red Dead Redemption.)
But at noon the young sex worker decides she can’t go any further. She’s not stupid — she’s picked a really picturesque place to stop:
The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheatre, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley. It was, undoubtedly, the most suitable spot for a camp, had camping been advisable.
The even more sensible Oakhurst points out that they can’t stop there because they have no provisions. And they’re still half a day away from Sandy Bar. The other outcasts have succumbed variously to the liquor and only Oakhurst remains fully sentient as he does not drink. It ‘interfered with his profession which required coolness’. This tells us that he probably has so much success at gambling not through any special trickery, but only because he’s the most sober person at the table. In this era, resisting drink is its own superpower.
Oakhurst is freshening himself up at a nearby stream or something when an acquaintance of his just happens to ride by at that very moment — a young man, called Tom Simson, who has been on the receiving end of Oakhurst’s fatherly kindness. Simson is known as “The Innocent” of Sandy Bar. He’s on his way to Poker Flat to seek his fortune, against Oakhurst’s earlier advice — Simson is terrible at gambling and shouldn’t try it again. He’s with his fiance, Piney Woods. They’re having to elope since Piney’s father doesn’t approve of the match. Piney is a ‘stout, comely damsel of fifteen’, who shyly comes out from behind a tree.
Oakhurst gives the old drunkard a kick (I guess to stop him telling Simson what they’re all doing there) and then tries to tell Simson he shouldn’t delay. But Simson is very friendly and points out this is bad place to camp. As it happens, Simson has an extra mule of provisions and knows where there’s a ‘crude attempt’ at a log-house near the trail, where Piney can stay with “Mrs Oakhurst”. (He’s assuming the Duchess is Oakhurst’s wife.)
Now the story pans out to offer the reader a wide angle shot of the party, from Uncle Billy’s point of view as he removes himself to the trees in order to stop himself laughing. From here he sees the expanded party has started a fire and that the weather has changed. ‘The air had grown strangely chill and the sky overcast’. This change in weather juxtaposes against the fact that the arrival of Simson and his young fiancée have cheered the others right up.
Notice how Uncle Billy has been separated from the group. Harte did this by a switch in point of view, like the opponent viewing his prey from a distance, through the trees. This is a very cinematic short story.
Harte continues to create a creepy atmosphere for us:
As the shadows crept slowly up the mountain, a slight breeze rocked the tops of the pine-trees, and moaned through their long and gloomy aisles. The ruined cabin, patched and covered with pine-boughs, was set apart for the ladies.
The women sleep in the hut. The men stoke the fire, lie down outside the door and soon fall asleep. Oakhurst is a light sleeper, and wakes up cold. It’s started to snow. He has to wake the other men before they freeze to death, but he finds Uncle Billy has gone. All the mules have gone, too. The tracks are disappearing in the snow. Level-headed Oakhurst knows there’s no point waking the others up at this hour, so he goes back to sleep, endures the rest of the cold night and tells them what happened in the morning.
Fortunately the provisions were in the log cabin with the women, so the thieving old drunkard hasn’t managed to get away with those. They calculate they can last in this camp for 10 days if they’re very careful.
‘For some occult reason’ (which feels a bit like a hack on the part of the writer), Oakhurst can’t bring himself to tell Simson that Uncle Billy deliberately stole the horses. He cracks on it was a drunken accident, wandering off like that, and accidentally setting free the mules. Perhaps, I deduce, if he explains Uncle Billy’s a thief, Simson will work out that the party have all been ousted for various crimes. “It’s no good frightening them now,” he tells the ousted sex workers.
Simson is happy to share his supplies with the rest of the party.
Now Bret Harte decides to remove Oakhurst from the happy party, dancing and singing around a fire, all against the backdrop of a blizzard. Oakhurst has gone off in search of the path, but doesn’t find it. He witnesses this ‘altar’ from a distance. Even if the reader hasn’t noticed that Harte has used this exact trick before, with the drunkard thief, we probably sense that Oakhurst is now set in opposition to the rest of the party. There’s also foreshadowing, with authorial intrusion reminding us that this is a story of mythic proportions:
Whether Mr. Oakhurst had cachéd his cards with the whiskey as something debarred the free access of the community, I cannot say.
The prophetic nature of ‘Mother Shipton’ also provides foreshadowing of doom:
Through the marvellously clear air the smoke of the pastoral village of Poker Flat rose miles away. Mother Shipton saw it, and from a remote pinnacle of her rocky fastness, hurled in that direction a final malediction.
They’re running out of supplies and snow keeps falling. Although Mother Shipton deals with it by yelling expletives into the void, the others amuse themselves with music, then they start to tell stories. Piney proposes this, not realising that Oakhurst and the women are keeping big secrets and probably don’t want to be telling any stories, lest they reveal their true identities.
So The Innocent starts recounting The Iliad in his own words. He read a translation some months ago. This goes on for another week. A mythic amount of snow has fallen around them. They have little food. They’re now having trouble keeping the fire going because they’re running low on firewood.
Mother Shipton decides to die. She’s been starving herself, saving her supplies. She calls Oakhurst to her bedside before she dies and tells him to give her supplies to ‘the child’ (Piney).
Oakhurst suggests he and The Innocent set off out of there, despite the conditions. Oakhurst leaves extra wood for the next few days of fire and the women realise he’s not coming back, despite promising to accompany The Innocent only as far as the canyon.
The women die after the roof of their hut caves in under snow. The narrator tells us that, when dead, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the pure girl and the dirty one. The image of dead women as ‘art’ reminds me of a film I couldn’t stand, but which met with much critical acclaim — Nocturnal Animals — which well and truly glorifies the murder of women. A murdered mother and daughter are posed in an ‘innocent’ but also in a sexualised way. The sexual past of a woman who is a mother juxtaposes against the implied virgin state of the daughter in a a scene very reminiscent of this one, albeit written with the morality of a full century earlier.
Then we have the fact that suicide was considered a grave sin. When it is revealed that Oakhurst has killed himself rather than fulfil his promise of returning to the young women, the narrator tells us that the strongest man has turned out to be the weakest. Even Mother Shipton did something good before she died by sacrificing her food for the virtuous younger woman. But Oakhurst has done nothing (did he keep those rations for himself?) and now he has ‘committed’ suicide, akin to committing murder in those days.
The Judeo-Christian idea that suicide is a sin does not come from the Bible, in fact, but rather from a macho culture in which it is mistakenly seen as ‘the coward’s way out’. By giving us this ending, Harte has built up a man who conforms to every masculine ideal of the time — the ultimate Western hero — then attempts to subvert that message by revealing that actually he is a coward. Harte is very explicit about this in his narration:
…beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.
THE MESSAGE THAT SUICIDE IS A FORM OF WEAKNESS
But this message doesn’t work for a contemporary audience, or even for a non Judeo-Christian audience. In Japan, for instance, suicide is traditionally seen as the most noble way out of an impossible circumstance, and supremely courageous.
We now have a much better understanding of the neurobiology of suicide, an understanding which has continued to evolve through the 20th century. We’re still not fully there:
Suicide was traditionally regarded very much as a kind of consequence of social factors. Émile Durkheim in France, in fact many others before him, had noticed the relationship of suicide to social changes involving people having been alienated from society and isolated and so on. But relatively recently it became more apparent that suicide was in fact related to major psychiatric disorders. This was done through psychological autopsies: that is, interviewing the families of people who had been unfortunate enough to die by suicide. It turned out that over 90 per cent of all suicides had a psychiatric disorder.
There was a spate of youth suicide that began in the United States in the 1980s and a little later began to appear in other countries, including Australia, where it became the leading cause of death amongst young people. And, at first, one had the impression that these were well adjusted, popular young individuals who had everything to look forward to in life and their suicide was a complete mystery. One had a sense that this was a shock to everybody. But in fact a careful interview by a professional revealed that in fact over 90 per cent of these young people had a psychiatric illness that antedated the suicide. It was almost certainly the principle cause of their suicide, and most of them are not treated at the time when they’re committing suicide.
Most people who have these mood disorders never attempt suicide, let alone commit suicide. Low serotonin in the wrong place is a factor.
…a compounding factor for struggling teenagers could well be that this prefrontal cortex, so key in impulse control. …we know that mood disorders are transmitted familially and that suicidal behaviour, its predisposition, is transmitted familially.
This is a classic case of a character whose strength is also his shortcoming:
That said, poker has prepared Oakhurst well for the present trial. Long sessions have meant he’s “often been a week without sleep,” thus preparing him to handle the test of physical endurance the trip has presented. Poker has also helped equip Oakhurst with a kind of mental fortitude to withstand the sudden misfortune that has befallen the travelers.
“Luck… is a mighty queer thing,” he tells Simson. “All you know about it for certain is that it’s bound to change. And it’s finding out when it’s going to change that makes you.”
Though his shortcoming is kept as a reveal, Oakhurst’s shortcoming is that his fatalistic attitude leaves him susceptible to suicide. The reveal forms a bit of a ‘reversal’ when it comes to understanding his psychology — the reason he seemed so calm and collected, even while cast out of town with other ruffians, is because this didn’t stand in the way of his wish to move on anyway, to a completely different town….
Because the Anagnorisis has been kept off the page, we’re given a didactic bit of narration in the final sentence, told that a man who appears strong is actually weak.
The entire party is dead, though they all died with varying degrees of culpability and innocence. The women — one a dirty whore, the other a pure and kind country virgin — are now ‘equal’ (in the eyes of the Lord) because they both tried their hardest to survive. But because Oakhurst ‘gave up’ prematurely, shooting himself with his gun rather than letting hypothermia take him more gradually, in death he has lost any respect.
The author never tells us what happened to The Innocent, which I first think is a narrative mistake. That said, there’s a possible alternative reading: Is this dead body really the body of John Oakhurst, or is it the body of The Innocent, shot by John Oakhurst, who’s made off with the rest of the rations to start a new life, unpursued by the law of Poker’s Flat?
Maybe the final sentence is sufficiently ambiguous to support this reading, as is Simson’s moniker of “The Innocent”.
Hard to remember now, but ‘damned’ used to be a full on swear word. A teacher at high school once pounced on me for using it (though by the 1990s I think she was being ridiculous). ‘Damned’ was certainly shocking 100 years earlier than that, in 1893, when Ambrose Bierce published his horror short story and called it “The Damned Thing”.
The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …”
“The Damned Thing” belongs to the second category — the horror, describing the mutilated body. But by the end of the story, Bierce has moved into the realm of terror. The scariest thing of all is something we cannot see.
This is exactly the sort of terror/horror parodied by the podcast (and book) Welcome To Night Vale. From episode 2 of Night Vale (“Glow Cloud”):
Apparently the cloud glows in a variety of colors, perhaps changing from observer to observer, although all report a low whistling when it draws near.
In a dark room in the mountains of America somewhere, a coroner stands over a dead body lying on a table. The coroner holds a book. Other men quietly line the walls. These men are jurors, waiting for their murder suspect.
Finally he arrives, a 27-year-old writer. The conversation between the coroner and this man reveals that the writer was near the dead man when he died. He had come to observe the dead man (when he was alive) as he thought he’d make a good character study for a work of fiction.
The coroner is not willing to believe anything the fiction writer says in regards to the circumstances of death, probably knowing full well that fiction writers have a good imagination and can make anything up. So the coroner is scornful of the account the writer says he has just provided the newspaper, and hopes he will tell the true version under oath.
The writer insists that the mode of death is ‘incredible’ and wouldn’t work as fiction. He pulls out a copy of what he wrote for the newspaper and begins to read.
This leads to a story within a story, with a storyteller narrator. Bierce introduced us to the coroner first, so we are encouraged (along with the coroner) to wonder if this 27 year old writer is reliable.
Cliffhanger: How did Morgan die?
Ambrose Bierce uses a lot of words to build up this scene, but really only this happens: The writer is out hunting for quail (well, hoping to hunt for quail) when the dead man (Hugh Morgan), who is not initially dead, heh heh, is startled by something moving in a bush. “That damned thing!” he exclaims. Turns out these are his last words.
Though the author (William Harker) doesn’t see what happens, he describes an optical illusion. Morgan seems to come and go from his vision, then he sees him partially, then he realises Morgan is dead.
All he has heard was a scream from whatever lurked in the vegetation. Something unseen tramples the wild oats and retreats into nearby wood. Harker is filled with terror.
Cliffhanger: What killed Morgan?
Part Three begins with a scene now familiar to readers of the crime genre— a description of the man’s naked dead body, back in his cabin.
Harker is accused of being crazy. The foreman and coroner ask him which asylum he last escaped from.
He recognises the book in the coroner’s hands and points out that it’s the diary of the dead man. He wants to see it and suggests it may be useful, but the coroner says it was all written before the time of death and therefore not useful to solving the facts of the murder.
The reader knows, along with Harker, that the dead man had seen the beast before, otherwise he wouldn’t have exclaimed “That damned thing!” So we know there’s a good description of it inside that book.
The jury comes to the unlikely conclusion that there was a mountain lion and also that the deceased had some sort of seizure. (They obviously can’t decide between themselves, leaving the reader to think of other scenarios.)
Cliffhanger: What’s inside the book?
Part Four opens with some sort of writing about the court case, after it has concluded. The narrator is speculating that the coroner didn’t want to confuse the jury by reading the contents of the diary.
Then we have pertinent excerpts from the diary (as implicitly promised to the reader via the cliffhanger).
Morgan has described the strange behaviour of his dog, but is it really his dog? Mine is an unpopular reading, I’m sure, but maybe it wasn’t his dog he saw. Maybe this thing is a werewolf?
It is also revealed that the reason the dead man invited Harker to his house is precisely because he has a level head and can judge if he’s going mad (not because he is mad himself). The final entry tells us he has come up with a solution to his problem, though we don’t know what that solution is. I assume he has come up with the idea of simply shooting it dead.
The short story ends with the revelation that the dead man has achieved heightened senses before his death. I am left wondering if he has gone mad after all. Or is he turning into a werecreature?
This is deliberate, of course, because the horror genre has always been an outworking of psychological disturbances — our greatest fears, anxieties, hallucinations and (more recently) coded as mental illness.
Who’s the ‘main character’? This question is never cut and dried in a story with multiple diegetic levels but for my purposes, the main character is Harker.
I feel his name is somewhat symbolic. I think of ‘hark’, as in ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’, an archaic word telling someone to pay attention. “Look!” we might say in modern English.
Harker’s disadvantage in this scenario is that he is young, he is a fiction writer (unreliable) and he is a townie come to the country (he is an outsider). He was with a man when he died and has now found himself a murder suspect, but we don’t learn much more about him than this. We are told that he has a steady, reliable and totally sane disposition. That may not be much use to him, now.
Harker’s plan is to tell the truth. Fingers crossed they believe him. Actually they don’t believe him at all, but lucky for Harker, they come up with their own cockamamie explanation and let him off the hook.
In a traditional crime story there’s no ‘self’ revelation for the character — it’s more a resolution of plot. That’s not to say that we readers don’t realise something about ourselves — for instance, what scares us the most. Or perhaps we’ve now got a metaphor for our psychological bugaboos.
The plot revelation is that the jury doesn’t blame Harker for the death, but can’t work it out nonetheless. This is long before the days of forensic science.
The creature which killed Morgan is never revealed, though apparently Morgan had an epiphany and promptly died. The trope where certain knowledge of evil brings immediate death is rife throughout Japanese horror, e.g. The Ring. This speaks to our very human fear that some knowledge is too much to bear, and we’re better off not knowing it.
Bierce is making use of a tactic often used in page turners, even today: The Invisible Influence. Something or someone influences events but it remains unknown to us.
While we’re on the topic of ‘page turner’ techniques, Bierce also made use of:
Hobson’s Choice: Neither the mountain lion nor the death by seizure add up, so the jurors choose both. The reader (along with Harker) wonders what the jury is going to decide.
Unsolved Mystery: Obviously this is a mystery story, as well as possibly a crime story. There are three central questions in a mystery: what happened, who did it and how did it happen? We read to find out the answer to each of these questions in turn.
Cliffhanger: Bierce knew to end each section on a cliffhanger.
I have extrapolated that Harker goes back to the city as a free man, but is forever changed by the experience of knowing there are deadly things all around us which can kill, but which are invisible to human senses.
“The Three Strangers” is a short story by Thomas Hardy, published as a serial in 1883. The story is set in 1820s pastoral England and is one of Hardy’s ‘Wessex Tales’.
SETTING OF “THE THREE STRANGERS”
Reading this story now, nigh on 200 years after it’s set, the setting of “The Three Strangers” feels almost mythical.
This is partly achieved by language no longer in common use:
grassy and furzy downs
Then there’s the reference to an actual mythical/legendary person: Nebuchadrezzar the second lived 630–562 BC. He was the Chaldean king of Babylon from 605 until his death. I don’t know enough about the Bible to infer meaning. But others have looked deep into it:
References to Timon, Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar are made not only because these are figures from the distant past but also because their abuses of power can be compared to that of the hangman, whose every action is lawful but derived from an inhumane system of justice.
Other, smaller things make this story feel old. For example, the description of ‘an elderly engaged man of fifty or upward’. Back then, 50 was elderly! Now it’s ‘middle aged’. Likewise, a ‘man of seventeen’ would today be a boy.
Five miles of irregular upland, during the long inimical seasons, with their sleets, snows, rains, and mists
The ominousness of the rain is tempered by detail which describes the necessity of rain:
the grand difficulty of housekeeping was an insufficiency of water; and a casual rainfall was utilised by turning out, as catchers, every utensil that the house contained.
(We do the same at our Australian house, though we have four tanks, gutters and gutter guard for the purpose of collecting and storing rainwater for domestic use.)
The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one of the nights that were wont to call forth these expressions of commiseration.
As Edgar Allen Poe does in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Hardy omits the final digit off the exact year this was supposed to have happened. I wondered why Poe did this when everything else about the setting in the Rue Morgue story was so specific. Perhaps doing so was a writing convention of the late 19th century.
It was nearly the time of full moon, and on this account, though the sky was lined with a uniform sheet of dripping cloud, ordinary objects out of doors were readily visible.
At this time in history, people really did believe that eerie things happened at full-moon — that people turned into werewolves, or that the moon could turn you mad. An ambulance driver friend has told me that, even today, full moons tend to reveal mental illness, resulting in more ambulance call-outs during a full-moon. I asked her why that is but she has no idea. I’m not even sure it’s statistically fact, but the perception still exists.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE THREE STRANGERS”
ESTABLISHMENT OF SETTING
“The Three Strangers” opens with a wide angle view of the local area, written in the continuous, then switches to the singulative with:
The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one of the nights that were wont to call forth these expressions of commiseration.
DESCRIPTION OF A CHRISTENING PARTY
A group of neighbours meet up at the shepherd’s house to celebrate a birth and a christening. It is pouring down with rain outside. (I also learned the original meaning of ‘eavesdroppings’ — literally, water which drops off the eaves and onto the ground, possibly down the wall. Before someone invented guttering, I suppose.)
INCITING INCIDENT: ARRIVAL OF A DARK STRANGER
A dark stranger turns up and asks to seek refuge inside. The shepherd welcomes him in. The stranger accepts mead and dries himself by the chimney.
THEN ANOTHER ONE
The second stranger turns up. He starts drinking a lot and Mrs Fennel isn’t comfortable with him in the house. When they ask him what he does for a living, he replies in rhyme. They deduce he’s an executioner, come to hang the local sheep thief.
Then a third stranger turns up, this time short and blonde rather than tallish, gaunt and dark. (Utilising the age-old storytelling technique of Rule of Three.) But he won’t come in. He’s terrified by the sight of people in the room. He closes the door and runs away.
THINGS GET AWKWARD
The characters stand around the ominous gray stranger in the centre of the room and someone chants as if trying to get rid of the devil. Then a gun goes off in the distance, which they know to be fired whenever a prisoner escapes from the nearby town of Casterbridge, where there is a prison.
AHA! (WRONG CONCLUSION)
They deduce that the terrified man was the sheep thief, and that he fled because he recognised his own executioner. The firing of the alarm gun continues at intervals.
DO YOUR JOB, MAN!
A fifty-year-old guest advises the executioner to pursue the man, since that is his job after all. But the executioner says he needs to go home first and retrieve his staff. He insists he needs a staff as a weapon to hit his prisoner.
IF YOU WANT A JOB DONE PROPERLY, DO IT YOURSELF.
The rest of the men decide to take it upon themselves to catch the man. So they gather pitchforks and planks of wood (staves) as weapons, light lanterns and go after him. The women stay in the house and comfort the christened baby, who has been woken up.
MEANWHILE, THE WOMEN…
The women vacate the room where the food is. The stranger who was sitting by the chimney turns back and re-enters the property. He eats some of the cake. He drinks more mead. Then he is joined by the stranger in cinder-gray. After eating and drinking their fill, the two strangers go their separate ways.
BACK TO THE MEN
The men out hunting for the so-called escaped prisoner realise the executioner is no longer with them and aren’t sure what to do next. They’re having trouble navigating the land in the darkness, with its unexpected rubble and hollows.
The men eventually find the stranger they were pursuing, hiding near the trunk of an ash tree. In comical fashion (for the reader) the men confront the stranger with words they’d have heard constables say. “Your money or your life!”
The stranger allows himself to be arrested without fuss. The man take him back to the shepherd’s cottage. They arrive back at 11 o’clock. There they find two officers from the jail and a magistrate.
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT!
The constable tells them they’ve caught the escapee. But the officials don’t recognise him. It is revealed that the man they’re after is the gaunt one with an unmistakable bass voice — the man in the chimney corner.
THINGS GET FAMILIAL
The third stranger reveals that the condemned man is his own brother. He has come to bid him farewell. He was caught out by darkness falling and knocked on the door, shocked to see his own brother escaped from jail.
BACKSTORY OF THE CONVICT
They ask for more information about the convict. The brother reveals that he is a watch-and-clock maker, when the man himself described himself as a wheelwright. The younger brother says ‘The wheels of clocks and watches he meant, no doubt’.
THE NEXT DAY…
By the following morning, general local opinion has shifted even more in favour of the sheep thief, now for his daring escape as well as for the circumstances which led him to steal the sheep in the first place. So when they go out looking for him, they don’t look very hard. And when they do see him, they let him go.
ESCAPE TO AUSTRALIA (I PRESUME)
The man was never found, perhaps escaped across the seas. The characters in this story are long since dead and the baby is now an old woman. The story has now become folklore in the local area.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Hardy begins by setting up a cast of characters. He basically goes around the party and describes them.
Described as a hedge-carpenter. What the Sam hell is a hedge carpenter? I tried looking it up online and was directed back to Hardy’s story. It seems to be specific to this story. Is it a man whose job it is to keep hedges trimmed? The word is also used in a 1905 story (in Chatterbox) and I deduce from context that a hedge-carpenter is a low-respect trade, whatever it is. Below that of a wood worker, anyhow. “‘My fingers be as full of thorns as an old pin-cushion is of pins.'”
Parish clerk, booming voice, plays the serpent a bass wind instrument, descended from the cornet)
neighbouring dairyman, the shepherd’s father-in-law
Master of the house where the party is being held. Married a dairyman’s daughter and into this property, Higher Crowstairs.
Mrs. Shepherd Fennel
Sensibly frugal. Keeps control of her own inherited money for their future family. This probably sounded unfair to men of the time, but seems forward thinkingly feminist to my modern ears.
a boy of those parts, about twelve years of age, who had a wonderful dexterity in jigs and reels, though his fingers were so small and short as to necessitate a constant shifting for the high notes
Engaged man of fifty
We must use our imagination.
The man in the chimney corner
A wheelwright (a person who makes or repairs wooden wheels). If you’re wondering what a ‘chimney corner’ is, it’s the cosy warm space between the fireplace and the wall.
A man of seventeen, enamoured of his partner, a fair girl of thirty-three rolling years. Has a lot of money at his disposal. (Today we’d likely say a ‘boy’ of seventeen’ or a ‘young man’ of seventeen. Kids had to grow up fast back then.)
He might have been about forty years of age. This makes him a generation older than Mrs Fennel though his accent tells her he comes from her parts.
He appeared tall, but…this was chiefly owing to his gauntness, and that he was not more than five-feet-eight or nine. Notwithstanding the regularity of his tread, there was caution in it, as in that of one who mentally feels his way; and despite the fact that it was not a black coat nor a dark garment of any sort that he wore, there was something about him which suggested that he naturally belonged to the black-coated tribes of men. His clothes were of fustian, and his boots hobnailed, yet in his progress he showed not the mud-accustomed bearing of hobnailed and fustianed peasantry.
Fustian: thick, hard-wearing twilled cloth with a short nap, usually dyed in dark colours
Stranger number two
The second member of the Three Strangers was dark in complexion and not unprepossessing as to feature. His hat, which for a moment he did not remove, hung low over his eyes, without concealing that they were large, open, and determined, moving with a flash rather than a glance. His shoes are cracked.
He tells the party he’s fallen on rough times lately. Then he makes the most of his hosts’ generosity and asks for tobacco, then pipe to smoke it in, as well as all the paraphernalia, for despite being a smoker he has no equipment.
At this point I wonder if he’s a ghost. We’ve had two clues: He’s not of Mrs Fennel’s ‘time’, and he has not even the most basic equipment on his person.
Hardy seems to be posing a riddle for his reader: Hardy gives us clues about him, we’re to use those clues to work out who he is.
Rich is not quite the word for me, dame. I do work, and I must work. … the oddity of my trade is that, instead of setting a mark upon me, it sets a mark upon my customers. … O my trade it is the rarest one, Simple shepherds all – My trade is a sight to see; For my customers I tie, and take them up on high, And waft ’em to a far countree!
Is he an executioner? The grim reaper?
My tools are but common ones, Simple shepherds all – My tools are no sight to see: A little hempen string, and a post whereon to swing, Are implements enough for me!
At this, the party come to the same conclusion I had a few paragraphs earlier. (Hardy is deliberately keeping the reader one step ahead of the characters.) They think he’s an executioner, a ‘public officer’, who has come to hang the sheep thief, who the characters have sympathy for. He was driven to steal out of desperation.
Stranger number three
The third of The Three Strangers contrasts in appearance with the others:
The door was gently opened, and another man stood upon the mat. He, like those who had preceded him, was a stranger. This time it was a short, small personage, of fair complexion, and dressed in a decent suit of dark clothes.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE THREE STRANGERS”
Told by a narrator long after the supposed event, this is a story in the tall tale tradition. This is not an omniscient narrator, but a local personality. So we can deduce that parts of it have been made up for colour. For instance, the scene in which criminal and executioner share stolen cake and mead together, one failing to recognise the other. It adds colour to the story to think this happens, but who was there to witness it? The room was empty, which is precisely why the men went in.
I’ve noticed lots of people say this story is narrated omnisciently. The story is narrated in omniscient style, as if the narrator can know everything.
The shortcoming of this little party is that they are overly influenced by appearance. They are unable to correctly guess at who the strangers are. They’re looking closely at shoes and body language, reading intention into body language when we can’t possibly know someone’s inner thoughts just from their demeanour.
The big struggle (battle/climax) is not when they find the third man — he goes happily with them (probably happy to have some shelter for the night, knowing he’ll be revealed as not the culprit, and that his brother is currently on his way out of the area.)
The big struggle is when the men get back to the cottage and have the conversation with the authorities.