Narratives both from short stories and novels are critically analysed here under the following sub-headings:Author’s Background and Writing, Plot, Setting, Themes, Motifs, Symbols, Character Analysis, Narrative Techniques/Style. Works are mostly drawn from Victorian era prose and 2oth century literary works. The current works on this site are drawn from The University of Cambridge International Examinations Anthology of Stories in English, Stories of Ourselves.
1.THE HOLLOW OF THE THREE HILLS-By Nathaniel Hawthorne -CRITICAL ANALYSIS.
2. SREDNI VASHTAR–By Hector Hugh Munro-CRITICAL ANALYSIS
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE-THE HOLLOW OF THE THREE HILLS-CRITICAL ANALYSIS.
AUTHOR’S BACKGROUND AND WRITING
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American novelist and short story writer. He was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts to Nathaniel Hathorne and the former Elizabeth Clarke Manning. His ancestors include John Hathorne, the only judge involved in the Salem witch trials who never repented of his actions. Nathaniel later added a “w” to make his name “Hawthorne”, in order to hide this relation. He entered Bowdoin College in 1821, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1824, and graduated in 1825.
Hawthorne published his first work, a novel titled Fanshawe, in 1828; he later tried to suppress it, feeling it was not equal to the standard of his later work. He published several short stories in various periodicals which he collected in 1837 as Twice-Told Tales. The next year, he became engaged to Sophia Peabody. He worked at a Custom House and joined Brook Farm, transcendentalist community, before marrying Peabody in 1842. The couple moved to The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, later moving to Salem, the Berkshires, then to The Wayside in Concord. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, followed by a succession of other novels. A political appointment took Hawthorne and family to Europe before their return to The Wayside in 1860. Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864, and was survived by his wife and their three children.
Much of Hawthorne’s writing centres on New England, many works featuring moral allegories with a Puritan inspiration. His fiction works are considered part of the Romantic Movement and, more specifically, Dark romanticism. His themes often centre on the inherent evil and sin of humanity, and his works often have moral messages and deep psychological complexity. His published works include novels, short stories, and a biography of his friend, Franklin Pierce
Hawthorne’s works belong to romanticism or, more specifically, dark romanticism, cautionary tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humanity. Many of his works are inspired by Puritan New England, combining historical romance loaded with symbolism and deep psychological themes, bordering on surrealism. His depictions of the past are a version of historical fiction used only as a vehicle to express common themes of ancestral sin, guilt and retribution. His later writings also reflect his negative view of the Transcendentalism movement.
Hawthorne was predominantly a short story writer in his early career. Upon publishing Twice-Told Tales, however, he noted, “I do not think much of them“, and he expected little response from the public. His four major romances were written between 1850 and 1860:The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The Marble Faun (1860). Another novel-length romance, Fanshawe was published anonymously in 1828. Hawthorne defined a romance as being radically different from a novel by not being concerned with the possible or probable course of ordinary experience. In the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne describes his romance-writing as using “atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture.”
The story is set in against a background of a thin line between reality and illusion. This is where the characters in the story decide to meet for an appointment. The younger lady is ‘graceful in form and fair of feature, though pale and troubled.’ This is in contrast with the other older lady who is ‘ancient and meanly dressed…of ill-favored aspect… so withered, shrunken and decrepit’. The setting is an abstract location somewhere between the celestial and the terrestrial realm, where the characters are invisible to ordinary human eyes. There are three symbolic hills and in their midst is a hollow basin aptly described, sometime in October, when the grass is brown. There is also a decaying tree trunk beside a murky pool that used to be a meeting point for witches. The appointment between the two is at the instance of the younger lady who has a problem, which she thinks the other woman would be able to solve. She states her problem thus:
I am a stranger in this land, as you know…but I have left behind me with
whom my fate was intimately bound, and from whom I am cut –off forever.
There is a weight in my bosom that I cannot away with, and I have come hither
to inquire of their welfare.
The fair lady from inception appears to have succumbed to self-delusion and deception as she thinks she is still on earth when she says, ‘I will do your bidding though I die’. The witch goes into action almost immediately as she lifts her hood and instructs the woman to draw near and lay her forehead on her knees. She hesitated, but when she thinks of the weight of her problem, she complies and the hood is drawn over her own head too ‘so that she is in darkness’’. When the older woman begins to recite her incantation, the woman is filled with fear. She now begins to hear other strange voices mingling with the incantation of the witch. As the ‘prayer’ subsides, the lady could now discern a conversation between an old man and a woman in chamber, where the windows are being rattled by a breeze, vibration of a clock, crackling of fire and the kindling of embers. All these are so vivid to the lady. The two old people are in a sorrowful state, as they lament over their daughter who is a ‘wanderer’ and has brought so much dishonor to her family. They also allude to other woes that have befallen them. Shortly after, their voices melt away and the lady regains her consciousness.
The witch instructs the lady to lay her head on her knees once again for another round of spiritual exploration. She begins by murmuring and reciting the incantation, but this time round, there is ‘singing of sweet female voices’ intermingled with wild roar of laughter, groaning and sobbing, ending later in a funeral hymn. In the midst of all these, a man’ cry of woes is heard.-‘He spoke of woman’s perfidy, of a wife who had broken her holiest vows, of a home and heart made desolate. ‘
The lady later regains her consciousness, after which she is encouraged to lay her head on the witch’s knees for the third round of spiritual exploration. She starts her ranting, but this time round in the midst of the milieu of noise, there arises the ‘knolling of a bell like the death-bell knolling dolefully from ivy –mantled tower. ‘Another image comes of a procession going for funeral with a coffin being led by a priest. In the background is the murmuring and whispering of discontent concerning a daughter ‘who has wrung the aged hearts of her parents… the wife who has betrayed the trusting fondness of her husband,- the mother who had sinned against natural affection, and left her child to die. The noise soon fades away. By the time the old woman tries to wake the lady, ‘she lifted not her head’; she is dead’ and in a mocking derision of devilish triumph, the witch chuckles: ‘Here has been a sweet hour’s sport!’
In the mould of a Dark Romanticism, the story, The Hollow of the Three Hills has the common features of abstract or indistinct setting, in terms of time and substance .Aptly, the story is set in ‘those strange old times’. Even the time is still indistinct-‘at an appointed hour and space’. The location is equally surreal and one could only conclude that it is a sphere between the celestial and terrestrial world. However, some level of realism is brought into the story with the physical description of three little hills, the hollow basin, decayed log of wood and the stagnant green purid pool. All these help to confer an air of mystery round the story.
Though the lady still lives in delusion when she claims, ‘whence I came from matters not’, the reader is given the impression of a concrete place. However, the witch tries to make her realize her current state when she says ‘Who is there… that can bring thee news from the ends of the Earth’.
Later in the story, most experiences and episodes are taken from a soul-travel or a trance. This is a world where experiences of the woman’s’ former life and relatives are brought to her in a form of mixture between reality and illusion, abstraction and concreteness. To further concretize this experience, the writer applies a lot of auditory imagery.
In all, the settings in the story leave quite a lot to the imagination of the reader.
THEMES, MOTIFS, SYMBOLS
Triumph of Evil Over Good –This is one of the salient features of Dark Romanticism, where characters are often presented as being ever prone to sin, guilt and delusion. The fair lady in the story supposedly symbolizes the goodness of humanity, but due to some mistakes in her past, which she does not have control over, she decides to seek help, not to physically correct her mistakes, but to assuage her sense of guilt and as a result, she visits somebody who she thinks is able to solve her problem; the witch in the story. Ironically ,the fair lady subsumes herself under the authority of the witch who makes her lay her head on her knees and from here, there is a symbolic transfer of virtue as she lays her head on her laps. Instead of having her sense of guilt assuaged or even have a sense of assurance of her past mistakes rectified, she is further made more guilty and worried. She is worse off than when she visits the witch and by the end of the story, as she has rightly foreshadows ‘I will do your bidding though I die’, she loses her life and soul.
Deception-The fair lady in the story succumbs to deception when she feels the witch could solve her problem of regaining assurance of the state of her relatives. She is taken through a web of delusions of being shown some visions of her past, which may only be a phantom, woven by the witch. The irony is that instead of having her problems solved, they are compounded. Her so –called conjured relatives from her father to her husband are still full of sorrow due to her betrayal. From the first trance to the last one, the lady is somehow hypnotized until the end of the story, where she pays the supreme prize with her life. The writer also uses language to convey this sense of deception. In the midst of the stark evil in the story, there are always glimpses of something positive and beautiful, all these to create a false sense of beauty and security. There is the, ‘chill beauty of an autumnal sunset…now gliding the three hill –tops…’ In the second trance, ‘All these noises deepened and became substantial to the listener’s ear, till she could distinguish every soft and dreamy accent of the love songs…’
Witchcraft/Supernatural/Death-One of the enhancing styles cum theme of the story is the influence of the supernatural and witchcraft. These aptly symbolize the power of evil. From the eerie and surreal setting to the incantations recited by the witch to invoke the past of the fair lady, elements of the magical are explored. This theme is also implied in the use of language where most descriptions employ stark, dark imagery such as – ‘’As the old withered woman spoke, a on smile glimmered on her countenance, like lamplight on the wall of a sepulchre’’.The trance that the witch takes the other woman into is magical, frightening and evil.Symbolically,the third trance presents a procession of mourners carrying a coffin, which foreshadows this time round, not her physical death, but her spiritual death having sold her soul to the agent of the devil, the witch.
Guilt/ Worldly Cares/Worries-This theme captures the motive of the fair lady’s visit to the witch. In her former life, she has probably defiled the love of her relatives and now remorseful, she wants to see how she could make a remedy. This guilt is so strong that she resorts to the power of an evil power. She probably has her sense of guilt temporarily assuaged from her attitude after the three trance experiences, but ironically, she is left more worried and emotionally shattered. By the third trance it is as if she is now under a spell which continues to propel her to know more which in the end, leads to the loss of her soul.
Three hills-Symbolic representations of the spiritual 3 as a number. Note that the fair woman is taken through a 3-phase trance.
Bell and coffin-A foreshadowing effect of the fair lady’s eventual spiritual death.
There are two main symbolic characters. The older woman, who is a witch, represents the forces of evil. This is evident from her scary physical description-‘an ancient and meanly dressed woman, of ill-favoured aspect, and so withered, shrunken and decrepit’…withered hag’…withered crone. She leads the lady on, in deception by assuring her of solution to her problem though in a clever manner. From her statement to the fair lady, she does not expressly promise her anything: ‘.And who is there by this green pool, that can bring thee news from the ends of the Earth?…Not from my lips mayst thou hear these tidings, yet,be thou bold, and the daylight shall not pass away from yonder hill-top, before thy wish be granted.’ She takes the other woman through a 3-trance experience. All along, she has a hidden motive, which is achieved when she has the last laugh at the end of the story, with the sarcastic statement: ‘Here has been a sweet hour’s sport! Said the withered crone, chuckling to herself.’
The other fair woman is described thus: ‘graceful in form and fair of feature, though pale and troubled and smitten with an untimely blight in what should have been the fullest bloom of her years. She represents virtue. She is driven by a strong sense of guilt to the witch, caused by many mistakes in her past. She also is driven by naivety. This is evident from her lack of self-realization when she says: ‘I am a stranger in this land. ‘She obviously lives in delusion of where she is and even the ambiguity of her request which is to ‘inquire of their welfare reflects her naivety. As it is the case among many mortals, she is anxious and worried about what she does not seem to have control over. She is so consumed by this worry that she loses her sense of reasoning: ‘She hesitated a moment, but the anxiety, that had long been kindling, burned fiercely up within her’. Her gullibility is further shown when without question, willingly submits to the wish of the witch by submitting to her in obeisance- ‘she laid her forehead on the old woman’s knees’. From this point, the consequence becomes obvious.’… and the latter drew a cloak about the lady’s face, so that she was in darkness’. It must be noted that, it is her compassionate side that drives her into seeking a way to correct her past. Some people are important in her life; her parents who feel feel that she has brought dishonor to them and would therefore bring’ their gray heads to the grave. ‘There is also the husband who feels she has ‘broken her holiest vows’. Her gullibility gets the best of her, when having delved into this awkward spiritual exercise; she finds it difficult to extricate herself until the end of the story when she loses her soul.
The story employs the traditional omniscient narrative technique, where the narrator has the ample opportunity to delve into every area of the characters’consciousness.The story relies much on the dramatic description of the setting and the characters to create the desired effects. The strength of the narration is mostly achieved through the vivid, dramatic and mysterious setting and atmosphere created. Dialogue is used sparingly between the witch and the lady. This leaves room for a lot to the imagination of the reader. Rather, most situations are conveyed through the experiences of the characters, especially the trances. In the mould of Dark Romanticism, time is made instinct to create a mysterious effect and aptly so, in the spiritual realm, time as viewed in the physical is intangible and immaterial. Even physical locations are left to the imagination of the readers, somewhere between the celestial and the terrestrial realms. However, there is minimal foreshadowing, for example, the scene of the funeral procession is a pointer to the eventual spiritual demise of the lady. What could be called the twist or climax in the story is achieved at the end when the lady is betrayed by the witch.
SREDNI VASHTAR–Hector Hugh Munro-CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Conradin, the protagonist of the story has been diagnosed of a terminal disease, given just five years to live. The most harrowing part of the news is the fact that Mrs. De Ropp ,his cousin and aunt has endorsed the doctor’s opinion and this is very devastating for the ten year old boy, because ‘she represented those three –fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real’. The larger than life influence of his aunt in his life is one thing he could not cope with. He however relies mostly on his rich childlike imagination to overcome his condition.
The irony of the attitude of Mrs.De Ropp and Conradin to each other is such that she thinks all corrections and a punishment she gives to him is ‘for his own good’. For him, he hates her with deep hatred which he cleverly hides. The boy however learns to create his own world. In a corner of a neglected garden is where he has discovered an abandoned tool-shed which he turns to his own ‘playroom and a cathedral’. It is here that Conradin keeps a ‘ragged-plumaged Houdan hen ‘and in another compartment, he keeps a ‘large polecat-ferret’. He lavishes affection on the former, but for the latter though he fears it, yet ‘it is his most treasure possession’. He gives it the name; Sredni Vashta.He keeps the knowledge of these animals from his guardian.
Conradin gradually turns the beast (the polecat) into a god which he worships from time to time. He is particularly drawn to the fierce impatient side of things, which it possesses unlike the docile Christian religion of his guardian. Conradin so much ascribes so much power to the polycat that whenever his cousin has an ailment, he ascribes it to the power of the animal.
When Mrs.De Ropp discovers the incessant visit of Conradin to the tool shed, she decides to stop it. She sells off the hen first and would soon dispose the cat. But before she does this, the boy Conradin makes it a duty to appease and appeal to the animal to ‘Do one thing for me,Sredni Vashta’.When Mrs.De Ropp discovers that his ward is still visiting the shed, she pays it a visit having found the hidden key somewhere. While she is in the shed, Conradin begins to chant and invoking his own power for a harm to come upon his guardian and this is what happens.Mrs.De Ropp is killed by the wild cat and for Conradin it is the ultimate triumph over his number one enemy.
The story is set in a neigbourhood inhabited by the middle class, with many ‘council’ flats where people live. A sort of communal picture is created here. The neighbours had to come to Mrs.De Ropp‘s aid by the end of the story. The irony is that despite this large number of people that live here, the protagonist still feels alienated and as such has to create his own world. Two settings are particularly significant in the story; ‘the cheerless garden which is of no value in terms of productivity and which prepares the readers for the eventual haven of Conradin; the tool shed.
Religion-As young as Conradin is, he seems to understand the power of religion. He sees religion as a force that must not only exercise brutal force, but must also assist humans. He also wants a religion adulated by extreme primitive ceremonies. All these features the simplistic and docile religion of his guardian lacks. Thus, he considers the kind of religion his guardian follows as too feeble and weak. This explains why he gradually elevates an ordinary large polecat-ferret into a god, giving it a name and builds elaborate rituals and ceremonies round it. He becomes so obsessed with his own god that he begins to ascribe many outrageous qualities to it. The god is responsible for causing Mrs.De Ropp’s tooth ache and eventually his invocation: ‘Do one thing for me’ is what results to the eventual attack of his guardian. The story tactically presents religion as what anybody can create, once you can summon your faith to believe in it.
Escapism-There are two distinct worlds in the story; that of an adult and that of a child. The first world is governed by strict rules, where the opinion of the subordinates or dependants do not matter. It is a world where the larger than life image of Mrs.De Ropp constantly looms. This personality of hers kind plays a huge role here. The child is imbued with so much hatred for his guardian (Mrs. Ropp was the ground plan on which he based and detested all respectability.) that he could not just survive in this world. This kind of world is what pushes Conradin to take the way of escapism, by creating his own ideal world, where he sets the rules. It is a world where imagination rules and where there seems to be no limitation. It is a world where brutal force rules.
Deep Hatred/Vengeance-The level of hatred exhibited by Conradin in the story is so morbid that one may begin to see it as being exaggerated. The hatred seems to grow from the point where Mrs.De Ropp sanctions the doctor’s diagnosis, which amounts to termination of Conradin’s dear life. It is with the same hatred that he wishes death on his guardian. The irony of the story is that the protagonist’s aunt all along thinks she is doing what is right for the child and rightly so, that is how it appears to the reader, because all the rules and actions she takes to correct Conradin are in order. The culmination of this hatred and vengeance towards Mrs.De Ropp is Conradin not stopping her aunt from entering the tool-shed where she may be attacked by the polycat . Even when she is confirmed dead, the reality does not seem to dawn on him. Rather he receives the news with a sense of triumph.
Power of Imagination-Conradin’s sensitivity as a child is linked to his rich imagination. It is this gift which could either be deplored to either positive or negative use. In Conradin’s mind, the aunt should bear the blame for the doctor’s diagnosis and even the nature of his terminal disease. He carries this imaginative power to another level when he ‘found a haven’… something that took on the varying aspects of a playroom and a cathedral. It gets more interesting as he weaves an elaborate web of adulation round the polycat by giving it a name, and turning it to a god and finally praying to it and believing it.
Houdan hen-This represents the humane side of Conradin which he sees as the kind of religion practised by his aunt. He ‘lavished an affection that had scarcely another outlet’. He loves the hen, but not accorded the same respect given to the polecat-ferret.
Polecat-ferret-The symbol of the kind of god created by the protagonist. It is a ferocious god distinct from the timid and docile one worshipped by his aunt. The creature represents ‘fierce side of things’.
The garden-This is representative of the state of Conradin’s state of mind which is riddled with animosity, vengeance etc. It also mirrors the rancorous relationship of Conradin and his aunt.
Mrs. Ropp-She is the cousin and guardian to the protagonist, Conradin. She is presented mostly in the story as somebody who has a sense of responsibility towards his ward. She however seems to through her weight round, rather too much that she almost always suffocates the privacy of the protagonist.
She is described as a person ‘who counted for nearly everything’. Her first crime in the story is ignorantly committed by endorsing the doctor’s diagnosis of Conradin’s life terminating within a span of five years. Her naivety could also be baffling almost to the point of insensitivity.
She is consumed by her own sense of rightness without considering the feeling of his ward. She almost derives some pleasure from ‘thwarting him for his good’, which she considers a ‘duty’. From her description and use of language in the story, it is obvious that almost everything is seen from her point of view alone-It is not good for him ,I thought you like toast, she was ready to rebuke with a flow of excellent precepts and reasoning. She never for once sit down with the child and find out what he wants. This attitude reflects the holier than though personality of Mrs. Ropp.The highlight of her ‘thwarting’ his ward is her decision to clear away Conradin’s pets. Although the motive for this action sounds plausible as it is meant to keep the boy sane for his own good, but, there seems to be the sinister motive of deriving some pleasure in doing whatever displeases her ward. In the end, the clash of personalities between Mrs.De Ropp and Conradin leads to the demise of the former. The tragedy of the story is that even to the points of death, she thinks, all actions are for the good of her ward.
Conradin-He is the protagonist of the story. His health problem which is terminal has been diagnosed by a doctor and his guardian and aunt sanctioning it creates a major crisis in his life as he develops a morbid hatred for her .This casts Conradin as a highly sensitive child who quickly comes to a hasty conclusion of Mrs.De Ropp’s negative attitude towards him. It almost gets to a point of concern for a ten year old to harbour so much hatred towards a fellow human. One may begin to wonder if there are other grievances not stated in the story which Conradin holds against her.
Conradin’s sensitive and rich imagination is also displayed in the manner he manages to create his own distinct world, where he is truly in charge, unlike in his domestic life, where his aunt holds sway. This attitude on the part of Conradin is instigated simply because, he and his aunt do not seem to speak the same language or rather they live in two parallel worlds. The elaborate world built round his pet/gods is a rather interesting one, from giving them names to weaving intricate ceremonies and rituals round them.
The height of sadistic tendency in the child is his vindictive nature up to point of wishing death for his benefactress. Though the boy displays some traits to project his grievances, yet the aunt is so consumed by her sense of discipline that she could not sense any danger. Eventually, she walks easily into the trap set by Conradin and she loses her life.
In a battle between an adult and a child, Conradin obviously relishes this sadistic victory and truly he displays all the traits of a child who is only concerned about the present, because the question would be, now that his only benefactress is dead, how is he going to survive?
The story employs the omniscient narrative technique, where the narrator has ample opportunity to have an aerial view of the characters and this explains why motives for some of the actions of the characters are left to the speculation of the readers and this creates the desired suspense in the story.
The plot of the story follows the traditional chronological order from inception, which establishes the cause of the conflict in the story-diagnose of Conradin’s illness and then how the boy tries to fight back, up to the eventual climax where Mrs.De Ropp is attacked and the culmination in the resolution of conflict with her death and the sense of satisfaction and triumph of Conradin.
Dialogue, in terms of its sparing use or even outright absence is very significant in the story. Both characters most times rely on speculation or guesswork to decipher what the other person is thinking, thereby forming their erroneous opinions about each other. This is reflected in the language used by Mrs.De Ropp for example: ‘I thought you liked toast’. ‘It is not good for him’. While she speaks more, Conradin is mostly silent- ‘But Conradin said nothing: there was nothing to be said’. The effect of this silent game is mutual suspicion, acrimony and eventual communication breakdown between the two characters.
The setting is also used to create a thematic effect. The last line in paragraph two reads-and from the realm of his imagination she was locked out-an unclean thing, which should find no entrance. Incidentally, the following paragraph presents the unkempt garden with the tool shed in a corner of it.Irony is also used. While Mrs.De Ropp thinks she is helping the child and probably the boy appreciates her, the opposite is the situation. At the end of the story also, the neigbhours are still contemplating how to break the news of Mrs.De Ropp death to Conradin in such a way that he would not feel bad, but ironically, the boy all along knows what may have happened and instead of being down emotionally, it actually calls for celebration.
Generally the world of child is explicitly implied in the story. The language is accessible to create this effect. So is also is the thought pattern of a child given some prominence.