On a Ghost Hunt: In Search of an Explanation for the Paranormal in Sarah Waters "The Little Stranger"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3


1. Introduction

2. The British Gentry after the Second World War: A Historical Insight

3. Paranormal Activity: What is the Source of the Hauntings at Hundreds Hall?
3.1 The Poltergeist Hypothesis
3.1.1 The Ghost of the Future
3.1.2 The Return of the Working Class
3.1.3 The House as a Creature
3.2 The Restoration of Reputation: A Staged Haunting
3.3 Nervous Agitation and Spectrality
3.4 Faraday: The Little Familiar Stranger
3.5 Betty

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

Hauntings and spectrality have always been popular literary tropes, manifested in fiction not only for the sake of pure entertainment but also historiographically, considering that the metaphorical dimension of "haunting", recurring issues shapes our perception of the stains the past leaves on our personal history. The past in itself models the future by possessing us, making us the ghost of our own haunting, while we remain utterly unaware of our foretime reaching out to us from beyond the grave of time. Sarah Waters' novel The Little Stranger generically combines features of a realist historical novel, a political novel and the Victorian trope of the Gothic spook haunting a formerly praised country house. The plot takes place at Hundreds Hall, the seemingly cursed mansion of the Ayres family at a time when the gentry lost its social status stricken by the post World War II anxiety (Thomas 2009). The decrepit building stands for many of the formerly glorious and renowned country houses in England, which bit by bit lost their worth within society and ceased to exist. Just like its predecessors, Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher or Walpole's The Castle of Ontario, The Little Stranger dismantles the pre-war notion of the country house as a mystified, heavenly place full of wonders and beauty. Just like the gentry itself represented by the Ayreses the almost propagandist imagery of the British upper class is torn apart by an inexplicable malicious force (O’Connell 2009: 44). The country house which functions as a refuge from the change that comes with time is penetrated by the very same force which aims to remove the last remnants of an obsolete hierarchical system who still defy modernity: The Ayres family. The hauntings result in madness, suicide, death – to be concise: the irrecoverable doom of the venerable Ayreses.

The past has buried its claws deep inside Hundreds Hall and its residents, yet it remains unclear who is responsible for this catastrophy, that is, who is the medium possessed by the force of the past (Kolonowska 2017: 173). To demonstrate how personal tragedy and the British history after World War II seem to be interwoven with one another, it is first of all crucial to have a concrete insight in the historical facts of the post-war era, the fall of the gentry and therefore the downfall of the phantasma of the country house. The exploration of the past enables us then to investigate the haunting of the Ayreses and Hundreds Hall in greater detail. Focussing on individual motives, the usual suspects of this who-dun-it-novel are examined separately, starting with the most obvious explanation, which is a supernatural force represented by a Poltergeist. This ghostly entity might stem from manifold sources. It can either be a ghost of the future, ensuring a new world order, a ghost of the past, being the vengeful remnants of working-class struggle or the house itself as a creature which came to life to take vengeance on its host. A less paranormal approach to solve the riddle of the hauntings of Hundreds Hall involves its inhabitants and visitors. To restore their reputation in a world where the mysticism around the British gentry is mostly eradicated, the Ayreses might have staged the hauntings at Hundreds Hall. Another rational explanation involves the mental state of war veteran Roderick Ayres, who, victim to his delusions, imagines a paranormal presence within the walls of Hundreds Hall. Closely related to Rodericks madness is Dr. Faraday, GP and vistor by trade, who might have, due to his past, a personal interest in the downfall of the Ayreses. To close the circle of suspects from the most obvious one to the least, the housemaid Betty and her possible motive to end Hundreds Hall are evaluated and examined on its potential to eradicate a whole family line. Like a ghost the notion of a persistent past meanders through Waters' novel, slowly subverting the ideal of the ''golden age'' of Victorianism which the Ayreses cling to so relentlessly. Like Zizek states accurately in Looking Awry, a Poltergeist poses a threat to the living to collect unpaid symbolic debt (Žižek, 1999: 16), which then prompts the key question of who the debt-collector might turn out to be.

2. The British Gentry after the Second World War: A Historical Insight

To understand the impact of the post-war era on the British gentry it is important to take a step back and become aware of the gentry's status in Britain before the Second World War. In the late Victorian and Edwardian periods the gentry was held in high esteem. Wealth, status and a certain element of authority were key features of the British upper class. The local population was recruited to serve at the gentry's country houses; places full of beauty, indulgence, and mysticism, oftentimes compared to paradise itself (Heilmann 2012: 40). Entire generations of families were employed on the estate, maintaining spacious gardens and monumental interiors (Musson 2010: 6). The British country house along with its inhabitants was a symbol of the English national identity, demonstrating class, style and first and foremost immeasurable wealth. As Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga worded it so perfectly, the country house represented "a carrier of culture" (2015:173), full of the grandest and noblest virtues an Englishman could ever offer. This holy haven of perfect Englishness, of course, led to the exploitation and mistreatment of the lower-class servants. The great houses and landed estates of the British gentry had to face its downfall due to an immense agricultural crisis from the 1800s up until 1945. Europe was hit by poor hravests, while the prices for wheat increased. Furthermore, the Great War produced a lot of social change among the British population. Formerly devoted employees took the chance to pursue a career in the new industries, enjoying better working conditions and payment, as well as wider opportunities in diverse industrial branches (Musson 2010: 224). Popular interest in domestic service declined immensely and the steep tax increase introduced by the post-war Labour government led to the final ruin of the sector (Horn 1997: 171). Democratic reforms caused a massive loss of power for the aristocracy, and to stay afloat the gentry was forced to sell land or return to agricultural, manual labor themselves. The Attlee government introduced the National Health Service and greatly expanded the welfare state. The land which used to belong to the upper class was then used to build council houses and the already existing country houses were converted into schools or troop barracks, which sped up the decay of the formerly luxurious landmarks of British wealth. The ultimate status symbol of the British upper class eventually became the ultimate money drainer and the formerly marvelous premises now plunge the gentry into deep debt. The aristocracy had to adapt to the new world order and was forced to either make use of their land by becoming professional farmers or by simply selling it off, divesting themselves of the last material things that functioned as remnants of a formerly glorious time of wealth. Social and financial descent met a distinct loss of power and so a new era of the people (and the nouveau riche) began. Most novelists responded to the demise of the upper class, which already began in the 1800s, by idealizing the gentry and especially their country houses. Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady or The Golden Bowl shine a light on the phantasma many British conservatives wanted to preserve. The famous lithographs of Joseph Nash Mansions of England in the Olden Times also depict an extremely romanticized view on the formerly great places with a distinct hint of fantasized romantic tableaux (O’Connell 2009: 44). The ultimate fall of the country house and the gentry post World War II was therefore not only a triumph for working-class servants but also a gut-wrenching experience for conservatives and a certain sense of nostalgia for the "olden times" still burns within the heart of Britain up to this day.

3. Paranormal Activity: What is the Source of the Hauntings at Hundreds Hall?

In The Little Stranger the trope of the formerly glorious country house lingers in the anxious atmosphere of the aftermath of World War II. The Ayres family is torn apart by the social and political changes introduced by the new era. Council buildings are built on the precious land of Hundreds Hall and the army of servants the Ayreses used to employ are long gone. Roderick Ayres, a shaken army veteran and feudal spirit has to take care of the formerly beautiful mansion, which now much rather turns out to be a massive burden to its owners. Mrs. Ayres, still traumatized by the death of her husband and her first-born daughter, tries unswervingly to maintain the old way of life. Caroline Ayres, Rodericks' sister, seems at peace with her destiny and steers in a more progressive direction than the rest of her family. Yet, the anxiety the new world order has created taints her world as well. Frighteningly, the extreme change is accompanied by a much darker, malicious force that remains unexplained throughout the novel. Unexplainable stains on the walls and ceiling, fire, madness, sudden deaths, and suicide point to an intruder in Hundreds Hall, determined to haunt and destroy the Ayres family from within. The trope of a phantom haunting the last remaining members of a dynasty echoes the Victorian paradigm of an annihilation of that very same dynasty: From The House of Usher to Wuthering Heights and Chesney World, the critical stage of upper class homes is a recurring threat in British literature. Waters' novel itself poses more questions than it answers and the most prominent riddle of who is responsible for the hauntings within the walls of the dilapidating country house is yet to be solved.

3.1 The Poltergeist Hypothesis

As soon as the plot is reduced to its core essence, The Little Stranger is a ghost story about a haunted house and family. The image of the haunted house represents the prototypical notion of what is considered uncanny; in Freud's terms, the "homely" comfort of the formerly beautiful country house becomes "unhomely", unknown, estranged (Heilmann 2012: 39). The invocation of a ghostly presence in the sense of a hauntological approach towards the text demonstrates how even in its absence a thing can still linger around its former home and have a real impact – even more real than its corporeal equivalent (Derrida 1994: 42). In hauntology, the being, as Žižek insists, can have causal effects, even without physically existing (1999: 44). Assuming that there is a paranormal subject within the walls of Hundreds Hall, the main motive of the dark force behind it might be unfinished business of the past or wrongdoings which need to be corrected (Davis 2007: 23). In the hauntological – or even supernatural – sense it is crucial to make the shapeless visible and determine the source of the paranormal activity.

3.1.1 The Ghost of the Future

Hundreds Hall is the hypocenter of broken identities, personal histories, past, present and, inevitably, the future. The haunting in the present case can be seen as a sociological phenomenon, rather than a dead or missing person coming back to life. The Ghost of the Future is a social figure, a force making sure that the last remnants of the old times either adapt to the new world order or are wiped out (Kolonowska 2017: 172). The Ayres' family is still considerably resistant when it comes to the inevitable change they have to adapt to. Roderick himself, even though he is no longer in the position to do so, considers his kind as superior. The proper treatment of his only maid Betty appears to him utterly presumptuous, as he claims "[...] I gather neglecting the servants is a capital offense these days [...]" (6). Mrs. Ayres, still dwelling on the "olden times" whilst looking through old photographs, particularly of her deceased husband and their formerly employed servants, indulges in her nostalgy, unwilling to accept her destiny (29-30). The present specter is determined to remove the worn-out aristocracy and make way for a new world order. The stubborn Ayreses who refuse to accept their new role in Britain have to be removed in order to enable the advancement of society. The inhabitants of Hundreds Hall have become rather redundant in a society that needs public housing and health centers more than it needs wealth and pageantry. In a way, the Ayreses are murdered by progress and social change, which is necessary for the rise of the working class. Coincidentally, Hundreds Hall, depleted and enfranchised from the grip of the Ayreses, ends up in the hands of a former member of the working class: GP Dr. Faraday, ushering in a new ear.

3.1.2 The Return of the Working Class

The accumulation of specters of identities within Hundreds Hall might as well assume a more concrete form. The house itself functions as a container of suppressed frustration and anger, stemming from a world in which servants had close to no social recognition on the part of the gentry. Long-silenced negative emotions seem to burst out and take revenge on the already devastated Ayreses. The social injustice produced a collective feeling of inferiority amongst the working-class servants at Hundreds Hall, yet the formerly oppressed now become the oppressors themselves, empowered by the shattered British class structure and the newly obtained general awareness for social ad political matters (Kolonowska 2017: 177). The specters of the working-class now finally revisit Hundreds Hall, although not physically, to come to terms with the dark past of the mansion. The servants, who remained invisible, unseen by their masters in the pre-war era are now still ghostly invisible, yet their impact, just like back in the days, is undeniable. The workforce turned into a dark force; what used to be scrubbed clean is now shattered, the intention to maintain now turned to an intention to destroy. The accumulated negative feelings of the underprivileged linger like a poltergeist on the grounds of Hundreds Hall and seek retribution. What is nostalgia to Mrs. Ayres and Roderick is trauma to the servants. From this perspective, it should be no surprise that the violent objects attacking Roderick and his family are directly connected to the domestic labor of former servants. The collar which drives Roderick mad is brought to his chamber by Betty, their maid. The speaking tube which sounds ghostly noises once was used by Dr. Faraday's mother, a nursery maid back in the days (334). The seemingly cursed objects of domestic labor become the last remaining, visible servants in Hundreds Hall and finally get the long-awaited attention by refusing to do what they are supposed to. Roderick himself feels that his belongings are possessed by a "dreadful thing" (164), planning to drive him mad. The mysterious marks on the ceiling of Roderick's room might be the retribution for the childhood joke Roderick and his sister once played as children, telling their maid that sealing wax was supposed to go on ceilings, which meant "dreadful trouble" for the maid (27). The servants who were once filled with dread are now, quite literally, the dreadful specter haunting the country house to establish a balance between their former obedience and their master’s cruelty, manifesting vengeance for their trauma.

3.1.3 The House as a Creature

Hundreds Hall used to be a place of beauty and virtue, brought to life by an army of loyal servants. Like an animal well taken care of, Hundreds Hall unfolded its potential as a magical place, calm and peaceful, resting on the grounds of Warwickshire. Throughout time Hundreds Hall is, like an organic being, confronted with constant transformational processes. Full of adoration Dr. Faraday remembers his first visit at Hundreds Hall, talking about "The worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain – like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun" (1). After the First World War, Hundreds Hall still had its soft and noble image, beautifully decorated with "ribbon[s] tied across" (1) its French windows, like a stud horse, groomed and ready to be presented. With the lack of proper care and the absence of eager servants, the formerly domesticated animal that is Hundreds Hall, which is now in the inexperienced hands of Roderick Ayres, becomes wild, untamable. With the death of the gentry's era came the death of the virtuous spirit that once filled the country house. The mansion has seen manifold personal destinies, shattered dreams and individuals walk in and out of its doors which made the creature turn into a grim, undead version of itself. With only a few rooms inhabited and the electricity awry it almost seems as if the trim animal became a partially paralyzed creature. Without doubt, the ghostly entity which haunts the Ayreses is bound to the mansion itself, it has a constitutive dependence on the material place (Fisher 2012: 19). Like a wild horse trying to shake off its unwanted horsemen, the mansion seems to strike back to free itself from the brutal hand of the Ayreses. Roderick's plan to sell off land or alter the park for potential investors almost appears like mutilation or torture. The inorganic material of stone and glass transforms itself into an organic demonic artifact, autonomous and independent of the Ayreses will. Hundreds Hall and its inhabitants have a reciprocal relationship of "host" and "parasite". While Roderick Ayres is the literal host of Hundreds Hall, it seems as if the mansion is slowly feeding off of its host to ensure its survival (Negarestani 2008: 43). Yet, the Ayreses themselves symbolize a parasitic infestation, running down the mansion as walls start to crumble (250), the roof leaks and holes appear (497), drainpipes burst (283), and expensive antique wallpapers dissolve or become bloated with rainwater (293). From then on the untamed creature Hundreds Hall haunts the Ayreses in its mortal combat to survive to a point where it shows auto-aggressive behavior, setting fire to itself like an antibiotic supposed to kill off the resistant parasites (202). In the end, Hundreds Hall survives the battle, yet the mansion seems weakened. Stripped bare of most of the furniture, decorations, and carpets, the mansion reveals its Georgian symmetries (498), its skeleton. The survival of the weakened patient Hundreds Hall remains unclear, yet, fortunately, it is now in the hands of a caring Doctor, Faraday, which makes the country house one of his many outpatients he can now nurse back to health.

3.2 The Restoration of Reputation: A Staged Haunting

On many different levels, the Ayreses have reached their ultimate omniferous end. Immense financial losses, the burden of a decaying home, mental and physical diseases and distortion meet general social rejection. Especially the fateful incident at a party, where Gyp, Caroline's dog, brutally mangles the daughter of the nouveau riche Baker-Hydes makes the whole Ayres family personae non gratae. Selling off land became the only possibility to remain afloat, but even with investors claiming parts of Hundreds Hall's park, the future of the Ayreses seems forlorn. The family's history is now nothing more than gossip among the common people. It is an open secret that the family has reached the end of its line. Caroline being unfit for any of her mother's hand-picked love candidates and Roderick being so taken in by his mental instability, his addiction, and his war-shock mark the end of a dynasty. Sooner or later the family will perish, leaving no trace in this world, while their family name will forever be a persiflage of the fallen gentry.

Yet, the Ayreses possess a certain narcissism, which makes them unable to accept their fate gracefully and with dignity. Naturally, the family name and their dignity must be preserved from harm, even long after their deaths. The hauntings at Hundreds Hall can, therefore, be explained more rationally as a staged incident, which is supposed to mystify their family history by adding heart-wrenching tragic to their destiny, and ultimately saving their reputation among the general public. Identity itself is mostly formed by narration and just like in fictional texts, and the literary educated Ayreses must be aware of that, storytelling from only one perspective is not necessarily reliable. Nonetheless tweaking reality to support a certain image of oneself can be highly effective.


Excerpt out of 22 pages


On a Ghost Hunt: In Search of an Explanation for the Paranormal in Sarah Waters "The Little Stranger"
LMU Munich
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Gentry, Britain, London, Sarah Waters, Ghost, Paranormal, Who-dunnit, Country House Novel, Nostalgia
Quote paper
Isabell Rieth (Author), 2019, On a Ghost Hunt: In Search of an Explanation for the Paranormal in Sarah Waters "The Little Stranger", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/882751


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