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The Woman in Black - Language

This GCSE English Literature quiz takes a look at language. Language in Susan Hill's The Woman in Black is often used subtly. Much of the narration depicts landscapes and events in ways which might seem straightforwardly descriptive. The horror is frequently understated, making it all the more terrifying when Arthur hears the drowning pony and child out in the marsh, over and over again.

The eerily beautiful site where Eel Marsh House is located seems enthralling for its combination of sea, sky and sand, but these natural elements are made to seem otherworldly in a way that prepares the reader for the supernatural. The use of understatement and the way that ordinary scenes are described with quietly disturbing language make the novel a masterpiece of suspense.

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Analysing language in a text

Being composed of words, texts are primarily understood through their language. All authors choose the individual words, phrases and imagery they use with precision. By devoting close attention to language, you can begin to understand any symbolic meanings and associations in the text. Authors are sometimes referred to as “wordsmiths” to emphasise the skill and craft involved in creating worlds out of language. Prose texts, such as novels, use language you might be more likely to associate with poetry, including metaphor, simile and personification, and other literary effects. Setting, characterisation and dialogue rely upon the author’s ability in using language.

You will greatly increase your understanding of the text by paying very close attention to its language. Linger over the words and imagery for a while, carefully considering the multiple possible meanings you perceive beyond the surface meaning. Think about the suggestions expressed implicitly by each individual choice of words, or combinations of words. While you’re reading, or re-reading, pay close attention to the language used and note any ideas that come to mind. By expending some time and care on language, you will develop your ability to analyse literature.

Answer the questions below to develop your understanding of the way language choices affect the reader’s interpretation of The Woman in Black.

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  1. "The house felt like a ship at sea, battered by the gale that came roaring across the open marsh." This sentence includes which of the following literary devices?
    The house is compared to a ship, giving the impression that it suddenly feels unstable, while the alliteration of "s" and "sh", along with the onomatopoeia of "roaring", recreate the sounds of the storm which awakens Arthur
  2. "When I left the room and closed the door behind me and stood in the corridor again, the feelings dropped away from me like a garment that had been put over my shoulders for a short time and then removed again. I was back within my own person, my own emotions, I was myself again." To what does Arthur compare his emotions?
    In the nursery Arthur experiences the haunting of the Woman in Black as if he has taken on her overwhelming grief and loss as his own. He compares this emotional possession to a garment which is removed when he leaves the room
  3. "I lunged out and grabbed the dog about the neck and hauled and strained and tugged with all the force I could, a strength I would never have dreamed I could have summoned up, born of terror and desperation; and after an agonizing time, when we both fought for our lives against the treacherous quicksand that tried to pull us both down into itself and I felt my grip on the slippery wet fur and wet flesh of the dog almost give, at last I knew that I would hold and win." This sentence shows life pitted against intractable nature. Which language choices emphasise life?
    Life seems fragile in opposition to the powerful ability of the quicksand to absorb and swallow anything which steps into it
  4. "I returned some four hours and thirty-odd miles later in a positive glow of well-being. I had ridden out determinedly across the countryside, seeing the very last traces of golden autumn merging into the beginnings of winter, feeling the rush of pure cold air on my face, banishing every nervous fear and morbid fancy by energetic physical activity." What is the effect of the word "banishing" here?
    Arthur believes that he can drive out the effects of the ghost by good air, good food and wholesome exercise
  5. "All the previous week, we had had rain, chilling rain and a mist that lay low about the house and over the countryside. From the windows, the view stretched no farther than a yard or two down the garden. It was wretched weather, never seeming to come fully light, and raw, too. There had been no pleasure in walking, the visibility was too poor for any shooting and the dogs were permanently morose and muddy." This description of the weather shows that Arthur has been feeling how?
    This might be an example of "pathetic fallacy", where the weather reflects the mood or emotions of a character. It is more likely, in the context of this novel and this character, that Arthur's moods are reflecting the weather. He, like the dogs, has been feeling "morose"
  6. "Below us are pastures, interspersed with small clumps of mixed, broadleaf woodland. But at our backs for several square miles it is a quite different area of rough scrub and heathland, a patch of wildness in the midst of well-farmed country. We are but two miles from a good-sized town, seven from the principal market town, yet there is an air of remoteness and isolation which makes us feel ourselves to be much further from civilisation." Which of the following is correct?
    The wildness, which Arthur enjoys, is only a "patch" surrounded by well-tended fields and pasture
  7. "Nothing was more calculated to raise my spirits in anticipation of a treat to come than the sight of that great cavern of a railway station, glowing like the interior of a blacksmith's forge." What effect is created by the use of the word "cavern" here?
    Precise language choices can convey layers of meaning!
  8. "On the causeway path it was still quite dry underfoot but to my left I saw that the water had begun to seep nearer, quite silent, quite slow. I wondered how deeply the path went under water when the tide was at height." Which words hint at the deadliness of the causeway?
    The quiet menace of these words is emphasised by the use of alliteration
  9. "My story is almost done. There is only one last thing to tell. And that I can scarcely bring myself to write about." What effect is created by these three sentences?
    This last, small thing eclipses the horror of all that has so far been related
  10. "They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough." What might be meant by this ending of a single word? Choose the best answer.
    The ending implies that Arthur, having written and faced these events in full, has finally taken away their power over his life

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