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The Woman in Black - Understanding the Text

This GCSE English Literature quiz will test you on Susan Hill's The Woman in Black. Understanding a text is essential if you expect to analyse and write about it. Comprehension might sound as though it is a simple task, but it can be trickier than it seems. If texts only had a single “message”, authors would not need to expend so many words in expressing it.

The Woman in Black is written as a full-length ghost story in the tradition of M. R. James, Henry James and Charles Dickens. It is richly atmospheric, with evocative descriptions of landscape. Fairly ordinary settings such as a reasonably comfortable home, a small town, and a small island are revealed to harbour a terrifying presence. This presence, in its turn, is no more than that ordinary figure - a mother. And yet, such a terrifying mother, wasted as she is by disease, grief and the desire for vengeance!

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Authors use a variety of methods to convey meaning. There are times when authors state the meaning directly, but it is more typical for the author to communicate through other aspects of fiction, such as character, setting, plot, theme and dialogue. Focussing on each of these elements will help to increase your understanding of the text. If you can, try to re-read the text, too. When you read a book only once, you are very likely to miss important details. If you feel you need to read certain sections several times in order to understand them, don’t worry! Noticing when you haven’t fully understood a section means that you have been paying attention to the complex nature of the text.

Making a timeline of events is a practical approach to revision. Draw up a list of chapters and note the key events which happen in each. See if you are able to relate each of these chapters to the overall plot. Consider the relationship between characters’ actions and motivations. Why might characters behave in the way they do? Can you discover any clues in the text? Are there trustworthy characters, whose words can be taken at face value? Do you perceive any foreshadowing of later events? As you think about the text, consider how you might justify your views through evidence.

Remember to pay especially close attention to the beginnings and ends of the text. Why might the author have begun the text a certain way? What does the setting tell the reader? What do we know, or learn, about the character? Think about possible answers to these questions when you consider individual chapters, too. By devoting some attention to careful and detailed analysis of this sort, you can greatly improve your understanding of the text.

Read the questions below on The Woman in Black and test your knowledge and understanding of the text.

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  1. Why is Arthur sent to Crythin Gifford?
    Arthur is sent to represent Mr Bentley's law firm at Mrs Drablow's funeral and to find and sort through her papers
  2. Arthur believes that the business in Crythin Gifford will be...
    The dry facts shared by Mr Bentley give Arthur the impression that his business will be swift and uncomplicated; his pauses and the manner in which he emphasises particular words give the reader a clue that he is aware Mrs Drablow's affairs are not at all straightforward
  3. Who is Stella?
    Arthur is reluctant to leave Stella behind in London while he travels North on business
  4. Where does Arthur first meet Mr Daily?
    Arthur meets Samuel Daily on his final train between Homerby and Crythin Gifford. They begin their friendship with a typical conversation about the weather
  5. What happens when Arthur decides to stay at Eel Marsh House overnight for the first time?
    Arthur sees the Woman in Black in the graveyard and hears the ghostly echo of the pony and trap's dreadful fate on his first visit to Eel Marsh House and yet feels brave enough to stay overnight on his next visit
  6. How many nights does Arthur manage to stay at Eel Marsh House?
    The first time Arthur stays overnight, he hears the rocking chair in the locked nursery; on the second occasion he finds the door to the nursery unlocked and later that night saves Spider from being sucked into the mud when she chases into the marshes after a ghostly whistle. Arthur is rescued from the island immediately after this event by Mr Daily
  7. How did Nathaniel Drablow die?
    Nathaniel Drablow, his nurse, his dog, the driver of the trap, Mr Keckwick, and the pony die when the pony and trap leave the causeway and become trapped in the mud while the tide is rising during a sudden sea-fret
  8. What emotion motivates the Woman in Black's malevolence towards parents and children?
    Jennet Humfrye never recovers from the loss of her child. Her malevolence as a ghostly apparition is driven by this grief, her desire for vengeance born of envy for the happiness she was denied in life
  9. What causes the terrible accident in which Stella and the baby, Joseph, die?
    The pony appears to be able to see the woman in black, just as Arthur is able to see her. Her appearance turns the innocent enjoyment of a pony and trap ride into a scene of death when the pony crashes into a tree after being startled
  10. Who is the fictional audience for Arthur's terrible tale?
    Arthur refuses to share his tale as a Christmas ghost story, instead writing it as a form of exorcism to rid himself of the terror of past events

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