Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title “The Albatross” immediately evokes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). In the poem, the mariner is cursed to wear an albatross, a seabird, around his neck because he has callously killed the bird. Only when he appreciates the beauty and power of nature and of life is the curse lifted: The albatross falls from his neck.

The two themes of burden and the power of nature are central to this short story. Susan Hill very carefully lets the reader decide who is an albatross to whom. Hilda Pike sees her son as a burden. She is ashamed of his limited mental ability. She believes that she has sacrificed her life to give him a home because he could not possibly make it in the world on his own. Similarly, Duncan sees his mother as the albatross. Her dependence on him and her constant harping on his inabilities to survive are his curse. Finally, he believes that in order to have any freedom he must kill her. The irony here is apparent in relation to the Coleridge poem: The mariner gains freedom through an appreciation of life, while Duncan thinks that he is gaining life through death; in fact, he has merely exchanged one kind of prison for another.