The Woman in Black Summary

The Woman in Black is a 1983 gothic horror novel about a young lawyer named Arthur Kipps who encounters a malevolent ghost.

  • Arthur travels to Eel Marsh House in the remote town of Crythin Gifford to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, a recently deceased client.
  • At the house, Arthur is haunted by the ghost of Alice’s sister, Jennet Humphreye, who was forced to give up her infant son to Alice and mourn his death when he later drowned in the marsh.
  • Jennet’s ghost later appears to Arthur in London, causing the death of his wife and their one-year-old son.

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Last Updated on November 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1181

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The Woman in Black is a gothic horror novel written in 1983 by English author Susan Hill.

The story is told from the perspective of Arthur Kipps, a retired lawyer and widower who lives with his second wife, Esme, at a rural English estate known as "Monk's Piece." When their family gathers together at the estate for Christmas, Arthur's stepchildren take turns telling ghost stories around the fire. Soon, it's Arthur's turn. Despite the children's urging, he refuses to participate—instead, he becomes uncomfortable and withdrawn, and eventually leaves the room.

Realizing that he has not yet resolved his feelings about a traumatic ghost experience from his early adulthood, Arthur decides to write his story down in detail for the first time. It takes place in his early twenties, when he is working as a lawyer at a London firm. His boss, Mr. Bentley, sends him to the rural town of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of their recently departed client, Alice Drablow.

When Arthur arrives at Crythin Gifford, he is perplexed to find that none of the townspeople are willing to talk with him about the Drablow estate. At her funeral, very few people are present, although he does see one person of interest—a gaunt, skeletal woman in old-fashioned black mourning clothes, who looks like she's suffering from a wasting disease. Arthur inquires after the woman with Mr. Jerome, a local estate agent, and Mr. Jerome is visibly shaken by the inquiry, insisting that he didn't see her.

That afternoon, Arthur visits Eel Marsh House, Mrs. Drablow's estate, for the first time. The house, situated on the Nine Lives Causeway, can only be reached when the tide is low. Setting out in a pony and trap driven by a man named Keckwick, Arthur is astounded and bolstered by the vast openness and beauty of the landscape, and arrives at the house with great excitement.

Upon arrival, his excitement is tempered somewhat by an unnerving sight: the woman from the funeral is standing in the house's graveyard. Finding himself unexpectedly overtaken by fear, Arthur runs into the house to calm himself. There, he finds that this task might be more complicated than he thought—Mrs. Drablow has reams and sheaves of paper filling drawers, desks, shelves, and cabinets, and he'll have to sort through it all.

Anxious to return to his hotel, Arthur sets out on foot. Before long, he realizes his mistake—marsh fog has rolled in unexpectedly, and he can barely see the path in front of him. The ground below is starting to grow damp as the water rises, and he starts to walk back to the house to wait for Keckwick.

Soon, he's heartened by the clip-clopping sound of a pony and trap approaching. Before long, his relief turns to horror—he hears the pony and trap sink in the marsh, and among the horse's frantic whinnies, a child is crying in fear. Realizing he can't reach them or do anything, he returns somberly to the house and has a drink to calm his nerves. To his surprise, the doorbell soon rings—Keckwick has arrived to take him home. It wasn't his carriage that Arthur heard; someone else has been lost to the marsh.

Back in town, an unsettled Arthur visits Mr. Jerome to ask for help with the Drablow estate. Mr. Jerome refuses and insists that nobody in town will be willing to accede. Soon after, Arthur bumps into another familiar face: Mr. Samuel Daily, a man he met on the train to Crythin Gifford.

Over dinner, Mr. Daily tries unsuccessfully to deter Arthur from continuing his work at Eel Marsh House. When Arthur remains resolute, Mr. Daily insists that he take along a companion and offers his dog—a small, loyal terrier named Spider.

Returning to the house to stay for a few days, this time with Spider in tow, Arthur begins sorting through Mrs. Drablow's hoard of papers. The first day passes uneventfully, but Arthur wakes up in the middle of the night to find Spider growling at the door with her hackles raised. A strange, familiar sound is coming from the hallway—he can't place it, but it seems to be coming from behind a locked door.

Deciding it must be a bird trapped in a chimney, Arthur returns to bed. The next day, he finds a curious bundle of old letters from a woman named Jennet Humphreye. It appears that Jennet, young and unmarried, was once pregnant and struggling with giving her baby up for adoption.

Before he can read further, Spider begins growling again—the noise behind the locked door has returned. Determined to figure out what's going on, Arthur goes outside to fetch an axe. To his horror, he hears exactly what he heard last time: a pony and trap, at first approaching and then sinking violently in the marsh.

Unnerved, he returns inside to chop the locked door down. When he approaches, he sees something terrifying: the door is open. Inside is an abandoned nursery, and in the center he sees the source of the familiar sound—a rocking chair, gently rocking back and forth with nobody inside it.

Hearing cries yet again, Arthur and Spider go outside to investigate. A whistle rings out from the marsh, and before he can stop her, Spider chases after the sound and begins to drown in the mire. He runs after her, almost drowning himself. Catching Spider at last, he runs back to the house and sees the woman in black staring at him once more.

Arthur wakes up on the couch inside Eel Marsh House with Spider curled up on the rug below, realizing that his friend Mr. Daily has found them and brought them inside to safety. When he wakes, Mr. Daily insists on taking him home to his house to recover.

Revisiting the sheaf of letters, Arthur is able to finish putting together the story: the woman in black is Jennet Humphreye, who, young and unmarried, gave her baby to her married sister, Alice Drablow, to raise as her own. At six, the boy was killed in a pony and trap that was lost in the marsh. Twelve years later, Jennet, too, died, and has been haunting the town ever since.

Mr. Daily confirms Arthur's findings and adds something else: every time the woman in black is seen, a child from the town has died—including, he tells Arthur, Mr. Jerome's child.

Arthur returns to London, grateful to leave Crythin Gifford behind. He and his fiancée, Stella, are married shortly after and have a child of their own the following year. All is well, for a time, until one fateful day when Stella and Joseph—their baby boy—ride in a pony and trap at a public park. Arthur, petrified, spots the woman in black standing next to a tree as the two finish their ride. Before he can stop her, the woman in black sends the pony running into a copse of trees. Joseph is killed instantly, and Stella dies from her injuries ten months thereafter.

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