I generally love a good thunderstorm. Tonight, I appreciate it even more than usual.
Growing up, I loved seeing Snoopy start his stories with “It was a dark and stormy night”. I used to giggle at that clichè long before I understood the deeper allusion to the fact that authors sometimes use the weather to reflect or foreshadow what characters in their stories feel or experience.
This is a literary device known as pathetic fallacy. It is used to set mood and tone in a piece of writing or art, emphasising emotions and heightening reactions. Rain can be used to reflect sorrow or misery, dark clouds can suggest anger or resentment, and a storm can suggest conflict, inner turmoil or violence.
If you’ve ever read ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte, you will have experienced pathetic fallacy being used so expertly that you may not have even noticed. Blended seamlessly with gothic imagery, turbulent relationships and the isolation of the Yorkshire moors, Bronte’s use of snow, rain, storms, cold and dark makes for incredibly powerful writing. Who can forget Cathy at the window during that storm, begging Heathcliff to let her in? It’s legendary because it is powerful, emotive writing that embeds its imagery in the consciousness of the reader.
My other favourite example of pathetic fallacy is Shakespeare’s King Lear shouting at the snowstorm, “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!” Lear has literally been left out in the cold by his daughters Goneril and Regan, who have exploited his love and trust before throwing him out, homeless and broke. It’s such a potent scene — the depths of human coldness are amplified by the vision of a broken-hearted old man outside in a blizzard. It is chilling in more ways than one, and possibly one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes.
At other times, pathetic fallacy seems predictable and cliched. Sometimes it is almost painfully obvious and clunky. It often appears to be overused by authors who don’t have the finesse required to make it work — possibly because when authors do have that skill and it is done well, it it works as it is intended to without irritating the reader.
Tonight, nature is doing the author’s work for me. Outside, it is indeed a dark and stormy night. It has been raining steadily for hours now, thunder rolls and reverberates every now and then, and a draught of wind occasionally howls at the door. I am sitting in my father’s hospital room, having been called in late at night because he has been distressed and agitated. I have shed tears while talking with family members or sending messages. My emotions are all over the place. I’m both incredibly tired and wide awake.
A rainy night with the occasional rumble of thunder is most fitting.
My copy of ‘Jamaica Inn’ was given to me by my sister-in-law for my 16th birthday. I don’t know if she remembers giving it to me, but I certainly do. I hadn’t read any of du Maurier’s books before, and I read it in a day. Given the tendency of many other favourite books to migrate from my shelves to those of other people, it is something of a miracle that the very same copy is still on my bookshelf.
Jamaica Inn is set in and around a Cornwall coaching inn in the early 1800s. It is a a dramatic and exciting story, full of mystery, intrigue, skullduggery and danger.
Having come to live at Jamaica Inn with her relatives, Mary Yellan, the heroine of the story, learns the hard way that she can’t trust anyone she thought she should be able to, and that life on the moors can be as bleak and coldhearted as the weather.
It is reminiscent of Bronte’s Withering Heights in both the setting, even though the location is vastly different, and the characters who populate it, giving the book a strong sense of the kind of Gothic literature that was written a century earlier. It’s sinister and rather creepy, laced with vivid detail and evocative writing that brings the characters and especially the settings to life.
While it is classified as Romantic Literature, this book should not be mistaken for a romance – the two are very different things. In fact, it’s more of an anti-romance, showing men to be ignorant and selfish, some violent and others just rather stupid. It’s not about female vanity, but rather about the vulnerability of women living at a time when they were entirely dependent on their men to provide for and protect them. The contrasts between integrity and deceit, and between love and selfishness, are powerful, adding depth and drama to the compelling storyline.
The thing I love most, though, is the writing: du Maurier’s craftsmanship is magnificent. That in itself makes her books well worth reading.
P.S. I am excited that I actually got to use the word ‘skullduggery’ in a post, as it’s one of the most delightful words, yet one so rarely gets a chance to use it well. I really am a word nerd.