The Gothic Anxieties of ‘Black Narcissus’

By: Lucy Hall, University of St. Andrews

The evocation of terror and dread is commonly recognized as a recurring theme in novels and films which fall under the wide-ranging genre of ‘Gothic’.  As critics such as James Keech have remarked, the evocation terror so crucial to the Gothic genre, is more than just a stylistic device eliciting cheap thrills.  Terror in literary or cinematic form is often anapt vehicle for metaphorizingthose contemporary cultural anxieties too sensitive or indefinable to be tackled directly.[1]  If this is so, the hysteria and mounting dread that characterizesRumer Godden’s 1939 novel, Black Narcissusand its subsequent film adaptation by Powell and Pressburger (1947), can be readasa metaphoric iteration of wider socio-political fears which characterize British society both before and after the Second World War.

Background

The basic story of Black Narcissus remains relatively unaltered in its transition from page to screen.  It follows a group of nuns, led by Sister Superior Clodagh, who are sent to establish a new convent in a disused Palace situated precariously at the edge of the Himalayas.  The only other Western presence in the village is Mr Dean – an abrupt, disreputable man – who attempts to help the nuns in their endeavour.  However, the Sisters are doomed to failure from the start, and rapidly the convent becomes a site of dread, paranoia, and madness.  Because both incarnations of the narrative bookend the socially turbulent and deeply anxious years of the Second World War, the ways in which the book identifies objects of terror differs subtly in its subsequent film adaptation.  Paying particular attention to the character of Sister Ruth (played by Kathleen Byron in the film), this paper undertakes a brief examination of  how the representation of her paranoiadiffers between the narrative’s two incarnations and how the monstrosity of Ruth’s descent into madness goes some way to revealing the very different preoccupations of pre- and post-war Britain.

Rumer Godden’s ‘Snake-faced Lemini’

The cultivation of dread is one of the most dominant characteristics of Godden’s original novel.  Its pre-war social context is saturated with anticipation and fear.  By the end of the 1930s, the widespread dread caused by growing political extremism, the inevitable end of the British Empire, and the possibility of another warwas at fever pitch.  Black Narcissus feeds on this growing hysteria and panic that runs below the surface of civilized society during the final years before the outbreak of war.  The construction of terror within the novel can be seen most clearly in Sister Ruth’s heightened paranoia.  She is plagued by building terrors which she blames Sister Clodagh for inducing, convinced that she is being persecuted by the other nuns.  Pushed to breaking point by the perceived conspiracy against her, Sister Ruth snaps, accusing Sister Clodagh of starving her, poisoning her food, and imprisoning her against her will (p. 183).[2]Although, outside of the deluded contortions of Ruth’s psyche there is very little evidence for any of her paranoiac fantasies, Ruth’s feelings of persecution induce a state of paranoid hysteria, manifesting itself in fears that she is being watched.  “They watch me,” she appeals to Mr Dean having fled the convent towards the end of the novel; “They spy.  They all spy on me, and They whisper, whisper, whisper about me” (p. 192).  This is one of many examples of Ruth’s conviction she is being watched by someone or something.  It should be noted that there is potentially a supernatural element to Ruth’s anxieties – or at least something outside of the physical realm.  They or Them –italicised and with capital letters – are referred to continuously in Ruth’s thoughts and speech, marking this entity as separate from the earthly observation of Sister Clodagh and the other nuns.  This distinction appears markedly in Ruth’s paranoiac thoughts which set Sister Clodagh alongside this other, unnameable tormentor: ‘she dared not sleep herself in case Sister Clodagh or They came upon her while she was asleep’ (p. 114) (bold emphasis added).

The internal pressure of being monitored, whether real or fantasy, leads Sister Ruth to her own state of compulsive surveillance, her eyes ‘stretched from watching’, unable to relax her vigilance in case the vague something that she fears should pounce (p. 114).  Somewhat ironically, it is Sister Ruth’s own watching that causes the greatest unease to the reader and the other characters inBlack Narcissus, particularly during the climactic moments before her death.  After Ruth is discovered missing and the nuns’ search for her proves distressingly unsuccessful, Sister Clodagh begins to pray, keeping vigil for Ruth’s return in the silence of the chapel when she senses someone watching her from the shadows.  She looks up.  But there is no one.  She checks the door.  But she is alone.  “I’m tired and jumpy” she tells herself, attempting to soothe her agitation.  She thinks she hears ‘a drag like a wet skirt on the floor’, but dismisses this too.  Out on the edge of the cliff where the convent stands she begins to pray again.  ‘Fear came over her then’, Godden writes, ‘the fear of the night and her vigil, and the chapel.’  She realises someone is holding her skirt down and rings the bell, desperate with terror.  ‘A wet hand came over her shoulder, and an arm with a mad strength’.  It is Sister Ruth.  Clodagh tries to fight her off, grappling with her until, eventually, Ruth slips and falls.  Clodagh grabs for her but her habit is ‘slimy and wet with dirt’ and Ruth plummets, impaled on a bamboo spike at the bottom of the cliff (pp. 202-4).

Godden’s masterful handling of suspense in this scene ensures that Sister Clodagh’s fear is palpable.  With the hint of potential supernatural forces latent in Ruth’s own madness, the reader is left in suspense, terrified until the final moments when the thing that perturbs Clodagh is revealed to be human…mostly.  The imaginative effects of dread and the power that obscurity can wield psychologically over us are particularly potent in this scene.  The ‘lurking’ just behind, watching from just out of sight dehumanizes the threat that Clodagh senses, the noise of a wet dragging skirt becoming worthy of one of M R James’ ghouls. Even when Sister Clodagh recognizes Ruth, the unnatural sliminess of her habit elicits a shudder of revulsion, as though she has transformed from human into something physically monstrous.  In fact, the monstrousness of Sister Ruth is sensed long before this point and can be seen repeatedly in the trepidation she causes the other nuns and, in particular, Mr Dean.With her eyes stretched from watching and her emaciated, amnesiac appearance, at the peak of her madness Sister Ruth becomes the ‘Snake-faced Lemini’ – something reptilian, abhuman, horrifying (p. 199).  Shortly before she attacks Sister Clodagh, she approaches Dean in madness, desperation, and obsessive desire.  Finally succeeding in sending her away Dean‘sank into the chairand wiped his head and face with his handkerchief, and with shaking fingers lit his pipe’.  Dean is very visibly shaken by Ruth’s surprise visit, and turns to alcohol to rid himself of a lasting feeling of ‘repulsion’ at the encounter (p. 194).  Like Clodagh the prevailing sense the reader is given of Mr Dean is one of competence.  He is knowledgeable of the local area and customs, not overtly superstitious, and able to assist and advise the nuns (despite Clodagh’s initial reluctance) – yet he is physically reduced by his final encounter with Sister Ruth.  It is interesting that while the suffocating paranoia that Ruth experiences causes her a particularly personal terror, her resulting descent into madness is the source of fear for Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean, as well as the reader.  By the end of the novel, Ruth becomes the embodiment of the nebulous fear she experiences within, inflicting this upon the other characters.  The terror she evokes lasts beyond her death as a ghostly legend.  In a way, she becomes what she has feared most and the terror she incites in others lasts beyond her death and beyond the narrative as a ghostly legend (p. 206, 218).  Sister Ruth may physically die, but this is a far from satisfactory resolution to a novel so imbued with subtle, yet unmistakable hints towards the supernatural.Through its preoccupation with paranoia and madness,Godden’s novel articulates the cultural dread and anxiety over the decline of civilization and empire experienced in both Britain and its colonies before the outbreak of war.It is not so much the feeling of being watched that translates directly onto contemporary experience, but the uneasy anticipation of something coming that paranoia evokes. This expectant dread is crucial to the momentum of the novel and forms part of what ties it so inextricably to the fabric of anxiety and fear that permeates the pre-WWII cultural climate.

Nun to Femme Fatale: Sister Ruth’s Cinematic Transformation

Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 adaptation of Black Narcissus has a similar capacity for reflecting contemporary cultural anxieties, but from a post-war perspective.  Although the film follows Godden’s story closely, even retaining a significant amount of the dialogue, its treatment of Sister Ruth’s madness is dramatically divergent from the original text.  There is no overt reference in the film to Ruth feeling watched by Sister Clodagh – let alone some other entity beyond the physical realm – as there is in the novel.  The nature of her paranoia changes: she is convinced that Clodagh hates her but not that she is under surveillance.  This is possibly due to the lack of distinction in classical cinema between interiority and exteriority.As a result the access the audience has to the internal mind-set of a character is limited to the aspects of it that can be expressed externally through dialogue or cinematic technique.[3]  The filming of Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth – although peppered with claustrophobic close-ups, disorienting diagonal shots, and a red mist which descends at the peak of her hysteria – does not suggest visually that she is being observed.

The lack of these visual indicators is only noticeable when compared to scenes when Ruth herself is watching other characters – particularly Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean.  For example, when Ruth watches Dean from the schoolroom window, the audience are shown him from an elevated point of view, between the bars of the window – as though we are seeing through Ruth’s eyes.

And later, in the climactic scene where Clodagh is being watched in the chapel, the audience sees her from the removed point of view of her spectator, from behind walls and between rafters – a technique widely seen in modern horror films.

But by far the most revealing scene in terms of paranoid spectatorship is one which is absent from the novel.  Before Sister Ruth’s eventual flight from the convent she witnesses Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean meeting on the cliff outside.  She rushes through the Palace to observe them, hiding herself behind a pillar.  During this scene Sister Clodagh laments the inevitable loss of the convent: Sister Phillipa has requested to move, Sister Ruth has not renewed her vows, and the townspeople refuse to go near them after the death of a local child.  She goes on to tell Dean of her memories of her life before St Faith’s and her estranged lover whose departure to America prompted her to join the Order.  This scene is significant because it establishes a degree of intimacybetween Clodagh and Mr Dean, and an element of attraction between the two hinted at subtly throughout the film.  The equivalent scene in Godden’s original narrative sees Sister Ruth watching as Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean discuss the very un-erotic matter of materials for repairing the Palace.  ‘[B]ut Sister Ruth’, Godden writes, ‘saw their faces turned to one another, full of interest, earnestly talking, and she watched them hungrily.  […] she saw their heads close together as they bent over the book.  She never failed to watch them, but she never dared to go near enough to hear what they said’ (pp. 73-4).  In this passage it is Ruth’s mind that twists Clodagh and Dean’s interactions into eroticised behaviour – watching as both lean over a building catalogue, reminiscent of Paulo and Francesca, the adulterous lovers of Dante’s second circle of Hell.  Comparatively, the interaction between Clodagh and Dean in the film is deeply intimate as she reveals her past to him and her future anxieties about the convent, uncharacteristically allowing him to comfort her and offer her a handkerchief.  It seems Clodagh’s frosty defence has been broken through, admitting weakness for the first time and accepting the support of a man.  There is far more scope in Powell and Pressburger’s film for reading a sexual dimension into Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean’s relationship and as such the victim/victimizer, authority/subordinate tension between Clodagh and Ruth in the novel becomes one of female sexual rivalry.  It is true that this is exacerbated by Sister Ruth’s precarious sanity in a similar way that she warps Dean’s relationship with Clodagh in the book, however, in the film it undeniably has greater foundation in a reality outside of Ruth’s mind.  Mr Dean becomes the contested object of desire for two extremes of womanhood represented in Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth – the chaste and the lascivious; ‘Madonna’ and the ‘whore’.Because of this, the nature of Ruth’s paranoia changes.  While the novel treats Ruth’s obsession with Dean as a symptom of a mind already disturbed by delusions of persecution, her paranoia in the film is purely a sexual one.

In the post-war narrative,Ruth’s madness becomes inextricably linked to her sexuality.  The relationship that exists between madness and sexuality in the novel, here becomes inverted.  Excessive sexuality becomes the reason for Ruth’s madness, not just its outlet.  The best evidence of this is the way in which Powell and Pressburger deal with Sister Ruth’s growing monstrosity, particularly in the climactic scene of transformation from human to monster – or rather, from nun to femme fatale.  This scene is wildly fetishistic, focussing on fragments of Byron’s face and body – her lips which she slowly and confrontationally paints with red lipstick while Sister Clodagh watches; her wild, insomniaceyes; and even a flash of knee as she pulls on her boots to leave the convent.

This evidently heightens the sexualized nature of her body, so long hidden beneath a white habit.  It is important to note that this scene does not appear in the novel, where Sister Ruth lives and dies in her nun’s habit.  The equation of erotic femininity to monstrousness is inescapable in the film and as such Sister Ruth’s cinematic incarnation is a whole different species of monster to her predecessor.  Unlike the slimy creature of the book’s final pages, monstrosity is but a costume change so that her external aesthetic corresponds to the threat her inner madness poses.[1]  As Sue Harper and many other critics have noted, the cinema of the late-1940s was chiefly preoccupied with reasserting the gender boundaries transgressed during the war years. The sexual licence of the years before could no longer be tacitly permitted in a post-war society concerned with rebuilding and re-establishing social order.[2]  Even more experimental film-makers such as Powell and Pressburger could not stray too far from the post-war modus operandi.  With this in mind, Black Narcissus can be read as a meditation on the dangers of a feminized society, and Sister Ruth’s madness as a warning against excessive female sexuality.  Ruth’s monstrousness refracts anxieties surrounding gender norms that surface explicitly in the late 1940s.  Her grizzly demise becomes a fitting punishment for the transgressive, oversexed woman.  The threat of Sister Ruth’s obsessive desire for Mr Dean overshadows any post-colonial commentary the film makes, making it stand out as a cautionary parable against continuing the lax sexual mores of the years before.

Conclusion

Black Narcissus is a prime example of how the Gothic mode of writing can be manipulated and adapted to serve as an expression of contemporary cultural anxiety.  The difference between novel and film; pre-war and post-war context seen through the treatment of Sister Ruth’s paranoia, madness, and monstrosity highlights how the representation of objects of terror has changed in the course of the conflict.  The nebulous feelings of dread and fear in the novel, either in Ruth’s paranoiac madness, or in the terror that this spreads among the other characters, reflects a period characterized by a heightened sensitivity to impending doom and the uncertainty of when or how this would manifest itself.  By 1947 this vague threat is no longer, freeing Ruth’s psychosis for adaptation into something more conducive to post-war anxieties.  The nature of terror mutates from the book’s initial publication to its reinterpretation for film – both projecting different fears through the same body; different anxieties through the same Gothic narrative.

 

 

Lucy Hall is currently in her second year of PhD research under the supervision of Professor Gill Plain at the University of St Andrews.  Last November she was the guest moderator for the Sheffield Gothic Reading Group’s screening and discussion of Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. This paper comes partly out of a wider discussion of terror in late-1930s literature from her current thesis, as well as drawing on earlier research on gender in post-war British melodrama.When not thinking about crazy nuns, Lucy’s research focuses on tracing the Gothic influences on literature, art, and film in the Second World War and post-war period.

 

Lucy can be contacted by email at lh523@st-andrews.ac.uk or on Twitter @LucyH_15

 

Select Bibliography

 

Primary Texts

Black Narcissus (1947), dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Godden, Rumer, Black Narcissus (Chatham: Pan Books, 1994)

 

Secondary Texts

Doane, Mary Ann, Desire to Desire: the Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Basingstoke Macmillan, 1988)

Harper, Sue, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know (London: Continuum, 2000)

Higonnet, Margaret and Patrice, ‘The Double Helix’ in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, ed. Margaret R Higonnet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 31-47

Keech, James M, ‘Survival of the Gothic Response’ in Studies in the Novel 6:2 (1974)

Lant, Antonia, Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991)

Lassner, Phyllis, ‘Strangers in a Walled Garden: Rumer Godden’s Anglo-India’ in Colonial Strangers: Women Writing and the End of the British Empire (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutger’s University Press, 2004)

Light, Alison, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (London: Routledge, 1991)

Moor, Andrew, Powell & Pressburger: a Cinema of Magic Spaces (London: IB Tauris, 2005)

Punter, David, Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day.  Vol. 1 The Gothic Tradition and Vol. 2 The Modern Gothic (London: Longman, 1996)

 

Footnotes

[1] Although Ruth’s snake-like appearance in the novel nods towards similar aspects of her forbidden sexuality, particularly in the snake’s unavoidable Biblical associations with Eve – the original transgressive woman, by the time this likeness is revealed she has mutated almost entirely into a bestial monstrosity with little semblance of humanity left, never mind femininity.

[2] Harper, Sue, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (London: Continuum, 2000), p.52

[1]See Keech, James, ‘Survival of the Gothic Response’ in Studies in the Novel 6:2 (1974); Punter, David,Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. Vol 1 The Gothic Tradition and Vol. 2 The Modern Gothic (London: Longman, 1996)

[2] All references to Black Narcissus taken from Godden, Rumer, Black Narcissus (Chatham: Pan Books, 1994)

[3] Doane, Mary Ann, ‘Paranoia and the Women’s Film’ in Desire to Desire: the Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), p. 126

 

Lucy Hall is a PhD candidate from the University of St Andrews currently working on tracing Gothic influences in Second World War and Post-War British culture. Follow her on Twitter @LucyH_15