Both the Old Nurse’s Story and The Wharf are powerful and disturbing stories, but they achieve many of their effects in very different ways. Compare and contrast the key features of the stories, one c.20th and one pre c.20th. The Old Nurse’s Story was written in the pre-20th century Victorian era, whilst The Wharf was written in the 20th century. Both The Old Nurse’s Story and The Wharf can be classified under the horror and suspense genre, but The Old Nurse’s Story is more of a ghost story than The Wharf.
The Old Nurse’s Story introduces readers to the idea of life after death. The characters of Hester and Lord Furnival introduce readers to the suggestion of deceased relation passing into the mortal realm and walking the Earth. To the deeply religious Victorian readers, this idea will have been a strange and disturbing initiative, whilst being engagingly fascinating. The Wharf is not part of the traditional concept of what a ghost story is. The woman encounters ghostly presences when she dreams, not in real life. The Wharf tells of the woman’s nervous breakdown into on herself and her family.
The Old Nurse’s Story is set in the 19th century, when tales of ghosts and haunting were popular amongst readers. The growth of the publishing industry led to a new literary phenomenon which came in the form of newly-founded magazines and annuals. Most of these ghost stories were serialised into magazines, and became widely circulate das readers devotedly followed series. The Wharf is set in the 20th century, when the concepts of ghosts and the supernatural were being further explored, but were now not as much of a novelty. The idea of mental breakdowns and the events surrounding them were being investigated.
The Wharf incorporates a psychological theme into it, from which the main character draws her fears concerning death and the after-life. Victorian readers would have responded negatively to the Wharf. Rather than reading between the lines of the story, they would have just concluded that the woman was mentally disturbed. Victorian readers would not have been able to understand the woman’s psychological journey, as I was a concept which they would not have been familiar with. Twentieth century readers of The Old Nurse’s Story would not have found it exceptionally appealing, as its morals would appear to be old-fashioned, and the ideas of ghosts would have been an old, worn out, and boring notion.
In the Old Nurse’s Story, themes of jealousy and sibling rivalry were introduced within a reputable household. This went against conventional family values that the Victorians held to steadfastly. Victorians believed that the family unit was supposed to be wholesome, ethical and upright. The exhibition of a fraudulent and dishonest family would have been disturbing, adding to the effect which the ghost, as this was also a disturbing factor within the story. In the Wharf, de la Mare introduces the theme of a woman’s faith in God. After seeing the burial of souls in her nightmare, she begins to believe that after death, all souls irrespective of what has happened in their life are just disposed of like rubbish.
‘She knew that this refuse was the souls of men, the souls not of utterly evil and vile men.’ This vision tests her faith in God as she had been brought up to believe that ‘good’ souls have precedence and more worth than ‘bad souls’. In the period in which The Old Nurse’s Story is written, a story involving a woman’s faith in God being tested would have been unpopular and controversial, as Victorians were very religious. De la Mare was also exploring new ground, as the basis of his story is how a nervous breakdown and a nightmare shaped her life, by testing her ideas of the very meaning of life.
As The Old Nurse’s Story involves a theme which was still relatively new to the Victorians, and as such this story does not involve complex methods of inciting fear. It simply uses a ghost to create the main fear element in the story. However, in The Wharf, a woman’s psychological manifestations are used to create tension and mystery in the story. The Old Nurse’s Story is a didactic story, whose moral is that any wrongdoings you commit will never leave your life or conscience. ‘Alas! Alas! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!’
This shows that no matter how far on life has passed, retribution will take place unless the person has repented. Miss Furnival committed a sin at an earlier stage in her life, and the ghost of the little girl whom she committed the crime against has returned to seek revenge. Miss Furnival tries to repent at the end of the story, ‘Oh father! father! spare the little innocent child!’ Miss Furnival is trying to make up for what she had done, but she has left her repentance far too long.
Despite repenting, she is still stricken down with palsy. This is a message to the Victorian readers, showing that repentance is only effective if the person is truly contrite. These morals are also taught within the Christian religion, which would have made the story more acceptable for the pre c. 20th period. The Wharf does not have such a distinct moral, but it shows how our inner conscience has the ability to test our beliefs. The power of the human mind is demonstrated through the woman’s recurring dreams. She convinces herself that all souls are deemed worthless, which sends her into a state of depression. It creates a feeling of insecurity amongst readers, as they see how a mere dream can trigger this kind of severe depression.
The use of language and imagery is also important to the effects which each story creates. In both stories, nature language is used to describe people. In The Old Nurse’s Story, Gaskell’s choice of the name Rosamund, creating the image of roses. Rosamund is described as being a ‘bright and pretty pet’. Gaskell uses this image of an innocent and vulnerable child being lured away by an evil child to create a disturbing effect. Describing Rosamund in such a way also helps to contrast the two children, to create a clear image of one being good and one being evil. It also shows how easily something can be corrupted, as people normally think of children as good and innocent, yet one child is evil.
Miss Rosamund is also contrasted against the ‘dark and desolate’ house. In The Wharf, Nell is described by her mother as being, ‘A small creature, with the voice of a mermaid.’ In contrast, she is also described as being ‘dark’ and ‘different to her sisters’. This disturbing depiction of her may be because she was born after her mother’s depression. The wisdom that the woman had now acquired could have been passed down to her youngest daughter, making her less vulnerable and innocent than her sisters.
In The Wharf, things that would have usually have been seen as innocent and incorrupt are now seen to be evil, which also creates a disquieting environment, as things appear to be back to front in their representation. ‘…what these angelic yet horrifying shapes were.’ When imagining angels, we see them as holy beings, yet the Wharf reverses this image. The language used in The Wharf when describing the dream creates terrifying reflections of these objects.