'The Darkness Out There' - Penelope Lively


Story is written in the 3rd person. Set in English countryside and in the home of an elderly widow. Begins with story of narrative, however, as the story progresses the narrative gives way to dialogue. Sandra (the protagonist) discovers that not everything is what it appears to be, and people have dark inside of them.

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Characters - Sandra

A girl with remarkable and vague expectations of life. She tells Kerry in line 207 that she wants to be a secretary and in line 67 she relays her dreams: "She would fall in love and she would get a good job and she would have one of those new Singers that do zig-zag stitch and make an embroidered coat." We can assume that Sandra is at secondary schoolo and on the cusp of puberty.

She is quite a stereotyped version of a girl with her aversion to dirt and her perceptions of the neatly classified male and female roles. She happily accepts the tasks Mrs Rutter assigns to her, which are quite different from the typically male chores assigned to Kerry.

In the story Sandra's innocene gives way to a greater worldliness. She is used as a tool to demonstrate that things and people are not always as they seem. She demonstrates a shift from imagined childhood fears to real horror at the atrocities of adulthood: "You could get people wrong and there was a darkness that was not the darkness of tree shadows and murky undergrowth and you could not draw the curtains and keep it out because it was in your head, once known, in your head forever like lines from a song..."

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Characters - Kerry Stevens

We learn through Sandra that 'none of her lot reckoned much on (him)'. She describes him as having black-slicked down hair and slitty eyes. Volunteering her opinion of him she concludes that "Some people you only have to look at to know they're not up to much". This would imply that despite her young age, she is quite critical and acts older than she is. However, Kerry is a young man who has volunteered his services to the elderly, so at once there is a tension between Sandra's analysis and the readers' own. On his physical apperance the narrator discloses that "his chin was explosive with acne; at his middle his jeans yawned from his T-shirt showing pale chilly flesh.".

Kerry undertakes his assigned tasks without complaint and reveals to the old woman his equally modest ambitions to start working at the Blue Star garage with day release at 'the tech' after he has left school.

On learning of the airman's plight Kerry is the first to demonstrate outrage. While Sandra is clearly upset, Kerry's anger is palpable and manifests itself both verbally and physically: "The boy said, 'I'm not going near that old ***** again.' He leaned against the gate clenching his fists on an iron rung; he shook slightly. 'I won't ever forget him, that poor sod.'"

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Characters - Mrs Rutter

Mrs Rutter is initially portayed as a dear old lady, fragile and in need of help. Her house is filled with sentimental china ornaments: 'big-eyed flop-eared rabbits and beribboned kittens and flowery milkmaids and a pair of naked chubby children wearing daisy chains' (line 102). All these visual clues suggest a sweet and gentle natured lady. However, as the story progresses layers are peeled back to reveal a more sinister nature. When Kerry discloses his plans to start at the garage after finishing school, Mrs Rutter responds with: "Well I expect that's good steady money if you'd nothing special in mind. Sugar?" Here she demonstrates a demeaning and dismissive side. Later, talking of Pat, she passes further judgement: "She was down here last week. Ever such a nice person. Kind. It's sad she never married."

When she finally recounts the story of the crashed German plane, she displays a long-standing bitterness, an uncompromising sense of blamelessness and an utter lack of regret. She even recalled that she, along with others, took 'souvenirs' from the site of the crash, as if the incident was a little more than a day trip. While the airman is left dying in the plane Mrs Rutter recounts how she attended to her chores before going back into the woods to 'have another look'.

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Characters - Mrs Rutter (2)

We learn that the airman is not an old man as Mrs Rutter originally imagined but a young man, around the age of 20 and yet Mrs Rutter, oblivious to the irony of her words, states twice in the story that she has an empathy with young people.

That Mrs Rutter fails to recognise the irony of her words suggests that the young airman was, in her eyes, an almost sub-human adversary, not a living breathing person. When the children decide to leave she is almost stunned, unaware of their shock and revulsion: '"Eh?' said the old woman. 'You're off are you?'..." (line 340).

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The narrative passages within the body of the story switch style. Sometimes we are party to the author's words and other times the narrative is written from Sandra's perspective. The author achieves this by alternating between two distinct methods. The first, which supplies the author's perspective, uses formal language, complex metaphors and pronouns in place of the characters' names. This creates a sense of detachment and adult authority. The 2nd method, which supplies Sandra's perspective, uses truncated sentences and a simple more casual use of words, suggestive of her age.

The author as narrator:

Line 95: "She seemed composed of circles, a cottage-loaf of a woman, with a face below which chins collapsed one into another, a creamy smiling pool of a face in which her eyes snapped and darted."

Line 138: "When she returned, the old woman was back in the armchair, a composite chintzy mass from which cushions oozed and her voice flowed softly on."

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Language (2)

The author uses metaphor liberally throughout the story, this serves to paint a very detailed visual picture, especially when describing Mrs Rutter.

Colloquial language is used throughout the story, both Sandra and Kerry speak in regional dialect (line 82): "you give me the fright of my life.", "i seen you coming".

Lively uses repetition to emphasise the atmosphere. Towards the beginning of the story several permutations of the 'sun' are repeated: sunshine, sunburn, hair was hot from the sun; glinted in the sun. These are all words and phrases associated with lightness, they are not suggestive of the darkness that will manifest itself later in the story. By way of contrast in the penultimate paragraph the author repeats the word 'darkness'. This repitition serves to emphasise the horrors of what the two children have learnt.

Darkness and light are used as metaphors for good and bad. At first the darkness is attached to Packer's End but later in the story we understand that the darkness refferes to an 'inescapable darkness', that is the darkness of human nature.

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Themes - Deception of Appearances

Perhaps the main theme running core to the story is that appearances are decepive and things are not always what they may initially seem. The author first presents the scene as pretty, flower filled and sun-drenched, an innocuous atmosphere: "pollen summer grass that glinted in the sun." However, she then introduces Packer's End, a complete contrast. The woods are menacing and full of folklore and horrors, both imagined and real.

The characters also follow this theme. At first we are led to believe that Mrs Rutter is a 'dear old thing', however, later in the story she reveals her true colours when having found the dying airman she recounts her actions: "'He was hurt pretty bad. He was kind of talking to himself... Dot said he's not going to last long, and a good job too, three of them that'll be. She'd been a VAD so she knew a bit about casualties, see.' Mrs Rutter licked her lips; she looked across at them, her eyes darting. 'Then we went back to the cottage.'" Far from being a dear old thing, Mrs Rutter shows herself to be unapologetically ruthless.

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Themes - Deception of Appearances (2)

Similarly Kerry is initially presented as someone Sandra and her friends have no time for, Sandra certainly makes clear her disappointment when she realises that Kerry will be helping her out with Mrs Rutter: "She wished there was Suzie to have a giggle with, not just Kerry Stevens." He is described as unsympathetically as having "black licked-down hair" and "slitty eyes. However, when he learns of the airman's plight his demeanour changes. He becomes physically and verbally demonstrative. His language becomes peppered with swear words.

Sandra finally recognises Kerry as the young man he is, no longer is he someone to be 'not reckoned much on' and no longer does she percieve him as immature. In the penultimate paragraph the author divulges Sandra's new attitude.

The final paragraph summaries this core theme: "She walked behind him, through a world grown unreliable, in which flowers sparkle and birds sing but everything is not as it seems."

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Themes - Darkness and Light

Important theme, so much that it is part of the story's title. There is a physical contrast between darkness and light: the journey in the sunshine and the darkness of Packer's End. But there is also the metaphorical contrast between darkness and light, the contrast between good and evil.

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Themes - Looking forward/looking back

In story Sandra dreams of her future. Her dream future is a basic one: fall in love, have a few children, be a secretary and have a cottage in the country. As she prepares for her visit to Mrs Rutter she muses innocently: "Now, she would go to this old Mrs Rutter's and have a bit of a giggle with Suzie and come home for tea and wash her hair. She would walk like this through the silken grass with the wind seething the corn and the secret invisible life of birds beside her in the hedge..." She paints an idyllic and undemanding picture of the immediate future, her thoughts are full of hopes and desires. This is in direct contrast to Mrs Rutter's retrospective thinking. Mrs Rutter speaks only of the past and she delivers her thoughts with bitterness and regret. Perhaps her thoughts remain in the past because of her husband's death, her life appears to have gone into stasis. She does not re-marry, she has no children and she continues residing in the marital home.

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A note on stereotyping and prejudice

Sandra reveals herself to hold a number of subliminal prejudices. Namely: people who help other people are not very looking, while people with platinum highlights and spike-heel suede boots are unlikely to offer community support. Similarly, when she reflects on events at Packer's End she recounts that the attackers of a young girl where 'two enormous blokes, sort of gypsy types.' Sandra slots herself into a very narrow stereotype with her dreams of secretarial work, becoming a home maker and mother. Her aversion to dirt and her concept of male work suggest an acceptance of really quite old fashioned and gender divisive thinking.

Meanwhile Pat bundles all old people into a 'dear old thing' category, referring to them as the 'old folks' and encouraging support for the Good Neighbour's Club with the advert 'Adopt a granny'. Effectively, she defines people purely by their age.

Mrs Rutter's prejudice is transparent. She refers to the injured airman as 'that Jerry'; her self-professed empathy for young people evidently does not extend to the German.

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