This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I finally pushed myself to pick it up. I'm not going to lie, the massive spider on the cover did put me off on many an occasion! However, I'm so glad I pushed past it because this was such an interesting read. It’s really short – you can definitely read it in one sitting - but it lingers in your mind for ages afterwards. Since finishing it I've been trying to get loads of people to read it because it's so unique and easy to read for a Classic - I think it's suitable for most people, and I've never seen it mentioned anywhere before.
The Blurb: It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago.
• Gotthelf was a pseudonym that the Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius used to publish his works.
• Gotthelf was interested in lots of different themes; religion as something to be lived as well as practiced, education, social welfare, morality, the existence of evil etc. He wrote many fictitious pieces over his lifetime, usually inspired by his work and his rural surroundings.
• Before he died in 1854, he had become known for his prose, and The Black Spider is one of his most renowned works.
• H.M Waidson (the translator) describes the novella as a cautionary tale which has its roots in plague legend. In 1434, the valley which forms the setting of the story was ravaged by the plague, and so it is likely that the legend would have been well-known to many people.
I don’t know what I expected from this novella, but what I got really exceeded any expectations I may subconsciously have had. Goetthelf’s writing style is interesting: when telling the primary story his narration is very systematic and chronological – every action and thought is noted by each of the characters, and each thing leads onto the next. It isn’t monotonous or annoying, but it does lull you into a false sense of security, because you get used to the way in which each detail of the action is conveyed. However, when we are led into the story-within-the-story, things change into a more traditional format - similar to the way fairy tales and parables are written. I have to say that this works well, not just in terms of differentiating between the two parts, but also in keeping your attention. The grandfather is recounting the tale of the Black Spider, and as the story begins to delve into the spiritual and supernatural, the style has to change.
As the story is one with a cautionary message, it’s not really character-based. It’s more about the overall message and how the actions of people fit into, and influence, the events. There are a lot of religious undertones, and the Devil does feature as a presence, but I found there to be a far more blatant message about society than anything else. There is a critique about the hierarchical system, and multiple comments on the way in which peasants were treated and forced to live. However, there are also numerous comments on the various roles fulfilled by members of society, and the anarchy that ensues when not everyone pulls their weight, which could be a hint at Goetthelf's own conflicting views. There is also a lot of emphasis placed on the value of a pact/promise – especially when made with a dark power, which is rather typical of the time in which it was written. I feel like I was able to appreciate all of these elements more because I had read the introduction and could see where Goetthelf was coming from, and that's something I'd definitely recommend doing if you're thinking of picking this up.
It's not spooky or scary, so if that's something you're concerned about don't let it put you off. I'm not easily phased, but I think the most it could be described as is creepy. Think of a fairy tale and how there are some moments where the events turn a little sinister, or the evil villains seem a bit too dark - that's exactly what this novella is like. However, if you are terrified of spiders this is likely to affect you in a worse way, so I'd probably steer clear!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novella, and it provoked a lot of memories for me of studying Early Modern Europe in the second year of my degree. I can imagine the kind of effect a parable like this would have had on people living in the after effects of the plague, and I think Gotthelf did manage to achieve his goal of reminding people of what’s important.
Published by Avni Bhagwan