My husband and I recently watched the film The Witch, and though there was much I admired about this movie, something about it troubled me. The setting was appropriately eerie and rough, the costumes were period-correct, and the dialogue was very, very plausible. The acting was great. As a study in seventeenth-century life, it all looked good.
So what was bothering me?
It hit me the next morning: whether the “witch” was in fact a “real” witch or a belief gone wild in a family cut off from its community was left unclear. The film shows the “witch” from more than one point of view–more than one of the kids sees it (when others are not present) and the audience goes along with the viewer. If the coven shown at the end is “real,” then the characterization of the main character is suddenly thrown into an entirely different frame–and we wonder how culpable she has been all along. If it’s all a matter of solitude and grief-induce hysteria, then we should see the “witch” and her attendants through the lens of such a state of mind.
Does this matter? To me, it does, because I want a narrator to guide me without shoving me toward one “meaning” or another. I want meanings and possibilities to multiply naturally and believably. When I feel manipulated or tricked (as I did, finally, with The Witch), it affects my willingness to study the story further.
In my own upcoming novel, Self-Portrait, with Ghost (forthcoming from KnoxRobinsonPublishing this fall!) there is, as anyone might expect, a ghost . . .but is the ghost “real” or the product of grief and fear? I want that question to hang through the novel–without shoving the reader toward one explanation or another. There are more things in heaven and earth, after all, and I don’t want to let go of any possibilities.
At the same time, I hope that the characters’ states of mind are clear enough to allow readers to disagree or to feel two ways about the ghostly situation, depending on their own points of view. And these can change, if readers are given consistent enough signals, without the need for the writer (or director) to misdirect attention.
I was thinking of this recently as I walked through the old Banqueting House, the only part of Whitehall Palace that remains. This room was the first permanent Banqueting House in London, and it’s meant to impress. It does. The eye is drawn upward, to the vast ceiling, which during the reign of Charles I in the early seventeenth century, was painted by Peter Paul Rubens.
The paintings are detailed celebrations of the divine right of kings, the alliance of England and Scotland under the Stuarts, and the great bounty of James I (Charles’s father). They are splendid, colorful, wildly optimistic. Early viewers must have felt swept upward, as James is shown to have been–into heaven.
And yet, when Charles was convicted and sentenced to hang on that cold January day in 1649–the only English monarch to be executed by order of law–these paintings must have suddenly had a very different meaning, at least for a while. Charles’s scaffold was erected outside Whitehall, and he walked through this very room on his way to his death. Once a sign of his royalty, they must have become ironic commentaries on his failure to retain the throne–and, for me, they remain suspended between those “meanings”–both true, both present. The difference is in whether we look through the eyes of the young Charles, one of his courtiers, or the man on his way to his own hanging.