Robert Louis Stevenson was raised in a devout Presbyterian household. His father was a devoted Tory, and his family was proud of his trajectory to join the law profession, but in 1867 he attended Edinburgh University, and the love of his parents was deeply tested as their son became increasingly attracted to radical philosophies. Things came to a boil in 1873 when his father was crushed to learn that his son – a self-described “red-hot socialist” – had embraced atheism, and belonged to a radical students’ club, whose constitution was found on the chief principle to “disregard everything our parents have taught us.” The family was loving and tightly-knit, and Stevenson’s decision to clandestinely spurn his upbringing and secretly mock his parents broke their hearts.
After being confronted by his father with a copy of the club’s constitution, a sour, self-loathing Stevenson wrote “What a damned curse I am to my parents! As my father said “You have rendered my whole life a failure.” As my mother said “This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me”. O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.” University proved to be both a source of growth and misery, placing him at odds with his devoted family, and with the internalized Calvinist morality that so frequently shook his self-confidence. This cognitive dissonance – the psychological clash between his secular humanism and his Protestant ethics – generated most of his best literature, which largely followed cultural conflicts between material selfishness and spiritual discipline.
Despite his youthful radicalism, Stevenson was at heart a cynic, and by 26 he looked back with wistful nostalgia at his secular militancy: “For my part, I look back to the time when I was a Socialist with something like regret. I have convinced myself (for the moment) that we had better leave these great changes to what we call great blind forces: their blindness being so much more perspicacious than the little, peering, partial eyesight of men [...] Now I know that in thus turning Conservative with years, I am going through the normal cycle of change and travelling in the common orbit of men's opinions. I submit to this, as I would submit to gout or gray hair, as a concomitant of growing age or else of failing animal heat; but I do not acknowledge that it is necessarily a change for the better—I dare say it is deplorably for the worse.” He wrote these words in 1877, four years before penning the following witch story. At its heart is a sorrowful sense of disjointed existence: a protagonist who is ultimately neither acceptable to his humanist mentors nor compatible with his religious upbringing – a castaway, cut adrift between two stable continents, and floating alone at the command of purposeless currents.
The story begins with an unnamed narrator reflecting on the strange life story old Reverend Soulis – a grim, unhappy, fire-and-brimstone preacher in a bleak Scottish parish. His sermons are filled with awe and terror and attract the wonder of the countryside. The strangest part of it, however, is that Soulis was not always such a saturnine old cynic – in fact, when he first came to the windswept village of Balweary he was considered something of a radical. Fresh out of seminary in 1712, the young man attracted public scorn for the huge truck of books that he carried into the parsonage (sagging, so they feared, the weight of countless theological heresies), and for hiring old Janet as his housekeeper. Janet was an earthy, fleshy old crone whom the locals suspected of witchcraft, and their fear of her was so intense that Soulis once had to rescue her from a mob of vengeful women bent on dunking her.
To soothe the crowd of women, Soulis asks Janet to publically rebuke the devil and his works (thinking little of what he considers a superstitious practice), but Janet only does so with nervous fear, as if her words are sealing her fate. The next day Janet frightens the townspeople by walking down from the ominously-named “Hanging Woods” with her throat wrenched in a nasty twist and her head cocked to one side – as if she had been hanged. Even worse are her bulging eyes, macabre rictus grin, and the husky, inhuman voice that ushers from her wrung throat. The locals believe that Satan has punished her for disowning him, but Soulis rejects such superstitious nonsense and becomes closer to Janet than ever.
One day, while meditating near the local cemetery, Soulis is frightened to see a coal-black man loitering around the gravestones, refusing to respond to the preacher’s calls. He asks Janet if she has seen such a figure, but she denies it with her garbled voice sounding as if she is gagging on a pony’s bit. Believing that he has just spoken with Satan, Soulis – who had considered the devil a medieval vestige destined to evolve out of modern theology – tries to calm his thoughts by repeating prayers and scriptures to no avail. Watching Janet wash clothes in the river across from his study, he is struck by the impression that her face is that of a corpse – that she is an undead revenant walking around in cold clay.
That night, a wild storm sweeps the countryside: the sky is darkened by unnaturally-colored thunderheads, and the night is illuminated by spears of lightning. Soulis tries to sleep but his thoughts are troubled by disembodied voices, glowing orbs, and baying hounds. Just as he is pondering the connection between the coal-black stranger and his misshapen housekeeper, Soulis hears a violent struggle coming from Janet’s room and runs to investigate the cacophony. He waves a candle around her room and is about to depart when he sees her body hanging from a thread tied to a nail: eyes and tongue bulging grotesquely, feet swaying above the floor.
Horrified, he locks himself in his room and tries, but fails to pray. After a while he is further dismayed by the sound of flabby footsteps on Janet’s floor, the sound of her door opening, the sound of those footsteps descending the stairs, and the sound of a hand blindly feeling its way along the hall. Running outside with a candle, he stops in the middle of a road and turns around; there, illuminated by the flicker of lightning and the bobbing candle flame, he sees Janet with her crooked neck and her twisted rictus grin, standing before him, and coming nearer.
Soulis charges the corpse in God’s name to return to grave, if dead, and hell, if damned, and the stiffened body – weeks dead by now – collapses in a cloud of ash. Soulis shrieks in terror and runs into the night, and several of his parishioners claims to have seen the black man – Janet’s demonic puppeteer – sulking away in the dim light of morning. The narrator closes by noting that after recovering from a raving fit, Soulis was a changed man.
“Thrawn Janet” may be viewed as a confession or a form of penance written to his parents – or to the internalized version of them that conducted his very robust Presbyterian Id. Soulis, with his suggestive name, intellectual hubris, and thinly veiled disgust for his under-educated parishioners, is a natural stand-in for a younger, radical Stevenson, who resented the politics and morality of his Tory parents. Convinced that the old women are being made fools by their narrow-mindedness, he leaps to defend Janet less out of intuition than from a rebellious pride. The villagers resent the fact that their minister’s faith is based in book learning rather than practical experience, and Soulis begrudges them for being ignorant and gullible. He identifies with Janet, another outsider, and forms an alliance with her more as a means to illustrate his resistance to their superstitious worldview than as an act of Christian charity. This kinship draws him further and further from the security of the insulated community, until he realizes that in sheltering Janet and resisting his parishioners’ prejudice, he has been gradually exposing himself to an intimate danger.
The tale is intensely Hawthornesque, complete with an isolated religious community, a spiritual threat from within, the presence of a Satanic “black man,” and a minister whose isolation from his flock leads to supernatural torment and psychological misery. Like Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, Soulis exposes himself to temptation and torment by taking in a social outcast – an outcast who, like the diabolical Chillingworth – is exactly what they seem: a personal tormentor. There are subtle, sexual implications about the relationship between the ugly witch and the untested minister which suggest the unnaturalness of their association. A loose woman – a renowned slut known to breed and abandon bastard children – Janet is hardly an appropriate inmate for a minister’s household, and their bedroom confrontation is suggestive. Soulis literally and figuratively must come to terms with the oddity of his chosen bedfellow: a skeptical – borderline agnostic – minister who harbors a genuine witch. Symbolically Soulis represents a man who tries to distance himself from his upbringing, only to find himself thrust violently into his parents’ conservatism after spending too much time in the company of the very threats that they dreaded; rather than disproving their suspicions, he confirms them.
Like Jekyll and Fettes, he is a victim of his own intellectual hubris and trust in his ability to thrive outside of the human community: too much trust in individual intellect, too much spite for the fellowship of his superstitious community, and too little healthy fear of his vulnerable isolation has combined to expose him to predatory psychological and supernatural forces. And yet, it is not enough to rescind his alliance with Janet. After having ushered her zombie corpse back to hell, he still is burdened by his complicity in her unchallenged existence in a faithful community. To serve penance for his hubris, he is doomed to dwell in a sort of purgatory, neither able to return to his youthful idealism, nor capable of being incorporated by his devout congregation. Instead, like Janet who is both alive and dead – a fleshy ghost – he is both damned and saved, both sinner and saint.
Like the Ancient Mariner or the Wandering Jew, Soulis is a living sermon to others: condemned to remain apart from humanity, his testimony being his only means of connecting with his congregation. And so, each year he delivers a hideous discourse – like the Mariner who cannot stop to rest, except to relate his sins and warn a new generation – and then returns to his Manse (positioned so poetically on the river which divides the world of rational intellect from that of supernatural wonder, and individualism from community), like a ghost to its graveyard, rising only to relate the story of how he rejected those closest to him, and how as a result he must now walk alone in the world, accepted by neither party – doomed to be forever inconsistent with his upbringing, with his education, and with his own conflicted, self-loathing spirit.