Saturday, March 27, 2010

Close Reading Questions for Le Fanu's "The Familiar"

(at right: Arnold Bocklin's painting, "The Sacred Wood" (1882), a once famous painter of the fantastic, mythical, and supernatural).

1. According to the OED, the word “familiar” has several possible denotations, including:

• 1. a. Of or pertaining to one's family or household. (Now rare, and with mixture of other senses.) Of an enemy: That is ‘of one's own household’: lit. and fig. Of habits: Pertaining to one's family life, private, domestic

• 1. d. familiar angel: a guardian angel. familiar devil, spirit: a demon supposed to be in association with or under the power of a man.

• 8. Free, as among persons intimately acquainted, unceremonious; occas. Too free, taking liberties with; also in to make familiar with.

• B. b. An officer of the Inquisition, chiefly employed in arresting and imprisoning the accused.

How might all of one of these definitions help us read or interpret the story? What is ultimately so “familiar” about Barton’s condition?

2. Unlike Mr. Jennings, Barton is a hardened heretic, and even after numerous visitations, he insists, “I can’t pray…there is something within me that will not pray…The idea of an eternal Creator is to me intolerable—my mind cannot support it” (61-62). What role do you feel Barton’s skepticism plays in the story? Does he ultimately undergo a transformation?

3. Is “The Familiar” a story of the uncanny—or simply a ghost story? Do the events and visitations have elements of the uncanny, or does the fact that other people see it—or think they see it—remove this from the realm of psychoanalysis (or metaphysical medicine)?

4. Why do you feel the “frame” of Dr. Hesselius has been almost entirely removed from this story, existing only at the very beginning and end of the story? Is there a reason we hear this story almost completely second-hand, instead of from the doctor’s personal observations?


  1. 2. I feel it helped intensify the horror of the story. Here we have Barton, a man who does not believe in the afterlife or the spiritual world, and he becomes terrified of this creature/person. Right from the beginning, the narrative points out his disbelief in the unsupported, such as him discussing "revelations" with Lady L and Montague, and it even refers to him as a confirmed infidel. This helps set the stage of his character as he deals with the watcher. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that a ghost was after him when walking home, he thought it was a figment of his imagination. Likewise, when he converses with the first doctor about lockjaw and death, he is trying to rationally come up with a possible explanation for the events occurring instead of going with the supernatural. He's trying so hard to justify why this person he has known has come back from the grave and altered appearances and is after him. After he has exhausted all possible answers as to why, then he feels like he must turn to the idea of God to explain this, and that is what makes it so unsettling. That a man of his calibur, a hardened skeptic is now turning to the supernatural as the rational choice, something he refused to do, makes the situation seem even more dramatic.


  2. Like with Green Tea, Dr. Hesselius is trying to set himself up, to make himself look better by distancing himself from the case. He says "Had I seen Mr. Barton, and examined him upon the points, in his case, which need elucidation, I should have without difficulty referred those phenomena to their proper disease. My diagnosis is now, necessariy, conjectural." He's clearly bragging about what a great doctor he is, saying that he would have been able to cure the man, if he had the opportunity. And like Green Tea, it is with a person no longer around so that Dr. Hesselius may be put to the test to show if he is indeed as great as he makes himself out to be.

    I feel as having someone else tell the story is for the best, as Rev. Herbert has a different style than Dr. Hess. The doctor would have been to preoccupied with making his opinions known about what should have happened and his would-be prescribed treatment, rather than recounting the story, as the Reverend has graciously done. I think the doctor's version of the story would have limited the story.


  3. 1. I believe that the multiple definitions of the word familiar play a large part in the story. Though it is not revealed until the end of the story, 1a strikes me as relevant simply because the "watcher" is closely related to a former love interest of the protagonist. Indeed, one can deduce that the only reason that Barton was haunted by what he calls a demon is that he either directly or indirectly caused the death of not only the young woman, but the father of said woman as well. Barton knows early on in the story that the demon is familiar to him. In fact, he asks the doctor many questions regarding illnesses which can change a man's appearance. One can also assume that this "demon" is directly linked with the soul of the man who died years before his haunting begins. I find it extremely interesting that the term familiar was used in the Inquisition. Knowing this, I can see the correlation between said officer and the duties of the demon within the story. It could be said that the watcher was sent to imprison Barton, as Barton effectively withdraws himself from society in the end.
    2. I think that Barton's skepticism does not play a large part in the story. When he visits the clergyman, I got the distinct impression that Barton was not being taken seriously. Granted, the priest feels pity for him, but he does not seem to offer Barton anything other than the advice to pray. The fact that he does not reappear in the story puts the priest in a minor role, much like Dr. R. It would appear that none of the possible "experts" do anything for Barton, they are simply there to flesh out the story. I do think that Barton undergoes somewhat of a transformation towards the end of the tale when he resigns to his fate. He sees his haunting as his punishment from heaven, carried out by the very demons of hell. Though he may not feel that he is going to end up in heaven, he knows that his afterlife will not be an unpleasant one.