The Little Stranger

Filled with themes of intrigue and the supernatural, Sarah Waters's (1966-) book The Little Stranger (2009) is a Gothic tale of ghostly encounters. Through analysis of the text, it can be seen to represent the decline of the aristocracy in post-war Britain. The Little Stranger breaks from the LGBTQ+ tradition in Waters's other fiction, instead focusing more on social issues.

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The Little Stranger


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Filled with themes of intrigue and the supernatural, Sarah Waters's (1966-) book The Little Stranger (2009) is a Gothic tale of ghostly encounters. Through analysis of the text, it can be seen to represent the decline of the aristocracy in post-war Britain. The Little Stranger breaks from the LGBTQ+ tradition in Waters's other fiction, instead focusing more on social issues.

The Little Stranger, content warning, StudySmarter

The Little Stranger: summary

It's important to first consider a summary of the novel. The Little Stranger is narrated by a rural doctor named Faraday and set not long after World War Two (1939-1945). Faraday is called to visit a declining Victorian home, named Hundreds Hall, owned by the Ayres family. At first, Faraday cares for a maid who is unsettled by the large and draughty country estate.

He soon also comes to treat Roderick, the son of the family. Roderick is a recently returned World War Two veteran who is suffering from shell shock and poorly healing wounds. In spending so much time at Hundreds Hall, Faraday develops a friendship with Roderick, as well as with his sister, Caroline, and his mother, Mrs Ayres. Faraday soon comes to realise that the family is in immense financial difficulty and are struggling to maintain the crumbling estate.

Shell shock is the old term for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Shell shock was common in soldiers after both world wars but was rarely accurately recognised by psychiatrists at the time. Common symptoms of shell shock include nightmares, panic attacks, tremors, unstable behaviour, and hallucinations. It is only in modern psychiatry and the renaming of the condition to PTSD that has it been acknowledged for the debilitating illness that it is.

The Ayres organise a party in Hundreds Hall, partly to lift everyone's spirits and partly to find a suitable husband for Caroline. From this day onwards, unusual and potentially supernatural things begin happening on this country estate. At the party, a couple claims that Caroline's usually gentle and calm Labrador has attacked their young son.

For the next few days, Roderick acts erratically. Faraday assumes this is a side effect of the stress of his family's financial situation but Roderick eventually admits that there is another cause. The night of the party, a menacing and unrecognisable figure appeared in his room. Roderick instinctively felt he must keep the creature's attention on him in order to protect his mother and sister. This incident begins to haunt Roderick. He starts drinking heavily as inexplicable burn marks appear around Hundreds Hall. One night, Caroline wakes to find Roderick in a drunken stupor as his room goes up in flames. He is then committed to a psychiatric hospital.

The Little Stranger, a grand Victorian estate with turrets and towers, StudySmarterFig. 1 - An example of a Victorian estate, much like Hundreds Hall.

Supernatural happenings continue to occur throughout Hundreds Hall. The maids are particularly unsettled by this. In one incident, odd noises begin to come from the abandoned nursery. This was once used by Mrs Ayres's first daughter, Susan, who passed away as a child from diphtheria. Going to investigate, Mrs Ayres finds herself trapped in the room. She desperately tries to escape, cutting her arms in the process. When she is eventually freed, Mrs Ayres has begun believing that Susan's presence is constantly around her. She is comforted by this. A few days later, Caroline discovers her mother has committed suicide.

Diphtheria: a bacterial infection passed through coughing and sneezing. The bacteria contain a dangerous toxin that damages the body's cells. Symptoms of diphtheria include breathing problems, heart issues, and fever. Without treatment, the infection can be fatal.

At Mrs Ayres's funeral, Faraday and Caroline decide to marry. They have come close to having a romantic relationship together for some time. However, as the date approaches, Caroline seems uninterested in getting married, much to Faraday's dismay. She eventually calls off the wedding and declares her intention to sell Hundreds Hall.

On the night that would have been their wedding, Faraday is away on a late-night call. When he returns, he discovers that Caroline has also committed suicide. He learns from a maid that Caroline went upstairs to investigate an unusual noise, was heard to exclaim 'You!' and then fell from a balcony. Faraday spends months at Hundreds Hall, trying to discover what Caroline saw, but he is never successful.

The Little Stranger: book

The Little Stranger is a neo-Gothic book.

Neo-Gothic novels: developed from the Gothic genre. Gothicism was popular in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gothic novels often had a medieval setting and could be characterised by their use of horror, supernatural elements, a threatening tone, and the sense of the past intruding on the present.

Examples of Gothic novels include Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Neo-Gothic texts are modern Gothic novels which typically contain many of the same characteristics, but usually have a more contemporary setting.

The Little Stranger contains many aspects of the typical neo-Gothic novel. From the party in Hundreds Hall onwards, supernatural events occur constantly, however, there is no concrete explanation given for any of them. Faraday attempts to rationalise what is going on in Hundreds Hall, but he is never able to fully understand it.

Waters hints at the fact that these events may be occurring because the past is encroaching on the present, another key element of Gothic novels. Many of the characters are haunted by something in their past. For example, Roderick is haunted by the war, while Mrs Ayres is haunted by Susan's death. Waters takes elements of the Gothic and brings them closer to a modern setting, situating her novel not long after the Second World War.

The Little Stranger book: analysis

A key consideration in an analysis of The Little Stranger is the fact that the novel is set in 1947, just two years after the end of the Second World War. As part of the upper classes, the Ayres family is suffering financially. This once prosperous and aristocratic family are in danger of losing Hundreds Hall, which has been in their family for generations.

Faraday, who comes from a much more modest background, recognises this and is deeply concerned by the idea of Hundreds Hall being sold. He seems to care even more than the family themselves do. Faraday's mother worked in Hundreds Hall when he was a child and he has an idealised view of the rural estate. The predicament that the Ayres family find themselves in was common in post-war Britain. A new Labour government had taken over, and the British taxation system had changed substantially.

After the Second World War ended, Britain had an election which was won by the Labour Party, Britain's major left-leaning political party. This Labour Party government was led by Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883-1967) and ushered in a period of severe austerity as the war damaged the British economy. Attlee's government increased taxes, particularly on the wealthy. For example, Britain's wealth tax after the war was at sixty-five percent.

These financial circumstances, coupled with years of wear and tear, led to many country estates declining. Once aristocratic families found themselves unable to afford both their previous lifestyles and the upkeep of their large homes. Many estates were sold as a result.

The supernatural themes in The Little Stranger may represent the declining social position of the aristocracy in post-war Britain. The Ayres family are haunted by various ghosts in Waters's novel, insinuating that the past is on their minds, even as the future approaches. This was an issue for many aristocratic families at the time who were living in a nostalgic idea of the past, while Britain was rapidly modernising.

The Little Stranger: themes

The Little Stranger is a text with dark and Gothic themes that showcase a crumbling Victorian home. Waters depicts an upper-class family grappling with oncoming modernity.

The Little Stranger: the supernatural versus the rational

Throughout The Little Stranger, various characters attempt to discover whether there is a rational explanation behind the unusual and supernatural goings-on in Hundreds Hall. Faraday particularly, as a doctor, is determined to rationalise every incident. He even consults other friends in his field in search of an explanation. Faraday believes there is an explainable psychological cause behind everything. An example of one of these rationalisations, from the mind of one of Faraday's colleagues, is quoted below.

The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a—a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop—to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps. (Dr Seeley, Chp. 11)

On the other hand, the Ayres family seem fully drawn in by the supernatural, believing in it. Roderick is certain that a dark entity appeared in his room one night, and Mrs Ayres thinks that her deceased daughter, Susan, is constantly watching over her. Waters allows these two viewpoints to grapple throughout her novel.

At the end of The Little Stranger, Caroline seems to lose her life to another supernatural occurrence. Though Faraday spends months trying to understand what has happened, he is never able to. The conclusion of the story is left ambiguous, with neither a supernatural explanation nor a rational one being proven right.

The Little Stranger: the position of women

The Little Stranger can be considered as a feminist text. Early in the novel, Mrs Ayres hosts a party in which one of her key aims is to find Caroline a suitable husband. Both Caroline and Roderick are unmarried, but Mrs Ayres focuses her efforts on only one of her children. Trying to find a husband in these circumstances puts Caroline under pressure and limits her choices. Mrs Ayres's actions emphasise the traditional and often old-fashioned attitude of this family. They are holding on to both their aristocratic status and practices.

However, as part of the younger generation, by the end of the novel, Caroline seems to have broken away from these ideas somewhat. She calls off what would have been, for her, a loveless marriage to Faraday and takes control over the selling of Hundreds Hall. Caroline is looking towards modernity. However, the past of her home catches up with her regardless and she loses her life to it.

The Little Stranger: Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is a successful and widely recognised Welsh novelist. Born on 21st July 1966, Waters achieved a bachelor's, master's, and PhD in English Literature. Water's PhD thesis focused on the representation of LGBTQ+ characters in literature, which would precipitate the novels she would go on to write.

The Little Stranger, a close photo of author Sarah Waters smiling in a dark shirt, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Welsh author Sarah Waters at a book signing.

Waters published her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, in 1998 to critical acclaim. The novel was a story set in late 1800s London that explored lesbian desire at a time when it was taboo. An out lesbian herself, many of Waters's texts have LGBTQ+ themes and characters. Other works of Waters include Fingersmith (2002) and The Paying Guests (2014).

Waters has been widely recognised for her literary talents, winning multiple awards. She was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 2019. Waters is most famous for her insistence on accurately and fully representing LGBTQ+ characters in literature. She regularly explores the struggles of coming to terms with one's sexuality in a society that may not be accepting of it, situating many of her novels in the Victorian era.

Sarah Waters currently lives in London with her long-term partner, Lucy Vaughan.

The Little Stranger - Key takeaways

  • The Little Stranger (2009) is a text by Welsh novelist Sarah Waters (1966-).
  • It is a neo-Gothic text.
  • The Little Stranger revolves around an aristocratic family in post-war Britain whose estate is crumbling as they experience odd supernatural encounters.
  • The supernatural versus the rational and the position of women are two key themes in the novel.
  • The Little Stranger uses supernatural elements to explore the issues of the declining British upper-classes in the mid-twentieth century.


  1. Fig. 2 - Photo (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sarah_Waters_(cropped2).jpg) by Kimsaka (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Kimsaka) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about The Little Stranger

Susan died from the bacterial infection diphtheria. 

The end of The Little Stranger is purposefully left ambiguous, but it is likely to represent the death of the aristocracy's power in Britain.

Caroline is the only surviving daughter of the Ayres family.

The Little Stranger is set in 1947.

The Little Stranger is 512 pages long in most editions.

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