The Girl in a Swing
by Richard Adams, 1980
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian
Alan Desland is a young Englishman in Copenhagen. Presumably around thirty, he is still a virgin; he describes himself as “a non-starter in the Aphrodite sweepstakes.” All this is about to change when he meets a gentle and beautiful German girl named Käthe (Karin in some editions), who appears to be entirely alone in the world. She elopes with him to England. Like many newlyweds, Alan goes through a period of some indifference to his mother, sister and indeed anyone who isn’t Käthe; life is perceived through “the watery, glittering light” of their eyes for each other. All, however, is not well. Käthe turns out to be guilty of a terrible crime and is haunted by a series of apparitions touching on different aspects of her crime.
The apparitions are simple enough that it probably isn’t giving too much away to say that the novel borrows from the folk motif of the Cruel Mother, in which inanimate objects often bear witness to what has happened. The novel continues in genteel mode, at times resembling a countryside comedy of manners more than a ghost story: as Richard Kiely pointed out in his New York Times review of The Girl in a Swing, for a long time the tension is between the “very un-British Käthe,” with her hippie-ish, playful sensuality, and Alan’s friends and family. Another reviewer observed that by the time hell is to pay after all, one was longing for a little nastiness. However, to this taste the unthreatening human touches on which the first two-thirds of the novel are built make the power of the last third almost unbearable, elevating the denouement from the level of horror to that of heartbreak. We may know what is going to happen to Alan and Käthe, or think we know, but we are not prepared for how badly it will make us feel for them.
It is indeed unfortunate that the dull and obvious film made from this novel in 1987 is much better known than the novel itself and has eclipsed its reputation. The Girl in a Swing is Richard Adams’ masterpiece. Well known as a lover of the natural world and a conservationist, he is also obsessed with folklore and, in The Unbroken Web, a skilled reteller of folktales from around the world. But more seriously, The Girl in a Swing is about Christianity. This is not incongruous with the Cruel Mother story, in which the guilty woman is often confronted with hell and explicitly Christian imagery. Yet Adams does things a little differently. He gives Käthe speeches to the effect that Jesus Christ was “someone who wasn’t really terribly interested in sex… People live in bodies, you know.” This ambivalence begins to set The Girl in the Swing apart from a book such as Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, in which the lovers are also parted by death (of the female) and the narrator understands it as God’s forbidding the pagan nature of romantic obsession. Though Adams would probably agree with Vanauken about the power of such obsession and the challenge it poses to Christian theology, he is more thoughtful, recognizing the inevitability of sex and thus the necessity of story and archetype as well as theology. The story of the Cruel Mother is not always primarily a story of lovers. In patriarchal culture, though, it represents an especially strict gloss on the dictum that romantic passion must spend itself, with the results in folk motifs being either death or marriage.
As in the story of the Cruel Mother, there is never much doubt about the source of the haunting or its outcome. But The Girl in the Swing has a mystery that transcends the sum of its parts; the suspense lies in how the dramatic impact of the haunting will be achieved. While the narrative trajectory is childishly simple given a literal description, the final horrific effect is achieved by intellectual nuance as much as by supernatural phenomena. Käthe’s legitimate rebellion on behalf of sex will not spare her from retribution for her crime — though Adams, a lifelong devout Anglican, clearly sympathizes with it — and it is unclear whether the retribution will come from the Christian God or from pagan forces. Moreover, as in a number of twentieth-century books — The White Hotel and Sophie’s Choice, for instance — an intense dalliance with erotic obsession proves to be a red herring. It resolves itself neither in marriage nor in simple death, but in affliction. In itself, this is not necessarily a punishment for what we are but its logical conclusion if we recognize and value the fact that “people live in bodies,” since affliction is the ultimate import of that fact. The affliction is historic in D. M. Thomas and William Styron. In Adams’ thriller it is only intimated that his concern with suffering has resonances beyond the personal, but in other works, notably Shardik and The Plague Dogs, Adams leaves little to the imagination. “It’s a bad world for the helpless,” says Holocaust survivor Mr. Ephraim in The Plague Dogs. The twentieth century has conduits into a nineteenth-century sense of evil and the inevitability of judgment, with the crucial difference that the judgment also ends in shambles. The retribution at the end of the novel is not that of The Scarlet Letter or of Revelation, but of Dresden.
It does not seem insignificant that Käthe is German and wracked by guilt; a British audience in 1980 would have had an immediate idea of what that meant. “Do you think any sin can be forgiven?” Käthe asks Alan’s clergyman, to which he responds: “Sure, always provided people can forgive themselves.” Käthe does not, and Adams leaves open the possibility that her punishment is for this. She requires no less than ultimate punishment for herself. While dying, she tells Alan, “Ich hatte kein Mitleid” — “I had no pity” — and Alan is asked at the inquest whether she might have meant “I showed no pity” or “I received no pity.” Adams indicates that the two are the same. Käthe has chosen the power of God rather than God’s mercy. Her egotism as a creature made for enjoyment — the generative side of nature — is not changed, but demands of God that God show the pitilessness inherent to God as well as mercy, and means that in a limited sense Käthe has won: the cards are on the table. The harshness and indeed brutishness of “the power of God” was the subject of Shardik, a great and little-understood Christian allegory: Shardik the bear is worshipped as the power of God, as Christ is God as love. Shardik mauls the just and unjust alike, quite literally, but finally dies in a way that causes his cult to change to that of the protection of children from evil, likely a gloss on the transition between Old and New Testament understandings of the same frightening God (an interpretation made more believable by the parallel between the political coup at the plot’s center and the retaking of Israel). In The Girl in a Swing, the pagan option receives the same treatment as Shardik gives the Old Testament God: it is considered alongside the Christian and taken seriously as an equally valid understanding of the divine. Christianity is finally given the last word because in recognizing and privileging pain over brute force, it acts as a valve for guilt, and thus a brake on our instinctive appeal to powers which can only be destructive when unchecked (as they were in Nazi paganism). Käthe’s guilt, not her sexual nature, is what causes her to put herself beyond the reach of divine mercy.
This also sets The Girl in a Swing apart from The Scarlet Letter, whose plot it superficially resembles. Apart from its post-1945 sense of evil, the key difference is to be found in the character of Alan. Alan Desland is more of a puzzle than Käthe. At an early age he learns that he is clairvoyant, with a particular sensitivity to evil. He learns as the result of an experiment in telepathy where he intuits that the experimenter is thinking of serial killer Reginald Christie: “The world, I realized, was nothing but a dreary place, a mean, squalid dump, whose inhabitants were condemned to torment each other for no reason and no purpose other than the pleasure of cruelty: a wicked Eden, its equivalent of Adam a foul travesty whose very name was a jeering pun on that of God’s incarnate purity and compassion. Indeed these, I saw plainly, were nothing but lies — mere figments devised to delude girls… until their bodies could be clutched, strangled, defiled and buried… I fell to the floor, vomiting my tea over the carpet, battering blindly with my fists and choking out one word: ‘Christie! Christie!'”
This scene is extremely significant. Alan has received the kind of jolt of awareness that can make it difficult for the gifted young to function. At the very least, it can be nearly impossible for them to understand, express, or rely on what they know. The possessors of extraordinary powers often do not use them wisely, but surely it is significant that Alan does not use them, period. The force of his first discernment of evil has left him at once helpless before evil and afflicted with unconscious pride. Although given many supernatural hints, he does not reflect on his gift or act on what it tells him about Käthe. He is a gifted child who has, not untypically, grown into a passive adult, and behaves as the somewhat ineffectual British husband of countless situation comedies. On a superficial level this is perhaps a weakness in the novel, but it is an original interpretation of a figure such as Alan. It’s easy to condemn Alan for being ineffectual because he does not know what is going on, quite another to consider that he is ineffectual, even astray, because he knows precisely what is going on. That Alan is also the lover in an archetypical and passionate romance, where he plays the role of tragic hero, troubadour, goddess-consort to perfection, adds to the poignancy and subtle horror of his role.
The Girl in a Swing is not a perfect novel, either as a mainstream romance or as genre fiction. It will be too long and slow for some readers. Feminists are likely to have some trouble with it, since Käthe’s deed is presented as logical according to her nature. This is of course daunting in a novel that is an apologia for Christianity, albeit a complicated and ambivalent one, and could be read as identifying the Goddess with evil: “I’d just hate to have got in her beautiful way, wouldn’t you? If you were a nuisance, she’d have no mercy at all.” (In fairness to Adams, he makes the identical point about the Judeo-Christian God.) However, on careful reading it is surprising how little structurally flawed it is. If the Dostoevskian ambition is at first somewhat undermined by the staidness of the village setting, the effect is all the more powerful when Adams switches from the brittle contentment of the English countryside to the sickening menace and wretchedness at whose invocation he excels. The romance would be banal as a standalone trope, and somewhat prettified as the ingredient in a classical ghost story. But it resolves in a torrent of scabrous images including but not limited to the final apparition itself, and thus it functions as a terrifying red herring, all the more so because the mayhem at the end is brought on (literally) by the lovers’ ecstasy. The final twist is that at the end, stuffy Alan is defiant, whereas Käthe has died of guilt. He confesses that he does not wish Käthe’s crime undone if it were to mean he had not known her. This is the guilt he must live with forever; in parting, he still concludes in Christian fashion, expecting that his cross is to enrich the world. But if this sounds too easy, one may remember that if Alan did not want to claim his gift as a teenager, he’s stuck with it for good now.
Richard Adams wrote a number of other books after The Girl in a Swing; none, however, achieved its sense of exorcism, in the literal sense of calling up an evil spirit as well as turning it loose from its host. Its sources are ultimately unclear, either in the psyche of the author or in the cultural context surrounding it. Dostoevsky and Hawthorne have been mentioned. It also owes something to The Turn of the Screw, and the final scene appears to quote that of Ugetsu Monogatari. The resonance with other tales is not surprising. If Stephen King is right and the essential theme of the ghost story is that of narcissism, the number of plotlines available to it are limited: the haunted either recover from their narcissism (as Alan Desland does, at great cost) or they don’t (as Käthe does not). But the presence of the folktale creates something new as well. The self-interested lovers are made responsible for a wider world and atone in terms that have particular horror due to the presence of folk elements; these make the story of two people, the romantic template, a story about everyone and their doom thus a parable of our own vulnerability rather than a cul-de-sac. It would not be going too far to say that they atone by entering the folktale, a peculiarly Adamsian resolution and a clever reweaving of the novel’s pagan and Christian themes. Richard Adams has succeeded in creating something unique in The Girl in a Swing, which will not leave alert readers the same, and which deserves to last.