In praise of rain (especially in opening chapters)

In this blog post, I share what I wrote for my essay assignment for the Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, in 2016, which was focused on the thematic and stylistic choices of Rachel Cusk’s use of rain in her novel Arlington Park.

The theme of rain has been a recurrent theme in literary fiction. In classic English literature, rain is a frequent motif and a structuring principle of British writing. Examples from The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser,  A Midsummer Night's Dream by Shakespeare, Bleak House by Dickens, but also in non-literary pieces, such as for example Benjamin Britten's opera Noye's Fludde, remind us that ‘English literature has for centuries courted the rain.’ 

Typically, authors use rain sparingly to portray pathetic fallacy. As David Lodge writes in The Art of Fiction: ‘Even Jane Austen, however, makes discreet use of the pathetic fallacy on occasion. When Emma’s fortunes are at their lowest ebb, when she has discovered the truth, with all its embarrassing implications for her own conduct, about Jane Fairfax, when she belatedly realizes that she loves Mr Knightley but has reason to believe he is going to marry Harriet- on this, the worst day of her life, “the weather added what it could of gloom"' (p.86).

In Cusk's novel the rain metaphor is used differently. Rain symbolises victory and opens the door to the novel’s thematic purpose. The rain is portrayed as a causative force, which shapes and determines what the characters experience. The rain is not transparent but ‘dark’; it does not mirror and reflect, but ‘falls joyously over the dark’ Arlington Park. 

           ‘Louder and louder it grew, this strange, unsettling sound. It filled the night: it rattled the windows and made people turn beneath their covers and children cry in their sleep. It made them feel somehow observed, as if a dark audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands.'

Eleni Cay, 2015, photo taken by Ajvonka

Cusk points out that motherhood is not always a fulfilling and pleasant experience and that often, women choose it in hope of a better material life. The novel charts five intertwined lives of 30-something-year-old mothers who live in the Arlington Park. Haunted by their unfulfilled dreams and elusive goals, these five mothers have lost their personal freedom the day they had become mothers and wives. There are only small mundane accomplishments that give them pleasure. For Juliet Randall, who works part-time as an English teacher in an all-girls school, it is the weekly literary club that she runs.  Amanda Clapp derives satisfaction from her newly renovated kitchen. Maisie Carrington relishes in punishing her husband. Solly Kerr-Leigh finds solace in the neat, “untouched” spare room that does not require any housework. Christine Lanham seems to enjoy spending time with the other four women, although all her friendship requests are fake and not reciprocated.  The novel could be considered to be a satire to the unbridled optimism of motherhood.

Cusk’s use of rain draws the reader’s attention because it adds an authentic layer of poetry and drama. First, for poetry, the monotonous nature of falling raindrops is accentuated by the use of repetition and short direct sentences, capturing the rain’s irresistible nature. The sound of the rain disturbs the reader and it disturbs the five young protagonists in their sleep. It is as if the lament of their unfulfilled dreams was echoed by the rain noise.

The use of repetition is also effective in portraying the homogenous experience of the five women. The individual raindrops cannot be distinguished from each other; they are all part of one big assemble called the rain. Similarly, the five mothers are all bound by the same miserable fate of unfulfilled motherhood. This effect is further achieved by Cusk’s use of third person through the novel. All five protagonists are introduced with the same tone and sentence structure, reflecting the homogeneous experience of an empty, unfulfilled life.

Moreover, with a theatrical quality of drama, Cusk emphasises the overwhelming, all-absorbing nature of seemingly mundane things such as parenting, marriage, work and rain. The use of monosyllabic words in close succession, together with the paratactical style, adds to the drama of the opening chapter. Small raindrops are described as loud and potent, they can overwhelm the people sleeping inside their houses. The raindrops can become their audience behind the window and through this role reversal, overpower them. The theatrical expressions (e.g., clapping) take on a tragic tone: the rain loses all its colours just like the five women have lost all their hope. Their destinies are smudging into each other like a mass of water.

Eleni Cay, 2015, photo taken by Ajvonka   

Eleni Cay, 2015, photo taken by Ajvonka

The placing of the rain right at the beginning of the novel is an astute stylistic choice. It primes the reader with a bleak image of motherhood, which is continued throughout the novel. The first chapter situates the narrative in an urban English setting and positions the reader in the middle of the misery of the five protagonists.  Cusk’s stylistic and thematic aspects work together, they are essential for the content of the novel. One could argue that the form drives rather than underpins the novel, which leaves less space for the reader’s own interpretation. Taken together, the stylistic and thematic combination is therefore particularly effective in bringing the characters’ lives closer to the reader’s inner world.

The author does not impose her understanding; she goes against the master narrative of marital satisfaction and positive parenting experiences. It is in this third space between the reader and writer’s inner world that new meanings can be made and new understandings can be achieved.