Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Little Stranger

Go To

"And perhaps there is a limit to the grieving that the human heart can do. As when one adds salt to a tumbler of water, there comes a point where simply no more will be absorbed."

The Little Stranger is a 2009 gothic novel by British author Sarah Waters. A ghost story set in a dilapidated mansion in post-WWII England, it centers on a country doctor named Faraday who makes friends with an aristocratic family of declining fortunes; as he ingratiates himself into their lives, unsettling and possibly supernatural events begin to occur at the mansion.

(Or, in short, this is Brideshead Revisited meets The Turn of the Screw).

The novel was adapted into a film in 2018, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter and Charlotte Rampling.

Tropes in the novel and the movie:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • In the film the "unhandsome", balding Faraday of the book is played by Domhnall Gleeson (who's several years younger than the character, too).
    • Played with by Caroline. Faraday refers to her "thick calves" and ankles as if they're the ugliest things in the world, whereas Caroline is played by the very thin, very pretty Ruth Wilson. However, it's implied that Faraday is an Unreliable Narrator specifically about Caroline, who he believes should treat him better.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The book has No Ending, but the movie adds a scene at the very end that features The Reveal to the story's central mystery.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Faraday's friend/colleague Dr. Graham becomes Dr. Granger in the movie.
  • Agent Scully: Faraday is at best dismissive and at worst contemptuous of the Ayreses' insistence of something supernatural happening at Hundreds.
  • The Alcoholic: Roderick Ayres.
  • The Alleged Car: Faraday's barely paid off his student loans and can only afford a very old, very slow car.
  • Alliterative Name: Hundreds Hall.
  • Ambiguous Ending / No Ending: In the book, it is merely hinted (albeit pretty heavily) as to who or what was responsible for all the odd happenings at Hundreds.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Sarah Waters is known for focusing on lesbian themes in her novels, and The Little Stranger is her first work to feature no explicitly queer characters. However, at one point in the story, the perennially single Caroline excitedly dances with a female friend from the fire watch (who she then claims not to care for) — in direct contrast to her earlier stiff, lifeless dancing with Faraday. She also repeatedly refers to herself as "Dracula's daughter", which in context means she's calling herself cursed, but the movie by that title is also famous for its lesbian subtext.
  • Appearance Is in the Eye of the Beholder: In the movie, the entity in the house manifests itself differently to each family member, depending on what scares them the most. To Rod, badly burned in a plane crash, it shows itself as fire. To Mrs. Ayres, it shows itself as her dead daughter, Suki. To Caroline, it appears in its more or less true form, which is the monstrous version of Faraday.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Faraday's friendship with the Ayres family is motivated by his desire to spend as much time at Hundreds Hall — which had captivated him as a child — as possible. In the end, he is given free roam of the now abandoned house.
    • In the words of director Lenny Abrahamson: "The boy does get the house, but what he gets is bricks and mortar and emptiness. None of the glamour, none of the warmth, none of the love and excitement that he imagined as a child.".
  • Beneath the Mask:
    • Faraday's narration is peppered with discrepancies between what he's saying/showing and thinking/feeling.
    • Mrs Ayres is a Stepford Smiler: she is depressed and anxious, but, in Faraday's words, "had hidden those burdens very successfully behind a veil of breeding and charm".
  • Big Fancy House: How Faraday perceives Hundreds Hall. By the time the story takes place, however, the manor has become an Old, Dark House.
  • Big Friendly Dog: Caroline's beloved pet Gyp.
    • Beware of Vicious Dog: Gyp's vicious mauling of a young girl is the first sign that something evil does indeed live in the house.
  • Book Ends: The first shot of the movie is of Faraday looking at himself in the mirror while shaving. One of the last shots is of him looking in the mirror at Hundreds Hall, trying to spot the ghost that haunted the place.
  • Brainy Brunette: Caroline Ayres, repeatedly described as a "clever girl".
  • Bratty Half-Pint: The daughter of a neighboring well-to-do family, the Baker-Hydes, is precocious and used to getting her own way.
  • Children Are Innocent: Inverted. Faraday's colleague argues that children have very strong, powerful wants and needs, which can then morph into something dark. In the film, this is what happened to boy Faraday during his first visit to Hundreds Hall.
  • Creator Thumbprint: The themes of class relations and British history are heavily featured in the novel.
    • The novel is set in a large country estate inhabited by a small family and house staff, like Fingersmith.
    • It takes place in 1940s Britain, like The Night Watch, whose characters also had trouble adjusting to postwar realities.
    • Characters talk to the spirits like in Affinity.
  • Creepy Child: the apparition of young Faraday in the film.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: A slightly older version. Although Roderick is in his late teens or early twenties and Caroline is significantly older, the first one to bite the dust is their lovable and very gentle Golden Retriever, Gyp.
  • Death of a Child: The eldest Ayres daughter, Suki, died of an illness at a very young age.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: In the film, all the misfortunes at Hundreds Hall are in response to Faraday getting slighted in some way, starting with Suki falling ill after seeing him slapped by his mother and culminating in Caroline dying after she rejects him.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Faraday pursues Caroline, who is clearly not as interested in the relationship as he is.
  • Downer Ending: Mrs. Ayres and Caroline are dead, Rod is in a mental asylum, and Hundreds Hall is up for sale.
  • Driven by Envy: Underneath Faraday's polite demeanor simmers a very obvious resentment towards the upper classes.
  • Entitled to Have You: This was ten-year-old Faraday's feeling towards Hundreds Hall:
    It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it — or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it.
  • Evil Redhead: Faraday in the film.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The middle part of both the book and the movie features a discussion about poltergeists being manifestations of nonconscious, uncontrolled telekinesis, and about children having strong wants and passions.
    • Faraday's colleague, Seeley, speculates that "the little stranger" is a fractured part of the subconscious that then grows into a shadow self, "a Mr. Hyde". Mr. Hyde was the alter ego of Dr. Jekyll, who, like Faraday, was a medical practitioner.
    • In the book, after the fire attributed to Roderick, Caroline asks: “Can't people do hurtful things, sometimes, and not even know they're doing them?”
    • In the flashback scene, Faraday's narration mentions wanting to own a part of Hundreds Hall even at the cost of its destruction.
    • Of his first visit to Hundreds Hall, Faraday says "I was not a gentleman", referring both to his working-class origins and to the cruel, greedy personality that's barely contained by the veneer of politeness.
    • As seen in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment in the film, Faraday's name starts with an S — his ghost/poltergeist, and not Suki's, was scribbling the initial all over the house.
    • One of the posters for the film shows Mrs. Ayres, Faraday and Caroline before a painting of Hundreds Hall; boy Faraday can be seen in the painting, as if he were part of the house.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: In the film, eagle-eyed viewers may notice Faraday's first initial among the names listed outside the office of his practice. That initial is S.
  • Freudian Excuse: For all his life, Faraday had wanted love and acceptance, specifically acceptance among the gentry; however, even as a successful doctor, he can't help but feel like "the help" at high-society parties. He is also understandably miffed by the Ayreses' inability to keep the house in good shape, and their somewhat mocking attitudes towards the lower classes.
  • Ghostly Goals: In the movie, the entity quite clearly wants the house.
  • Gothic Horror: Grand but creepy ancestral home, possible ghosts, a romance with unsettling undertones and a not-so-heroic male lead.
  • Haunted House: Hundreds Hall, possibly; the doors slam and lock themselves, bells ring unprompted, strange sounds come through the communicator lines and strange markings that look like the scribblings of a child are found throughout.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Caroline's only friend is her old, gentle Labrador, Gyp.
  • Heroic BSoD / Sanity Slippage: Faraday has a meltdown of epic proportions in his car after Caroline refuses to marry him.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Faraday either directly or indirectly kills Caroline after she spurns him — with the "you" being both Caroline and Hundreds Hall.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The once uber-wealthy Ayreses have fallen on hard times and are planning to sell some of the land to pay the bills.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Faraday privately considers Roderick unfit to run the estate, and a lot of the locals agree with him.
  • Jekyll & Hyde: Faraday's colleague Seeley speculates that the happenings at Hundreds Hall are a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation, with a shadow self fractured off from someone's worst impulses causing all the misfortunes.
  • Last-Name Basis: We never do learn Faraday's first name, but, whatever it is, in the film it starts with an S.
  • Love Hungry: The film's director, Lenny Abrahamson, describes Faraday as "desperately longing for love and acceptance" but not knowing how to get it.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The book leaves it ambiguous whether there was anything supernatural at Hundreds Hall. The movie does not go the same route.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • "Ayres" sounds conspicuously like "heirs".
    • Roderick (Ayres) shares the name with another man and his sister, who both fall victim to a decaying ancestral home.
    • Michael Faraday is famous for his contributions to the studies of electricity, specifically electromagnetic induction. The Faraday of The Little Stranger treats Rod's leg with electrolysis and, more importantly, serves as a conductor to the supernatural activity at Hundreds Hall.
  • Mind over Matter: It is speculated that a poltergeist — possibly created by a living (telekinetic) person — is responsible for the eerie happenings at Hundreds Hall. In the movie at least, the assumption proves correct.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: While he's not a villain per se (...probably), Dr. Faraday is revealed to be an obsessive, misogynistic, judgmental man primarily motivated by greed and resentment.
  • Moral Myopia: As befits an Unreliable Narrator. In fact, the way the book is structured, adult Faraday may have been the one to murder Caroline.
  • Never Suicide: Caroline's death is ruled a suicide, but in both the book and the movie she fell to her death after being startled by someone.
  • No Social Skills: In the movie, Faraday is very stiff, dour and awkward, and obviously ill at ease at big social gatherings. The book is from his POV, so he never thinks of himself as anything less than charming.
  • Old, Dark House: In an extended metaphor for the decline of the British aristocracy, this is what Hundreds Hall has become by the late 1940s.
  • Old Maid: Caroline is referred to as being on the edge of spinsterhood.
  • Plain Jane: Caroline is described as mannish, plain-faced and unkempt, and does herself no favors with her choice of clothes.
  • Poltergeist: The suspected perpetrator of all the weird stuff happening at Hundreds Hall.
  • Power Incontinence: Faraday's colleague speculates that the poltergeist responsible for the haunting has no control over its powers and is proven correct in the movie.
  • The Power of Hate: In the movie, Faraday's resentment, envy and anger have been manifesting themselves as a poltergeist/ghost inside Hundreds Hall; whenever Faraday experiences negative emotions, the poltergeist/ghost lashes out.
  • Psychic Powers: in the film at least, Faraday has telekinetic powers that cause harm to the Ayres family whenever he is angry or distressed.
  • Red Herring: Suki, the deceased oldest daughter of the family, is initially thought to be haunting the house.
  • The Reveal: Faraday is responsible for all the deaths and troubles at Hundreds Hall, although the book leaves the extent of his involvement more ambiguous.
  • Scars Are Forever:
    • Roderick is badly scarred after a plane crash in WWII.
    • The mauled daughter of the Baker-Hydes will probably remain disfigured for life.
  • Science Versus Magic: Is the house actually haunted, or can everything be explained by human intervention? The movie does pick a side, but the book's Ambiguous Ending could make it go either way.
  • Self-Made Man: Faraday, of working class origins, is a successful doctor, in contrast to Caroline and Rod Ayres, who were born into wealth and nobility but are now barely making ends meet.
  • Seven Deadly Sins: Faraday's are envy and greed.
  • Shadow Archetype: In the film, the entity within Hundreds Hall is this to Faraday.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Roderick Ayres is a former RAF pilot, left horribly disfigured and psychologically traumatized by the war.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shrinking Violet: Faraday.
  • Sliding Scale of Adaptation Modification: Type 3 (Pragmatic Adaptation); the two major differences are the manner in which Mrs. Ayres commits suicide, and the level of the ambiguity in the ending, but where the book was from Faraday's subjective and untrustworthy POV, the movie has to attempt to show the events objectively.
  • Start of Darkness: The day Faraday first visited Hundreds Hall was the day things started going wrong for the Ayres family — beginning with their daughter, Suki, falling ill and dying.
  • Title Drop: The book mentions the "little stranger" twice, including at the very end.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Quite literally, the book ends with Faraday trying to see the ghost of Hundreds Hall and seeing his own face in one of the manor's mirrors instead.
  • Tomboy: In the book, Caroline is repeatedly described as being somewhat mannish in appearance, fond of the outdoors, blunt, and unafraid of hard work.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Taking its cues from classical ghost stories like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House.
  • Villain Protagonist: Faraday.
  • Wham Shot: At the very end of the film, as Faraday leaves Hundreds Hall, the camera moves to show the apparition of young Faraday standing in the spot where Caroline fell to her death, watching his older self leave.
  • White Shirt of Death: both Mrs. Ayres and Caroline.
  • "You!" Exclamation: Caroline's last words before falling to her death or being murdered by Faraday. She may have been referring to the ghost of Hundreds Hall or Faraday himself.