‘The Mezzotint’ by M. R. James: Short Story Analysis
‘The Mezzotint’ is a story of a poacher called Gawdy who was framed by a squire for killing a keeper of his estate. Gawdy is hung to death, but that is not the end of him. He returns in a terrible ghoulish form to kidnap the squire’s only infant son. Seemingly, Gawdy didn’t want to be killed because he was the last person in his family line. But the squire, Mr. Arthur Francis, did get him hanged. Gawdy the ghoul thought the best way to avenge himself was to take away the last heir of Mr. Arthur Francis, which he does; the baby is never heard of again. However, Mr. Arthur Francis creates the mezzotint of his mansion which is Anningley Mansion of Essex. He dies on the third anniversary of the kidnapping of his only heir. He dies after having created this mezzotint.
Mezzotint is a printmaking process. The mezzotint of Anningley Mansion or Hall arrives at the Museum of Cambridge, where Mr. Dennistoun Williams is employed, to enlarge the already unsurpassed collection of English topographical drawings and engravings of the museum. He is sent the engraving to be studied. M. R. James uses his skill as a writer of academic horror fiction to make us glide over the description of the mezzotint until we realize that there is a shape moving about at periods in the mezzotint. The creature is disgusting and vile in appearance; one could say it was grotesque. M. R. James loves to describe ghosts in his stories in a horrendous manner and does not give them the accepted ‘look’ of a ghost. He has a fascination for skeletal ghouls and specters. He is also very fond of ghouls and ghosts avenging themselves by inflicting terrible inhumane acts that make any reader feel unnerved by its ghastliness. In this story titled ‘The Mezzotint,’ we are left wondering how could it be possible that the ghoul managed to be etched forever in the engravings. We also wonder in horror the fate the innocent child met at the hands of an avenging ghoul.
Mr. Williams of the museum is at first unimpressed by the mezzotint. When he sees it, there is no moonlight and no figure in the background. After he goes for tea and golfing, his friend Professor Binks remarks about the back part of the head of the ghoul, whom they don’t yet know is a ghoul, seemingly appeared at the edge of the mezzotint. Later another gentleman finds the ghoul on all fours crawling, like a terrible creature from the pit, towards the manor. It is only when Mr. Williams is done with all his golfing, whist game, and tea, that he realizes something is fiendish about the mezzotint.
I want to draw your attention here to the reaction of Mr. Williams. Indeed, the changes that he was seeing in the engraving was terrible, but he does not freak out or lose control of his faculties. He makes notes of the image, makes viewers sign the pages as testimonials to what they saw, and elucidates about the reason for this change. He finally learns the truth from two sources:
- A gazetteer called ‘Murray’s Guide to Essex.’
- Mr. Green.
It is the gazetteer that identifies the manor and Mr. Green who tells the saga of Gawdy. Note in the story the fascination of the skip Robert who swears that the picture was not decent and he wouldn’t want his little girl child to ever see it. You can make out the innocence of the skip who other than the fact of calling a mezzotint ‘a picture’ says that he frankly feels it should not have any business to be here in the museum. The mezzotint undergoes the following changes while under Mr. Williams’ charge:
- No moonlight or ghoul present and all windows of the manor were shut.
- Slight moonlight and the blob of the head of the ghoul can be seen at the edge of the engraving.
- The ghoul can be seen crawling on all fours towards the manor with a white cross on his back.
- No ghoul present but a window was opened indicative of the horrifying fact that the ghoul had got into the house.
- Ghoul carrying the baby leaving from the front of the house where the ghoul looks like a dead dried skeleton with a white bald head and uncomfortably thin legs.
- The manor is empty.
Note that most of the action in the engraving happens at night, during the dark hours exactly when the actual heir of the Francis clan was kidnapped. It is possible that some horror awaited the father of the child; that is why he died while creating the engraving. The mezzotint then was put on display but never again did any changes occur in the engraving. The mezzotint was even tested to see whether any sympathetic ink was used in its making. The calmness of Mr. Williams as the protagonist of this story is unusual for an M. R. James story. Also, there is not the usual terrible or tragic ending to this story. It all may have ended badly for Gawdy, the baby, and Mr. Francis but it was all a very exciting experience for the professors in the museum. We know this because right at the beginning of the story, M. R. James mentions the tale as ‘the story of an adventure’. It looks like while the reader was getting horrified, these men of practicality were just having a fantastic time which was different from their otherwise mundane schedules.
‘The Mezzotint’ is my second favorite M. R. James’s story and it was a pleasure to analyze it. I read this story first in the year 2002. It was indeed a lot of fun!
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