"The Stain"
by Tessa Hadley
Originally published in the November 7, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

I haven’t had a chance to read Hadley’s third fiction offering this year (and fourth in the last 12 months), but I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, please share any thoughts you may have.

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By |2016-07-11T12:03:38-04:00November 3rd, 2011|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tessa Hadley|Tags: |10 Comments


  1. Aaron November 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    If you liked her previous stuff — which I hated — then you’ll probably love this one, since this modest and subtle story worked for me. (http://bit.ly/uovdbh)

    In general, I appreciate the way the story successfully changes the way I feel about the characters, and about the ways in which it actually convinces me that Marina has a reason for being stubborn (rather than the author needing there to be an obstacle to clash over). The twists are not the usual ones — there is no rape or impropriety, as the sins are all in the past — and although Marina is presented as religious, she’s of the sort that falls asleep in church: it’s more about the immersion and commitment for her.

    It’s also very clearly written, as I expect from Hadley, and even characters that we catch only a glimpse of — her son, Liam, or husband, Gary — act exactly as you expect from their descriptions. I might’ve used a little bit more confrontation in the climax, but then again, that’s not really what this one’s about.

  2. jerry November 4, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    I thought it a very good story and I don’t usually care for Hadley’s work at all. As soon as they said South Africa, you could see what was coming but all in all it was well done.

  3. Ken November 11, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    I usually like her stories but was lukewarm about this. It’s well-constructed as always but I felt little sense of who Marina was. Her desire to cut off the old man/refuse his money does make sense considering he probably participated in the horrors of apartheid. Nevertheless, I still found it abrupt that a character not shown to have any political leanings or any education or strong moral opinions (besides being somewhat independent and proud and a good mom and a nominal Christian) would so strongly act towards an 89 year old man who has been kind to her. Granted, his possible sins are egregious but something about Marina’s about-face bothered me. It didn’t seem like there was that much else here and, again, I found Marina an under-developed focalizer.

  4. Ken November 11, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    One more thing-Having the old guy conveniently die the morning after Marina learns about his past (and having his daughter have a premonition about it) seems way too deus-ex-machina and/or supernatural a turn in a realist tale.

  5. mehbe November 13, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    Although I enjoyed the story generally, one part struck me as off-key, and that was the scene in which Marina was told about the old man’s history after his party. I think I more or less understand why the author thought Marina needed to be unwilling to be told, and why it was via what amounted to an abduction, but somehow it just rang false for me.

  6. Betsy November 18, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Tessa Hadley has remarked that she is “irresponsible” as a short story writer. Perhaps that explains the off-footedness I feel with any of her stories, stories in which characters appear (to me) to gravely misperceive the true nature of what they see and hear, as well as the true nature of what they experience.

    In the same way, I as a reader feel as if Hadley purposely misleads me. It’s as if a Hadley story is a pattern of shards that she intends to be fit together a variety of ways. There is nothing wrong in that as an authorial policy – as long as it is not covering up a basic lack of intent and knowledge on the author’s part.

    Of course, Hadley is being ironic about being “irresponsible”. She is tweaking the reader, much as she does when she tells the readers not nearly enough. Her position is that in a short story, it is almost a necessity to develop a technique that allows her to draw a character with glancing stokes at the past, surroundings, intent, or experience. Fine, as long as it isn’t a basic laziness.

    Marina, the heroine of “The Stain”, once saw a grotesque thing in a tree, something obviously once alive, but what was it? She saw it, but because it was grotesque, and out of place, and because she had trouble reading what it actually was, it was terrifying and remained so – a stain. It remained with her as a horror, partly because she could not understand it, partly because her understanding of things was turned upside down, and partly because she is shocked that there could be something she cannot understand. This is, of course, the most important authorial comment that Hadley has structured into this story. By the time the story ends, Marina has once again encountered something grotesque and out of place. The delicious difficulty for the reader is that neither Marina nor the author explains exactly what that upsetting, out-of-place thing is.

    On the one hand, it could be and probably is, the realization that the old man she has been cleaning for, whom she has embraced into her family, is in reality a war criminal with a vicious past. On the other hand, it may be the knowledge that she has allowed him to seduce her, so to speak. She has resisted his offers of money, but she has slowly allowed him to have an intimate power over her. When at a family party, he pays tribute to her by saying the rest of his family doesn’t deserve to kiss the hem of her dress. Thus he manages to expose the degree to which she has accepted him, and the degree to which he has fooled her. Marina sees herself as good, and her refusals of money make her feel good. But in secret, she knows the man has seduced her by making of her a kind of wife, when she already has a husband, by giving her a thrill when he praises her beauty, by being abashed after he has abused her. So the grotesque horror that she sees may be herself.

    But then, there is also another possibility in regard to the strange grotesque thing that Marina perceives. The old man’s grown grandson reveals to Marina the old man’s identity. The old man is a former member of the South African Defense Force, and as such, he had committed many terrible crimes. Marina, in shock, cannot sleep, and does not go to work the next day, but goes to the old man’s daughter’s house. The daughter, Wendy, greets Marina by assuming Marina has come to say the old man is dead. Confrontation is completely deflected. Marina says, no, she doesn’t think the old man is dead. The daughter continues in this vein, saying how often she has imagined the old man’s death. And when they reach the old man’s house, he is, in fact, dead. What is troubling, however, to the reader, is that the man appears to have struggled, appears dead in a completely odd position, his head down toward the floor. The reader wonders if one of the grandsons has killed the old man, or even Wendy. The reader wonders, therefore, if what Marina has realized is not just that she has been seduced by the old man, but by the whole family.

    There is also the possibility that the young grandson has framed the old man with the “internet proof” that he offers Marina.

    Quite a kettle.

    Another aspect of the story telling is the fact that the story springboards off the intertwined English ghost-story tradition and the tradition of the lower class girl working in the manor house. Marina and the old man are definitely echoes of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, but this Mr. Rochester is probably truly evil and irretrievable. In order to survive, the girl must decode the truth that lurks within the walls of the mansion. The story also harks back to “The Secret Garden”, in which a disabled boy is rescued by the visits of a well meaning girl. In the same way, the story is also in the tradition of “The Turn of the Screw”, by Henry James, a ghost story in which the reader is mystified by the governess’s story of ghosts and possession and evil.

    What gives “The Stain” its new unique life against these stories is the political side: this time, it is not a madwoman being hidden in the attic, it is a criminal identity, and the crimes involve genocide and apartheid. And this time, it is not a tale of erotic longings that give way to death, but it is a tale of a real, flesh and blood criminal who has probably killed quite a few people in quite horrible ways. Or is it just the story of an old man’s murder and innocent framing?

    Hadley is a fan of Henry James, so her “irresponsible”
    story telling is more an appreciation of the Master than anything else. And, as in Henry James, the stain in the story is realization. When Marina allows herself to perceive the evil that has been all around her, her consciousness is stained. The exact nature of that evil is not clear, and therein should lie the entertainment for the reader.

    Entertainment is apropos – given that this ghost story appeared approximately at Halloween.

    But entertainment is also the question. The real criminals of South Africa were real criminals. Just read about Stephen Biko. Just read the transcripts of the Truth and Reconcilation hearings, at which criminals, like the old man in this story, were granted amnesty. No ghost stories, these. Hadley says that a short story requires that a character’s past be brushed in in one stroke.

    I’m not sure how you brush in any reality of genocide, holocaust, or apartheid at one stroke. We might be entertained by a story that plays with the varieties and shades of truth regarding apartheid and a former war criminal, but Stephen’s Biko’s survivors might find such a fiction irrelevant.

    Hadley’s story investigates (sort of) the issue of forgiveness. The Soiuth African truth and reconciliation commission emphasized the need for truth, admission, apology and forgiveness in order that the nation heal. Reading the transcripts, that whole process looks to have been fraught. The old man is probably one of those who admitted just enough to be given amnesty, and get the hell out. He has surely followed suit in his new refuge, saying as he does that he has no memoirs to write, that he will keep them safe in his head.

    The role of forgiveness, too, in this story emerges only kaleidoscopically. Marina does not know he is a criminal, so her behavior is not forgiveness. But he does throw coffee at her, and she does forgive him. He confesses to Marina that he was with prostitutes after his wife’s death, and asks if he will be forgiven. Given the context of his real crimes, this seems almost irrelevant. But within the little stone house, Marina takes it seriously and takes him to church, even though its importance to her is mostly as setting for relaxtion.

    The story resists the reader. With its shifting realities, it is an entertaining ghost story. At the same time, though, its use of widespread, horrific, real suffering as its back drop makes the reader uneasy.

  7. Bob Scharf November 29, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    What are those orange and white things flying around on the November 7, 2011 New Yorker cover?
    [email protected]

  8. Trevor November 29, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I’m not 100% sure, Bob. The title of the artwork is “Open Season.” Election day was November 8. They look like mailers meant to appear like the falling leaves. Does any of that add up?

  9. Leisa February 24, 2012 at 8:49 am

    Bob, they look to me to be tickets, as in parking tickets. Since they’re neatly stashed under the wipers of many of the cars parked along that street (volvo, SUV, VW bug, etc.) . There has always been an ‘Open Season’ placed on many of the city’s inhabitants. I know that I’ve been a victim more times than I’d like to admit. I do remember it being widely discussed around the time of this printing.

  10. Paprad March 17, 2013 at 7:55 am

    A bit late in the day but thought I’d ask anyway : there is only a hint, in the beginning of the story, that Marina is black. Could that be one reason why she reacted to the apartheid war crimes the way she did?

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