Themes in The Were-Wolf
Combination of Feminine and Masculine Traits: At the beginning of the story, characters make distinct contrasts between traditionally feminine traits, such as beauty, and masculine traits, such as strength. Though the two are originally seen as exclusive, White Fell, with her striking looks accompanied by a handaxe, is a perfect mixture of both. Housman’s involvement in the suffragette movement advocating equal rights for women—which occasionally turned violent—may have influenced her depiction of White Fell, who is just as strong, intelligent, and competent as the men around her.
Transgression of Nature into Civilization (and Vice Versa): White Fell’s appearance at the home upends the order of the loving family, representing the transgression of the danger of nature into the comforts of civilization. Notably, only the dog Tyr and Christian—who has just spent some time in the wilderness hunting a bear—are able to immediately recognize White Fell as a danger. Following White Fell’s departure, Christian ventures into the surrounding forest, where he finds the natural world unwelcoming to his intrusion.
Supernatural Belief vs. Scientific Skepticism: The twin brothers have differing belief systems that contrast with each other. Christian is sympathetic to mysticism and the supernatural while Sweyn is a skeptic, valuing evidence over feeling or supernatural explanations. Both believe they are correct, but only Christian seeks out additional proof of his belief.
Sacrificial Love as Divine: In portraying selfless love even in the face of rejection and hate, Housman suggests that Christian’s love for Sweyn is love in its purest form, capable of defeating even the greatest of evils. Christian’s blood itself becomes an instrument of divine power—appropriate, given that he symbolically represents the biblical Jesus Christ. In contrast, Sweyn’s infatuation with White Fell causes him to turn against his loyal brother, mistaking protectiveness for jealousy again and again.
Themes Examples in The Were-Wolf:
"knowing himself so unworthy such perfect love...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Sweyn has a moment of reflection quite out of character for him: he realizes how self-centered and foolish he has been with regards to his brother. While Sweyn was caught up in pursuing White Fell, he never noticed that Christian’s love was far more profound than anything he was capable of. In this way, Christian’s sacrifice demonstrates the highest form of love: selfless sacrifice.
"the dead body was his only shelter and stay in that most dreadful hour. His soul, stripped bare of all sceptic comfort, cowered, shivering, naked, abject; and the living clung to the dead out of piteous need for grace from the soul that had passed away...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Sweyn has realized what Christian knew all along: White Fell was a werewolf, intent on harming the family. Stripped of the conviction and anger that brought him there, Sweyn only finds shelter and “stay”—another word for comfort—with the knowledge of Christian’s loyalty and sacrifice. Because he misread the situation so poorly due to his skepticism of his brother’s intentions, Sweyn seeks forgiveness from Christian, who only ever sought to protect his brother.
"For he did not presume that no holy water could be more holy, more potent to destroy an evil thing than the life-blood of a pure heart poured out for another in free willing devotion...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
As established earlier in the story, one thing certain to kill a werewolf is holy water—water that has been sanctified somehow. Because of Christian’s selfless sacrifice, his blood has been made holy, powerful enough to vanquish a werewolf due to his steadfast love for his brother.
"The clear stars before him took to shuddering, and he knew why: they shuddered at sight of what was behind him. He had never divined before that strange things hid themselves from men under pretence of being snow-clad mounds or swaying trees; but now they came slipping out from their harmless covers to follow him, and mock at his impotence to make a kindred Thing resolve to truer form...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Just as White Fell trespassed into his home, so now is Christian trespassing into the wilderness where humans are unwelcome. As he ventures further from the comforts of civilization, he discovers that nature is not quite as welcoming as it once seemed and may hold more hostility than comfort in the night head. In this realm and in this fight, he is more powerless than ever, a fact made clear by the light of the stars on the things behind him.
"The elder brother, self-sufficient and insensitive, could little know how deeply his unkindness stabbed...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Again, notice how Christian is capable of a much more profound love than his brother. Sweyn, by virtue of his arrogance and thoughtlessness, is unable to comprehend how much he is hurting his twin, for his selfishness prevents the depth of love Christian feels for him.
"the superstitious fears that Sweyn despised...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Because Sweyn is a professed skeptic and Christian gives credence to mysticism, Sweyn and Christian’s conflict is philosophical as well as physical. To Sweyn’s displeasure, Christian’s suspicion has spread to other members of the family. Despite his insistence on rational evidence, Sweyn refuses to consider evidence that may implicate White Fell as anything more than just a beautiful, powerful woman.
"Such love as his frank self-love could concede was called forth by an ardent admiration for this supreme stranger...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Contrast Sweyn’s love for White Fell with Christian’s love for Sweyn; because Sweyn is too self-involved, he cannot truly love White Fell, tending toward admiration of her physique instead. Christian, however, has been shown to deeply care for Sweyn—who perhaps doesn’t deserve his love—making his love more selfless and extraordinary.
"Sweyn, the matchless among men, acknowledged in this fair White Fell a spirit high and bold as his own, and a frame so firm and capable that only bulk was lacking for equal strength...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Notice that Sweyn, the perfect man, has found in White Fell an equally capable woman. As Sweyn is the best of his gender, so is White Fell the best of hers, a blend of feminine beauty and masculine strength.
"To the younger brother all life was a spiritual mystery, veiled from his clear knowledge by the density of flesh...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
In contrast to Sweyn’s doubt, Christian is more willing to accept that not everything is as it initially appears. Christian is more religious, seeing a separation between the body and the soul that might allow for a shapeshifting werewolf.
"Sweyn was a sceptic...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
This paragraph explicitly establishes Sweyn as the more skeptical of the two brothers, less likely to believe in supernatural events. He scorns the validity of superstition and things he has not personally witnessed. He represents rationality and an unwillingness to believe in anything outside the realm of his own experience, even when pleaded to by those he trusts.
""Women are so easily scared," pursued Sweyn, "and are ready to believe any folly without shadow of proof. Be a man, Christian,..." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Notice the sexist way that Sweyn views women. While men need proof before belief, women, he says, tend toward belief without evidence, prioritizing emotion over intellect. This was not an uncommon view during the time; it is made more complicated, however, by Sweyn’s failing to acknowledge the evidence that points toward White Fell’s being a werewolf.
"proud of all that Sweyn did, content with all that Sweyn was; humbly content also that his own great love should not be so exceedingly returned, since he knew himself to be so far less love-worthy...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Christian’s love is selfless. Although he could be jealous of Sweyn, he instead finds contentment in Sweyn’s happiness, even though Sweyn doesn’t seem to return Christian’s love as fervently. In this way, Christian is the better of the two twins at brotherly loyalty.
""I fear neither man nor beast; some few fear me."..." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
White Fell, with her obvious resilience and power, is unlike any woman the family has ever met. Though Sweyn is an accomplished hunter in his own right, even he is impressed by White Fell’s survival skills—doubly so because she is a woman. In this way, White Fell further reinforces her image as a mysterious, alluring creature: the epitome of both feminine beauty and grace and masculine strength.
"The fashion of her dress was strange, half masculine, yet not unwomanly...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
The woman’s clothing and mannerisms indicate that she does not follow the customs that dictate how women ought to be meek and averse to activity and conflict. In this way, she is set up as a combination of both sex’s traits: she is beautiful yet strong, powerful yet alluring.
"And then the wind would rage after its lost prey, and rush round the house, rattling and shrieking at window and door...." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Notice the unfriendly, almost hostile qualities associated with nature in this paragraph, which is personified in several ways: the fire’s smoke travels through the chimney’s intimidating “black mouth” up to the night sky, where it “rushes back in panic” due to fear of the night’s sounds and the wind, which lunges after the smoke like a predator. According to Rol’s perception, nature is frightening, but he is safe indoors from its “rattling and shrieking.”
"Another and another of the white tufts was sent whirling round like a winged thing in a spider's web, and floating clear at last. ..." See in text (The Were-Wolf)
Notice the image Rol has created: a swirling flurry of white duck feathers, similar to the snow drifting outside. In this way, Rol creates the perfect environment for White Fell’s arrival, having brought an image of nature into the warmth of civilization.