Elizabeth Gaskell’s story “Lois the Witch” was first published in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round in October 1859. Set during the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of 1692, the story offers a fi ctionalized chronicle of Lois Barclay, a young English girl accused of witchcraft and eventually condemned to death for her alleged crime. Closely paralleling the historical events that tore the community of Salem asunder, “Lois the Witch” begins when a few young girls accuse others in the community of being witches. To support their accusations, the girls simulate fits, behaving as though they are possessed by evil forces. The panic that the girls help create, turning neighbors and loved ones alike against one another, spreads throughout the village, establishing an atmosphere “not so unlike the overpowering dread of the plague, which made some shrink from their best-beloved with irrepressible fear” (152). With this comparison, the story uses an unflattering chapter of American history to illustrate deftly, in hauntingly realistic detail, the depth of the human capacity for insanity when confronted with delusion and mass hysteria, and the tragic and often bloody consequences of such fanaticism.
In the narrative, Lois is sent to New England to live with her Puritan relatives following the death of her parents. Lois’s relations include three cousins, Prudence, Faith, and Manasseh, as well as her Aunt Grace. As an outsider in the community, Lois is perceived as different, even by the members of her own family. In a dose of harsh reality, as the story progresses, it is Lois’s family that becomes the most adamant in accusing her of practicing witchcraft. Lois’s indictment escalates, as each relative comes forward with alleged evidence to prove that Lois is a witch. Prudence, so unlike her name, is the first to accuse Lois of being a witch. Despite Prudence’s reputation for taking an “impish delight in mischief” (147), the accusations are given a considerable amount of credence by the community because Prudence’s sister Faith professes to believe that Lois is a witch as well. However, Faith too has ulterior motive: unrequited love. Faith is jealous of Lois, who has won the favor of the man Faith desires.
In addition, Lois’s Aunt Grace supports her daughters’ allegations because she believes that Lois has placed a spell on her son Manasseh, causing him to fall in love with her. Although mad even before Lois came to live with the family, Manasseh claims that he hears voices informing him that he is destined to marry Lois. Lois, however, sees Manasseh’s so-called prophecy for what it is: a figment of his imagination. Lois even informs Manasseh after one “proposal,” “I may take a dream to be truth, and hear my own fancies, if I think about them too long” (137). Aunt Grace pleads with Lois to release Manasseh from his alleged enchantment, but Lois maintains her innocence, and Grace too vehemently curses her. Lois, however, protests her innocence to the very end; before her hanging, she makes a heartfelt statement through her tears: “Sirs, I must choose death with a quiet conscience, rather than life to be gained by a lie. I am not a witch” (184). Although some doubt Lois’s guilt because they do not believe a witch can cry, the execution is performed and Lois dies.
The story ends with Lois’s intended husband, Hugh Lucy, arriving from England to claim his bride. When he finds that Lois is deceased, he lives the remainder of his life as a bachelor in reverence to Lois. Years later, Prudence reveals that there was no truth to the accusations of witchcraft that she leveled at Lois; she seeks repentance for the entire community of Salem, but as Hugh Lucy insists, “No repentance of theirs can bring her back to life” (191). With this story, Gaskell chillingly demonstrates that sometimes human beings can inflict far worse horrors on one another than any supposed supernatural force can.
Duthie, Enid L. The Themes of Elizabeth Gaskell. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. “Lois the Witch.” In Cousin Phyllis and Other Tales, 105–193. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Wright, Terence. Elizabeth Gaskell: “We Are Not Angels”: Realism, Gender, Values. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.