‘The Willows’: Key Event Breakdown

College, experiments, planning, research

As mentioned in my blog post (‘eight’), this is a breakdown of the key events in ‘The Willows’, with specific attention paid to the descriptions of sounds within the narrative. This breakdown is based on emotional changes, physical occurrences, and descriptive changes in the narration.

Also available as a Google document here.


Part I

  • The Danube Builds in intensity; from a mild trickling stream to a boisterous and humorous river, then a dark, deep flowing mass.
  • The flood waters rise and the men begin fighting the current.
  • They are faced with a choice of three channels, though some may only be sailable during the floods and may leave them high and dry to starve once the floods subside.
  • The men attempt to land their boat, fighting the current they begin to fear the power of the river. When they land, they recover and laugh off the affair.
  • The narrator explores the island; he finds it to be less than an acre. He goes from end to end of the island, finding downstream is a ‘crimson flood’ and upstream is a ‘sliding hill with white foam’. He gets close to the willows for the first time.
  • The disquietude sets in, they feel as though they are not welcome.
  • Pitching the tent in violent wind.
  • Collecting firewood by the shoreline the men spot what they believe is a body floating down the river. After a moment, their sensible selves realise it must be an otter, and their horror subsides and is replaced by laughter.
  • They are recalled to the river again and see a man standing in a boat crossing himself, he is shouting some warning furiously at the man, but his voice is carried away in the wind.
  • Mist is beginning to fill the air.
  • The Swede tries to reassure the narrator that the man was just frightened by them and didn’t mean anything, but the Swede is unconvincing.
  • They lay by the fire, talking of their adventure together and listening to the sounds of the night. ‘Curious sounds accompanied [the wind] … like the explosion of heavy guns … [that] fell upon the water and the island in great flat blows of immense power.’ However, they are comfortable and safe; their focus is on the past events and they avoid the present.
  • The narrator goes to collect firewood alone and find himself struck first by the silence and then by the voices of the willows ‘chattering’ amongst themselves. They crowd around the men holding their ‘silver spears’ ready to attack.
  • The willows seem to be creeping nearer, though they are almost certainly not.
  • ‘The melancholy shrill cry of a night bird sound[s] overhead’ and the narrator nearly loses his balance as the piece of bank he is standing upon topples into the river with a splash – he steps back just in time.

Part II

  • The Swede arrives, but his approach was covered by the elements and he is a sudden appearance to the narrator.
  • ‘Lucky if we get away without disaster!’ says the Swede.
  • They return to the camp, make sure all is in order, extinguish the fire then turn in. The tent is safe. Sleep takes over the narrator.
  • The narrator awakes and looks out of the tent, the Swede still sleeps. The narrator sees shapes he believes are somewhat monstrous, but is unsure.
  • The narrator leaves the tent to look closer and the sounds of the river and the wind burst upon him suddenly.
  • The figure disappears suddenly, after the narrator spend some time consider their reality – grounded by the fact he knows his senses must be working, as he can hear the wind and the river so clearly. Once the images are gone, and the narrator’s awe subsides, he is filled with cold fear.
  • The narrator calculates escape and is filled with terror.
  • The narrator returns to the tent, closes it to block out the willows, then buries his head in the blankets to block out the ‘terrifying’ wind.
  • The narrator drifts to sleep but is woken by a multitude of patterings outside the tent, and a pressure on the walls of the tent – he feels cold, though the air is warm, and shivers.
  • A shadow of a figure rushes past the narrator in this twilight morning and he almost loses his balance (the figure comes from in front and passes by his side, but almost through him). The narrator returns to the tent to sleep.
  • The Swede mentions ‘the gods are here’ and his manner is somewhat frightened though this is not mentioned by the pair.
  • They find that the paddle is missing, and the Swede mentions the tear in the bottom of the canoe; then they find the other paddle is damaged.
  • The narrator makes countless explanations for the damage to the boat and the paddle, but the Swede and his deeper self are both unconvinced.
  • The narrator has a moment of suspicious concerning the events and the Swede, but he quickly realises his fears are preposterous.
  • They begin melting the pitch to repair the canoe.

Part III

  • The Swede brings up the otter, doubting its innocence, but if rebuffed by the narrator. Tension is building between them, and the Swede is almost angry when a mention of the man in the boat is similarly rebuffed.
  • The wind, ‘for the first time in three days’ begins to drop, and with it the roaring lowers.
  • The sun sets and the ‘cheerfulness’ of the place is lost, and all becomes more sinister once more.
  • The narrator prepares a hearty stew for the evening. The pot bubbles. Then the Swede calls the narrator from the bank of the river, to ‘come and listen’.
  • They hear a deep note, like a distant gong. It happens at regular intervals, but it’s not a distant steamer, nor a bell, they know that much.
  • The narrator dashing back to the bubbling stew, mid-conversation with the Swede – half for fear of the stew, half to avoid further talk of the frightful sounds of the island.
  • The narrator asks the Swede too to get the bread for the stew. From the tree where there bag of supplies was hanging, the Swede laughs an unnatural but not forced laugh, after he empties the contents of the bag on the ground sheet but finds no loaf of bread.
  • The odd note, the gong, slowly becomes a ringing as the men wash up and prepare for the night; they smoke in ‘comparative silence’.
  • The fire begins to die, and the stock of wood runs low, but neither of the men replenish it and darkness closes in. The hum is in the air and the willows are shivering, but there is a deep silence nonetheless.
  • The narrator finally breaks, it’s all too much, he tells the Swede of all his worries and exclaims ‘If the other shore was different, I swear I’d be inclined to swim for it!’ The Swede offers little hope, but says ‘Our only chance is to keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us.’
  • The Swede goes on to say, ‘we must keep our minds quiet – it’s our minds they can feel’; the men now know they are being searched for and are beginning to consider ways in which they can hide themselves.
  • They know they have camping in the region where the veil has grown thin and ‘their world’ touches ours.

Part IV

  • The humming comes extremely low and stops the narrator mid-sentence.
  • The swede reveals he also heard the ‘countless footsteps’ – the patterings from the night before.
  • The narrator chances to look as his shoe and is – luckily – recalled, in memory, to the London shop at which he purchased them. This momentarily lifts the fear of this supernatural world, by the practically and mundanity of this past experience. He burst upon the Swede with accusations of superstition but is stopped by the humming overhead and leaves this comfortable mindset and returns to their predicament.
  • The Swede, now in pure terror, suggests leaving now, in the pitch dark, but the narrator sees sense.
  • They go to collect wood.
  • The Swede clutches the narrator upon noticing figures crowding around the dim glow of their fire, then he exclaims his fear as he sees them coming towards the men.
  • They men fall together and the Swede clutches the narrator in such a way to cause him acute agony.
  • After an uncertain amount of time the men regain composure and consciousness. The humming has stopped. The Swede explains the acute pain saved the narrator, and the Swede himself says he fell unconscious – removing his mind from their grasp.
  • ‘A wave of hysterical laughter seized [the narrator] once again, and this time spread to [the Swede] too’.
  • They return to the camp, stoke the fire, and see the tent has fallen down. They pitch the tent, but find themselves tripping in deep sand funnels.
  • They collect all their belongings as close as possible and go to bed fully clothed. The Swede is restless at first, but he sleeps, which encourages the narrator to follow suit.
  • The narrator is woken by a difficulty breathing, then he hears the pattering and notices the Swede is gone; the humming is audible once more – only far more intense, like ‘a swarm of … bees’ – and he leaves the tent ‘mad[ly]’ to find the Swede.
  • The narrator shouts for the Swede, running around the island frantically. But the willows and the humming smother and muffle the narrator’s voice.
  • The narrator finds the Swede with one foot in the river, about to take the plunge. The narrator drags the Swede back to the tent and hold him down until his trace is over and the pattering and humming subsides.
  • Everything has stopped, and the Swede remarks upon this and his feeling of safety. He didn’t remember his suicide attempt upon waking, but does when he bathes in the cold water.
  • They find a body washed up on the shore, tangle amongst the willows, it is evidently the ‘sacrifice’ that save the men; the Swede insists they give this man – a peasant – a ‘decent burial’.
  • Before the Swede can get to the body the ghastly humming begins again and the body is stolen from him by a torrent of water. They see the man’s chest is mark with the same funnel they saw in the sand, and the humming diminishes and leaves with the body.
  • The body turns ‘over and over on the waves like an otter’ before disappearing for good.
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