When we were reviewing the literature for the semester, I was very excited about Lolly Willowes. Some of my favorite literature includes Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus, so the concept of a woman trading her soul for a quiet life in the country was compelling. While the novel itself was fine, I was disappointed by the turn of events with Lolly and her “connection” to Satan, and it seems as though Lolly was as well.
Lolly Willowes moves to Great Mop to escape her family obligations and meddling family. She wants to live a quiet life without feeling as though she is responsible for those around her. Lolly is initially pleased with her move, but becomes agitated when her nephew, Titus, moves to the same small town. Her quiet life has been hijacked by her family once again. Enter, the devil … sort of.
Lolly goes to the woods in frustration and muses on the turn of events. She cries into the night, “No! You shan’t get me. I won’t go back. I won’t … Oh! Is there no help?” (151). And that is it. We are to believe that that single cry for help has damned her soul and locked her into service with Satan. The book goes on to explain that, “She stood in the middle of the field, waiting for and answer to her cry. There was no answer. And yet the silence that had followed in had been so intent, so deliberate, that it was like a pledge. If any listening power inhabited this place; if any grimly favorable power had been evoked by her cry; then surly a compact had been made, and the pledge irrevocably given” (151). Upon returning to her home, Lolly finds a kitten and realizes that it is her familiar and that she has made a pact with the devil.
This is where I disconnected, and remained disconnected. How could Lolly Willowes trade her soul without acknowledging it? Without full knowledge? It seems as though the most accepted concept in the trope of a literary character selling his/her soul to Satan is foreknowledge, and I find that to be blatantly lacking here. To further complicate this, when Lolly finally meets with Satan at the end of the text, he admits that, “No servant of mine can feel remorse, or doubt, or surprise. You may be quite easy, Laura: you will never escape me, for you can never wish to” (210). Again, this seems to remove her freewill and desire to contract with Satan. And freewill is vital to the concept of pledging to either God or Satan. This statement also removes the potential for contrition and forgiveness, both of which are found rampant throughout Christian mythology.
Ultimately, I was left wanting more. More from Satan claiming a soul, more from Lolly aligning herself with the devil, more discussion of what it means to trade a soul for a quiet life.
Rusti, Olav. Woman with cat. 1876, oil on canvas, Bergen Art Museum, Norway.
Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Lolly Willowes. 1926. The New York Review of Books, 1999.