The Axe

filing cabinet for the axe

Penelope Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s horror story gives no indication of its genre at the opening. The reader starts, it seems, with a letter from a middle manager in an office to his superior. The first paragraph is full of the lexis of business administration, with references to ‘redundancies’, ‘discouraging trading figures’, ‘enterprises’, ‘compensation’, ‘clerical assistant’, and is written in a formal, detached style. The first sentence, for example, is 56 words long and contains five clauses. The letter blends direct address with the passive voice, removing the narrator’s own responsibility. However upsetting an office redundancy is for the individual concerned, an office memo does not seem to be the subject of horror.

A Dull Protagonist

While the style relaxes as the writer is able to ‘write more freely’ from the second paragraph, the letter never loses its official formality. The developing contrast between that formal tone and the events of the story is an important way in which Fitzgerald accentuates the emerging horror. The subject of the redundancy, W.S. Singlebury, is presented as a nonentity of regular habits. His clothes illustrate this clearly, with ‘a blue suit’ and zipped ‘green knitted garment’ on three days of the week and ‘grey trousers of a man-made material’ and ‘a fawn cardigan’ on the remaining days. The unvarying routine and the lack of style define him as almost comically dull.

That impression is continued by the narrator’s comment that Singlebury’s duties ‘were rather hard to define’ and developed when he is unexpectedly invited to visit Singlebury’s accommodation for a meal. Fitzgerald’s details of the accommodation are unappealing, with the entrance ‘through a small cleaner’s shop’ and consisting of only one room with ‘a shared toilet’ and ‘no cooking arrangements’. The narrator describes it as a ‘cubby-hole’. The final images the reader has of Singlebury suggest an odd, isolated man with little life apart from his work – as he tells the narrator, ‘he did not see how he could manage if he really had to go.’ The reader’s response is likely to be ambivalent. While there is sympathy for a man being made redundant, this presentation of him also makes it comprehensible that he might no longer required, and his character is quite unappealing.

The Living Dead

It is therefore a surprise when he returns as a kind of zombie figure towards the end of the story, with his ‘throat… cut from ear to ear so that the head was nearly severed from the shoulders’, walking down the office corridor towards the narrator. Even here, expectations are downplayed initially as the narrator thinks that his ‘nodding’ and ‘swivelling’ head is a sign of drunkenness. So the story ends with the narrator trapped behind the ‘shut and locked’ door of his office with the nearly-beheaded Singlebury outside. The reader then discovers that the letter they have been reading is the narrator’s report on this situation and this report ends with the detached hypothesising of whether Singlebury, who ‘should not be walking but buried in the earth’ might be bleeding.

Proleptic Gothic Elements

The gothic elements of Fitzgerald’s story begin long before the end, however. She gradually introduces them, with references to death, almost imperceptibly. The cliché that Singlebury’s ‘work… was his life’ comes as early as the fifth paragraph – the story goes on to take this literally. His colleague Patel tells the narrator that Singlebury’s ‘dismissal would be like death’, while Singlebury refers to his own home as the place ‘where I bury myself’. At his home, Singlebury and the narrator have a curious conversation about the relationship between the body and the mind – ‘the mind is the blood’, Singlebury claims.

The unpleasant smell in the office is another key element, used by Fitzgerald to develop the sense of unease in the otherwise mundane office setting of the story. It starts merely as a ‘peculiar smell’, which then attracts ‘frequent complaints’. Towards the end of the story, it has become a ‘stench, as of something putrid’. Significantly, Singlebury is not only ‘unaffected’ by the smell, but has a theory about it, describing it as ‘the smell of disappointment’ which permeates the building ‘like a corrosive gas’. He also links that disappointment to death, with his revelation that the building was used by the Admiralty and was where relatives of those missing at sea waited to hear news. It is not surprising, then, that Singlebury’s final appearance is when the smell is at its worse, and, in accordance with gothic literary tradition, the scene also takes place at night, when the narrator can hear the ‘numerous creakings, settlings and faint tickings of an old building’ as he stands on ‘the empty hallway’ as he is followed by ‘footsteps’.

The Dehumanising Work of Offices

The ‘axe’ is a colloquial term for the termination of employment; in this story it becomes apparently literal as Singlebury’s head is ‘nearly severed from the shoulders’. Such horrific dismemberment is certainly appropriate for a gothic story. The night, the darkness and the eeriness of the buildings are traditional gothic tropes, but Fitzgerald sets these ideas within ordinary office buildings, bureaucratic employment concerns and the written style of an office report. That style continues to the very end, when the narrator is in his most terrifying position. He still discusses the matter in a dispassionate way, writing ‘One consideration strikes me.’ The consideration is whether an apparently living corpse can still bleed and that detached tone is maintained to the last phrase: ‘I have no means of telling whether it has done so or not.’ Fitzgerald’s horror story satirises the nature of humdrum office work. It robs Singlebury of his humanity in a very obvious way, but the narrative style of the whole tale also suggests that the narrator too has been dehumanised by his employment.


Narrative methods to consider:
  • First person narration
  • Report/letter format
  • Structure
  • Gothic elements
  • Mystery/the unexplained
  • Twist/surprise