The theme of invisibility in The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

At the risk of revisiting the horror that was my English A Level, I thought I’d write a few words about The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. I finished reading this a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve not got a new book on the go, so it’s been bouncing around my head a bit. [I talk about plot here, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens.]

The thing that has struck me in retrospect is the theme of invisibility running through the novel. The most obvious side of this is with the lesbian characters, where the women try to hide their sexuality and their relationships, but everyone they know in any more than a very casual way is aware of their relationships. Waters pulls this together by even quoting from the Invisible Man, using a passage that talks of the sacrifices that the invisible man has to make in order to stay invisible – not able to eat or find shelter, for example. The same is true of our characters, who’s attempts at invisibility are thwarted whenever they do anything to express themselves. The parallel that I enjoy with the Invisible Man quote is the idea that in order for the women to gain any happiness, they sacrifice some of their invisibility, but that these needs are as basic as the needs for food or shelter.

For example, when Kay returns to her bombed house and believes that Helen has been killed, it is clear that the warden is absolutely aware of the relationship that the two women had. Equally, Helen and Julia are careful to be quiet when they bathe together in the shared bathroom, but the neighbours downstairs are obviously aware of their relationship and have been heard to refer to them as eunuchs. Equally, Helen and Julia know that they cannot maintain that invisibility within the home and therefore do without a ‘charwoman’, unlike others of their class. Helen is also struck by Viv ‘s acceptance of her relationship with Julia, despite not ever having declared the relationship openly.

Invisibility is also a huge factor in the scene when Helen and Julia declare their feelings for each other – hiding in the dark, from people and from the world, actively trying to become invisible, as if to hide not only from the normal constraints of society, but also the relationships and histories they each have with Kay.

This invisibility is most acute, I think, when applied to the lesbian characters, but is also present in Viv’s relationship with a married man.

I am also intrigued by the way the unspoken nature of the knowledge of their relationships allows the people around them to accept the relationships without having to deal with any of the implications of that. For example, the warden is not forced to make a public statement about how he feels about women loving each other if he officially doesn’t know about it, and this is what makes it possible for him to show compassion when the time comes.

On the whole, I didn’t hugely enjoy the book, but the more I thought about this theme, and others in the book, the more I enjoyed what it has to say about relationships that are not condoned by society. Waters is incredibly good, I think, at making these points without forcing them upon you, and I think many of the themes, while historically placed, apply, as you would expect from a modern writer, to today.