The Essex Serpent Summary & Study Guide

Sarah Perry
This Study Guide consists of approximately 100 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Essex Serpent.
This section contains 2,822 words
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The Essex Serpent Summary & Study Guide Description

The Essex Serpent Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.

Note: The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: Perry, Sarah. The Essex Serpent. Harper Collins, 2016. First edition. The overall narration of this novel is done in the present tense, omniscient third person where the narrator has a bird's eye view from above and is commenting on all of the lives of the characters.

Part 1

The first chapter that is not really a chapter opens up with an unnamed man walking around Black water, he eventually wades into the blackness of the marshes and the text suggests that there is something there waiting for him. It is New Year’s eve and as the old year closes and the new one moves in, everything is consumed with darkness.

After that teaser chapter, the novel opens in London and we are in the presence of Dr. Luke Garret learning every detail about the human heart. The narration follows him to the household of his patient Michael-Seaborne who is a politician and described as a very cruel and difficult person. Michael is abusive towards his wife, Cora who is introduced shortly after. They are a wealthy couple able to afford the company of Martha who takes care of their son Francis, since he is a strange boy and his parents cannot be bothered to deal with him. Martha and Cora are often incredibly close as shown by Martha’s protectiveness of Cora and the fact that they lay in bed together when Cora needs comforting, which is often, as Michael is borderline sadistic and physically abuses her as shown by the scar Cora has on her collarbone from the silver candle holder that Michael pressed into her skin. Michael dies shortly after the first chapter from throat cancer and Cora finds it difficult to pretend that she grieves his loss; she feels a sense of relief and freedom instead.

After Michael’s death Cora moves to Essex with Martha and Francis in pursuit of fossils and she discovers that she loves it there, much to Martha’s dismay. As they are walking through town they come across a beggar with amputated legs who tells them about the legend of the Essex serpent and how the locals think that it has returned because someone washed up dead on the shore on New Year’s. Cora, both intrigued and skeptical is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. While they are sitting in a café discussing the news, two of their friends Charles Ambrose and his wife enter and greet Cora. Charles had been a colleague of her husband’s and is a very bright person with a quirky style and he insists that if Cora is going to stay in Essex and look for the serpent that she should meet Will Ransome and his family, since they know the area very well and it would be helpful for her to have a local guide her around the marshes.

In the meanwhile, Martha is very unhappy with the fact that Cora is planning on staying long term in Essex, as she prefers the city of London where she takes a great interest in helping the poor and concerning herself with the status of housing in London. Martha is described in terms of a socialist and she more than once makes references to Marx and the class struggle.

Cora reluctantly agrees to meet the vicar, thinking him and his family to be a drag on her time in Essex and she writes a letter to her friend, Luke Garret who has admitted to the audience that he is in love with Cora. In their letter exchanges, he tells her that because she wrote him asking to visit her on February 14th, it would be a valentine’s day date.

February turns into March, and because Perry divides the novel into monthly sections, the narration shifts to different characters and we meet Will Ransome, before Cora does. Will is very annoyed by the fact that the villagers have taken the rumor of the serpent as truth. A series of unexplained events happening around Blackwater: drowned persons, missing children, sickness, causes the locals great distress and they cannot help but think it is the serpent. Will has a good relationship with his wife Stella and although Will is brilliant and could have been a brilliant mind in the city, he finds his purpose in the village guiding his flock away from darkness and into the light of God. He calls the serpent the “Trouble” and wants to destroy a carving of it on a pew in his church, but his wife and children will not let him. Charles Ambrose writes a letter of introduction for Will to meet Cora, however the rector has no interest in dealing with a wealthy London widow or her son, whom Will assumes is coming from university.

There are various encounters that occur in the oncoming chapters. While out walking, Cora shouts at a man she sees, apparently acting violently toward a sheep. In fact, the big man she takes for a vagrant is trying to pull the sheep from the mire, so she helps him. In another chapter, two of the rector’s children Joanna and her brother along with Naomi, the daughter of a superstitious parishioner, perform a ritual to appease the pagan gods and to rid the land of its curse which takes form in a long winter and a late coming spring. A parishioner, Cracknell, who has renounced God following one death too many in his family, tells the rector he needs to take the curse seriously as he hangs up skinned moles around his house to ward off the serpent.

Cora is invited to meet the Ransomes and at dinner, and both sides are surprised by the other. Cora finds out that Will is the man who she helped drag the sheep out of the mud and Will realizes that Cora is not the least bit the widow he thought she would be. Immediately there is a spark between the two despite their philosophical differences and the fact that Will is a happily married man to Stella, the embodiment of quiet charm although she has been quite sickly lately because the winter has been long.

The next day at Church while Will is preaching, Cracknell makes a grand entrance with his shadow cast before him. After the service, he gets up close and whispers familiarly to Cora, making her feel very uncomfortable. It is not only his mossy smell and dirty overcoat that disturbs her, but also the idea of having his superstitions muddled up with her scientific interest.

Luke does finally come to Essex to visit Cora out of love for her and he brings Spencer, who is obviously interested in Martha. Although Martha treats Spencer politely there is a coldness there because Martha thinks Spencer is the epitome of the bourgeoise. He is wealthy beyond his own knowledge and does not know what to do with his money.

Part 2

The plot goes on with Will and Cora’s relationship steadily strengthening even as they debate with each other on the topic of religion and science while Stella, Will’s wife only gets sicker despite the coming of spring. Stella increasingly grows more obsessed with the color blue as she finds it cooling. Luke thinks about Cora and her growing relationship to Will bitterly. Spencer finds an obsession of his own: the housing policies Martha often talks about although it is not clear whether he becomes interested in it to please Martha or because he finds the state of the poor appalling.

Will and Cora move through their friendship oblivious to what is obvious to everyone around them and both of them are constantly surprised that they can enjoy the company of someone whose philosophy is not only different from theirs but flawed. Their relationship would seem scandalous if not for Stella’s eager approval of it. She is slowly falling into delusion and does not expect to live long as she hides the blood she coughs up and is comfortable with the love between Will and Cora. They however, only notice the meeting between two minds. At one point, they witness the occurrence of the Fata Morgana illusion, a boat flying in the horizon and think it the Flying Dutchman. This episode amazes Will and Cora so much they end up holding hands and are astonished at their response. Later, Will writes to Cora from the British Museum and explains the phenomenon to her.

In London, Luke attempts to perform open heart surgery of a man who has been stabbed. None of his superiors will let him operate as it is too dangerous and every trial has led to the death of the patient. Despite these obstacles, Luke convinces the mother of the patient to allow him to operate and she agrees because she is desperate and he is dying. It is not a deep injury to the heart, but it would have been enough to kill the man. Luke’s bravery and meticulous skill are enough to confer hero status on him. After the successful operation, Luke closes himself in a room and begins crying.

On another story-line Spencer’s interest for reforming housing policy is encouraged by Martha’s enthusiasm and he writes to Ambrose to urge proper reforms in parliament which in the current system reward bad landlords following the clearance of slums and leaves most tenants either homeless or in worse situations.

Francis, Cora’s son, runs into Will as he is walking to Leviathan, the abandoned wreck where Joanna held her ritual and asks Will to define sin sin for him. The rector hesitates and struggles to find words but eventually describes it as falling short of what we might aim for.

Elsewhere we learn that Martha has been visiting Edward Burton, the man that Dr. Luke performed successful heart surgery. We learn that when Burton was his former self he was cruel to a coworker who suffers from some kind of depressive tendencies, and this coworker stabbed him one night in revenge for Burton kissing the love of his life.

Cora visits Joanna’s school and hands out fossils to the children which makes the teacher uncomfortable because it conflicts with the Christian narrative of the world’s creation. At this Joanna, Will’s daughter, tells Naomi, the girl she performed the ritual with earlier, that Cora is her friend and she is too grown up for Naomi. Naomi resents Joanna and begins to draw all while succumbing to a fit of laughter that captures the whole room and the children all begin laughing in mass hysteria.

Because of this event, Luke Garret comes to visit Joanna and hypnotize her in order to find out what happened that day in school. Luke is hypnotizing her and the other girls who had collapsed into mass hysteria when Cora’s little talk in their school appears to make the possibility of the Serpent all too real. It was Naomi, the other girl present at the ritual but now almost ignored by her former friend, who had triggered the hysteria. Or perhaps it was Cora who started it by dabbling in forces she cannot control. Will walks in and is startled to find Luke whispering in his daughter’s ear and tears him away from her in a rage. Luke apologizes and leaves Essex and this encounter has placed a frigid hold on Cora and Will’s relationship. Charles tells Cora she must apologize and she writes Will a letter, however his response is short and polite without the previous warmth they shared.

Part 3

Cora decides that she has had enough of being treated so coldly by Will, so she throws a dinner party and invites all those she loves and whom love her. Luke has to be friends with Will and Will has to get on with Cora while Charles and Katherine Ambrose have to get on with the country folk. In the middle of the party, Will and Cora attempt to dance together while Joanna plays the piano badly; however as soon as Will touches Cora, both of them suddenly realize that they might view each other as more than friends. He can feel the giving flesh of her waist, and notices, apparently for the first time, her other feminine attributes. Meanwhile, Stella is almost visibly fading away as she floats around the party or sits by the window covered in her blue things. Will, somewhere in his reluctant consciousness, knows that she is no longer the woman she was and it becomes clear that because of her cough, Stella will not live much longer. After the party, Will understands the implications of the physical moment he had with Cora, and he goes down to the shore of Blackwater. He cannot think of a way to release his frustration, so Will ultimately masturbates in order to allow the desire to literally flow out of him. Back at the house, Martha and Luke go to bed together and the entire time Luke imagines Cora.

The same night Francis goes down to the shore as well and sees someone crouched over in distress. It is Cracknell who is doubled over coughing and frothing at the mouth. He begs Francis to go and fetch Will, but Francis, for whatever reason, decides not to and forces Cracknell’s head to look skywards and Cracknell dies with Francis by his side.

The locals find the old man’s body in its contorted state and decide that the Serpent has struck again, Will tries to calm down the villagers and tries to proceed in church as normal but no one wants to hear him and most will not sing the hymns. In his frustration Will decides to destroy the serpent carving on the pew and Joanna can only watch in horror as she cannot persuade her father otherwise.

Things begin to unravel for the Ransome family when Stella goes to a London specialist to see about her cough and we find out that she has TB. Luke offers her surgery but Will is disgusted with the way Luke treats living flesh, the way he sees it as only something to be cut open. Will and Stella are told that Stella must stay away from the children otherwise she could make them sick also.

Cora has decided she cannot face the mixed feelings she has around Will and she heads back to London without answering any of his letters afterwards.

Elsewhere, Spencer has managed to persuade Charles Ambrose to come with him and Martha, to visit Edward, the recovering patient. Martha has been seeing him and they have been discussing what might be needed to solve the housing crisis in the East End. It seems the Edward has long had a dream of a better way of doing things, and now he spends hours of his recovery designing social housing around grassy squares.

Part 4:

The Serpent is not a serpent as implied in the opening chapter of the novel, but it ends up being a 20-foot long fish. However, there is still something out there, occasionally visible and making a groaning noise, that Francis sees out on the strand. It is only intermittently visible through the shifting fog and dim light. After it is discovered, the whole atmosphere of the village changes and everyone is happy that the cause of their fear has been found out. Cora, in London, is unhappy and Katherine tells her she must go back to Essex and write To Will.

Luke has fallen into a depression and considers committing suicide because he thinks of himself as useless and wants to be his own god and only answer to himself. Having selected a strong oak as a gallows and taken off his belt for a makeshift noose, he stops at the last moment when he thinks about how devastating it will be for Spencer. How could he do it to his dear friend who has been there for him since university?

Francis is Stella's best friend now because they understand each other. Will and Cora have a sexual encounter in the woods and they both feel guilty afterwards even though Stella has completely distanced herself from her husband and children.

Naomi has cut her hair and is now living as a beggar's assistant, and Banks discovers that his missing boat has been drifting just at the edge of sight and sinking again. As Francis tells Stella about the boat she comes up with an idea and is discovered by Will, Cora, Joanna and Naomi under the boat with a shrine of her blue treasures.

The last chapter is an omniscient narration of where all of the characters end up. Will and Cora still love each other but they are ultimately friends more than anything.

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