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An Account for A Judgment in Stone

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write (…) Four
members of this family, George, Jacqueline, and Melinda Coverdale and Giles Mont, died in
the space of fifteen minutes on 14th February, St. Valentine’s Day (…) But there was more to
it than that”.1

Thus begins A Judgment in Stone, one of Ruth Rendell’s most popular detective novels,
published in 1978. Set in the 1970s in a small town in the East Anglia region called Greeving,
the novel follows the life of the Coverdales, a highly educated upper-middle-class family, from
the hiring of Eunice Parchman, an illiterate woman, as their housekeeper in spring; until their
murders on late winter and the eventual capture of Miss Parchman. The passing of the
seasons perfectly illustrates the evolution of their relationship and interactions. These go from
a happily ignored Eunice and a content Jacqueline during summer; to her rising dislike of the
Coverdales as they try to get involved in her life (asking personal questions, suggesting that she
should go out, invalidating her excuses not to read or write) and the family’s growing suspicion
that something is not right with their housekeeper in autumn. Finally, their relationship
evolves into hatred in winter, as they discover her secret illiteracy, Eunice attempts to
blackmail Melinda and George dismisses her from employment.

For this narrative, Rendell uses a third person omniscient narrator, with internal, authorial
persona with zero focalization. Speech and thought are represented both as direct and
selectively tagged and tagged indirect speech. The author masters the blending of both
mimetic and diegetic narration, achieving especially to describe in a very vivid, yet concise and
entertaining way, the life story of a character. Another aspect in which Rendell is outstanding
is the plotting and the handling of time. She combines in a most effective way both analepsis
and prolepsis, being the latter the most distinctive: the use of prolepsis is identifiable all
throughout the novel, with direct reference to the ending of the story. However, this does not
in the slightest diminish the reader’s interest.

The main theme of this novel is, with no place for doubt, illiteracy. Right from the
beginning, when describing the motif for the Coverdale’s murder, the author calls for Eunice’s
illiteracy and the family’s high education. Miss Parchman’s aversion for the written word is
analyzed and explained, and so is her growing isolation from society due to her “condition”.
Eunice is an extreme expression of how illiteracy can affect a person psychologically, and what
a serious phenomenon it is to be unable to read or write in modern developed countries.

1
Rendell, Ruth. A Judgment in Stone, 1978, Arrow books, London. pp 1-3.
Eunice’s life is described thoroughly in an attempt to make visual for the reader how the life of
someone illiterate must be.

Ruth Rendell manages, in A Judgment in Stone, to visualize the problem of serious social
exclusion illiteracy provokes; by means of creating a fascinating detective novel, with
unforgettable characters, great social insight, and superb plotting.

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