The Skull Beneath the Skin Literary Elements

The Skull Beneath the Skin Literary Elements


Murder mystery, thriller

Setting and Context

Early 1980s Courcy Island, off the south coast of England, during a three day weekend visit for a performance of the Webster play "The Duchess of Malfi"

Narrator and Point of View

Third person narrator telling the story from the point of view of Cordelia Gray

Tone and Mood

Tense and over-dramatic, mirroring the personality of the murder victim, Clarissa Lisle

Protagonist and Antagonist

Cordelia Gray is the protagonist who is charged with the task of preventing Clarissa from seeing the poison pen letters. Clarissa is the antagonist making it difficult for Cordelia to protect her and making it very difficult for any of the other characters to like her.

Major Conflict

Obvious conflict is between Roma Lisle and her cousin Clarissa from whom she wants a loan. Conflict exists between Clarissa and every character: she is blackmailing Ambrose Gorringe, ended a torrid affair with Ivo Whittingham and caused Rosé Tolgarth to miss saying goodbye to her dying daughter although these conflicts are bubbling under the surface in a more passive aggressive manner.


The story climaxes when Cordelia sees the picture of Ambrose Gorringe in the newspaper clipping showing him to be in violation of his tax exile status and she realizes Clarissa was blackmailing him.


Clarissa's death is foreshadowed by the succession of poison pen letters she receives quoting passages from literature related to impending death or murder.


The guests on Courcy Island are very understated in their reaction to Clarissa's murder, and also to the drunken rampage of Munster, the butler, with Ivo Whittingham calmly continuing to peel a peach whilst the manservant rants and raves.


The quotes that are used in the poison pen letters are allusions to many of the plays Clarissa has performed on stage. They are also allusions to the increasing seriousness of the threat to her safety as the quotes become more specific in their threat to murder her and speed her towards the grave.


Ambrose Gorringe is a best selling author and he is also seen as the author of the events of the weekend.


Clarissa Lisle is actually the victim of the murder which is a paradox to her life in which she has created victims out of most of the guests at the castle. It is almost impossible to see her as the victim because of this and the sympathies of the reader lie more with those in her orbit than they do with her.


Clarissa is starring in the Webster play "The Duchess of Malfi" and her own demise is mirroring the threatening tone and story of the character she is playing.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

An example of this would be the Devils Kettle where the ocean rises and floods the underground tunnel that lies beneath the crypt of Courcy Church. It's legend tells that it is the place where souls are taken to the underworld via the black ocean water, and it is also the place that almost claims the life of Cordelia when she is trapped there. The Kettle represents the evil in the book and in the world, with Courcy being the place of danger that represents all of the guests there that weekend. Courcy is its own world where the mainland is neither welcome nor a protector, therefore it represents the people there that weekend.


"For one moment it was as if Courcy Island and all that had happened during that fateful weekend was as unconcerned with her life, her future, her steadily beating heart, as was the blue uncaring sea."
Book 4, Chapter 9.

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