Ghosts and l'écriture-femme


by Edith Wharton

Illustration by John A. Williams for Mary Heaton Vorse, "The Second Wife" (1912)

Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2002

Dear all

Christmas is well and truly behind us now and our ghost stories end this week with Edith Wharton's 'Afterward'. I can't remember who originally suggested reading this, but anyway I'd like to thank them very much - it's possibly my favourite out of the stories we have read this time round.

As we discussed, in MR James's 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', the spectral cat can be seen as Haynes's guilt returning to haunt him - in the daylight he seems like a good and upright man, but in the hours of darkness there are hints that he could have been guilty of murder. Personally I felt the story was ambiguous (Haynes may or may not have engineered the accident of his predecessor) but it can certainly bear this interpretation.

In 'Afterward', however, there is no such doubt about Boyne's guilt. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that he acted dishonestly in his career at the Blue Star mine and drove his one-time friend Elwell to commit suicide.

He laughs with callous relief at the letter saying Elwell is dead and starts to write the letter saying this means there should be no further trouble. Following Boyne's disappearance, his lawyer, Mr Parvis, tries to excuse him, but damns him more deeply with each excuse. It was only business - he was able to serve Elwell in this way because he wasn't too bright.

Then comes this chilling paragraph, showing the full consequences of Boyne's greed: "You see, it's only come out lately what a bad state Elwell's affairs were in. His wife's a proud woman, and she fought on as long as she could, going out to work, and taking sewing at home, when she got too sick -- something with the heart, I believe. But she had his bedridden mother to look after, and the children, and she broke down under it, and finally had to ask for help. That attracted attention to the case, and the papers took it up, and a subscription was started. Everybody out there liked Bob Elwell, and most of the prominent names in the place are down on the list, and people began to wonder why -- "

After reading this, there is no escaping Boyne's guilt. There is also no doubt that the ghost really appeared - the figure is seen by both Ned and Mary and also by the kitchen-maid. Mary only discovers "Afterward" that it matches the picture of Elwell, and that the two appearances coincided with the suicide attempt and the death from his wounds two months later.

In a way this tale reminds me of Trollope's John Caldigate, because in both these stories we have men making fortunes abroad, with others falling by the wayside as they gather their riches - then, when they are enjoying their prosperity in Britain, those they have ruined return to threaten them and lay bare how they made their money.

In both cases, the money was made through mining - a means to getting rich quick in the 19th and early 20th centuries - and, in both cases, former partners have been left behind with nothing while the hero (Boyne is not a hero but I'm struggling to find another word) has walked away with all the money.

Also, in both stories, the hero uses the fortune made by sometimes dirty business dealings to buy a slice of aristocratic old England. Of course, there are differences - in 'John Caldigate', John is buying back his own inheritance, while in 'Afterward' the Boynes are an American couple who have always dreamed of coming to Britain and living in Dorset.

But in each case there is that unsettling contrast between the rough mining existence and the smooth, leisured life on the English country estate bought with the money it made.

Wharton creates that leisured world beautifully, with touches like Mary spending the morning discussing how best to heat her hot-houses. In a way this whole world is a hot-house, sheltered from the outside world with servants announcing luncheon and pruning those pyramidal yew-trees. It might have its romantic inconveniences, set out at the start of the story - the isolation and lack of electricity - but the lyrical descriptions make it sound like a dream-world.

The Boynes buy themselves not just a house but a whole lifestyle, and, ironically, they buy the ghost as part of the romantic package. Ned jokes: "I don't want to have to drive ten miles to see somebody else's ghost. I want one of my own on the premises. Is there a ghost at Lyng?" Part of the irony here is that he brings the ghost with him - a ghost from his own past in the very un-Gothic world of the Blue Star mine. Although Ned is the guilty one, I feel Wharton makes us see that Mary also carries part of the guilt, because she has chosen not to know about her husband's affairs, just to spend the money and arrange the flowers. The lawyer cannot quite believe that she knows as little as she does - but she fully faces her own complicity only "Afterward".

The story actually starts "Afterward," as Mary remembers the words spoken by Alida Stair about the ghost six months earlier and realises their full significance.

"Oh, there is one, of course, but you'll never know it."
The assertion, laughingly flung out six months earlier in a bright June garden, came back to Mary Boyne with a sharp perception of its latent significance as she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the lamps to be brought into the library. "

Then the story is told in flashback until we arrive back where we started. This helps to give a feeling of growing foreboding and to distance us from the events, in the same way that the apparatus of dusty old papers or third-hand accounts distances us in some of the other stories we have read. One of the questions we are left with is how Alida knew about the ghost and why she persuaded Mary and Ned to take the house in the first place. I also wonder about her name - does anybody have any ideas about its significance?

Bye for now
Judy Geater

Date: Sun, 06 Jan 2002

I agree with Judy and Joan, this is a powerful story and I loved its slow development. There is something "Turn of the Screw-ish" about them both seeing the ghost from the roof.


Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2002

I want to agree with Judy. This was a grand story that had me clutching my cat for support throughout. I did like the ghost that he "brought with him" as Judy said.

Thoughts from some of "The Ramblers" I've been reading recently, Johnson would advise you to let that ghost go, if you could.


Re: Edith Wharton's "Afterward": A Story of a Women in a "Modern" Society

I originally expected to like this ghost story best of all we chose -- as last year the one I liked best of all we read was Margaret Oliphant's "The Library Window". Both of these stories focus on a woman's perspective on the world, one a young girl not yet married, the other on a woman long married, both of them cut off from the workaday world of remunerative and competitive work. Both depart from the old formulas in which a dark female and transgressive figure carries a fearful amount of cruelty and harm in her due mostly to her aggressive sexually free behavior. Both are heavily mood stories where a slow depiction of atmosphere and dread figure strongly in the experience.

However, I should say that after all I think the one I will have gotten most out of is M. R. James's "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale" and that due to Judy's persistent re-analysis of the text which made me see much more in it than I had originally. Thin as it is in comparison to other of James's ghost stories, it still held more to intrigue the mind and had more thematic range than any of the stories we read -- though perhaps someone would like to make a case for "Green Tea".

I would say that "The Shadow in the Corner" belongs more to the woman-centered gothic which "The Library Window" and "Afterward" enrichen; and "The Lost Ghost" to the female gothic we find in Gaskell's "Nurse's Story". This is not to suggest that I don't like the female gothic. I do -- and I like it because I identify with the dark lady (from the archetypal Rebecca to the dark females of Radcliffe's books) as strongly as I do with the passive broken ones (from Radcliffe's Emilies and Adelines to the archetypal nameless Mrs De Winter).

To "Afterward". Like Joan and Angela, I agree with Judy that this is powerful and Judy has ably described the importance and effect of the framing device of the story and its flashback. I also agree that the moral of the story is one which recalls _John Caldigate_ with the interesting difference that Wharton is also asking us to look at Mary Boyne as complicit and someone who is paying for not paying attention to how her husband made the money which is to provide them with their exquisitely beautiful sheltered retreat from the cutthroat amoral capitalist world which has made that retreat possible. This is in line with _The Custom of the Country_ where Wharton depicts a society where women are deprived of a place in the world of remunerative competitive work and the harm it wreaks on the men who must support a family which measures the man by how luxuriously their females and children live and the harm it does to the character of women.

I differ on her interpretation of Boyne. He's guilty all right; there's no mistaking that, and Wharton gives us much unambiguous evidence of all sorts -- compare this to M. R. James and you see how ambiguous is "The Stalls". I don't think he's callous; I see him as at first enigmatic. We don't know quite how he feels about his business practices. From my reading of other Wharton stories (this sort of thing does come into it) I see him as someone who would justify himself in the terms Parvis did. If Elwell were smarter, he would have served Boyne the same way. It's dog eat dog, and if you don't eat them, they will eat you. Jill has suggested that the use of "the midwest" as the eternal trope for the most boring and deadening of places is unfair -- probably. Some would say the country house in Dorsetshire is the most deadly of places :).

Whatever you think of this trope, the point is Boyne has worked long hard years, many hours, in a world where cutthroat practices are accepted and the norm. When Boyne hands her the paper and talks carelessly, it's (to me) a pose. She had never wanted to hear about these complicated things before -- and people are starved and destroyed by complicated things like mutual funds. Our TV and movie shows do us a big disservice by dramatizing evil as obvious and far away from us; the older films which showed "good" people suddenly revealed as doing some deal whereby the wife got a place in a country club, the husband a promotion and the kid a nice place in a college by having given a contract to someone to build bridges which bridges fell down and many people were killed is more the truth. I see him as composing his face for her. I also see him as gradually feeling more harrowed, and guiltier as the ghost continually haunts him.

Mary is in fact obtuse. The long walks the husband begins to take; comments like he "never tried" to see the ghost are signals he is being haunted and she is too dull to grasp this fully. She simply feels some frightening oppression she can't put her finger on.

I don't see the guy as innocent, but rather as human and now cornered by a world beyond the barrier where amoral cutthroat capitalist kinds of money maneuvrings (where you hire lawyers, pay lobbyists &c&c to pass laws on your side) don't go for anything at all. He is quietly taken away -- but as with Mrs Abby Bird, we don't know where to. The very quietude of the story tells me that another interpretation -- one the reader is supposed to dismiss, but the police and neighbors don't -- is that the man left her. He simply disappeared -- as husbands sometimes do. This is the vein of dread _Under the Sand_ played upon: did the husband drown, commit suicide, or simply disappear? The wife lives in terrible loss and desolation when it comes to her that he is really gone, and then it takes to weeks for her to realise he's not coming back.

There I submit is the power of the story. The moment that Mary comes into the room and it's empty. It begins when the mild young man in grey comes and asks to see her husband, and she almost turns him away, but in a moment of ever-after-to-be-regretted compunction, tells him where her husband is. Where is the climax, the center, the verbal space of this story devoted to and given time -- when Mary starts to look for Ed. She comes into the library and he's not there: and we are told her

"wonder had deepened to a first tinge of disquiet. It was unlike Boyne to absent himself without explanation".

She stands there for a while, making up stories and excuses. He's gone out for a bit; will be back soon. But then the papers on his desk are precisely the way they were when she had gone to call for him; hours have passed: "Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown...." She calls the maids in, questions them; she can't get anywhere. They don't remember exactly; they slowly become uncomfortable, unsure, defensive, embarrassed. A "creeping shade of apprehension" surrounds Mary. She keeps at those questions and then finds they are discussing this strange gentleman whose name no one knows, and then she realises her husband went away with him. But as yet she does not realise he is dead to her.

Gradually and ever so slowly after meals are made to which he does not show, nights come when he doesn't return, mornings dawn and there's no sign of him, advertisements in the papers, a fortnight and then the sickening terrifying realisation that he has been swallowed up by "the sunny English noon ... as completely as if he had gone out into the Cimmerian night". Cimmerian is perfect in that spot. Pages pass as we live with her her aloneness, and she becomes "domesticated with Horror, accepting its perpetual presence as one of the fixed conditions of her life".

The power and meaning of the story is not focused on Boyne; it's focused on Mary. It's she who we watch being punished; her grief and desolation we experience. It's as if John Caldigate were told from the point of view not of Mrs Smith (who knows very well what's happening), but Hester who rejoices we are told at the end of the story to have her dear Johnny back again. Hester couldn't give a damn about who was robbed of what, and she's not punished for it.

Let us turn to that grey ghost who took Ed away, and the close as well as opening of the story. Beginnings and endings of stories count. Note that in taking the house there is nothing magical; they could have taken another, and they are told that it's the kind of house where people understand afterward they have and are living with horror. So this has happened to others before the Boynes. According to the story, had they not chosen the house, they would have gotten away with the loot from the mine. Well, we may say, had she known about the husband's business, maybe she would not have sent the ghost. You may say the ghost would have gotten at him anyway; maybe. But why punish her? And why this way? Had she known about her husband's business, she probably wouldn't have minded at all. We have no evidence of a moral conscience for real, only for retreat and obtuseness.

How does Mary behave at the end? Very humanly. We may like or want to believe that Mary sends the poor Elwells some cash; but there's no evidence for this in the story. The husband's suicide has made them worse off than ever. She is ashamed but what has driven her wild is not the crime but the terror of this unknown: "he seemed to her like the indifferent emissary of some evil power". What she cares about is she is alone, has lost her one tie to existence, her one connect. She goes to pieces in the penultimate paragraph at the thought that she led the ghost to Ned, to the room. She screams, a long drawn crazed scream as the room seems to close in, the books rush towards her, all a falling ruin. Her life is in pieces. She lives with nothingness, has no meaning, never really had, was only pretending to.

So I'd say this is a woman's story disguised by the use of the ghost or deepened by it -- so then like the Gaskell, Braddon, Wilkins- Freeman and Oliphant stores. But not because of the supposed moral lesson. I'm with Stevenson in his "A Chapter of Dreams" on the unimportance of these lessons to the experience and real significance of reading and writing texts. It's a woman's story because the kind of punishment wreaked on her is precisely what would hurt women most, what women are most vulnerable to, and not just women who don't pay attention to their husband's business, but women who pay attention.

Joan says Johnson would tell Mary Boyne to practice the art of forgetting, to give it over. I don't know. This kind of story is outside Johnson's experience; they had only begun to tell primitive versions of it by his era. Remember how he said he wept at the end of Lear, found it just unbearable, and how he wrote that when he finished editing Othello he never wanted to go near that play again.

It's a story about desolation and disconnectedness, about modern sophisticated people who think they have all under control and it's fun to do without electricity and hot water -- because after all they can always pay to install it. Get some handyman in to do the job. Handymen are not going to do the job Mary Boyne needs them to do now. They can't. Nor Mrs Elwell.

Ellen Moody

Date: Wed, 09 Jan 2002
Edith Wharton's "Afterward"
To Trollope-l

To Ellen and others

I really enjoyed reading your views on this short story and particularly the role of Mary Boyne. I thought it was interesting that Wharton makes her spend her money and time on gardens, which was one of her own interests - and presumably one funded by her own efforts. Your interpretation of Wharton's feminism - that both men and women should be liberated from stereotyped roles - is very interesting. I've not read Wharton in this way and it makes me want to take them up again. I've not read Custom of the Country nor Etham Frame but I did have the misfortune to listen to an audio tape of the latter. I entirely agree how very very bleak it is, more stark than I could have believed possible from her.

I love the moment in Afterward when they are on the roof and see the ghost for the first time. There is something so significant yet so slight about that moment requiring great skill in a writer, I think.


Re: Wharton's "Afterward"

Angela wrote:

"I love the moment in Afterward when they are on the roof and see the ghost for the first time. There is something so significant yet so slight about that moment requiring great skill in a writer, I think."

"Afterward" is a good example of how essential to the gothic and ghost stories in particular is the slow creation of atmosphere, whereby the tiniest moment registers a nuance on our consciousness which later emerges as a kind of explosion. I wonder if this is not typical of women's literature too: think of the moment in Austen's Persuasion when Wentworth drops his pen; in The Vampire Tapestry we have such an exquisite moment when Weyland leans so ferociously on his chair that the arms break. Only that breakage tells us of the power and violence of the creature sitting there.

One thing we have not discussed thus far is how the typical plotline of a ghost story differs from those of "regular" short stories -- for ghost stories are rarely novel-length (the recent Woman in Black is a novella). The climax is not when the strands of the plot knot together to lead inevitably to a denouement (as when Iago persuades Othello Desdemona is unchaste and Othello vows himself to Iago), nor at some final resolution of a plot -- no, it's when we first see the ghost; the denouement is when we recognize what we saw was a ghost or recognize that what happened offstage was an episode of the fearful uncanny making itself felt on this side of the barrier (the more I think about, the more I like the allusion in "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale").

Bad dramatic readings can ruin a book for us. I would like to read more of Wharton's short stories -- as well as Elizabeth Bowen's whose "Demon Lover" I recommend :)


Date: Sat, 12 Jan 2002
Edith Wharton's "Afterward"

Hello all

I've enjoyed all the comments on Edith Wharton's 'Afterward', the last of our winter tales, and have been thinking it over during the last few days. I don't know whether others find that sometimes ghost and Gothic stories seem to emerge more clearly in your mind when you are looking back at them - particularly appropriate for this particular story, of course, but it's something that has often struck me with other tales too.

Ellen wrote

I also agree that the moral of the story is one which recalls John Caldigate with the interesting difference that Wharton is also asking us to look at Mary Boyne as complicit and someone who is paying for not paying attention to how her husband made the money which is to provide them with their exquisitely beautiful sheltered retreat from the cutthroat amoral capitalist world which has made that retreat possible.

This comment really struck me. In so many 19th-century and early 20th-century novels, we are given lyrically beautiful portrayals of great country houses. I love going and visiting these houses in real life and wandering through the orangeries and the great dining halls. But the narrow servants' staircases and their cramped dark bedrooms often tell a different story. When we come to the books as 21st-century readers, especially in the wake of modern critical theories, there is the uneasy knowledge that all this leisurely luxury was built on the suffering of others - the nine-tenths of the population who are so often kept out of the story altogether, or brought on as comic extras to flatter their landlords.

I don't know what Wharton's politics were, but in this story it seems as if she makes us see this uneasy juxtaposition and indeed participate in it. As readers, we are encouraged to luxuriate in the imagined haven of the country house, with its polished antique furniture, afternoon tea, flowers and hothouses. At several removes, we enjoy it all almost as Mary does. Yet, suddenly, the ground is cut away from under our feet as it is from hers, when we learn that all this has been paid for by money swindled from a partner, whose family has been left in poverty and desperation as a result. Mary is shocked to learn at what price her finery has been bought. But I think the moral goes beyond this - as readers we are faced with the stark reality of the haves and have-nots, the delicate meals in the country house on the one hand, and the people going hungry and despairing on the other. No wonder that (as we are told at the start of the story) every old country house worth the name has its own ghost.

This ties in with Ellen's comments on Boyne, suggesting that he is not callous, but someone who tries to justify his behaviour to his friend on business grounds. Thinking it over, I would agree with this and say my attempt to characterise him as an individual villain if anything softens the real force of the story.

Extraordinary callousness is not needed to drive somebody to despair and suicide. "Ordinary" cut-throat business dealings can do that. I also liked the suggestion that there is a possibility that Boyne simply left his wife, walked away and didn't come back. It had seemed to me that this story doesn't have the ambiguity of some of the others we've discussed - but maybe it is more complicated than I realised at first. As Ellen said, the story is ultimately focused on Mary rather than on her husband. (I am drawn by the comparison with Hester in 'John Caldigate). Mary is the one left to live with the ghosts - her husband's ghost as well as that of Elwell. She has preferred to turn a blind eye to her husband's business dealings and any possible consequences, but in the end she has to face the full reality of what he has done, and done on her behalf.

I've been thinking again about which was my favourite out of the stories and I think possibly I would go for 'Green Tea' in the end, although I liked them all. I was fascinated by the ambiguity of this story and the many different meanings which can be drawn out of it - and I can't get away from that chilling moment when the monkey's eyes shine out in the darkness of the coach.

Judy Geater

Re: Edith Wharton's "Afterward"

I guess we are now well "afterward" our series of winter/ghost/christmas stories. I'm not sure what were Edith Wharton's politics either -- I have read biographies of her and don't recall anything beyond her hard work with desperate orphans in World War One. This does suggest real sympathy with the have-nots of our world. Very often an artist ends up living with and celebrating the haves because they are the people whose money provides the objects the artist describes, makes, manipulates, and novels have traditionally even been about the bourgeois, the educated -- especially before the 20th century. Certainly though in those novels by her I have read she shows the same understanding and sympathy for the marginalized and makes us see who is paying for the luxury of the rich we are invited to dwell upon. Since I just saw Gosford Park last night, I'll add this is precisely the theme: we are made to watch those below not sycophantically loving their deprived and exploited existence. Many modern films do this, e.g., Mary Reilly. By contrast, Wharton does not dwell on the servants, but rather the character who is a fringe person among the rich and loses his or her position on the raft (by losing his or her money or by not marrying effectively) and goes under. By the end of The House of Mirth Lily Bart is attempting to make hats for wealthy women which she once bought: she is paid a pittance and fired for incompetence; she cries and begs to be kept because she has not the wherewithal to pay the next month's rent, much less food. She never gets another job, and ends a suicide.

What's interesting about "Afterward" is it's not melodramatic: there is strong melodrama and exaggeration in The Custom of the Country (where the anti-heroine knows nothing of her husband's business and pressures him into giving up his life to make money for her) and The House of Mirth. The presentation is quiet, subtle, realistic in "Afterward".

There's another very interesting story by Edith Wharton which is similarly quietish, subtle, one I'm not sure is a ghost or a vampire story. If you read it as a ghost story, it comes out one way; it you read it as a vampire, the interpretation it comes out quite different. It's called "Mr Jones" -- her maiden name was Edith Jones. It does not seem to be on the Net; it's very suggestive; gradually layers of modernity (where the 20th century heroine resides) are pulled away like an onion and we find ourselves in an 18th century chiller about a powerless frightened woman kept in the house, isolated by her husband. What is terrible to the reader is she had a disability and because of that was made to feel inferior and pathetically grateful for any attention. We are not sure what it was, or even if it's serious. Mr Jones was her keeper. This heroine's husband went his way, and perished of plague at Aleppo. The modern heroine, Lady Jane Lynke finds a manuscript which gives us fragment of story in a pleading letter which is poignant and painful. This was 200 years ago, and it appears that Mr Jones is still with us and now keeps two serving women in tow. Their terror is intense. We actually never know quite what happened or what Mr Jones is. He seems to spend his time in his grave. It's all very indirect. To me it has the qualities of these other feminine gothics we have read.

On Le Fanu's "Green Tea": eyes as a symbol can be creepy; we think they're the window of the soul, but behind them what is there? an upside down retina? Wharton has a story which plays upon eyes in Le Fanu's way and it's called The Eyes" and is on the Net.

Finally it's hard to say which story I liked best from the two years we've done them now, probably I preferred the stories by the women to the stories by the men.

Cheers to all,

Date: Tue, 02 Jul 2002
From: "Matthew Heilman"
Subject: Edith Wharton
To GothicLiterature@Yahoo

Ellen said:

Does anyone have a favorite ghost story? A superb one at the turn of the century is Edith Wharton's "Afterward."

Just read that one now, nicely structured and well-written. I had never read any of her ghost stories, though I have heard them mentioned a few times. Even though I predicted early on where the story was going, I liked the way it builds up and the twist at the end. I won't spoil it for anyone who wants to read it:

I can definitely see Henry James "Turn of The Screw" being an influence. Not to mention an affectionate nod to the Radcliffe school of Terror - as demonstrated in this amusing passage:

"It was in this particular connection that she presently recalled a certain soft afternoon of the previous October, when, passing from the first rapturous flurry of exploration to a detailed inspection of the old house, she had pressed (like a novel heroine) a panel that opened at her touch, on a narrow flight of stairs leading to an unsuspected flat ledge of the roof -- the roof which, from below, seemed to slope away on all sides too abruptly for any but practised feet to scale."

Very nice...thanks for recommending it. Upon reading "Afterward," I then went on to read "The Fullness Of Life" which, with its surreal and almost poetic verse, I immediately fell in love with. At first it seemed to be a dark and depressive account of the afterlife but soon ends up being a very sweet and amusing story.


Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 23 January 2005