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Edith Wharton’s Hauntology

Knowing and unknowing in Wharton’s “tales of the uncanny”

Ghosts by Edith Wharton. NYRB Classics, 288 pages.

The old saying about ghosts, which I think originates with the Romantic-era woman of letters Madame de Staël (though this is disputed), goes roughly as follows: “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them.” As a bon mot it has been kept just on the right side of cliché not only by its variations and redeployments, or the knowing fun of its clever turn, but also by the fact that it actually expresses a crucial insight into the persistence of ghosts in the modern world. The ghost, this remark suggests, emerges on the razor’s edge between knowing and unknowing, where motivations, intentions, even entire worldviews, so clear in the light of day, become murky, clouded, suspect. Knowing itself becomes a kind of play of disavowal, of seeing just how confident we can be in our self-image, just how much of the world we can get away with ignoring.

At the climax of “Pomegranate Seed,” the penultimate story in Edith Wharton’s Ghosts, a 1937 collection of her “tales of the uncanny,” Charlotte Ashby has roped her mother-in-law into just this dynamic. Charlotte is the new wife of a well-to-do widower who has, over the past months, received a series of letters, addressed in a woman’s hand, each of which elicits in her husband, Kenneth, a powerful, nearly overwhelming response, equal parts fear and terrible longing. She arrives more or less swiftly at the conclusion that the sender is Elsie, Kenneth’s deceased first wife, and, between stutter steps toward opening one of these letters and confirming her suspicions, she broods on key aspects of their marriage, particularly her having removed—confidently but without malice—most traces of Elsie from their home, as well as Mother Ashby’s frequent references to the departed predecessor. Elsie, we soon gather, is an absence everywhere present in house Ashby.

When Charlotte finally confronts Kenneth, he provides no information but promises her a vacation to begin the very next day, and, after going out to secure transport, promptly disappears. Enter the otherwise practical and unsentimental Mother Ashby. The pair persuade each other first not to, then to go ahead and open one of the letters, which they find composed in a script so thin, so faint, that neither can read it. Says Charlotte, now oscillating between sobs and bitter laughter, “I suppose everything’s pale about a ghost.” Mother Ashby, unnerved but unconvinced, is sure that Kenneth will return and explain everything. In the meantime, she insists that they call the police. Charlotte, clearly for lack of an alternative, obeys.

The ghost emerges on the razor’s edge between knowing and unknowing, where motivations, intentions, even entire worldviews become murky, clouded, suspect.

The setting of the story, both narratively and thematically, is the interior: the action makes sense only on thresholds and in corridors, passing between or settling in rooms that may be rearranged but whose walls remain the same, even beneath new and inviting paper. Wharton was in all aspects of her work and life preoccupied by the domestic, devoting years to the refinement of her various residences, notably Land’s End in Newport and The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts, while writing novels and stories marked always by the paradox of a society that reduces the full scope of life and death to a series of rooms: it swallows you up by pushing you out, and pushes you out by drawing you in. The society Wharton describes is, then, the collapse of interior into exterior, and vice-versa. In The House of Mirth, our first sign that Lily Bart is not long for this world is that she is introduced in Grand Central Station, a place of arrival, yes, but more a place of departure. By the end of that novel, her expulsion from her class is equally the foreclosure of all other possibilities: in that cynical milieu, leaving doesn’t entail having any place to go.

Which makes Charlotte Ashby’s final acquiescence a disappointment, as well as a failure. She isn’t, after all, paranoid. Her response to the confirmation of the ghostly sender is to integrate it into her life: if there are ghosts, so be it, she seems to say. What matters to her, at least at first, is the truth, which she hopes will set her free in the way she had been before the trouble. We catch a glimpse of this longing at the beginning of the story, as Charlotte lingers at her front door, frightened, as she never used to be, to enter:

The contrast between the soulless roar of New York, its devouring blaze of lights, the oppression of its congested traffic, congested houses, lives, minds and this thinly veiled sanctuary she called home always stirred her profoundly. In the very heart of the hurricane she had found her tiny islet—or thought she had. And now, in the last months, everything was changed, and she always wavered on the doorstep and had to force herself to enter.

The trouble isn’t the ghost, but what the ghost reveals. Charlotte believed she had found a refuge from modern life in her newfound domesticity, but the very fact of her longing for refuge means that she will be unable to indulge the necessary neglect, to tell the necessary lies, that would allow her to have it.

In this, she seems to be a vessel for Wharton’s own feelings about the function of the ghost in modernity. As Wharton writes in the preface: “Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity.” Ashby can’t stand the “grinding rasping street life of the city,” and she is ambivalent, to say the least, about her own replacement, not to say erasure, of Elsie. This makes her all the more susceptible to the haunting she comes to suffer, a haunting which is equally a way of accessing the truth of her situation. In the preface, Wharton laments that people are losing their “internal proof of . . . ghostliness,” and though she declines “to dwell on what we shall lose when the wraith and the fetch are no more with us,” in her stories she is preoccupied by just that fate. Charlotte Ashby has a chance to face the true interior of her life, but ultimately accedes to the practical, which—and we may credit the otherwise reactionary Wharton with some political insight here—is equally the punitive, the legal, the violent.

All of this reveals more of Wharton’s acuity than has traditionally been granted to her. Her long-standing reduction to a novelist of manners, though reconsidered in recent years, has never entirely gone away. In 1941, Alfred Kazin compared her unfavorably to Theodore Dreiser, writing: “The luxury that nourished Edith Wharton and gave her the opportunities of a gentlewoman cheated her as a novelist. It kept her from what was crucial to the world in which she lived; seeing its manners, she missed its passion. Theodore Dreiser had no such handicap to overcome.” In her 1988 essay on the novels, Elizabeth Hardwick echoes Kazin, arguing that Wharton’s preoccupation with money allows House of Mirth a certain greatness, since the novel is both about money and deploys it as an animating motif, but that this otherwise makes for a flimsy, incurious style. She compares both House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence to Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, which she judges truer to the historical reality—in the broadest, richest sense—of New York City. “In [Wharton’s] novels,” Hardwick writes, “Manhattan is nameless, bare as a field, stripped of its byways, its fanciful, fabricated, overwhelming reality, its hugely imposing and unalterable alienation from the rest of the country—the glitter of its beginning and enduring modernity as a world city.”

It’s not, of course, an unreasonable complaint, and yet there is something telling in Hardwick’s description, both of Manhattan and the novelist she claims fails to face up to it. Distrust of the modern is as old as the modern itself, and is even its corollary: wherever a glittering beginning, so too an enduring, iridescent darkness. Wharton seems to have been aware that in her ghost stories, she had tapped into something essential yet hidden about modern life—from “All Souls”: “she could not believe that incidents which might fit into the desolate landscape of the Hebrides could occur in the cheerful and populous Connecticut valley”—thereby offering an apt response to naturalists like Dreiser, who since the turn of the century had attacked her for her conservatism and elitism, but most of all her formalism. (This may also explain why so eminent a writer as Wharton, in the last year of her life, decided to gather up a collection of previously published genre stories, though her final days were spent at the house of her friend and collaborator Ogden Codman, where they were planning a new edition of The Decoration of Houses, her 1897 design manual.)

In the century since Wharton’s death, the ghost has maintained its grip on Western self-reflection. Jacques Derrida, reflecting on the persistence of Marxism in the supposedly post-historical triumph of liberalism, coined the term hauntology, a play on “ontology,” the study of being. Existence, Derrida suggests, is never a simple matter of presence; whether something is there is utterly secondary. Rather, the moment of experience is always deferred to a lingering past and an anticipated future, so that time itself, as he writes, quoting Hamlet, “is out of joint.” Hauntology has been taken up in an array of contexts since, perhaps most famously by the culture critic Mark Fisher, but the broad strokes of its insight were already old by the time Wharton was writing.

Distrust of the modern is as old as the modern itself, and is even its corollary: wherever a glittering beginning, so too an enduring, iridescent darkness.

In 1807, GWF Hegel, drawing on the haunted Romantics even while criticizing them for not being sufficiently Hegelian, published the monumental Phenomenology of Spirit, which he conceived as a preparation for the proper beginning of his philosophical system. The Phenomenology is an odyssey through the peaks and valleys of the history of consciousness with a protagonist known only as Geist, often translated as Mind or Spirit, but which can also mean ghost. This connection may seem like something of a stretch—translation from German, especially philosophical German, being notoriously tricky—but the resonance of the ghost throughout Hegel’s work is a near-constant. Despite being commonly read as a story of progress through increasingly sophisticated stages of human understanding, the Phenomenology is in fact a ruthless attempt at reduction, a stripping-down of consciousness to its essentials (not to say its essence), to the point where an entirely new form of thinking might be able to take root. The end of the Phenomenology is not a success, but rather, as Gillian Rose puts it, a gamble.

Where the gamble plays out is in Hegel’s other great book, the Science of Logic, in which he attempts to articulate the foundations of any possible articulation, to think through the ground of any given thought. It’s an ambition as old as philosophy, whether as metaphysics or prima philosophia, but The Science of Logic is a unique attempt to face up to the objection which became particularly troublesome in modernity, when the constructed, historical quality of everything is more apparent than ever: Namely, why wouldn’t these statements be subject to the same contingency as any other statement? Can we ever get behind our own shadow? It only works, Hegel seems to think, if the ghost story of the Phenomenology is not only compelling, but in some sense effective, that is, if it can not only describe the activity of ghosts, but actually bring the reader into the place where they might encounter one themselves. “The system of logic,” he writes, “is the realm of shadows.”

Wharton, writing over a century later, describes her tales of the uncanny in much the same way, reflecting that such stories are particularly adept at going beyond simple representation and actually opening for readers a new way of occupying the world, at least in thought, since they operate on “a common medium between [herself] and [her] readers, of their meeting [her] halfway among the primeval shadows.” To see in modernity only its promise or its roar is to miss these houses of meeting that it makes possible, as well.

To be haunted is, of course, the privilege of the living, specifically the still living. The haunting is done by those whom the living consider to be safely left behind. The duplicity of knowledge animated in ghost stories is therefore not only a matter of knowing or not knowing, but also of being known, of making oneself vulnerable to the fundamental question of whether and in what sense one is, in fact, among the living.

In Wharton’s “A Bottle of Perrier,” Medford, a young man on the mend—injury and illness are the go-to method of social dislocation throughout Ghosts—awaits his host at colonial outpost somewhere in the African desert. This outpost, which is actually a decaying crusader’s castle, is watched over by Gosling, a rather rough English manservant, as well as a number of locals, whom Gosling hates with a voluble passion. Needless to say—you always know what’s going to happen—the host never arrives; Gosling murdered him just before Medford’s arrival, when he once again canceled Gosling’s long-delayed holiday back to England.

Our foreknowledge notwithstanding, the story pulls us along with increasing tension in large part due to what Gosling, acting as de facto colonial representative, presents as mere facts of the environment, among them the hostility he expresses toward the locals: “miserable lot of shirks and liars,” “liquor-swilling humbugs,” and, of course, “’eathen[s].”  Wharton’s perspective on this isn’t quite clear. Is it that Gosling’s extreme racial prejudice is a projection of guilt for his own murderousness, or has living among the brown locals driven the good Englishman mad? I’m inclined to think the former: Gosling isn’t good or mad; he is angry and resentful, while the locals, though initially a vaguely threatening, even spectral presence, show nothing but intelligence and guarded good will when approached. But a more compelling possibility is that these alternatives are, in fact, quite compatible.

When the specters and spirits turn out to be human beings, who is doing the haunting?

Remarking on the decline of the taste for ghost stories among her readership, Wharton writes that “no one ever expected a Latin to understand a ghost, or to shiver over it; to do that, one must still have in one’s ears the hoarse music of the northern Urwald or the churning of dark seas on the outermost shores.” The particularity of the fetch at Samhain notwithstanding, could so well-heeled a world traveler as Wharton really know nothing of, say, the Day of the Dead, or, assuming her dismissal covers all non-northern Europeans, the mischief of jinn? This omission, absurd though it is, nevertheless reveals something about the richness of her ghost stories that perhaps even Wharton was unaware of. Her colonial racism is undeniable, and yet, perhaps because of her exceptionally ghostly disposition, her stories seem to display an entire worldview predicated on a sin that may call for an as yet unimagined atonement. When the specters and spirits turn out to be human beings, who is doing the haunting?

In Ghosts, Wharton’s characters carry with them not only what was inflicted upon them, but what they have inflicted upon others, however unknowingly. In “The Eyes,” a man is haunted by his own indulgence at the expense of others’ dignity in the form of a pair of ancient eyes suspended in his darkened bedroom—the resonance with Dorian Gray is evident throughout, and the eyes are clearly the protagonist’s own, far in the future, his transgressions finally clear to him.

But the stories themselves do not operate in that future, when clarity has been achieved. Rather, they unfold in the middle ground between act and understanding, as character or reader or both are pulled inexorably from the former to the latter, perhaps before they are ready to meet what faces them. At their core is a terrible question: Is it possible to reverse this drift, and to act knowingly? To answer is to make a gamble in the dark.