There an additional theme of irony about the

There are many texts in the
literary genre of the Gothic that bear the classic setting of the old and
possibly haunted house. Some of these texts even refer to the desirability of
the “hauntedness” of the house in which the protagonist lives, due to the curiosity
and fascination that the uncanny and supernatural can rouse within people.
Edith Wharton’s 1910 short story, “Afterward,” is one story that falls into
this category, for one of its themes focuses on the characters’ desire to live
in a haunted house. Although, while “Afterward” is indeed a ghost story—with
the ghost itself making an uncanny appearance and approach—it is different in
the way that there is an additional theme of irony about the dreadful result of
human greed and vengeance for said greed, and how the latter surpasses death
and leads to guilt and the shattering of the main characters’ vision of the idyllic
life they wished to have. 

The narration of “Afterward” is
told in the third person and looks into the memories of Mary Boyne, an American
woman who has moved to Doretshire,
England with her husband, Edward, or “Ned.” The house they end up buying,
called Lyng, is, without question, an ideally Gothic place: old, in a state of
disrepair, and isolated. The Boynes, however, find the house appealing due to
“the charm of having been for centuries a deep dim reservoir of life” (Wharton,
131). The text immediately reveals that Mary and Ned are enthusiasts of the
Gothic and ghost stories, and because of this they also purchase the house in
hopes that it is occupied by a ghost. Although it seems to lack in that regard,
they still uphold the impression that it indeed has a supernatural presence
that supposedly does not appear right away, but rather until much later, or as
their friend Alida Stair states, “Not till long afterward” (131). It is to be
noted that the word “afterward” is mentioned numerous times throughout the
story, emphasizing the title and the manner in which the ghost manifests. It is
also interesting to point out that Ned is more interested than Mary in seeing
the ghost when he says, “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” (130). This line
emphasizes the Boynes’ penchant to commoditize the Gothic, or anything like it,
and render it into something that can be purchased and owned at their leisure.
This line can also be taken as a foreshadowing of the ghost’s future appearance
and its nature with respect to its connection to the story’s ending.    

Mary and Ned are generally a
happy couple with a nearly perfect life; but within a matter of a few months
after moving to Lyng, “the life they had yearned for…had actually begun for
them” (131). Mary notices a change in Ned’s mood, but rather than look into
what could be wrong with him, she takes this change as a sign that the house is
haunted, eager to make the idea of having a ghost in her home something of a
commodity. But even so, she and Ned soon disregard the ghost they want to see
as “too ineffectual for imaginative use” because
it “apparently never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about
it” (132-133). The term “ineffectual” in the case of this story means that the
effect of the Boynes’ desire for ghosts and hauntings is not presenting itself
in their favor and thus not entertaining them. That is when they decide to let
the matter go and carry on with their lives.

Things start taking a turn in the
month of October when Mary comes upon a secret stairway that goes up to the
roof, where she and Ned are able to look over the land around their home. As
they do so, they spot a stranger approaching the house: “Her short-sighted eyes
had given her but a blurred impression of slightness and greyishness, with something
foreign, or at least unlocal, in the cut
of the figure or its garb…” (134). There is a hint of foreshadowing in the
presence of this stranger. Mary’s vision is poor and she can’t identify the
person coming toward the house, but their obscurity and how Ned reacts to them
suggests that their identity is important and will be revealed later on. As for
Ned’s reaction to the figure, he does so quite dramatically: “her husband had
apparently seen more—seen enough to make him push past her with a hasty “Wait!”
and dash down the stairs without pausing to give her a hand” (134). He runs
after the figure, telling Mary that it is one of the workmen that he’s been
hoping to speak to, but the person disappears before he can get to him. He then
changes the conversation to the topic of Meldon Steep, a hill they had seen
while up on the roof. Mary then brushes off the incident as something no longer
worth thinking about, but nevertheless
has a feeling that “her husband’s explanation of it to have been invalidated by
the look of anxiety on his face” (135). This foreboding feeling is an
implication of a secret nature that Ned is hiding from her and how it will lead
to the outcome of the story.   

Later on, Mary spots a figure
coming up to the house and is quick to embrace the hope that it is something of
a paranormal nature: “As she peered out into it across the court, a figure
shaped itself in the tapering perspective of bare lines: it looked a mere blot
of deeper grey in the greyness, and for an instant, as it moved toward her, her
heart thumped to the thought, ‘It’s the ghost!'” (136) Mary is quick to see the
ghost, once again showing her desire to have a haunted house and fit her
criteria for it to be considered truly Gothic. However, her bad eyesight
betrays her as the figure is actually Ned, which makes her mistake for confusing living, breathing people with ghosts
another foreshadow of the appearance of the true ghost. She sees that her
husband is once again in a bad mood due to something going on in his work, and this
time she tries to figure out what is bothering him, but not without bringing up
the ghost, to which he tells her that he has not seen it. His mood soon changes
that evening when she mentions to him a newspaper clipping that refers to a man
named Robert Elwell filing a suit against him after a business deal. Mary can’t
bring herself to understand its meaning completely and expresses her concern,
but Ned allays that worry and shows
relief in receiving this news: “to her astonishment she saw that her words had
the almost immediate effect of dissipating the strained watchfulness of his
look” (138). Ned even goes as far as to stop her questioning about the subject
of Elwell, taking on the assumption that his affairs bore her, which makes her
feel “a sting of compunction” (139). That
is to say, she feels guilt for not involving herself in her husband’s affairs.
Whatever had troubled him has passed, but it suggests that it has to do with
the man, Elwell. Such tension is more
foreshadowing of Ned’s secret and how that will lead to his undoing,
which Mary discovers when she least expects it.

When the end of the story draws
near, Mary inadvertently plays a part in Ned’s day of reckoning shortly after meeting
a man in the garden. This man expresses that he needs to speak to Ned, and
assuming that it is related to her husband’s work, Mary points the man to the
library, saying that Ned will be found there. Before she does, however, she
takes in how the stranger looks and sounds: “His intonation, rather than his
accent, was faintly American…The brim of his soft felt hat cast a shade on his
face, which, thus obscured, wore to her shortsighted gaze a look of
seriousness…” (141-142). This man is as strange as he is obscured, but Mary
does not have any reservations or misgivings about him and does not think any
more about him until later that day, when
she learns that Ned has disappeared. She asks the servants in the house if they
know of her husband’s whereabouts, and all they tell her is that he “went out
with a gentleman” (144). Holding on to some optimism, Mary waits for Ned to
return home, but only becomes greatly worried when he does not, which causes
her to feel a sense of dread of something unknown that “seems to take shape and
sound, to be there breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her shortsighted eyes strained through them,
half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew…”
(146). Despite not yet realizing what has happened to her husband, Mary appears
to be having a sinking feeling of what has occurred. The dread welling up
inside her is described like an
intangible presence, comparable with that of a ghost, and gradually shows the
eeriness of the situation. What’s more is that as she investigates Ned’s
disappearance, she comes upon a note, written by her husband, in the library:
“‘My dear Parvis—who was Parvis?—’I have just received your letter announcing
Elwell’s death, and while I suppose there is now no further risk of trouble, it
might be safer—” (146-147) Even though Mary tosses the note aside, readers can
quickly catch on to the notion that there is more to the stranger she spoke to
in the garden previously. He is not just a ghost, but the ghost of Robert
Elwell, who is later revealed to Mary to have died from injuries in an attempt
to kill himself after a bad business deal with Ned ruins his life. By putting
the ghost in the broad light of day and making him approach Mary, who is
completely unsuspecting of what he is, Edith Wharton manages to rouse a sense
of the uncanny and eerie, and not without reason. The ghost of Elwell is not the
type of ghost that is usually expected to be bound to a physical place like the
Lyng house, but he is instead a ghost that is attached to the Boynes—or, more
specifically, Ned. His purpose, or unfinished business which makes his spirit
remain on the mortal plane, is to have Ned pay his due, to make him accountable
for being greedy, wronging him, and causing his death. By the end, Mary is ridden
with guilt for leading the ghost to her husband and for not realizing his
wrongdoing sooner and prevent him from being taken—and perhaps killed—by the
ghost.

“Afterward” is a ghost story with
an eerie message about how far the length of human greed and vengeance can go
and the results they yield in a supernatural way. The irony in the story is
that Mary and Ned Boyne bring the hauntedness with them, as opposed to stepping
into a house that already has a ghostly presence—the type of house they desired.
Robert Elwell’s ghost appears in the middle of the day, speaks to an
unsuspecting Mary, and takes Ned away in front of the eyes of other people. Furthermore,
the legend about the ghost appearing “afterward” comes true, because no one
realizes it until long after, when Elwell
has Ned punished for what he has done to him and leaves Mary feeling guilty for
letting it all happen.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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