There are many texts in theliterary genre of the Gothic that bear the classic setting of the old andpossibly haunted house. Some of these texts even refer to the desirability ofthe “hauntedness” of the house in which the protagonist lives, due to the curiosityand fascination that the uncanny and supernatural can rouse within people.Edith Wharton’s 1910 short story, “Afterward,” is one story that falls intothis category, for one of its themes focuses on the characters’ desire to livein a haunted house. Although, while “Afterward” is indeed a ghost story—withthe ghost itself making an uncanny appearance and approach—it is different inthe way that there is an additional theme of irony about the dreadful result ofhuman greed and vengeance for said greed, and how the latter surpasses deathand leads to guilt and the shattering of the main characters’ vision of the idylliclife they wished to have.
The narration of “Afterward” istold in the third person and looks into the memories of Mary Boyne, an Americanwoman 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 ofdisrepair, 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 theGothic and ghost stories, and because of this they also purchase the house inhopes 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 presencethat supposedly does not appear right away, but rather until much later, or astheir friend Alida Stair states, “Not till long afterward” (131). It is to benoted that the word “afterward” is mentioned numerous times throughout thestory, emphasizing the title and the manner in which the ghost manifests. It isalso interesting to point out that Ned is more interested than Mary in seeingthe ghost when he says, “I don’t want to have to drive ten miles to seesomebody else’s ghost. I want one of my own on the premises” (130). This lineemphasizes 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 appearanceand its nature with respect to its connection to the story’s ending.
Mary and Ned are generally ahappy couple with a nearly perfect life; but within a matter of a few monthsafter moving to Lyng, “the life they had yearned for…had actually begun forthem” (131). Mary notices a change in Ned’s mood, but rather than look intowhat could be wrong with him, she takes this change as a sign that the house ishaunted, eager to make the idea of having a ghost in her home something of acommodity. But even so, she and Ned soon disregard the ghost they want to seeas “too ineffectual for imaginative use” becauseit “apparently never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize aboutit” (132-133).
The term “ineffectual” in the case of this story means that theeffect of the Boynes’ desire for ghosts and hauntings is not presenting itselfin their favor and thus not entertaining them. That is when they decide to letthe matter go and carry on with their lives. Things start taking a turn in themonth of October when Mary comes upon a secret stairway that goes up to theroof, where she and Ned are able to look over the land around their home. Asthey do so, they spot a stranger approaching the house: “Her short-sighted eyeshad given her but a blurred impression of slightness and greyishness, with somethingforeign, or at least unlocal, in the cutof the figure or its garb…” (134). There is a hint of foreshadowing in thepresence of this stranger. Mary’s vision is poor and she can’t identify theperson coming toward the house, but their obscurity and how Ned reacts to themsuggests that their identity is important and will be revealed later on. As forNed’s reaction to the figure, he does so quite dramatically: “her husband hadapparently 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 runsafter the figure, telling Mary that it is one of the workmen that he’s beenhoping to speak to, but the person disappears before he can get to him.
He thenchanges the conversation to the topic of Meldon Steep, a hill they had seenwhile up on the roof. Mary then brushes off the incident as something no longerworth thinking about, but neverthelesshas a feeling that “her husband’s explanation of it to have been invalidated bythe look of anxiety on his face” (135). This foreboding feeling is animplication of a secret nature that Ned is hiding from her and how it will leadto the outcome of the story. Later on, Mary spots a figurecoming up to the house and is quick to embrace the hope that it is something ofa paranormal nature: “As she peered out into it across the court, a figureshaped itself in the tapering perspective of bare lines: it looked a mere blotof deeper grey in the greyness, and for an instant, as it moved toward her, herheart thumped to the thought, ‘It’s the ghost!'” (136) Mary is quick to see theghost, once again showing her desire to have a haunted house and fit hercriteria for it to be considered truly Gothic. However, her bad eyesightbetrays her as the figure is actually Ned, which makes her mistake for confusing living, breathing people with ghostsanother foreshadow of the appearance of the true ghost. She sees that herhusband is once again in a bad mood due to something going on in his work, and thistime she tries to figure out what is bothering him, but not without bringing upthe ghost, to which he tells her that he has not seen it.
His mood soon changesthat evening when she mentions to him a newspaper clipping that refers to a mannamed Robert Elwell filing a suit against him after a business deal. Mary can’tbring herself to understand its meaning completely and expresses her concern,but Ned allays that worry and showsrelief in receiving this news: “to her astonishment she saw that her words hadthe almost immediate effect of dissipating the strained watchfulness of hislook” (138). Ned even goes as far as to stop her questioning about the subjectof Elwell, taking on the assumption that his affairs bore her, which makes herfeel “a sting of compunction” (139).
Thatis 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 withthe man, Elwell. Such tension is moreforeshadowing 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 drawsnear, Mary inadvertently plays a part in Ned’s day of reckoning shortly after meetinga man in the garden. This man expresses that he needs to speak to Ned, andassuming that it is related to her husband’s work, Mary points the man to thelibrary, saying that Ned will be found there. Before she does, however, shetakes in how the stranger looks and sounds: “His intonation, rather than hisaccent, was faintly American…The brim of his soft felt hat cast a shade on hisface, which, thus obscured, wore to her shortsighted gaze a look ofseriousness…” (141-142).
This man is as strange as he is obscured, but Marydoes not have any reservations or misgivings about him and does not think anymore about him until later that day, whenshe learns that Ned has disappeared. She asks the servants in the house if theyknow of her husband’s whereabouts, and all they tell her is that he “went outwith a gentleman” (144). Holding on to some optimism, Mary waits for Ned toreturn home, but only becomes greatly worried when he does not, which causesher to feel a sense of dread of something unknown that “seems to take shape andsound, 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 appearsto be having a sinking feeling of what has occurred. The dread welling upinside her is described like anintangible presence, comparable with that of a ghost, and gradually shows theeeriness of the situation. What’s more is that as she investigates Ned’sdisappearance, she comes upon a note, written by her husband, in the library:”‘My dear Parvis—who was Parvis?—’I have just received your letter announcingElwell’s death, and while I suppose there is now no further risk of trouble, itmight be safer—” (146-147) Even though Mary tosses the note aside, readers canquickly catch on to the notion that there is more to the stranger she spoke toin the garden previously. He is not just a ghost, but the ghost of RobertElwell, who is later revealed to Mary to have died from injuries in an attemptto kill himself after a bad business deal with Ned ruins his life. By puttingthe ghost in the broad light of day and making him approach Mary, who iscompletely unsuspecting of what he is, Edith Wharton manages to rouse a senseof the uncanny and eerie, and not without reason. The ghost of Elwell is not thetype of ghost that is usually expected to be bound to a physical place like theLyng house, but he is instead a ghost that is attached to the Boynes—or, morespecifically, Ned. His purpose, or unfinished business which makes his spiritremain on the mortal plane, is to have Ned pay his due, to make him accountablefor being greedy, wronging him, and causing his death. By the end, Mary is riddenwith guilt for leading the ghost to her husband and for not realizing hiswrongdoing sooner and prevent him from being taken—and perhaps killed—by theghost.
“Afterward” is a ghost story withan eerie message about how far the length of human greed and vengeance can goand the results they yield in a supernatural way. The irony in the story isthat Mary and Ned Boyne bring the hauntedness with them, as opposed to steppinginto 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 anunsuspecting 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 onerealizes it until long after, when Elwellhas Ned punished for what he has done to him and leaves Mary feeling guilty forletting it all happen.