Monday, March 26, 2012

Afterward - Edith Wharton

Author: Edith Wharton
Date: 1910
Setting: early 1900s
Availability: Read Afterward on line, free

Story: A young American couple buys a fixer-upper home in the English Countryside. They are looking for an old place with character where they can create their own mark. They also really want a house with a ghost. The house they buy is somewhat lacking in this regard. It may have a ghost, but supposedly people never know the ghost is there until much later.

Mary and Edward (Ned) Boyne fix up the place comfortably, and have no financial worries due to Ned's business successes in the States. Their relationship is loving, and everything is nearly perfect in their lives. One afternoon, they take a hike and are high on a hill near their home when they spot a man walking up their driveway. Ned, thinking he recognizes him as one of the workmen he wants to talk to, rushes down to catch him, but it's too far. The man has disappeared before Ned gets there.

Meanwhile some business news seems to be disturbing Ned, but he won't tell Mary what it's all about. She can only wonder at the lines in his brow and distracted air. Then one day, a letter arrives, and Ned is suddenly relieved, telling Mary that something he was very concerned about has now worked itself out, and all is well again.

But is it?

Commentary: "Afterward" is a psychological ghost story of the Victorian era. One should not begin reading this expecting some modern horror tale. Probably the most familiar ghost story of this time period is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This sort of tale was very popular at the time, and in fact, Wharton published an entire book of them, Tales of Men and Ghosts. They are meant to give you a shiver and things to think about, not leave you shaking in your seat, afraid to answer the door.

The suspense builds as Mary (and sometimes a third-party narrator) tells the story of what happened leading up to the crisis with Ned, when she realizes that the ghost has indeed been there, but she did not know it until long afterwards, just as predicted.

Mary's typical role, for that time period, as a woman who knows little of her husband's business, contributes to the suspense. It is ironic that the ghost they finally were able to find was not in the house all along, but was attached to them, personally. There is also more than a suggestion of the philosophy that the thing we want most will sometimes bring us great sadness, if we obtain it.

Author info: Edith Newbold Jones, 1862- 1937 wrote her first novel at the age of eleven, but her mother thought this was an unacceptable profession for a lady, and trained her to act properly in high society. The Joneses were so well off it has been suggested that the maxim "keeping up with the Joneses" was based on this family. When Edith decided to write for a living anyway, her society friends refused to acknowledge what she did. This insider knowledge of high society served as material for her many books and stories with ironic criticism of that time period.

In 1885 she married Edward Wharton, whose mental health deteriorated until she divorced him.

In 1920, she wrote The Age of Innocence and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, the first woman to be so honored.

Unusual Words:
coign- a high sloping hill (in this context)

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 7