In the introduction to her short story collection Ghosts, Edith Wharton wrote that the titular subjects of her compilation “require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity” to become present in the corporeal world. These elements seem to be all the more imperiled amid our fragmented hyper-mediated age.
Ghosts invites readers to momentarily step into a fictional and decidedly past landscape where silence and continuity might still be encountered. The collection’s stronger stories share common themes. Characters inhabit isolated houses in the British countryside or cavernous mansions in the Hudson River Valley. The weather is often cold and wintry, contributing to an atmosphere of distilled quietude. The outside world only intrudes through occasional letters and newspapers. Spouses harbor painful secrets, revealing how little we might know the hearts of others.
Phantoms, disappearances, and deaths lurk in the solitude of Ghosts. Chasing after shadows or fleeing from spirits, the stories’ characters discover unsettling revelations about their companions or themselves. These tales were clearly penned by an author familiar with spending long spells by herself and understanding the febrile aura of an empty home.
Many artists, writers, and thinkers romanticize this solitude evoked by Wharton. If only one could possess the gift of pure isolation for a week, a month, or a year, then a painting, a poem, or a book might be created. If only one could detach from the noise and rush of the modern, workaday world, then he or she might actualize a long-delayed dream.
The tension between these two contrasting fruits of solitude — dread and wonder — holds together the fabric of Wharton’s ghost stories and reveals our own ambiguous relationship with it: we simultaneously fear and crave what we might discover in a quiet, lonely space.
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