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 such story, as one of its themes focuses on the desirability of a haunted house. While it is indeed a ghost story of the Victorian era, with the ghost itself making an uncanny appearance and approach, it is also an ironic one about greed and retribution, the latter of which surpassing death and leading to guilt and the shattering of an idyllic life. The story of “Afterward” is divided into five parts. It is told in a third-person narrative that explores the memories of the central character, Mary Boyne, with the plot starting at the end and switching back and forth throughout a six-month time period and having several instances of foreshadowing. Mary is an American woman who has moved to Doretshire in England with her husband, Edward, or “Ned,” choosing to live comfortably in the countryside.
The house they end up buying, called Lyng, is old and isolated, as well as in disrepair, but Mary and Ned find it appealing due to “the charm of having been for centuries a deep dim reservoir of life” (Wharton, 131). Being enthusiasts of the Gothic and ghost stories, the couple also buys the house in hopes that it is occupied by a ghost. Their new home seems to be lacking in that regard, however, but they still uphold the impression that it indeed has a supernatural presence, but it supposedly does not appear 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 note that Ned, not Mary, is the one who is the most interested in 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 is a further emphasis on the Boynes seeing the history and tradition of the Gothic as a commodity that can be purchased and owned, and it can be taken as a possible foreshadowing of future events. Mary and Ned are a loving and financially stable couple, their lives being nearly perfect. 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 begins to notice a change in Ned’s mood, but rather than investigate what could be wrong, she takes this change as a sign that the house is haunted, eager to render the idea of having a ghost in her home as a commodity.
But even so, she and Ned soon disregard the ghost 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’ desired terror and mystery associated with ghosts and hauntings is not being produced and thus not entertaining them. That is when they decide to let the matter go and carry on. But things start taking a turn in the month of October when Mary comes upon a hidden stairwell that leads to a flat ledge on the roof.
Mary recalls that she and Ned climb these stairs to gaze at the lovely view, and as they do so they notice 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, but their obscurity and how Ned reacts to them suggests that their identity is being foreshadowed and will thus be revealed later on. As for Ned’s reaction to the figure, he does so responds 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 man disappears before Ned can get to him.
He then redirects the conversation to Meldon Steep, a hill they had seen while up on the roof. Mary thinks no more of the incident after this, 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 Ned’s secrecy Later on, Mary notices a figure coming up to the house and is quick to embrace the idea of a ghost: “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 so that it can be considered truly Gothic. However, her bad sight betrays her as the figure turns out to be Ned, which makes this instance of her mistaking living people for ghosts another foreshadow of the appearance of the actual ghost.
She notices that her husband is in a bad mood again due to something going on in his work, and she tries to figure out what is bothering him by 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 diffuse her questions about the subject of Elwell, adopting the assumption that his affairs bore her, which makes her feel “a sting of compunction” (139). Whatever had troubled Ned has passed, but it suggests that it has to do with the man, Elwell, and Mary also feels guilt for not involving herself in her husband’s affairs. All of this tension is further foreshadowing of Ned’s secret and how that will be his downfall, which comes when Mary least expects it. Mary inadvertently plays a part in Ned’s day of reckoning shortly after an encounter with a man in the garden.
This man inquires about Ned, wanting to speak to him, and Mary directs him to the library, though not before taking in how this man 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, and Mary does not give the encounter much thought until later that day after learning that Ned has disappeared. None of the servants in the house know of her husband’s whereabouts, though they say he “went out with a gentleman” (144). Mary is greatly worried when Ned does not return, and she begins 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, Mary appears to be having a sinking feeling of what has occurred. The dread welling up inside her is described like an intangible presence, almost like that of a ghost, gradually revealing the eeriness of the situation. What’s more is that as she investigates Ned’s disappearance, Mary 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 encountered in the garden than she realizes. He isn’t just a ghost, but the ghost of Robert Elwell, who is later revealed to Mary to have died from injuries in an attempted suicide 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, Edith Wharton’s narrative creates an uncanny presence, though she does not do this without reason. While Elwell’s ghost is not specifically attached to the Lyng house, he is a ghost that is attached to the Boynes, his purpose being to collect Ned’s moral debt that he owes him, as his greed has wronged him and causes his death. “Afterward” is not a modern ghost story meant to make readers shake in their seat, but an old one meant to rouse shivers and bring to mind something to think about.
The irony in the story is that the Boynes bring the hauntedness with them, rather than step into a house that already has a ghostly presence. Elwell’s ghost appears in the middle of the day and takes Ned away in view of the house’s servants. What’s more is that the legend about the ghost appearing “afterward” comes true, because no one realizes it until long after the damage is done, when Ned is punished for his moral culpability and Mary becomes ridden with guilt for leading the ghost to her husband and for not realizing his wrongdoing sooner. The idyllic life they wanted has thus been shattered.