The Ghosts of Patriarchy

By Nora ShaalanMarch 3, 2022

The Ghosts of Patriarchy

Ghosts by Edith Wharton

IF A GHOST STORY isn’t scary, is it really a ghost story? I asked myself this question as I read through Edith Wharton’s Ghosts, newly reissued by NYRB Classics. The collection, which was initially published in 1937, consists of a preface and 11 stories that Wharton selected and arranged herself shortly before her death that year. The publishers describe it as “an elegantly hair-raising collection,” a description which, if you ask me, is slightly exaggerated. The stories in Ghosts are not particularly spooky.

But they are conventional. While ghost lore has existed in some form or another for centuries, it coalesced into the mode we’re familiar with sometime around the early 19th century, with the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s ghost stories, which drew together formal and thematic elements from an assortment of emergent genres, especially the Gothic. Wharton’s work is clearly indebted to Scott, as well as to American practitioners of the form such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Washington Irving (one gossipy character in her 1910 story “The Eyes” even tells us that a distant aunt knew Irving). In the preface, Wharton writes that she was inspired to begin writing ghost stories after reading the tales of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu and Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), saying that she finds James’s now widely popular story incomparable in its “imaginative handling of the supernatural.”

The imaginative handling of Wharton’s own ghost tales is certainly comparable to that of many of her predecessors and contemporaries. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel; her ghost stories contain the typical elements: representations of death, disease, and decay; old estates with connections to the distant past; figures from foreign places; failures or blips in communication technologies such as a haunted radio or a broken phone connection; and frame narratives that insist on the authenticity of the tale that will follow. But Wharton built a career on taking conventions of all kinds — formal, generic, and social — and turning them upside down, so it should come as no surprise that the stories in this collection hew closely to the predictable, nor should that be considered a fault. The familiar form, for Wharton, is a conduit for bigger ideas. Within the confines of the ghost story, she rehashes the same questions and problems that recur across her extensive oeuvre: class divides, social mores, money management, and, most importantly, gender relations.

Most of these stories are concerned with women’s lives. While Wharton’s feminist credentials remain the subject of debate, these stories are colored by a dissatisfaction with and antipathy toward the conditions under which women live. The intensity of this antipathy varies from one story to the next. The majority of Wharton’s ghosts haunt and evict women. But “Kerfol” (1916) is an exception: its supernatural figures are deliciously retributive, enacting a witchy vengeance on punitive men. Yves de Cornault and his wife live in a big house in Brittany. On the surface, their marriage seems wonderful. “No one,” Wharton writes in a tone dripping with derision, “was found to say that Yves de Cornault has been unkind to his wife, and it was plain to all that he was content with his bargain.” But when de Cornault is found mauled to death and his wife covered in his blood, she goes before the court to tell a tale of marital bliss gone horrifically wrong. De Cornault, suspecting his wife of infidelity, strangled the pet dog that he had given her to compensate for his long absences, and left it on her pillow. Rinse and repeat, every time his lonely, terrified wife took in a stray dog. When she tried to escape one night, he caught her but, before he could harm her, was viciously attacked by the ghosts of the dogs he had strangled. Of course, in a very modern turn of events, no one believes Madame de Cornault, and she is turned over to her husband’s family, “who shut her up in the keep of Kerfol, where she is said to have died many years later, a harmless mad-woman.”

For all its obvious anger over an abusive husband, “Kerfol” does not provide a realistic path toward equity or freedom. The bathetic ending signals a recognition that the true solution to the tenacious structures that sustain gender inequality is not one of retributive punishment but of systemic change. The husband’s control persists even when he is dead. Yet I think the story articulates a longing for a counterfactual world with a judicial system that holds men accountable for the sufferings they impose. This tale, like many others in the collection, is not really otherworldly — or, if it is, it’s about the fantasy of thinking up other, more just worlds in which women can live.

Wharton wrote these stories over a span of 30 years for various publications, but they feel fairly cohesive. If there is a single thread that ties them together other than genre, it is a sense of claustrophobia, which is felt tangibly even in stories that don’t feature female protagonists, like “A Bottle of Perrier” (1926). This story, the last in the collection, subjects a man to the same oppressive atmosphere that is the default condition under which the women in the preceding tales live. But nowhere is this sense of entrapment more perceptible than in “Mr. Jones” (1928). Lady Jane Lynke unexpectedly inherits an old estate that is kept by the titular character, a shadowy figure whom Jane never meets but whose presence is felt. Mr. Jones sends his great-niece, Jane’s housemaid, to discourage Jane from accessing the “blue room” and the family archives. When, after some careful detective work, Jane finds the papers hidden in Mr. Jones’s study, she discovers that the ghostly man was the guardian of the previous tenant’s wife, Miss Portallo, who was deaf and mute. The papers reveal that Miss Portallo’s father, who owned a banking house, had hurriedly married her off. Lady Jane reads one of Miss Portallo’s letters, equal parts disturbing and moving, in which she beseeches her husband to free her from confinement and the tyranny of her keeper: “[T]o sit in this great house alone, day after day, month after month, deprived of your company, and debarred also from any intercourse but that of the servants you have chosen to put about me, is a fate more cruel than I deserve and more painful than I can bear.”

It is difficult not to read this story as a thinly veiled allegory of Wharton’s adolescence: Jones was her maiden name. In her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), Wharton describes the world she grew up in as one where “the child of the well-to-do, hedged in by nurses and governesses, seldom knows much of its parents’ activities.” But the greatest source of Wharton’s claustrophobia was not the female help, whom she remembers fondly, but the social expectations that she would later write about so deftly in her fiction, and which prevented her, at age 15, from publishing her first poem under her own name. Like Miss Portallo, Wharton grew up wealthy and was married at the age of 23 to a man several years her senior. And like Lady Jane, she gained access to an estate, the Mount, which she took great pride in building and designing.

Whether or not “Mr. Jones” references Wharton’s own upbringing, it shows the author’s resistance to seeing patriarchal rule solely in economic terms. Despite wealth and a mansion of one’s own, something prevents these women from leading meaningful, equitable lives. Sometimes there are flesh-and-blood keepers, but sometimes these guardians are phantasmagoric presences, tense somethings that are impossible to get rid of or even pin down with any kind of certainty, but that are perceived and felt all the same. It should come as no surprise that Wharton, in the preface, calls someone who perceives ghosts a “ghost-feeler,” which she defines as “the person sensible of invisible currents of being in certain places and at certain hours.” Some things — like ghosts or control — are felt rather than seen. Just as the ghostly presence of Mr. Jones bars Jane from the blue room and the archives, so Wharton could never access her own freedom despite her fortune and full control of the Mount. Instead, like so many of the haunted estates these women inhabit, the Mount became a space of marital strain, conjugal violence, and emotional abuse. For Wharton, women’s plight is not merely a question of financial dependence or economic inequality; patriarchal structures are stickier than this, more resilient.

The idea that patriarchal structures are ghostly, haunting their victims persistently and quietly with no obvious systemic mechanism, runs through even the stories that aren’t about gendered violence, explicit or implicit. This is the case for “All Souls” (1937), the opening tale, which does not feature any violent male figures, but which — through the character of Agnes, the Scottish housemaid whom Sara Clayburn believes to be a witch — highlights the way ghosts can sometimes express xenophobic anxieties. After her husband dies, Sara does the unexpected and defiantly remains at Whitegates, her husband’s ancestral home. Even worse, she outlives her husband’s next of kin, “that stupid fat Presley boy,” and arrives at his funeral “in correct mourning, with a faint smile under her veil.” Ultimately, Sara is driven out of the house by a ghostly presence, described as “a man’s voice, low but emphatic, and which she had never heard before.” Women like Sara Clayburn can never triumphantly overcome the male-centric structures that govern things like inheritance. They are dispossessed by mechanisms that defy logic, reason, or ethics.

In one of the least spooky stories of the collection, “Pomegranate Seed” (1931), Kenneth Ashby disappears after his second wife, Charlotte, realizes he’s been receiving letters from another woman — his dead wife. Emotional infidelity, secrecy, desertion — this is, of course, not the violent misogyny we see in some of the other stories. It seems more like an unkindness we might even forgive. By the time “Pomegranate Seed” was published, Wharton had already cut her teeth on this dynamic with one of her most popular novels, The Age of Innocence (1920), which won her the first Pulitzer Prize to be awarded to a woman. In that novel, Newland Archer falls in love with his wife May’s magnetic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, and struggles with the resultant guilt. Though we don’t exactly celebrate men who leave their wives because they love someone else (even or especially when the other woman is, as in “Pomegranate Seed,” a dead ex), there’s a tendency to perceive characters like Kenneth Ashby and Newland Archer as complicated, nuanced, tortured figures.

But male longing and culpability are ultimately less interesting than the affects this dynamic generates in Wharton’s women, such as Charlotte: paranoia, irritation, and envy, the holy trinity of ugly feelings. If we understand envy as Sianne Ngai does, in her book Ugly Feelings (2005), not as “a term describing a subject who lacks” but as “the subject’s affective response to a perceived inequality,” then Charlotte’s request that she and Kenneth leave the country and go on vacation so that they can escape the snare of his dead wife is a recognition of inequality, the unequal distribution of her husband’s desire and attention. Before she marries Kenneth, Charlotte is warned that “whatever you venture to do, he’ll mentally compare with what Elsie would have done in your place.” Charlotte’s envy allows her to form an identity as the ideal wife, while overcoming Kenneth’s desire for his late wife.

Freud defined the uncanny as the experience of perceiving something as “unhomely,” both strange and familiar at once. Wharton, who was obsessed with interior décor and architecture, understood the ideological import of the spaces in which women live. Her stories, absorbed as they are with the evocation of domestic spaces, are not necessarily scary, but they traffic in the uncanny, a much more sinister feeling. They ask us to consider a series of reversals: What happens when you become a guest in your own home, when the domestic space that is familiar is suddenly made foreign by gendered violence? What happens when, despite your best efforts, you are evicted from a place you once thought to be home by a thing — a ghost, a structure, a presence, a feeling — you can’t really wrap your head around? Or worse yet, what happens when you realize that the world you inhabit is not really home at all, has never been hospitable to people like you, and is always already strange and estranging?

Wharton writes that a good ghost story “sends a cold shiver down one’s spine.” But the ghosts in these tales can seem almost incidental, mere narrative devices used to tell the stories of subjugated women. Though I don’t find any of the tales particularly frightening, they do leave me feeling chilled. My frissons are ones of identification. I recognize something in these stories that is felt, keenly and pervasively, by modern women: that there is nothing scarier than life (and death) under patriarchy.


Nora Shaalan is a writer and graduate student based in New York City.

LARB Contributor

Nora Shaalan is a writer and graduate student based in New York City.


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