By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘A Haunted House’, by Virginia Woolf, both is and is not a ghost story. In less than two pages of prose, Woolf explores, summons, and subverts the conventions of the ghost story, offering a modernist take on the genre. ‘A Haunted House’, which first appeared in Woolf’s 1921 short-story collection Monday or Tuesday, can be read here.
‘A Haunted House’ is at once easy and difficult to summarise; how we analyse the story depends on which aspects we emphasise. In summary, the narrator describes the house where she and her partner live. Whenever you wake in the house, you hear noises: a door shutting, and the sound of a ‘ghostly couple’ wandering from room to room in the house. The narrator (whom we can assume, tentatively, is female) claims to be able to hear this ghostly couple talking to each other. It’s clear they’re looking for something:
‘Here we left it,’ she said. And he added, ‘Oh, but here too!’ ‘It’s upstairs,’ she murmured. ‘And in the garden,’ he whispered. ‘Quietly,’ they said, ‘or we shall wake them.’
Next, the narrator describes reading a book outside while hearing the ghostly couple, in the background, hunting for this mysterious thing around the house. But as soon as she drops the book and goes to look for them, there is no sign of the ghostly pair – just the sound of the wood pigeons and the threshing machine.
The narrator confides that you could never see the ghosts, just reflections of apples and leaves in the sunlit windows. The house itself seems to be speaking, saying something about buried treasure. The light is fading, and the rooms are darkened. The narrator imagines the male ghost leaving the female one behind for some reason. It is now night-time, and the ghostly coupling continue to ‘seek their joy’. They appear to reminisce over the bed (where the living, present-day couple now sleep) where they once slept, centuries ago.
The narrator then imagines the ghostly couple standing over her as she sleeps, and, holding a lamp over the bed of the living couple, the ghosts pause, still seeking ‘their hidden joy’. Then, the narrator wakes up and feels that she has solved the mystery, and now understands what this ‘buried treasure’ is what the ghostly couple have been seeking: ‘the light in the heart’.
‘A Haunted House’ seems to be Woolf’s attempt to convey the feeling of sensing something just on the edge of hearing or sight: something you cannot see head-on but which you sense in the house with you, just on the periphery of your vision. We can probably all relate to the experience of being alone in a house and feeling that every creak, every hum, every far-off sound betokens something – a ghost, or an intruder, for instance. Woolf’s story seeks to encapsulate that experience. That title, ‘A Haunted House’, is ripe with potential irony. And it is only ‘potential’ – for all we know, there may have been a ghostly couple in the house with the story’s narrator.
But it’s suggestive that the narrator seems most attuned to the presence of the ‘ghosts’ when she’s in states of semi-consciousness or her mind is somewhere else: just waking up, or engrossed in a book, for instance. Consider the very first sentence of the story: ‘Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.’
Three things suggest themselves here, at least. First, the use of the second-person pronoun ‘you’ attempts to involve us in the narrator’s experiences, as if to suggest that we have all felt something similar to this, things on the margins of our conscious experience. Second, the fact that she begins by talking about just waking from sleep – something that will come again at the end of the story – suggests waking from a dream. Third, the fact that she mentions waking at any hour is indicative of someone who might fall asleep at any moment – someone who daydreams in the most literal sense, falling asleep during daytime, and therefore (arguably) more prone to confusing dreams with reality.
‘A Haunted House’ might be described as a short story – and, in one way, as a ghost story – but its language is almost that of a prose-poem. The rhythmical prose beats like a heart with the repeated refrain: ‘“Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly.’ This mantra reappears later, with ‘softly’ changed to ‘gladly’, and then again in the final paragraph as the couple are reunited, with the adverb changed to ‘proudly’ and ‘pulse’ upped to ‘heart’ – and, suggestively, the tense shifted from past to present, as ‘beat’ morphs into ‘beats’:
‘Safe, safe, safe,’ the heart of the house beats proudly. ‘Long years—’ he sighs. ‘Again you found me.’ ‘Here,’ she murmurs, ‘sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—’ Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. ‘Safe! safe! safe!’ the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry ‘Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.’
Was it all a dream? The pulsing sound that beats through the prose in its almost poetic rhythms could almost suggest the quickening heartbeat of the narrator as s/he awakes. The accumulation of active present participles, of ‘sleeping’, ‘reading’, ‘laughing’, ‘rolling’, and ‘stooping’, only intensifies the here-and-now of the moment being crystallised in prose. That final phrase, ‘The light in the heart’, looks back to the use of both ‘heart’ and ‘light’ earlier in the same paragraph. Woolf’s ‘story’ positions itself neatly between dream-vision and ghost story, reinventing both using the new style of modernism and that movement’s interest in shifting tense and perspective. As with much modernist fiction, perception, rather than objective reality, is foregrounded.
In an essay on Henry James’s ghost stories, published in 1921 – the same year as ‘A Haunted House’ – Virginia Woolf called for new writers to find fresh and original ways of arousing fear and terror in readers of ghost stories:
To admit that the supernatural was used for the last time by Mrs. Radcliffe and that modern nerves are immune from the wonder and terror which ghosts have always inspired would be to throw up the sponge too easily. If the old methods are obsolete, it is the business of a writer to discover new ones. The public can feel again what it has once felt—there can be no doubt about that; only from time to time the point of attack must be changed.
Woolf sought to do this with ‘A Haunted House’, a story which is both a ghost story and a riposte to, or analysis of, the conventional ghostly tale. But, given that final phrase, ‘The light in the heart’, it is also a love story, and – given its relative plotlessness, its brevity, and its prose-poetry style – barely a ‘story’ at all.
You can read ‘A Haunted House’, and Woolf’s other pioneering short stories, in The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction (Oxford World’s Classics). To discover more about female modernist writers, see our pick of Woolf’s best novels and essays, her best short fiction, our reappraisal of May Sinclair’s fiction, our analysis of Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’, and our introduction to one of Woolf’s most influential essays about modernism.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.