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The Ghost of Business Past: Edith Wharton’s “Afterward”

Although her reputation chiefly rests on her realistic novels, Edith Wharton produced a cluster of ghost stories that deserve a bit of attention during this Halloween season. Perhaps the best of these, “Afterward,” portrays an American couple, newly enriched through mining stock, moving into their new country home in Dorset. Only as time passes do we realize that Edward Boyne has brought his wife Mary to England not just to allow them to live out a life of leisure but to escape a cloud of misdeeds associated with the mining business. Edward seeks to separate himself from Wisconsin and the damaged reputation he has made for himself there, although he finds England “such a confoundedly hard place to get lost in.”

Eventually, the events in North America come back to haunt Edward Boyne, figuratively if not literally. After the mysterious visit of a man, who may or may not be Edward’s dead former colleague, Mr. Boyne disappears without a trace, leaving his wife with no idea of his fate. The ghostly aspect of this story intersects the naturalistic here as we remember something intriguing about the country house. As they considering buying the house, the Boynes had been informed by a friend that this place had a most unique ghost, one that you never realized to be a ghost until long afterward. That would seem to be the reason for the title of the story. From the moment, in the story’s first pages, that one learns of this peculiar brand of haunting, the eye is tuned to find the ghost.

It is perhaps a general truth of human nature that the eye expecting to find something interesting, a treasure, a mystery, or a ghost, will somehow manage to find the same. When Mary Boyne’s husband vanishes without a trace, she manages to create an explanation that has the cheated colleague, Elwell, appearing as the ghost that one doesn’t recognize as a ghost until afterward and taking Edward away to some indistinct but decidedly supernatural fate. To compound the mystery, Mary recalls the day, October 20, when she and Edward spied someone mysterious walking along the driveway. That day, it turns out, corresponds with the day on which Elwell attempted suicide. Coincidence? Mary certainly does not think so.

While “Afterward” can certainly be read as a straight–albeit not very spooky–ghost story, it seems to me more interesting as a story describing the manner in which the human mind creates useful and comforting fictions. Was there anything actually ghostly about the October 20 vision? Apparently it was not so strange that Mary concerned herself with it during the coming months. Is there another possible explanation for why her husband disappeared? Certainly, this man, who had hidden his affairs from his wife so effectively in the past, might have simply decided to take a runner in the face of his bad reputation pursuing him across the Atlantic.

How then would I explain the appearances of Elwell’s ghost on the date of his suicide attempt and upon his death? How indeed. The initial sighting, not necessarily the same person seen on the date of Boyne’s disappearance, can be easily dismissed as coincidence. The second sighting, curiously, did not take place until news of Elwell’s actual death had managed to travel across North America and then the Atlantic, finding its way to Dorset in the post. How is it that the ghost could immediately travel on October 20 but take perhaps ten days in the later situation?

In the end, I would suggest, “Afterward” is less a story about ghosts than about the stories that people construct out of the details of their past. Certainly, Mary tortures herself with guilt over directing Elwell to her husband, but isn’t such guilt easier to bear than the idea that one’s husband has disappeared without a word? In the latter case, she can feel somewhat justified in retaining the family’s ill-gotten gains after Elwell has taken his revenge. Perhaps the ghost that one only recognizes “afterward” is actually the truth.

 

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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