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Who’s Bewitching Whom? Edith Wharton’s “Bewitched”

Another of Wharton’s ghost stories, “Bewitched,” appeared in the writer’s 1926 collection Here and Beyond. In this story, we learn that Saul Rutledge, a farmer on an exceptionally isolated plot of land, has supposedly been carrying on with Ora Brand, the daughter of another farmer. It’s understandable that his wife, Prudence Rutledge, would take exception to her husband’s wandering ways, but even more so when we learn that Ora has been dead for just over a year.

When the Deacon suggests that Saul, pray over the matter, Prudence Rutledge erupts in an angry tirade:

“Prayer ain’t any good. In this kind of thing it ain’t no manner of use; you know it ain’t. I called you here, Deacon, because you remember the last case in this parish. Thirty years ago it was, I guess; but you remember. Lefferts Nash–did praying help him? I was a little girl then, but I used to hear my folks talk of it winter nights. Lefferts Nash and Hannah Cory. They drove a stake through her breast. That’s what cured him.”

She also cites Exodus 22:18 with its admonition not to allow a witch to live.

Eventually, the three men to whom Mrs. Rutledge brings this story determine to see for themselves by attempting to witness the next scheduled tryst between the quick and the dead. As it happens, though, the men cannot wait for the next day’s appointed time. All three make their way to the abandoned house where these assignations are supposed to take place. Outside the house, they see footprints–bare footprints–in the snow, which they take as clear evidence of something unworldly.

Entering the house, the events proceed in a harried fog:

Bosworth was never quite sure in what order the events that succeeded took place. Coming in out of the snow-dazzle, he seemed to be plunging into total blackness. He groped his way across the threshold, caught a sharp splinter of the fallen door in his palm, seemed to see something white and wraithlike surge up out of the darkest corner of the hut, and then heard a revolver shot at his elbow, and a cry–

What seems to have happened is that Mr. Brand has shot the ghost of his daughter, ghosts being famous for their vulnerability to gunshots. Muddying the waters, however, is the quick death of Brand’s other daughter, whose funeral provides the story’s final scene. Did Brand actually shoot his younger daughter, then taking her home to die? It seems rather implausible that she would just happen to die three days after her sister’s ghost is put to rest.

If the barefoot seductress in the house had been Venny Brand, why all the talk of witches and the dead walking? Why would Saul Rutledge claim to be sleeping with a dead girl? Why would his wife claim to have seen the pair together? And if Sylvester Brand did shoot his living daughter rather than his ghost daughter, why does everyone simply allow the pneumonia story to go unchallenged?

In the psychological mode that both Wharton and Henry James employ in their supernatural stories, a great number of questions–specifically questions about whether genuine ghostly activity is afoot–remain unanswered. One plausible answer to the questions just posed however lies in the isolation mentioned several times in this tale. In a community as widely spread and isolated as the one described here, the loss of one’s close companions can prove devastating. Perhaps Saul seeks to preserve his marriage if he can claim to be bewitched rather than simply unfaithful. Perhaps Prudence would rather consider a husband under the sway of the dead than one who cannot stay at home. And the weight of killing one’s own child after finding her to be destroying a neighbor’s marriage would be too heavy for Sylvester Brand to carry. Better to support a story of random tragedy than to face the truth.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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