Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fiction Review: "A Haunted House," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The text of "A Haunted House," by Virginia Woolf, can be read by clicking here.

The technique of "close reading" was created by critics such as F.R. Leavis and Cleanth Brooks. It's not a coincidence that it came to the fore in the wake of High Modernism. If one didn't engage in "close reading" of authors such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or William Faulkner, one couldn't read them at all. Old techniques such as reading for the plot result in one getting to the bottom of the first page of one of these writers' works and saying, "Huh?" I had this experience again when reading Woolf's brief 1921 story "A Haunted House" the other day. I hadn't sat down with a piece of high-modernist writing in five years, and I was confronted with how slothful a reader I'd become in the interim. I know from experience that writers such as Woolf aren't incomprehensible; one simply needs to rise to the occasion of reading them. "A Haunted House," which runs just shy of 700 words, is an excellent place to start getting one's discipline back.

A key difference between Woolf and other, more conventional writers is that she doesn't introduce elements simply for the sake of setting a scene. If she describes a room as having a chair, it's not the only time one is going to read about that chair. She'll return to it again and again, looking at it in a new way each time. She does this with every item, idea, or phrase she introduces, building her effects and the stories through the juxtapositions of the various elements and the development that comes from returning to and elaborating on them. Woolf's pieces are most aptly compared to symphonies: she introduces and reintroduces themes, juxtaposing them to create unisons and discords, which she ultimately builds to a crescendo.

"A Haunted House" tells of the experience a young couple (particularly the wife) have with a ghostly couple that haunts their home. In the second sentence, Woolf describes the ghosts with, "From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure [...]" Woolf plays with the word "here" in what follows: "'Here we left it,' she said. And he added, 'Oh, but here too!' 'It's upstairs,' she murmured." Woolf leaves the word "here" undefined, but the repetitions give it emphasis and signify its importance. She also introduces the word "it," which is left undefined, too, and the repetitions signify this word's importance as well. The story progresses through the development of the elements--the themes--of the words "here" and "it."

Woolf carries the reader along by defining everywhere "here" both is and is not. The ghostly couple find "it" and "here" in the garden, in the drawing room, and in the home's upstairs. But the wife, who narrates, can find neither in these places. "My hands were empty," she says repeatedly. Woolf creates a mystery: What is the "it," and how can many places be "here," if "here" is where "it" is? As the story progresses, we learn that the "it" is a "buried treasure," another vague reference, ostensibly concrete, that turns out to be just as abstract as "it." Woolf develops the reader's sense of the "treasure" and its value as the story continues. The piece climaxes when both "it and "here" are defined: the narrator realizes what they refer to in the final sentence.

Woolf ends on an epiphanic note, and it's a particularly modernist epiphany: one achieves a higher understanding by adding a different perspective to one's own. The narrator adds the ghosts' perspective to her view of things, and she's left with a greater understanding of "it" and "here" and "treasure." Woolf implicitly has her narrator also recognize that feelings and sentiments are at least as valuable as material wealth. The story is a fine (re)introduction to the world of modernism: it demands the utmost attention on the part of the reader, reality is defined through many eyes, and it explores abstraction and the adventures of the mind. My reading life has definitely been poorer over the last five years.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

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