Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Short Take: "The Eyes," Edith Wharton

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Edith Wharton’s 1910 short story “The Eyes” is effective as both a ghost story and a psychological study. To be perfectly accurate, it’s an intriguing ghost story that turns into an effective psychological study. The protagonist, who narrates the tale within the tale, is wealthy, middle-aged, and in the parlance of Wharton's time, a “confirmed bachelor.” After the meal at a dinner party, he joins the other attendees in relating his experience with ghosts. He has had two such experiences, both with a pair of hideous, aged eyes that stare at him from the foot of his bed and keep him from sleeping. The first haunting occurs during his brief, informal engagement to a young female cousin. The second occurs years later, after he guiltily prolongs his association with an aspiring though talentless writer. Wharton cannily develops the questions of the ghost’s identity and the connection between the hauntings in the reader’s mind. The answer to the riddles is only implied, but once grasped, it says more about the host’s mindset than anything else in the story. The ending is beautifully handled. The host finally appears to realize, after so many years, the truth about the hauntings--and the truth about himself. Additionally, his latest companion recognizes the pattern of the host’s relationships and what’s in store for the two of them. It’s a remarkably subtle and poignant scene. Wharton’s ability to build the story towards these climactic epiphanies, as well as to suggest rather than state their nature, is quite remarkable; her almost unsurpassed command of story craft is on fine display. And, of course, there’s that elegant Wharton prose. The story was first published in the June 1910 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.

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