Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House

In 1921 Virginia Woolf published her first collection of short stories, titled Monday or Tuesday, which included “A Haunted House” as the opening piece. Although she continued to publish short fiction, this proved to be the only collection of such work published in her lifetime. Leonard Woolf, her husband, later chose the story for inclusion in the posthumous A Haunted House and Other Stories (1944).

Just 10 paragraphs long, “A Haunted House” depicts an unnamed, ungendered character who perceives (or perhaps dreams) that a loving but long-deceased couple haunts the country house he or she inhabits. Centuries ago, a woman died there, and her lover left for faraway lands, returning only in death. Reunited, the pair now wander around the rooms and the surrounding gardens, reminiscing to each other about the past, searching for “their joy.” This search disturbs the contemporary couple currently in residence: As they try to sleep or read, they sense movement—doors opening and shutting, the ghosts walking, the house beating as if it were a human heart.

Formally, the story resembles a prose poem more than a traditional narrative. Several repeated lines (“safe, safe, safe”) act as refrains, and repeated phrases (“treasure buried”) serve as poetic conceits, or unifying metaphors. The structure also prefi gures the stream-of-consciousness style and seamless use of multiple points of view that Woolf perfected in novels like Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and The Waves (1931). As in these other texts, here she creates a collage of bits of dialogue, forcing the reader to unravel the identity of each speaker or pronoun. Sometimes the ghosts speak to each other; sometimes they speak to the inhabitants of the house. Likewise, sometimes the couple speaks to each other; sometimes they speak to the ghosts; sometimes they speak directly to the reader.

George Charles Beresford

The action, however, occurs not in the plot but in the thematic amalgamation. Concerns more fully explored in later Woolf works, including sensual perceptions of the natural world, the relationships between individuals, and a preoccupation with mortality, gestate in “A Haunted House.” Our inability to decide conclusively whether the narrator imagines, dreams, or actually witnesses any supernatural phenomenon echoes The Turn of the Screw (1897), a novella by Henry James in which an interpretation of the story hinges on an evaluation of the protagonist’s sanity and trustworthiness. Like James, Woolf reacts against the constricting social mores of Victorian society: In contrast to the repressive atmosphere of late 19th-century England, an exuberant sexuality infuses this story, from its descriptions of light altering the colors of apples, leaves, and roses, traditional symbols of carnal love and knowledge, to the ghosts’ recollections of their “kisses without number.”

These traces of romantic pleasure may stem from the house’s real-life inspiration—Asheham, an estate in Sussex rented by Woolf and her sister in 1911. Virginia and Leonard courted along its grounds, and they spent their fi rst night as a married couple beneath its roof. But Asheham itself iterates Talland House, where Woolf summered happily as a child and to which she imaginatively returns throughout her oeuvre (Lee, 25). However, an unease permeates the story, reminding us that the house is, after all, haunted.

“A Haunted House” concludes with the narrator waking in the night, frantic, crying out. Indeed, Woolf rented Asheham after her doctors advised her to leave London to recuperate from a mental breakdown, and the story might therefore be read as a portrayal of someone suffering from psychological torment. Published just two years after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, the story also refl ects a very real loss: Close to 3 million soldiers suffered casualties, almost 1 million fatally, during the socalled Great War. A whole generation of European men and women lay buried, and their ephemeral sacrifi ce haunted the country.

Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Stories

Analysis of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Novels

Benzel, Kathryn N., and Ruth Hoberman. Trespassing Boundaries: Virginia Woolf’s Short Fiction. New York: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2004.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. London: Vintage, 1999. Woolf Virginia. “A Haunted House.” In Monday or Tuesday: Eight Stories. 1921. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1997.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: