A Haunted House
By Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication
Setting
Characters
Point of View
Tone
Plot Summary
Theme
Climax
Wharton's Style
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Woolf's  Biography
Complete Text
Index of Study Guides

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012

Type of Work

......."A Haunted House" is a short short story in the fantasy genre about a ghost couple and a living couple occupying the same dwelling.
 

Publication

.......Hogarth Press published the story in London in 1921 as part of a collection of Woolf stories entitled Monday or Tuesday. In the same year, Harcourt, Brace, and Company, Inc., published the collection in New York City.

Setting

.......The action takes place in a coastal region of Southeastern England at a house in an unidentified locale where there is a farm. The time is the late nineteenth century or the early twentieth century. 

Characters

Living Couple: Current occupants of a house. 
Ghost Couple: Past occupants of the house.

Point of View

.......The living man and woman tell the story in first-person point of view, reporting the conversation and activity of the ghost couple.

Tone

.......The tone is playful and lighthearted. The reader realizes that the ghosts—who are conducting a search—pose no threat to the living couple. 

Plot Summary

.......A man and woman who occupy a house hear male and female ghosts wandering about the dwelling as they talk about a finding a treasure. The living man and woman have no knowledge of a treasure, such as gold or money, hidden on their property.
....... When they were alive, the ghosts had occupied the house more than a century before the current residents. The woman died first, and the man left the house and traveled. "He . . . went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs," the narration says. The Downs are a range of chalk mountains along the southeastern coast of England.
.......After the man died, he rejoined the woman ghost at the house they once occupied, the same house where the living man and woman now dwell. As the ghosts search for their treasure, they roam the house, opening and closing doors and drawing curtains back. Although they try not to disturb the living couple, the latter can hear them now and then.
.......And what is the treasure the ghosts seek? The narration reveals that it is the rediscovery of the places in and around the house where the ghosts spent little moments expressing their love for each other. The female ghost says, "Here, sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure­."
After an encounter with the ghost couple in their bedroom, the living couple realize what the ghosts are seeking.

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Theme: Love

.......In the second sentence of the story, the phrase "hand in hand" hints that the ghosts are in love. The author then leads the reader to believe that the story is about finding a treasure, perhaps gold or money. In fact, the story is about treasure—the treasure of love. As the ghosts wander about the house, they are rediscovering places full of memories of their love for each other. 

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Climax

.......The climax occurs at the end of the story, when the narration reveals that the treasure is "the light in the heart"—love.
 

Wharton's Style

.......Wharton's style in this story has a poetic touch.
.......In the second sentence, for example, she uses a commonplace poetic device, inversion, when she writes "making sure­ a ghostly couple" instead of "a ghostly couple making sure." This is the same device that Edgar Allan Poe uses in the first line of "The Raven," his most famous poem: "Once upon a midnight dreary (instead of once upon a dreary midnight). Another example of inversion occurs in these two sentences: Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause.
.......Wharton also repeats a phrase—"Safe, safe, safe—" in way that makes it resemble a refrain in a ballad.
.......In addition, Wharton uses the kind of finespun imagery that occurs frequently in poetry. Examples of this imagery appear under Figures of Speech. 

Figures of Speech

Alliteration

So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass
Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly
The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass

Anaphora
So fine, so rare

"What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?"

The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses;

the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.

Hyperbole

Kisses without number

Metaphor

trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun
Comparison of the trees to a weaver (trees spun)

Death was the glass
Comparison of death to the glass

"Safe, safe, safe," the pulse of the house beat gladly.
Comparison of the house to a beating heart

Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain.
Comparison of moonbeams to a liquid

Onomatopoeia

the hum of the threshing machine

Paradox

from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound
Sound comes from silence.

Complete Text

Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure­ a ghostly couple.

"Here we left it," she said. And he added, "Oh, but here too!" "It's upstairs," she murmured. "And in the garden," he whispered. "Quietly," they said, "or we shall wake them."

But it wasn't that you woke us. Oh, no. "They're looking for it; they're drawing the curtain," one might say, and so read on a page or two. "Now they've found it, " one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. "What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?" My hands were empty. "Perhaps it's upstairs then?" The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.

But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling, ­what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. "Safe, safe, safe" the pulse of the house beat softly. "The treasure buried; the room . . ." the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?

A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the
beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. "Safe, safe, safe," the pulse of the house beat gladly. "The Treasure yours."

The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.

"Here we slept," she says. And he adds, "Kisses without number." "Waking in the morning­" "Silver between the trees­" "Upstairs­" "In the garden­" "When summer came­" "In winter snowtime­" "The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.

Nearer they come, cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken, we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. "Look," he breathes. "Sound asleep. Love upon their lips."

Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.

"Safe, safe, safe," the heart of the house beats proudly. "Long years­" he sighs. "Again you found me." "Here," she murmurs, "sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure­" Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. "Safe! safe! safe!" the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry "Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart."

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Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Are the living couple as much in love as the ghostly couple?
  • At what point in the story does the reader realize that the ghostly couple pose no threat to the living couple? Explain your answer.
  • Write an essay explaining why you like the story (or why you dislike it).
  • Write your own short story about friendly ghosts.
  • Write a short story about malevolent ghosts.