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Editorial Report – A Haunted House. Virginia Woolf. 1921

by Rebecca Smith 11 months ago in book reviews

Like a review, but it's an editorial

Virginia Woolf’s 1921 shorty story - A Haunted House, is a well written ghost story, with a strong central theme. Whilst it is not gothic, it is clear that the piece has been influenced by Poe, with Woolf’s use of poetic devices and descriptions. This is a perfect example of how Woolf has tried to experiment with genre expectations, whilst not deviating much from her central plot. The themes of love, loss, struggle and connection are explored well in this short story, with a twist on the ‘ghost story’ genre.

This short story is told in the first person, by a living couple. The woman hears a ghost couple that have been re-united and are searching the house for a lost treasure; that is unknown to the narrator and the reader. Towards the end, the living woman hears the ghost woman say, ‘Here we left our treasure…’ after seeing the human couple sleeping, and thus she realises what the ghosts have been seeking.

Whilst depicted as a ghost story, it doesn’t follow the usual conventions one might associate with the genre. Despite the typical setting of a haunted house, and the elements of the supernatural, there is no build of tension throughout the story. Moreover, the story doesn’t have a scare factor. Woolf has used this to highlight to the reader that we are more afraid of what we think may be lurking, rather than what we may actually see. For example, the presence of the ghosts is known to the narrator, and so there is no pose of threat.

Furthermore, although A Haunted House is a short story – just under seven-hundred words – the prose adopts poetic devices throughout. For example, Woolf uses inversion in the first paragraph, ‘making sure – a ghostly couple.’ Woolf has used this for emphasis, as the ghostly couple play a central part to plot. As well as this, Woolf has used sibilance, in the repeated phrase ‘safe, safe, safe.’ The sibilance is onomatopoeic, and represents the house whispering, giving the reader a sense that the house is alive and speaking directly to them. I think this is extremely well written and works to give the short story an added level of meaning, without straying from the plot with expositional description or dialogue.

On the other hand, some poetic devices that Woolf has used, could be removed, as they haven’t quite worked. An example of this, is Woolf’s use of anaphora, ‘the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.’ Anaphora is used to evoke an emotion or holm in on a particular experience. I don’t feel that Woolf has achieved what she set out to do here. Perhaps changing the anaphora to a triadic structure would work better? Although there is no gradual tension building to an ultimate scare, there is still a growing desire within the reader to find out what the treasure is. So, the use of a triadic structure may increase the want to know, and as a result, may make for a more interesting and harder hitting climax.

Added to this, because there is no build of tension, I wonder if the desire to know what the hidden treasure is, is enough to keep the reader wanting to progress and submerge themselves in the story? I believe Woolf could do more here, and play more on the readers’ emotions.

A better description of the house could be added to the story. There isn’t much in the way of a vivid description, and the reader only knows what there is through the description of what the ghostly couple are doing. There should be more focus on the house, as the title suggests. Just a paragraph or two is needed to give some sense that this could be a real house, and something that the audience could imagine themselves being in. I also think that this could be a good opportunity to add some tone and underlying emotions, as the story lacks these a little in places.

Woolf has chosen to write the story in such a way, that it is not chronological. Whilst it aids character development, and helps Woolf to draw in the reader, it also raises the question of the narrator’s validity. Jumping from one event, to another, gives the impression that the narrator herself is not convinced of the story she is telling. Thus, the reader is left asking questions. Another example of this, where Woolf needs to be careful with her narrator’s voice, is where the narrator confides in the reader – telling them that she has never actually seen the ghosts; ‘Not that one could ever see them…’ The questioning of the narrator’s voice, stops the reader from being able to believe this as a story, so I think Woolf needs to be careful with what she is trying to experiment with here.

As this is a short story, it needs to remain in a fairly short time frame. Woolf’s use of the progressive tense ‘a door shutting…’ and the indefinite phrase ‘what ever hour…’ suggests there is no specific time frame. When read, the events in A Haunted House do read as if it is happening over the course of a twenty-four-hour period, but tightening up the language and making it less ambiguous, would really help tie this short story together neatly.

Furthermore, Woolf needs to be more careful with her tenses. She has tried to make the piece more mysterious, by mixing up the tenses to keep the reader guessing, but it has had the opposite effect, and has made the piece confusing at times. For example, ‘the house beat…’ turns into ‘the heart of the house beats proudly.’ Again, when describing the ghosts, Woolf changes up the tense in a sentence to add emphasis – ‘the faces bent; the faces pondering…’ – but this just raises the question of whether or not the ghosts are there now, or were there before.

There is a nice morality at the end of this short story. The reader is constantly left wondering what the lost treasure is that the ghosts are searching for, and the reader is left to assume that it is some kind of prized materialistic object. However, the treasure is something deeply set within all of us; love. ‘…here sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing…’ This leaves the reader with a question of their own morals and thoughts, due to their presumption. I think this is a nice touch added by Woolf, which has kept A Haunted House current.

Woolf has clearly written in a stream of consciousness, which has, at times, made it hard for the reader to keep up with who is speaking. The reader has to work by dividing their attention between the living couple, and the dead; this is especially apparent during the middle of the short story. Woolf herself, has undermined her own story title - A Haunted House – by not delivering a haunting story. This makes it even more imperative for her to keep her reader interested, and not push them away by making the story harder to read than it needs to be.

Another jarring aspect of the short story, that proves her stream of consciousness writing, is the lack of new paragraphs for speech; in fact, speech is not separated at all, and one line runs into another. Whilst this can be easily edited, the passiveness of the living couple, may take more work. The narrator is a passive character for the most part, which slows the narrative down; making it less enjoyable over-all.

The short internal monologue of the narrator, does well to draw the reader in, and include them in the ‘now.’ This works well and shouldn’t be changed. However, Woolf then, with the inclusion of the interrogative ‘what?’ pushes the reader back and separates them from the story once again. The interrogative could be removed completely, and this would keep the reader close to the story.

There is, what I assume to be, a spelling mistake in the second paragraph. The text describes, ‘Oh, but here tool.’ It is evident from context, that Woolf means ‘Oh, but here too.’ This is easily fixed, and Woolf’s attention to orthography has not slipped anywhere else.

Overall, A Haunted House is a timeless ghost story, that even modern readers can appreciate. The poetic language gives this short story, a wonderful tone and aids to the overall enjoyability. However, Woolf needs to be careful to not try too hard with descriptions and playing around with language – as it does not always work for her. The subversion of what is expected from this genre, makes it an exciting and thought provoking read.

book reviews
Rebecca Smith
Rebecca Smith
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Rebecca Smith


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