II. The Psychological Ghost
xplaining ghosts as ‘waking dreams’ is one thread in the exploration of the supernatural, and ran in parallel with the idea that the visions, no matter how compellingly realistic, were mental projections. Writing in 1825, Samuel Hibbert and John Ferriar claimed that apparitions were ‘the embodied images of the mind’ (69), the product of ‘highly excited states’ at work within ‘particular temperaments’ (72). De Boismont (1853) takes the same approach and the notion of the ghost as an internal image, rather than a spirit, is developed at length throughout the genre.
This convention largely was first presented in the 1840s by Dickens in A Christmas Carol, depicting Marley not only as a means of criticising capitalism but as the material embodiment of Scrooge’s repressed unconsciousness. Ignorant of any sense of wrongdoing in his everyday life, Scrooge’s apparitions are in this reading the projections of all he has kept under mental lock and key. Recent critics – such as Thurston and Hay – have discouraged such Freudian or psychoanalytical approaches, but in my view the methodology offers the best chance of making sense of texts that are often tantalizingly opaque, allowing us to recreate the psychological imperatives of a variety of authors while reinstating the understandings of the original audiences for whom the ghost/mind nexus was a cultural commonplace. The question, of course, is a simple one: what states of mind are conveyed in these material forms?
The psychological baseline, so to speak, is what Hay describes as a ‘concern with trauma’ (22). In every case, the characters who hallucinate are possessed with some unresolved problem: in classic Freudian terms, the anguish has become an energy, a repressed force which (as in the case of the over-regulated Scrooge) has to escape in some distorted manifestation and, untreated or confronted, will always return. These revenants are usually understood as evidences of guilt, and there are many examples of the revengeful shade who forces the wrong-doer to face up to his crimes or misbehaviour. In Edwards’s ‘Was it an Illusion?’, for instance, the school-teacher murders his son, whose body he concealed in a lake; tormenting his father, the apparition’s reappearance ultimately leads to his murderer’s apprehension. Braddon’s ‘The Cold Embrace’ is similarly figured with the ghost of a dead lover returning to torture the unfaithful beau; as Jennifer Uglow explains, the deadly embrace ‘is a manifestation of guilt and remorse, unseen by others, which grips [the character] whenever he is alone’, making us ‘realize that everyone … must be alone’ with his or her ‘conscience’ (Uglow xiv). And in Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’ the chimera returns to punish Jennings for something that is never disclosed – but is enough to return in a symbolic form and more than enough to drive him to madness and suicide. These fantasies, like A Christmas Carol, are driven by a moral as much as a psychological imperative. However, the avenging ghost is ultimately a small part of the genre as a whole, and the vision is more generally a flexible sign of multiple conditions.
Ghost stories are often framed as romances, and several authors deploy the spectral as a means of articulating feelings of loss, disappointment, regret and yearning. In these texts the characters realize their failure to join with a beloved and are haunted by an awareness of having made a serious mistake, typically at the end of a life of emotional and/or sexual compromise, or isolation. Mary Louisa Molesworth enshrines all of these features in ‘The Story of the Rippling Train’. In this story the elderly Mr Marischal recounts his seeing of Maud, a woman he should have married, at the moment of her death; though burned to death and horribly disfigured, he sees her as a beautiful girl, a ‘sweet bright creature’ (326) who conceals her burns and appears as she was when he first knew her. This detail is important because her beauty symbolizes Marischal’s awareness that he should have made her his bride when he could; instead, he ‘has never married’, leading an ‘absorbingly busy life’ (327) which is blighted, nevertheless, by his lifetime disappointment and feelings of incompleteness. The apparition is in this broader sense an emblem of his unresolved grief. At the same time, the author intriguingly suggests that Maud’s farewell is an acknowledgement that she too has wasted her life: although she is said to have been happy with another man, the terms of her marriage are unknown, and Molesworth pointedly notes her husband’s rapid re-marriage following her death (326).
Regret and stifled desire are similarly explored in Broughton’s ‘Poor Pretty Bobby’, in which the narrator, who married someone else, is visited by the figure of her lost beloved, and a parallel situation is traced by Edwards in ‘Sister Johanna’s Story’. Both recount the torment of women whose lives would have developed along different lines, and in both cases the depth of their trauma is symbolized by the violent details of the men’s deaths: Bobby is drowned and Ulrich (who is secretly loved by Johanna) shoots himself. Edwards describes his wound as a ‘dark mark’, a ‘bruise’ created by the ‘bullet-hole in his brow’ (116). Not only functioning as part of the narrative, these physical details can be read as signs of emotional suffocation and mental pain, neatly embodying the female characters’ psychological anguish in a material form.
Eric Pape's illustration of the governess's first sight of Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw: "He did stand there — but high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower." Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.
These stories recount engagement with real-life situations and their mental consequences, but others probe deeper into the unconscious mind. In this class of story the subjective is privileged, and we are taken into the minds of characters whose yearnings are self-generated. Oliphant epitomizes this sort of sophisticated speculation in ‘The Library Window’: focusing on the dreamy mental processes of a young girl, she explores the character’s vision of an imaginary young man, glimpsed in a non-existent room. The experience seems plausible, but is probably best read, as I have argued elsewhere, as a representation of ‘adolescent insanity’ (Cooke, “The Library Window”) in which the narrator becomes aware of her own, frustrated sexuality and undergoes a nervous breakdown; though later satisfactorily married, she never forgets her encounter, which represents her ideal. Repressed sexuality, and its embodiment in imaginary figures, is more generally treated by Henry James in his novelette The Turn of the Screw (1898). James’s text is the classic formulation, focusing on the governess’s sexual fantasies as they are embodied (perhaps) by the dead lovers Jessel and Quint, and projected onto the children in her care. Convinced that Miles and Flora are possessed by the spirits, in reality it is she who is possessed by some sort of mental complex that is generated – maybe – by her attraction to the orphans’ uncle. James’s tale is the subject of a vast body of criticism; as numerous commentators have observed, it offers several possible readings. Yet it does fit neatly into an existing discourse in which psychological or emotional conditions of an apparently shameful type – principally eroticism and physical desire –are amplified by strict repression and forced, their natural expression denied, into the strangest and most grotesque shapes. Corresponding closely with the Freudian division into ‘latent’ and ‘manifest’ content, many stories are allegories of the suppressed libido, mainly in relation to women but sometimes in connection with men as well.
Such anguished emotion is matched, on the other hand, by speculations of wistful loss and longing for the dead. Perhaps the most touching of these is Braddon’s ‘The Island of Old Faces’. Braddon constructs the story as another exploration of mental breakdown as the narrator is advised to travel in order to restore ‘nerves’ that are ‘in a very bad state’ (249); in search of his health, his psychological condition generates the spirits of the deceased while allowing him to return to his youth. In other words, the apparitions project his innermost regrets and desire to return to innocence; ruined by the pace of Victorian life and overworked, his mind conjures an unchanging paradise, a stasis where he can live with those he has lost. Owing much to Tennyson’s ‘The Lotus Eaters’, Braddon offers what appears to be a simple fantasy but is in fact a poignant reflection on mortality, the ever-changing demands of modern industrialized life, and the inescapability of time.
Underrated as a writer of the ‘psychological ghost, Braddon stretches the genre’s conventions, using the shade as a means to explore nuanced states of mind. Invoking a melancholy tone, she repeatedly deploys the spectral as a means to lament the loss of innocence. In ‘The Shadow in the Corner’ she visualizes the destructiveness of Michael Bascom’s emotionless deadness in the form of an apparition that oppresses and finally encourages a girl-servant to kill herself. Though figured as a supernatural tale in which the haunting seems unconnected with the master, the symbolism is clear: Bascom, stuck in his ways and obsessed with his studies, is unable to accept Maria’s vital presence just as he has suppressed everything that is joyful and uplifting. Braddon powerfully depicts the situation as a contest between two modes of living, of being ‘dry-as-dust’ and as beautiful as a ‘flower blown across the threshold’(137), and the author examines the conflict between alternatives as they exist within a single mind. At one point Bascom, whose greed for knowledge recalls Scrooge’s desire for money, experiences ‘remorse’ and the ‘agonising memory of the life wasted’ (145) he has frigidly imposed on himself. His revelation takes place when he sleeps in the room Maria says is haunted, in symbolic terms delving into his own unconscious mind, where he achieves some self-awareness. But he denies the existence of the ghost, thus re-imposing the process of repression while compelling Maria to remain in what is in essence the cauldron of his personal ‘horrors’ and mental ‘stings’ (145). The servant girl’s suicide materializes Bascom’s psychological suicide; unwilling to accept his responsibility for what has happened, he reverts to the usual moribund pattern and sinks further into a ‘deep shadow’ (148) of pointless self-absorption.
Braddon’s highly suggestive exploration of the mind is amplified by the work of writers who grapple with disappointment, desire, and regret. In ‘The Open Door’, Oliphant presents a story of loss in which the narrator can only help his son, who is haunted by the spirit of a lost child, by returning the phantom to its rightful place under the protection of a long-lost parent. What it is really about, however, is the relationship between the father and his son, Roland. In particular, the distressed ghost acts as a surrogate for Roland, the ‘pale faced boy’ (171) whose fears, as he is forced to look after himself before he is ready to do so by a brusque and absent father, are projected onto the ghost. The father’s compassionate treatment of the ghost becomes in this sense a metaphorical realization of the father’s (concealed) love for his son; once the haunting is resolved Roland recovers and his parent realizes the emotional bond between them. All that Roland wanted, Oliphant implies, was his father’s love, a desire to be viewed as more than just ‘the boy’, and comforted and protected; as Roland remarks in a repeated phrase at the end of one of their interviews, apparently in relation to the spectre but actually referring to their relationship, ‘I was sure you would know what to do as soon as you came’ (181). In connecting with the ghost the father connects with his child, and the ghost is re-viewed as the shadow of his neglect and of his son’s anguish.
Such sophisticated dealings with the supernatural is paradigmatic of the genre as a whole. The capacity of the psychological ghost as an analytical tool – essentially as a means to probe the psyche – is given a final twist, perhaps, in Dickens’s ‘The Ghost in Master B’s Room’, the climactic story in a collection which appeared in All the Year Round as ‘The Haunted House’ (Christmas 1859). Dickens playfully exploits some of the genre’s stereotypical features, but uses them to offer a profound reflection on ageing, loss and mortality. Though nominally haunted by Master B, Dickens is possessed by the ghost of himself at the various stages of his life and the presence of the forebears who made him what he was. The moment of revelation is conveyed with painful intensity as the middle-aged author looks into a shaving-mirror and sees a representation of time, descent, and his own place in the process of living:
Opening my eyes, which I had shut while recovering my firmness, I now met in the glass, looking straight at me, the eyes of a young man of four or five-and-twenty. Terrified by this new ghost, I closed my eyes … Opening them again, I saw, shaving my cheek in the glass, my father, who has long been dead. Nay, I even saw my grandfather too, whom I never did see in life. 
This vision figures a profound psychological perception which makes him aware of his own mortality and the irretrievability of passing time. At the end of the story he reconciles himself to loss, wistfully accepting the idea that what he has seen is a residue of times past, including his ‘own childhood’ (249). It is a melancholy reflection, and one only realized as a ghostly imprint of the unconscious mind.
- Introduction: The Haunted Text
- III. The Political Ghost and Women's Issues
- IV. Some Final Thoughts on the Victorian Ghost Story
- Bibliography (primary and secondary sources)
Created 2 June 2021