The Lady’s Maid’s Bell by Edith Wharton, 1902
The magic trick:
Balancing credibility and doubt when it comes to the first-person narration
Written just four years after the publication of Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw, “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” is no doubt a close cousin to that ghostly psychological thriller. But that’s a good thing. Like James, Wharton is an expert at balancing our trust in our first-person narrator with just enough doubt to keep it interesting.
The narrator is the reader’s only eyes for the story. She also is the only character who sees the ghost. This situation inherently creates a dilemma for the reader that drives the suspense throughout the story. She certainly seems kind. She earns the trust of a few key characters in the story. We want to believe her. But then again, Wharton makes sure to mention several times that she has recently been battling typhoid. It’s also true that the ghost seems to want, coincidentally enough, the same things that the narrator wants – to protect her mistress, to aid Mr. Ranford.
Ultimately, Wharton provides no real answers. It’s up to the reader to decide if the narrator is reliable or not. It’s on the reader to pick apart the text for the truth. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.
After a while I slept; but suddenly a loud noise wakened me. My bell had rung. I sat up, terrified by the unusual sound, which seemed to go on jangling through the darkness. My hands shook so that I couldn’t find the matches. At length I struck a light and jumped out of bed. I began to think I must have been dreaming; but I looked at the bell against the wall, and there was the little hammer still quivering.
I was just beginning to huddle on my clothes when I heard another sound. This time it was the door of the locked room opposite mine softly opening and closing. I heard the sound distinctly, and it frightened me so that I stood stock still. Then I heard a footstep hurrying down the passage toward the main house. The floor being carpeted, the sound was very faint, but I was quite sure it was a woman’s step. I turned cold with the thought of it, and for a minute or two I dursn’t breathe or move. Then I came to my senses.