‘Afterward’ by Edith Wharton


Afterward by Edith Wharton, 1909

The magic trick:

Using a ghost story to make a point about man’s leverage in modern marriage

You know going in to an Edith Wharton ghost story that it will deliver scares and a certain degree of class. She is a classy lady after all.

“Afterward” is no exception. What it also does, though, is put forth a feminist point of view that often is missing in, well, fiction in general but especially ghost stories. The mystery here lies in the fact that the husband never told his wife anything about his life. He operates his business – major stresses and all – in the dark. The moment before explanation in the story, she literally says, “I know nothing. You must tell me.”

Sure, none of that accounts for the eerie supernatural facets of the story. But it’s clear that there is a point being made here about the state of marriage and all of the leverage men hold. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

His wife felt a sting of compunction. Theoretically, she deprecated the American wife’s detachment from her husband’s professional interests, but in practice she had always found it difficult to fix her attention on Boyne’s report of the transactions in which his varied interests involved him. Besides, she had felt from the first that, in a community where the amenities of living could be obtained only at the cost of efforts as arduous as her husband’s professional labors, such brief leisure as they could command should be used as an escape from immediate preoccupations, a flight to the life they always dreamed of living. Once or twice, now that this new life had actually drawn its magic circle about them, she had asked herself if she had done right; but hitherto such conjectures had been no more than the retrospective excursions of an active fancy. Now, for the first time, it startled her a little to find how little she knew of the material foundation on which her happiness was built.


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