Desire and Anxiety in the Victorian Ghost Story
Part 3: Repressed Incestuous Desire in The Empty House, Algernon Blackwood
The emergence of ghost stories during the Victorian era mirrors the emergence of fast-paced social developments in transportation, communication and sexual liberation, and could consequently be read as a means to channel social anxieties. Themes of masculinity, anxiety and change are repetitively acknowledged within the genre. Algernon Blackwood, Freud, Psychoanalysis, The Empty House,
Repressed incestuous desire
“The author must seek to terrify us not by the ghosts of the dead, but by those which are living within ourselves,” – Virginia Woolf
Like ‘Man-size in Marble,’ the haunting in Blackwood’s story ‘The Empty House’ comes as a result of domestic failure. ‘The Empty House’ foregrounds fear of the unknowable over the visually accessible. When Shorthouse and his Aunt catch a glimpse of a female figure which abruptly vanishes ‘utterly,’ he quickly dismisses the vision as a trick of ‘the beastly jumping candle-light.’ His instant rational explanation and desire to repress the truth of what he has undeniably seen suggests Shorthouse’s suppression of his own desire. Briggs proposes that ‘the concept of uncanniness itself is closely connected to disturbing interpretations and the discovery of resisted meaning.’ ‘The Empty House’ is a text rife with ‘disturbing interpretations’ and resisted desire, particularly with regard to Shorthouse’s inappropriately sexual relationship to his Aunt Julia:
“The ugly, lined, enigmatical face was alive with excitement. There was the glow of genuine enthusiasm round it like a halo. The eyes shone. He caught another wave of her excitement, and a second tremor, more marked than the first, accompanied it.”
Aunt Julia is described as ‘glowing,’ ‘tremoring,’ and alive with ‘waves of electrical condition,’ highly sexualised terminology reminiscent of electrical impulses. The semiotics of the piece allow sexual desire to double as a comment on modernism as the narrative captures the impulses of electricity. Anxiety and desire are closely interlinked in a mental battle of sexuality, progression, and family ties. Almost immediately after suppressing the memory of ‘physical mediums,’ Shorthouse sees his Aunt’s face revert into the face of a young girl – ‘it was his aunt’s face indeed, but it was her face of forty years ago, the vacant innocent face of a girl.’ When Shorthouse suppresses his desires, he is left in a state of horror, witnessing his Aunt’s face transpose before his eyes. Terror is able to entirely wipe memories from the mind, in the same way as Aunt Julia’s features are wiped clean of the last forty years. Shorthouse ‘instinctively closed his eyes tightly to shut out the sight,’ in an anxious attempt to reject his incestuous desires.
The eyes and the psyche
Eyes, thresholds of the body, watch Shorthouse and his Aunt throughout the story. ‘Through the open window they could see the comforting stars like friendly eyes watching in the sky.’ Shorthouse is anxious, guilt riddled and confused by his carnal desire. His fear leads to paranoia – he believes he is being constantly observed.
Also similarly to the house in ‘Man-size in Marble,’ the empty house which the characters explore is a physical symbol for the mind. As they stand ‘on the threshold of their ghostly adventure.’ Shorthouse and his Aunt hover on the precipice of dangerous and unexplored desires. ‘A yawning gulf of darkness’ swallows the couple as they delve in to the deep recesses of their minds. Aunt Julia attempts to shun her incestuous desires, by saying ‘ordinary things to prevent herself thinking extraordinary things.’
The house itself is uncanny, it seems ‘precisely similar’ but is ‘horribly different.’ If the house is a model of the human psyche, the staircases may be representative of the many layers of the human mind. Staircases are transitional places, symbolic of the lack of social distinction between classes and of aspects of consciousness. They are places of uncertainty, and are consequently the chosen setting for many ghostly encounters.
Pick up your copy of The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories to read the full collection of stories discussed in this blog.