The Ghosts of Life and Love: Themes in Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House”
“When someone you love becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure”. This common saying does a beautiful job at highlighting the main idea of the short story “A Haunted House” by Virginia Woolf. The story itself is about a ghostly couple who tend to roam around the house they used to own in search of a treasure, which the reader is led to believe is perhaps gold or money. In fact, the story is about another treasure—the treasure of love. As the ghosts wander about the house, they are rediscovering places full of memories of their love for each other. This would suggest that the principal theme of the story is love. However, there are less noticeable themes that aren’t talked about as much. In “A Haunted House” by Virginia Woolf, the themes of death, life, and love are deeply entwined with the story and with each other.
Death in this story can be pointed out easily enough; after all, the story is mostly about the ghosts of a dead couple haunting their house. Within the first two sentences, the narrator already reveals who’s haunting the house: “From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.” (Woolf). Other than the main characters being deceased, there is also one very important moment in the story that relates to this theme: So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. (Woolf)
In these sentences the theme of death is seen directly from beginning to end. The narrator first states that the only thing differentiating themselves from the couple is death. They then seem to switch from the owner of the house to an almost omniscient being and tell the tale of the pair’s demise. The fact that the narrator knows these things, things that a normal human never could’ve been able to know, could suggest that they are close to death. Perhaps, they are in a very deep sleep, or even a coma. This is supported by the end of the story, where the narrator suddenly wakes up as they decipher what the hidden treasure truly is.
The theme of life is a tad more difficult to grasp, as the main symbolism for it is the house, an inanimate object. There is a constant recurring image where the house pulses with the words “Safe, safe, safe.”, which could be seen as the house’s heartbeat or as the house proudly showing that their treasure is safe with it. Another important line in the story is “The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound.” (Woolf). Again, this line suggests that there is life in the house as well as the gardens. Just as Woolf introduces, at least symbolically, a beating heart, now she introduces breath which further suggests there is life in the house for the deceased couple. They are ghosts with not only a beating heart but also with the breath of life inside them.
Throughout the story, there are many instances where the theme of love is revealed and developed. To start off, during the first paragraph where the ghostly couple is introduced, they state that they are hand in hand. This hints that they’re in love and it is later confirmed as they roam through the house searching for the places of their fondest memories together. The living couple in the house is also in love, as the departed pair mention it once the story is reaching its end. One interesting thing about this new couple is the fact that Woolf never gives either of the characters in the story a physical description, which might suggest that love is not confined to the physical. According to Brenda Helt, it was very common for Woolf to hint at the acceptance of all sexualities and forms of love, as she often included subtle suggestions like this (143).
Woolf is clearly a very talented writer. She brought three of the most important and prominent themes in literature, love, life and death, and managed to fit them all in a beautiful short story using metaphors, images and symbolism. As Garnet said, “…her prose is like poetry and the language is very sensitive to the beauty of things” (Garnet, 381). You can’t always notice a theme the first time you read one of her stories because of this. Like the life of the house, it might be hidden between the text; like the ghostly couple, one must search for the hidden treasures in her writings.
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