Take the ghosts seriously or else: Gilman’s “Giant Wisteria”

Pick up your remote. Pick a channel. Any channel. You’re as likely as not to hit a show on TV about ghosts.

Ghost Hunters. Scary true life stories of ghosts. The real story of Eastern State Penitentiary.

Why are we so fascinated by ghosts?

There’s almost something distasteful about people’s fascination with the paranormal. It’s one thing to take control of death by poking fun at it, such as in films like Beetlejuice or in traditional carnival celebrations.

But in general, it seems to me that ghosts ought to be treated with a healthy amount of respect, seeing how they probably don’t come around unless something particularly bad has happened.

Which is why I was particularly amused by a set of characters in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Giant Wisteria.” The plot of the story stretches over a century, with the opening scene taking place the night before the members of the Dwining family are about to return to England. Without giving too many details away, it’s pretty clear all is not hunky-dory in this family, who seem perfect for a guest shot on Dr. Phil.

Then the plot shoots forward a hundred years, and you have this opening line:

“O, George, what a house! What a lovely house! I am sure it’s haunted! Let us get that house to live in this summer! We will have Kate and Jack and Susy and Jim of course, and a splendid time of it!”

This from “Mrs. Jenny,” who just loves the idea of living in a haunted house for the summer. We’ll have such a hoot of a time there.

And she’s not the only one in her family. Several other family members conspire to make asses of themselves, most notably budding reporter Jack, who happily states his intention to fabricate a ghost if no actual spirits cooperate.

There’s a historical context to their behavior. As Gilman was writing this story, fascination with the paranormal was approaching the silly level in the United States. Mediums suggested they could communicate with spirits of the deceased. While frauds such as the Fox sisters were frequently exposed, the attraction to the paranormal remained strong.

But what really makes things interesting is that 19th-century spiritualism was the provenance of women. Linked with reform movements such as abolitionism and suffrage, women played an important role in communicating with spirits.

And that provides a link to something that was thematically important to Gilman – speaking.

Who gets to speak? Who doesn’t?

While the men in the story either refuse to acknowledge the existence of ghosts or are happily willing to create one for entertainment value, it’s pretty clear by the end of the story that bad things have gone down in the house. The final moments of the story reveal quite well why the house has a, shall we say, spooky appearance to it.

And what makes the ending most interesting is that it simply ends with the “reveal” of what’s actually happened in the house. The pack of jokers speculating about ghosts for the summer have nothing to say at this point.

It’s fun to speculate what they might have to say. But Gilman doesn’t give them a voice. They, for once, are silent.

And that’s part of the story’s point, in more ways than one. Characters in the story who aren’t allowed to have a voice in their own destiny shouldn’t be mocked by people who use language simply to entertain and amuse themselves.

That’s something all those folks who are getting their jollies out of ghost stories ought to remember.


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