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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

The Power and Importance of First-Person Narration in Victorian Ghost Stories by Viola Hallam

            Victorian ghost stories are meant to make readers feel weary and uneasy. In using paranormal themes, the Victorian ghost story feeds readers with “what ifs” and open endings in order to enhance their anxieties. When indulging in this genre, the reader is not meant to feel comfortable or content with the subject, the reader is expected to experience the same range of emotion that the characters feel while moving through the story. In order to do this, the reader must engage in the story through the eyes of its protagonist. Charles Dickens “No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-Man”, Edward Bulwer Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters or The House and the Brain”, and Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” are examples of Victorian ghost stories that enhance the readers experience through its first-person narration. Through the use of first-person narration, Victorian ghost stories are made to be more effective as the reader experiences the happenings through the eyes of the character. It is through this that the Victorian ghost story becomes a more personable experience and in turn, a more frightening experience for its audiences.

            Dickens, Lytton, and O’Brien all use first-person narration within their texts to help enhance the readers’ experiences. All three of these short stories are told as if a friend is retelling an experience to another friend. The first-person narration makes these stories personable and intimate and, in turn, more terrifying to its audiences. Henrik Skov Nielsen states that:

“According to Hamburger, the sentences of the epic are not sentences that can be true or false in respect to reality but are sentences about something that only exists by virtue of the sentences. In first-person fiction, however, Hamburger maintains that the situation is very different because such fiction is more like autobiography than like epic fiction” (Nielsen. p. 134-135).

The choice to tell these stories through first person narration makes them feel as if they are reality. This makes them more effective and terrifying to their respective audience.

            First-person narration allows the reader to watch the story develop as the protagonist experiences it, which is effective in creating fear and emotion within the reader, more so than third-person narration. Gothic literature thrives on feelings of anxiety and weariness. This is a very hard thing to portray through omniscient narration. Omniscient is defined as “knowing everything”, which is the exact opposite of what gothic literature is supposed to be. How can an audience be frightened when everything is known to them? When readers experience these stories through the eyes of the characters, they are getting a first-hand narrative of the terrifying events which are taking place. In Paul Dawson’s “The Return of Omniscience in Contemporary Fiction” he states that: “Omniscience, focalization and point of view are all critical fallacies, part of an institutionalized metadiscourse of narrative theory which does not attend to the complexities of actual literary works” (Dawson. p. 145). When reading a Victorian ghost story, one is meant to feel afraid. This is an unattainable feat with an omniscient storyteller and can only truly be achieved through first-person narration.

            Charles Dickens “No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-Man” follows an unnamed narrator and his time with an old signalman. This man relays stories to the narrator about a ghostly figure and how tragedy strikes every time this figure appears. Experiencing this story through the eyes of the narrator, the reader is taken on this journey feeling uneasy and anxious. The reader is left feeling uncertain of the events which are being relayed to the narrator.

“The monstrous thought came into my mind as I persuaded the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind” (Dickens. p. 21).

By the end of the text the reader, just like the narrator, is left feeling unsure of the story’s events. The ambiguity is what helps with the overall unsettling tone of the text. Was there really a ghostly figure or was the signalman driven insane due to his isolation? Because of the first-person narration, the reader is shown only what the narrator sees. This helps make the Victorian ghost story impactful and terrifying as the ending is left open-ended.

            Dickens’ use of first-person narration is important to note as it is what helps create the overall tone of the text. The reader is told only what the protagonist and narrator is told, so it is never known if the signalman did indeed experience these supernatural events or if he had simply gone mad. This is important in gothic literature as it enhances the mystery behind the text. The unnamed narrator is in fact the person telling the story; however, the true story lies with the signalman’s retelling of his experiences. This unreliable narrator trope is extremely common in gothic literature. Whereas the true narrator is of a sane mind, it is the signalman that leaves the audience questioning the happenings of the text.

“… in most work on the unreliable narrator, it is unclear whether unreliability is primarily meant to designate a matter of misrepresenting the events or facts of the story or whether it consists of the narrator's dubious judgments or interpretations” (Nünning. p. 89).

Because the supernatural experiences happen with the signalman and not the narrator, the audience is left pondering these experiences and left in a state of unknowing just like the narrator. Dickens does an incredible job with the ambiguity of this text and the overall mystery and fear it entails.

            Edward Bulwer Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters or The House and the Brain”, and Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” take this first-person narration and use it in an entirely different way. Whereas Dickens uses it to invoke mystery and uncertainty within his readers, Lytton and O’Brien do the complete opposite. In seeing their stories through first-person narration, the reader is given an in-depth experience of the happenings in which the protagonists are experiencing and in turn, a deeper take into the horror and terror in which the authors are trying to portray. With Dickens, it is a matter of “what-if” but with Lytton and O’Brien it is a matter of “how”. 

Both of these authors’ texts open up with phrases which imply the narrator is speaking to an old friend.

“A friend of mine, who is a man of letters and a philosopher, said to be one day, as if between jest and earnest, ‘Fancy! Since we last met I have discovered a haunted house in the midst of London” (Lytton. p. 1).

And to follow:

“It is, I confess, with considerable diffidence that I approach the strange narrative which I am about to relate… I have, after mature consideration, resolved to narrate, in as simple and straightforward a manner as I can compass” (O’Brien. p. 1).

Both of these stories begin very personably, as if to imply that the story which is about to be told is in fact, true. This is purposefully done by these authors as it enhances their story’s overall experience. These texts become more frightening as if implied to be real happenings. In order to portray this, they make the reader feel as if the protagonist is a friend or acquaintance retelling a story to them.

            Edward Bulwer Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters or The House and the Brain” follows a protagonist who decides to stay in a house which was presumed to be haunted. While here, he encounters many supernatural events and entities, and in turn is left wondering how these hauntings possibly came to be. The reader is experiencing the mystery through the eyes of said protagonist. With Dickens it is a matter of mystery and whether or not the supernatural experiences actually occurred, whereas with Lytton the occurrences have physically happened.

“and now appeared the first strange phenomenon witnessed by myself in this strange abode. I saw, just before me, the print of a foot suddenly form itself as it were” (Lytton. p. 5).

In this text, the supernatural experiences are not hidden, instead the story is riddled with them. This is important to note as the reader is experiencing the same haunting and horror that the protagonist is. It is through following the first-person narrative that the reader truly experiences the terrifying events. Bruce Wyse states that: “‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ could stand on its own, possessing the requisite conceptual and narratological integrity of a successful short story” (Wyse. p. 36). 
It continues:

“Through his resistant narrator, Bulwer-Lytton evokes an ambient preternatural. By insisting on the mutable and metamorphic nature of the manifestations, and the interplay of the indefinite and the tangible, the uncertain and the unavoidable, and by synesthetically rendering the protagonist's experience, interweaving visual, aural, and tactile impressions, physical sensations, and what is referred to as the ‘moral’ dimension of experience, Bulwer-Lytton effectively forges a rather hallucinogenic horror” (p. 38).

The text is so riveting because of the protagonist’s narration. The reader feels as if they are experiencing what the narrator has experienced, and are overall left mortified by the story’s contents as it is portrayed to be reality. The narrator relies to his audience many times throughout this text, to further prove his connection. With the Victorian ghost story, the intimacy between the protagonist and the reader is immensely important as it is what enhances the terror and overall reading experience.

            The mystery is solved by the end of the text however, and the shock and horror has been achieved. Lytton decides to throw the horror in the readers’ face rather than sprinkle ambiguity throughout. However, this does not deem the conclusion as ineffective, as it is still quite terrifying. This terror is achieved through the first-person narration. As the protagonist explains the horrors he experienced, the audience feels as if they are experiencing it as well. Lytton gives in-depth descriptions of the grotesque apparition his protagonist witnesses which invokes fear and anxieties within the reader. Furthermore, the audience feels the same relief that the narrator feels when the mystery is concluded.

            Fitz James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” follows a protagonist named Harry who encounters some heavy supernatural experiences. The story begins with the implication of a haunting, followed by disappointment as no haunting occurs. However, the end of the text takes an extremely supernatural turn and both Harry and the reader are left pondering who or what the invisible entity was. O’Brien gives us a critical narrator, still unsure of what he has experienced and in turn, a mysterious finale. Kevin Corstorphine explains in his text “Fitz-James O’Brien: The Seen and the Unseen”:

“Told through this first-person narration, the story displays the trickery and evasion typical of Gothic fiction, yet O’Brien does something quite unexpected in having the reality of the creature validated within the narrative” (Corstorphine p. 8).

O’Brien through first-person narration misleads his audiences with the reveal of the invisible man. The way this story is told, the audience is led to believe that perhaps Harry is simply having a horrible opium trip, hence the strange encounter in his bedroom. This is foreshadowed by his conversation with Hammond while under the influence: “‘I don’t know what’s the matter with me to-night’ he replied, ‘but my brain is running upon all sorts of weird and awful thoughts” (O’Brien. p. 396). However, the shocking reveal shows that Harry is of sane mind and there is in fact an invisible creature in the home. This deceptiveness adds shock for the reader. O’Brien leads up to this reveal with the reluctant-ness of both Hammond and the people of the house. The suspense builds as Hammond approaches the subject. The reader feels the anxieties in which Harry is feeling and are naturally awaiting the story’s climax. Is he crazy or of sane mind? “Hammond advanced and laid his hand in the spot I indicated. A wild cry of horror burst from him. He felt it!” (O’Brien. p. 401). It is not only the shock that there is indeed an invisible entity there, but also the relief the reader’s feel along with Harry knowing that he is indeed, not delusional. This climactic build up is what adds to the anxieties of the short story, which could only be achieved through the first-person. This anxiety induced state intensifies as he describes the grotesque creature. He compares it to an illustration from Un voyage oùil vous plaira by Tony Johannot (1842). The visual comparison of this invisible being to the creature from this drawing -- which would more than likely be known to audiences of the time -- helps enhance the reader’s fears of who and what the creature is.

            The horror that Harry feels is portrayed through his narration. This, in turn, shocks the audience as well. He recollects his mortification all throughout the text. “I do not, even at this hour, realize the situation in which I found myself. I cannot recall the astounding incident thoroughly. Imagination in vain tries to compass the awful paradox” (O’Brien. p.399). Harry questioning his story as he is retelling it is a common trope within gothic literature. The situation is so shocking that even the narrator has difficulty believing they have physically experienced this occurrence. Even in the story’s conclusion, he states: “As I am on the eve of a long journey from which I may not return, I have drawn up this narrative of an even the most singular that has ever come to my knowledge” (O’Brien. p. 407). Ending the story on an ambiguous note leaves the reader anxious and pondering the meaning behind the text.

            Victorian ghost stories are proven to be more effective through first-person narration. These gothic tales are meant to make readers feel anxious and uneasy. Through the eyes of their protagonists, audiences experience the shocks and horrors of these classic gothic tales. Charles Dickens “No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-Man”, Edward Bulwer Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters or The House and the Brain”, and Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” are all examples of Victorian ghost stories that enhance the reader's experience through its first-person narration. Through this form of narration, readers are left feeling shocked, anxious and uneasy and are left pondering as to how or what occurred within said texts. Victorian ghost stories are made to be more personable in the first-person and in turn, are shown to be more mortifying to its audiences.


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