Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Though ostensibly a subdued horror story of the vampire or diabolic possession variety, “Seaton’s Aunt” is in many respects rather an inversion of the narrative of coming of age—a failed rite of passage. To that extent it traces the life of one who does not pass through boyhood through adolescence to maturity, and it focuses on some of the fears and perils of that passage.

At the beginning of the story, Seaton is the prototypical “odd boy,” in-expert at all the skills that constitute social acceptance in boyhood. He is not good at games, does not mix well with others, and depends on his extra money to buy companionship. As Withers gets to know him better, he discovers further disadvantages. Seaton’s parents are dead; his guardian aunt is unsympathetic at best; finally, as the reader learns at the outset, he has to leave school in semidisgrace. His very beginnings are clouded.

Further shadows appear in the peculiarities of his relations with his aunt. It is not only that she continually denigrates him—though that is significant, for nothing can grow if it is routinely stifled—but also that she is hostile to life in ways both real and symbolic. She takes delight in humiliating others, in strenuously asserting her own superiority; she toys with others, letting them live only because her own life is drawn out of theirs. She is more than the older generation suppressing the younger; she is the bloated ego glorying in the failure of others, the cannibal feeding on the young, in the process destroying life itself.

In this way she becomes the embodiment of many standard adolescent fears. She is the evil stepmother, who succeeds first in depriving Seaton of his childhood, then of his estate, then of his fiancé, and finally of his life. She controls evil forces, robbing others of their souls. In the end she becomes the spider to which Seaton has likened her, surrounded only by the desiccated husks of those on whom she has preyed and dismissing Withers (note the name) as a “dreadful creature” because she has no power over him.