Judith Armstrong

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1216

Ghost stories, especially those which concentrate on the relationship between a single person and his ghost, as in the work of Philippa Pearce, are anti-fatalist. The person and the event are singular and positive, but they are shadowed by their negatives, which are many—all the people we might have become, and did not; all the things we might have done, and did not. The richness of our lives and being is in the depth of their shading. This perception lies behind the title story of The Shadow Cage, Philippa Pearce's collection of ghost stories.

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The making of identity is a continuous process which involves selection of one course and rejection of all others. Ghost stories show us how to escape from the finality of this choice, and from a fatalism which makes us suspect that there was actually no choice in the first place, so that the way we went was the only way we could ever have gone. They allow us to keep alive parallel possibilities forever, enriching the way that was chosen by making us experience other ways, and confirming through this expansion our current sense of ourselves. The present unity of the me-now points in the ghost story to the plurality of all those not-mes, not-now.

For example, in Philippa Pearce's "Guess," in The Shadow Cage, Netty is connected with Jess, a ghost-girl released by the fall of a tree in a gale. Jess is clearly a part of Netty, both alien and intimate ("there was something familiar about her"), but not a part Netty wishes to acknowledge…. The ghost forces Netty to see herself—not as usual, from the inside looking out, as though our bodies were hollow trees and the eyes peepholes for the spirit—but from the outside looking in, as though, like the tree-ghost, she were temporarily homeless. She is made to rehearse a detachment from the single self she normally assumes herself to be, so that she can acknowledge other selves both currently within and potentially without. (pp. 119-20)

To learn to acknowledge and accept the otherness within, the selves we might have been and are not, the ones we may become, which are all but unrecognisable to our present selves, is a necessity which comes upon us at adolescence: it is part of growing up. Netty is eleven. The detachment of a dawning objectivity about one's self has to be balanced with the maintenance of the subjectivity of childhood: this is what the story is about. Its expression in the form of a ghost story makes it possible to dramatise an abstract concept, the ghost standing for the unrealised parts of the living girl. It is meeting the ghost that makes it possible for Netty to conceive of herself as potentially different from the person she has always assumed herself to be. It is a statement both that we normally express and acknowledge only a small part of ourselves as we are now, and that our future selves are equally various. The ghost Jess, who cannot really be named apart from Netty—she might have said "Guess" not "Jess"—points to an unrealised part of the eleven-year-old girl; the much older ghost, "an untidy young woman" who bears a "striking resemblance" to her younger counterpart, also released by the fall of the tree, points to the now-unknowable but always potential Netty-growing-up. The departure of Jess Oakes to Epping Forest, her own appropriate place, restores Netty to hers, at home under her mother's sharp eye, but with a new independence won through her experience. (p. 120)

The spook element in the ghost—the threat and the fear—are integral to its nature, because ghosts are essentially uncontrollable. They are independent and self-willed … unpredictably dramatising relationships, either between different people or between different parts of a single personality. They are insubstantial and temporary—the time being only so long as the story lasts—because they represent intensities which are palpable only at their peak. Stories like "Guess" make out a strong case for a conceptual model of the personality as an interaction between various parts of the self, recognised and unrecognised, now and not-now, realised and unrealised, active and passive. There is no fixed and static "real" self hidden at some notional core normally disguised by appearances, but a fluid and even bizarre association of a limitless number of selves.

Recognition and surprise are simultaneous conditions for the sense of mystery inherent in all ghost stories. For a relationship to exist, it must be potentially recognisable, and for it to be worth the making, the two elements must be disparate enough to occasion surprise. The movement towards recognition which is going in the opposite direction from the perception of separateness creates the tension in the story, which is also the mystery, which thus defines itself as paradoxical. Philippa Pearce's use of language often reflects this. (pp. 120-21)

Ghost stories take what is out of bounds and put it temporarily within bounds, where it is recognisable, but not at home. Ghosts are modified aliens, like enough to real people to be of use, but unlike in their exaggeration and powerfulness, which, paradoxically, makes them insubstantial. For substance is in thrall to the checks and balances of the real world; ghosts act out of a brief authority which is undeniable while it lasts, untrammelled by substance, but therefore not familiar, not at home. This characteristic—nebulousness conjoined with power—is emphasised in another of Philippa Pearce's stories, "Beckoned," where a living boy, Peter, is lured by a ghost, Mrs. Fawcett, to the bed of her husband, so that he will himself be taken for a ghost, thus freeing the old man from an obstinate oath concerning his long-dead son. A living boy unwittingly acting as a ghost at the behest of a real ghost again shows the complexity of which the form is capable. The "home" is any fictional set—theme, characters, and plot—which defines the bounds into which the ghost seems to leap from the outside (surprise), but is soon acknowledged to have been bred from within (recognition). (p. 121)

Ghost stories end with the disappearance of the ghost. This is so integral to the convention that it is worth examining why the disappearance of the ghost should be a reconciling, satisfying experience, rather than an empty one. For ghosts are rhetorical scene-stealers: they do not go unnoticed. Therefore, their disappearance might be expected to be experienced as an impoverishment. Again, characters do not generally go in search of a ghost; the ghost comes unwilled and takes them over. So how is this intrusive, negative experience of being haunted changed into something positive? If possession by a ghost is undesirable because unwilled, is dispossession freedom or emptiness? Philippa Pearce is clear that although being haunted may not be a pleasant experience, it is a rewarding one. The strange illness of Mr. Arthur Cook, in the story of that name, is caused because he attempts to ignore the ghost of Mr. Baxter. When Mr. Cook acknowledges the ghost by carrying out his orders, he is cured, and learns a new skill into the bargain. (p. 122)

Judith Armstrong, "Ghost Stories: Exploiting the Convention," in Children's literature in education (© 1980, Agathon Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn), 1980, pp. 117-23.∗

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