Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Lord Dunsany uses the framework of a traditional ghost story to illustrate his thesis that all human beings are capable of the most fiendish sins. He suggests that people hide their true thoughts and emotions behind masks of decorum. His story implies that every human being is capable of committing, or at least contemplating, any of the crimes for which only a few are ever exposed and convicted. Dunsany suggests that reason and logic are tools by which humans have learned to cope with their animal natures, that civilization is built by men and women who systematically occupy their minds with constructive thoughts in order to avoid succumbing to bestial impulses. His story further suggests that civilization is in peril from the wicked impulses of the very citizens who have worked with minds and hands to build it.

Though short, “The Ghosts” is full of implications. The story resembles Oscar Wilde’s well-known novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous short novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Both works imply that people’s hearts cannot be read through their faces. The world is full of wickedness, but wicked people do not go about wearing signs revealing their true characters. The civilized world is a masquerade in which people take pains to appear to be something other than what they are. Readers are left to judge, by examining their own secret thoughts and impulses, whether...

(The entire section is 430 words.)