Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Victorian writers were markedly prone to ascribe their characters’ complaints to brain fever or other, equally vague, maladies. The effects of opium, morphine, and other such agents were also explored in fiction, sometimes with (to the modern mind) extraordinary and indeed implausible results. At first, some readers may regard as preposterous, if not laughable, the notion that drinking strong tea could produce prolonged visions and ultimately death. This story manifestly does not elicit that reaction, although the Reverend Mr. Jennings’s green tea figures prominently in it from the title to the conclusion. The active properties in tea are never really demonstrated. At one time, Lady Mary had almost quarreled with the clergyman on this subject; during his longest consultation with the doctor, Mr. Jennings cites green tea specifically as the source of his visions. Evidently the effect is cumulative and possibly irreversible; even abstention cannot dispel the specter that haunts Mr. Jennings. Both he and Dr. Hesselius regard this complaint as much more than mere dyspepsia. Neither believes, however, that his malady may be understood through medical materialism alone.

This curious ambivalence, where neither spiritual nor chemical origins may be established with certainty, is heightened by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s presentation of several characters’ points of view; the author does not explicitly endorse any of them. The narrator, who introduces the story, regards Dr. Hesselius as highly gifted, but one who alternately takes the standpoints of an intelligent layman or a medical philosopher. In several places the doctor somewhat ponderously expounds his theory that human beings are spiritual beings and that their bodies are merely a material expression of their essential and ideal nature. He can explain Mr. Jennings’s affliction only by referring to “a poison which excites the reciprocal action of spirit and nerve.” Mr. Jennings himself originally found green tea pleasant and almost soporific in its effects; though later he withdraws from it in horror, he admits candidly that his medical reasoning against it is speculative.

The notion of hereditary trauma, which Lady Mary and the doctor accept in part, is not much discussed by Mr. Jennings; this factor remains lurking in the background, putting in occasional appearances at particularly murky junctures. The peculiarly horrific atmosphere of “Green Tea” is derived in part from the separate explanations that leading characters offer for Mr. Jennings’s malevolent visions, none of which needs to be accepted entirely.