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Summary

Introduction

“A Haunted House” was first published in 1921 as a part of Virginia Woolf’s short story collection Monday or Tuesday. The collection, which contained eight short stories, was meant to emphasize Woolf’s philosophies surrounding modernist literature, as outlined in her 1919 critical essay “Modern Fiction.” Woolf believed that writers should focus less on trying to please sales-oriented publishers and the fickle public and instead write what inspired them. In her view, literature should focus on the mysteries and complexities of life rather than the material components. “A Haunted House” explores this philosophy by turning what initially appears to be a straightforward ghost story into a rumination on the nature of love, memory, life, and death. Woolf employs a stream-of-consciousness narrative style as the myriad thoughts and impressions of the narrator flow together with minimal separation. This style contributes to the sense that the story exists outside of a set timeframe, suggesting that the haunting of the house and its inhabitants is an ongoing occurrence.

Plot Summary

“A Haunted House” offers a brief glimpse into daily life in a house occupied by two couples: one living and one dead. Told from the perspective of the living couple, the story presents the ghostly couple’s search for something they left in the house. They travel from room to room, “lifting” and “opening” things as quietly as they can so as not to wake the house’s current inhabitants. The narrator cannot see the ghostly couple, but their search intrigues her, and she wonders what they are looking for. Sometimes, the narrator will stop whatever she is doing and search for the ghostly couple as they move about the house. However, her search always comes up empty, and she is left wondering what she was doing in the first place. 

The narrator figures death as the “glass” separating the living from the dead and explains that the ghostly wife died before her husband, “hundreds of years ago.” In his grief, the ghostly husband left to travel the world, only to eventually return to the house where the ghostly couple now “seek their joy.” In the present day, the ghostly couple reminisce about their happy memories in the house, recalling how each room looked during the different seasons. When they arrive at the bedroom, they fondly observe the living couple and note the “love upon [the living couple’s] lips” as they sleep. As the ghosts “search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy,” they recall their own reunion in the house after the ghostly husband returned from his travels and rejoined his wife in death. As the narrator awakens, she realizes that the treasure the ghostly couple are searching for is not a tangible object but rather the “light in the heart.”

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator, apparently a woman, begins: “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” Along with her husband, the narrator experiences the sensations of a home literally alive with memories. She does not, however, try to keep the reader in suspense regarding the mysterious openings and closings of doors and windows that she and her husband witness. Despite the fact that she knows two ghosts wander through her home, she is not afraid. The ghosts, after all, mean the narrator and her...

(The entire section is 853 words.)