The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621


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*Chapelizod. Small town on the banks of Ireland’s River Liffey, described as “the gayest and prettiest of the outpost villages in which old Dublin took a complacent pride.” Chapelizod serves as the setting for several of Le Fanu’s early ghost stories, and like other Irish country towns in his fiction, its mundane character helps throw into sharp relief the extraordinary experiences of individual townsfolk.

At first, the town seems the picture of country charm and simplicity. The narrator, reviewing his fond childhood memories of the place, imagines it even quainter a century before with many comforting features: a mix of orchards and formally planted poplar trees along the river banks, “merry” streets lined by houses with colorful doors, cozy inns and public houses in which the locals congregate, and a church that serves the entire populace. Banquets, parties, and fairs provide regular diversions. Although Chapelizod is home to a variety of people, its social life is centered around a local regiment of the Royal Irish Artillery, which at the time of the story is not engaged in battle and seems less a military presence than a social class seamlessly woven into the fabric of town life. The foibles and eccentricities of the soldiers do not differ from those of the rustics native to the town, and Chapelizod seems to nurture their more amusing personality quirks.

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Despite the appearance of harmony it projects, Chapelizod is not without problems. The story proper begins on a somber note, with an approaching storm conveying “a weight in the atmosphere, and a sort of undefined menace brooding over the little town, as if unseen crime or danger—some mystery of iniquity—was stealing into the heart of it.” The storm sets the mood for the midnight burial at the church with which the story opens. This event introduces the melancholy Arthur Mervyn and eventually proves the catalyst for uncovering duplicitous behavior of several of the town’s more prominent figures, notably Captain Devereaux and Charles Nutter, each of whom will eventually be exposed for marital indiscretions, and Paul Dangerfield, who will be revealed a murderer living under an assumed identity. Because the community is so familiar and tightly knit, nearly every person in town is disturbed by the revelation of these crimes.

Though the appeal of Chapelizod is not illusory, the idealized version evoked by the narrator is. The passage of a century has reduced the old village to a handful of artifacts and ruins that allow the imagination to conjure a more romantic image than is seen in Chapelizod’s current industrialized incarnation. But the truth of life in the town is somewhat less rosy than nostalgia admits. At best, it shows that “the palmy days” of Chapelizod are “more pleasant to read about, and dream of, than they were to live in.” At worst, they confirm that “the golden age lingers in no corner of the earth, but is really quite gone and over everywhere.”

Tiled House

Tiled House. Gloomy mansion on a lonely bend of the road leading away from Chapelizod. Among all the residences described in the novel, it provides the sharpest contrast to the pleasant facade of life in Chapelizod. In its anecdotal history, the house is haunted by both the spirit of a man with a cut throat and a spectral hand. Similarly, its temporary tenant, Arthur Mervyn, is haunted by the ghosts of the dead—in this case the memory of his father, who died in shame after being betrayed, and whom Mervyn has sworn to avenge upon his return to Chapelizod. The mystery surrounding the house is symbolic of the mystery surrounding Mervyn, who dresses in black and fraternizes with the townspeople under an alias.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 313

Browne, Nelson. Sheridan Le Fanu. London: Arthur Barker, 1951. A brief overview of Le Fanu’s life and work. Contains an introductory survey of his fiction, with particular emphasis on the atmospheric effects in his works. Brief, illuminating comments on The House by the Churchyard.

Gates, David. “‘A Dish of Village Chat’: Narrative Technique in Sheridan Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard.” Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 10, no. 1 (June, 1984): 63-69. Discusses speech, dialogue, and narrative voice in the novel, as well as the interaction between these and various other techniques. Also discusses Le Fanu’s debt to earlier novelists.

McCormack, W. J. Dissolute Characters: Irish Literary History Through Balzac, Sheridan Le Fanu, Yeats, and Bowen. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1993. Substantial critical commentary on Le Fanu, a section of which is devoted to The House by the Churchyard. Discusses various aspects of the novel, including its cultural context. Further illumination of both the novel and Le Fanu’s career is provided by the study’s complex overall focus.

McCormack, W. J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1980. The definitive study of Le Fanu and the Ireland of his time. Uses a substantial amount of primary source material and a sophisticated critical methodology to create a comprehensive picture of Le Fanu’s cultural background and intellectual interests. Discussion of The House by the Churchyard focuses on the presence and significance of the past.

Sullivan, Kevin. “The House by the Churchyard: James Joyce and Sheridan Le Fanu.” In Modern Irish Literature: Essays in Honor of William York Tindall, edited by Raymond J. Porter and James D. Brophy. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Iona College Press, 1972. Links Le Fanu’s work with later developments in Irish writing. Among the more explicit connections is the one made by the common setting of The House by the Churchyard and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939).

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