The Night the Ghost Got In

by James Thurber

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‘‘The Night the Ghost Got In’’ is a fictionalized account of life in the Thurber household while its author, James Thurber, was growing up. Early on, Thurber gives the exact date when the events related in the story take place: November 17, 1915. The story begins with a short introductory paragraph that prepares readers for the more colorful events that will unfold in the pages to come—his mother throwing a shoe through a window, his grandfather shooting a policeman—and then goes right into the events of that night.

It starts with the narrator, James Thurber, coming out of a bath at 1:15 in the morning and hearing a noise downstairs in the dining room. It sounds to him like footsteps, like someone walking quickly around the dining room table. He assumes that it is his father or older brother, just home from a trip, but after a few minutes have passed and the walking has not stopped, he goes to wake his brother Herman. Wakened suddenly, Herman is frightened when he is told that there is someone downstairs, although the story never does indicate whether he hears the same sound the narrator does. He goes back to bed, slamming the door. The noise downstairs is gone, and, Thurber explains, ‘‘None of us ever heard the ghost again.’’ However, the slamming door brings their mother out into the hall.

The mother asks about all of the footsteps she has heard and then comes to the conclusion that there are burglars downstairs. Because the telephone is downstairs where she thinks the burglars are, she devises a scheme to contact the police: She throws a shoe through the window of the house next door, which is close to the Thurber house, waking Mr. and Mrs. Bodwell, who live there. At first, Mr. Bodwell thinks that she is telling him that there are burglars in his own house, but after a momentary confusion he calls the police and tells them to go to the Thurber house.

The arrival of the police blows the whole event out of proportion. Their group includes ‘‘a Ford sedan full of them, two on motorcycles, and a patrol wagon with about eight of them in it and a few reporters.’’ They call out for the front door to be opened, and when no one in the house goes downstairs, they break it in. They go upstairs to find the narrator, still not dressed after his bath, and the mother insisting that there were burglars in the house, even though all of the doors and windows are bolted from the inside. To justify their trip, the police set about searching the house, moving furniture and emptying closets. At one point, a policeman’s curiosity gets the best of him, and he points out an unusual old musical instrument, a zither, to another officer. The narrator adds to the confusion by adding the useless information that the family’s old guinea pig used to sleep on the zither. The police are suspicious of this strange family. One points out that the son, Thurber, was ‘‘nekked’’ when they arrived and the mother was hysterical, or, as the policeman puts it, ‘‘historical.’’

When the narrator’s grandfather, who sleeps in the attic, makes a slight noise, the policemen spring into action. They race upstairs to investigate. The narrator knows that this will lead to trouble because his grandfather is ‘‘going through a phase’’ in which he thinks that the Civil War is still going on. Grandfather is obsessed with the retreat of the Union army under General George Meade from the forces of Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate...

(This entire section contains 970 words.)

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army. When the policemen arrive at his door, he is convinced that they are Meade’s army. He calls them cowards and tells them to go back to the battle. He slaps one of the policemen across the back of the head, sending him to the floor, and as the others leave their fallen comrade and run away, he takes the man’s gun from his holster and shoots at him, hitting him in the shoulder. He fires twice more and then goes back to bed.

Back downstairs, the police are upset that there is nobody to arrest, but they are not willing to go back to the attic and risk being shot at again. The wounded officer’s shoulder is bandaged, and they start looking around the house again. A reporter approaches the narrator, who has not been able to find one of his own shirts and is instead wearing one of his mother’s blouses. When the reporter asks what all of the commotion is about, the narrator answers, in all sincerity, that the problem is that they have had ghosts in the house. The reporter thinks about that for a while and then just walks away quietly.

The policeman who has been shot declares his intention to go up to the attic and get his pistol back, but the other officers just mock him. The narrator promises to get the gun from his grandfather in the morning and bring it down to the police station. When the narrator’s mother is told that Grandfather shot a policeman, the only reason she is disturbed is that the officer is ‘‘such a nice-looking young man.’’

The next morning, the grandfather comes down to breakfast looking cheerful. Nothing is said about the commotion of the night before, and the family assumes that he has forgotten it, until he asks, ‘‘What was the idee of all them cops tarryhootin’ round the house last night?’’ Thurber does not say when the grandfather realized that it was policemen, not soldiers, in his room, but the fact that he understands reality is accepted as a sign that all is fine in the house, and the story ends on that lighthearted note.