A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal

by Daniel Defoe
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

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One of the key themes in this text is really implied by the structure and framing, rather than stated outright. The author's choice to use an external preface device, with the story contained inside it having been sent to London by an unnamed third party, is one which distances the person presenting this story to the reader from the writer of the "facts" themselves. This contributes to the overall theme of misinformation and the question of belief -- do we believe the story? Does the person writing the preface believe the story? And what is it about someone that makes them worth believing? The writer of the preface is keen to stress that the story was sent to him by a "justice of the peace," a pillar of the community, while the "kinsman" of Mrs Bargrave is likewise keen to emphasize that Mrs Bargrave herself is beyond reproach. So, there is a suggestion that people must pass a certain bar of respectability before they can be considered trustworthy. What is this bar? And what does it mean that someone must be considered trustworthy before we take them at their word?

The theme of the supernatural, and whether or not it exists, is, then, almost subordinate to this theme. It does not matter so much whether or not ghosts are real: what matters is whether others are willing to believe something transmitted back to them through several channels -- and originated by a woman, no less.

The theme of female mistreatment, then, emerges in this text in several ways. To begin with, Mrs Bargrave cannot tell her story herself. It has to be filtered to us, the reader, through not one man, but two. One vouches for her character, her kinsman. The next vouches for the character of the kinsman. Two vouchsafes are required before an audience will listen to Mrs Bargrave. Next, we know that this is far from the first indignity Mrs Bargrave has suffered in her life -- she has suffered a "barbaric" husband, while Mrs Veal has been mistreated by an "unkind" father. The two of them have clung together for spiritual guidance, each other's only solace. After Mrs Veal dies, it is her first urge to go to her old friend, but even then, Mr Veal tries to keep the story under wraps, not wanting to allow Mrs Bargrave to tell her own story. The troubling question of women's interaction with society, and the extent to which this informs how we feel about what they say, is prevalent in this text, not least because it is a story which concerns women and yet is both repressed and disseminated depending on the whims of men.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

The most obvious question in “A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal” is whether or not ghosts exist. Although Defoe presents various affirmations about the appearance of the ghost of Mrs. Veal, he also includes contradictory information. Furthermore, the information is passed along from person to person, and such a process usually results in distortion and inaccuracy, if not falsehood. The reader is left to see the existence of ghosts as something either proven or unproven. If ghosts do exist, can they be recognized as ghosts? In Mrs. Bargrave’s account of her experience, the ghost of Mrs. Veal does not seem to be a ghost. Mrs. Bargrave believes her friend to be alive. Finally, are ghosts always evil, or can they be good spirits? Ghosts are usually presumed to be frightening and evil, but Mrs. Veal’s ghost is friendly, pleasant, and morally wise. Is the mortal world the realm of danger while the spirit world is the realm of friendship?

Another important issue in the story is women. The world around Mrs. Bargrave is predisposed to doubt the veracity of women. If an account of an apparition comes from a woman, then corroboration is required. Both the narrator in the preface and the neighbor who recapitulates Mrs. Bargrave’s description of events are aware of the doubts raised by her gender, and both strive to clarify that Mrs. Bargrave is a speaker of proven honesty and integrity. In addition to the questions about the truthfulness of women, Defoe gives attention to the circumstances that control the lives of women in England in the eighteenth century. Women were victims of mistreatment and abuse. Mrs. Veal’s father did not provide well for his daughter. Mrs. Bargrave had to deal with “the ill-usage of a very wicked husband” who in one instance of his madness found it necessary to smash teacups. Mr. Veal and his family do not like Mrs. Bargrave’s report about Mrs. Veal, and Veal himself charges that a “bad husband” drove Mrs. Bargrave crazy and made her subject to delusions.

Beyond these discussions of ghosts and women, the moral implications of “A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal” are strong. Friendship is a blessing in life. Friends can be supportive of one another, offer courtesies and hospitality to each other, and exchange opinions and ideas. Unfortunately, friendship may falter, perhaps because of changes in residences or family connections. This withering of friendship is regrettable, and if the withering cannot be prevented, then true friends should strive to restore the friendship. Between women, a friendship may be particularly significant. Women who face hardships and abuse gather strength from mutual support. Perhaps the ghost of Mrs. Veal offers the greatest support to Mrs. Bargrave when the ghost assures Mrs. Bargrave of the justice in God’s plan. Devotion to God will be rewarded. Even if God’s plan includes hardship and suffering in the temporal world, the eternal world offers happiness.