Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

“The Wish House” was originally published with two obscure poems, one of which, “Late Came the God,” provides important commentary on the story. It relates how a vengeful God inflicts continual pain and distress on a woman in payment of a debt. This theme of divine retribution for past sins, real or imagined, forms a minor element in “The Wish House.” However, the last lines of the poem reveal the first of the story’s main themes, the redemptive, self-sacrificial love of woman for man: “Alone, without hope of regard or reward, but uncowed,/ Resolute, selfless, divine/ These things she did in Love’s honour.”

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This love is unrelated to merit or desert; it sees no fault in the object of love, or seeing, chooses to disregard. There is nothing romantic about it. It is a practical, even instinctive, orientation of the will and heart, in obedience to an inner impulse. The theme has profoundly Christian implications. Mrs. Ashcroft is almost Christ-like in her ability, and her willingness, to take on herself the sins and burdens of another, motivated by the highest love. The wound in her leg will suggest, for the Christian reader, the stigmata of the Christian saint, the wounds received in imitation of Christ. The old Mrs. Ashcroft, chattering away to her friend in country dialect, is perhaps an unlikely figure to remind one of the divine, but the implication of the story is that the simplest folk become godlike, and possess godlike powers, when motivated by a pure desire for the good of another and a resolute will to endure physical hardship and pain without complaint.

The second major theme of the story is what T. S. Eliot appreciatively called its “pagan vision” of country life lived close to nature. This “vision of the people of the soil” is of a world in which magic, in the form of spirits, spells, and curses, still exerts its age-old power. The world that the two old women inhabit consists of an intuitive, prescientific sense of the interrelationship of all creatures at all levels of existence. It is a way of seeing which unquestioningly accepts the fluidity and transferability of spiritual forces, in contradistinction, as Eliot points out, to the modern, materialistic temper. Eliot’s suggestion that such a vision must be regained if “the truly Christian imagination is to be recovered by Christians” is apt commentary on “The Wish House.” This is because the “pagan vision” underlies the Christian implication of the story: Individual pain and death is not random or wasted but in a mysterious way nourishes the larger good; it is part of the interwoven fabric of pain and joy in which the life of the universe consists.

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