“The Eyes” by Edith Wharton


Week 49 of my 2015 Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge led me to a ghost story by Edith Wharton. I drew the five of spades, which I had assigned to this story. Spoilers follow, so if you’d like to read this story before reading this post, you may find it at: http://storyoftheweek.loa.org/2012/01/eyes.html.

At its beginning the story is very atmospheric. A group of “men of leisure” are winding down an evening, and a proposal is made that each share a “personal” ghost story with the group. They proceed until only the host, Andrew Culwin, remains as one who hasn’t yet told a story. Of course he has one (we don’t hear any details of the others’ stories so he’d better!).

Culwin claims he was twice beset by a ghost. A ghost which manifests itself as a pair of red, menacing eyes at the foot of his bed. The ghost itself was not particularly compelling to me, but Culwin’s stories of the events leading up to its appearances were. In the first case, a youthful Culwin is visiting a wealthy aunt and working on a book, when he finds an assistant in his efforts, his cousin Alice Nowell:

“The cousin was a nice girl, and I had an idea that a nice girl was just what I needed to restore my faith in human nature, and principally in myself. She was neither beautiful nor intelligent—poor Alice Nowell!—but it interested me to see any woman content to be so uninteresting, and I wanted to find out the secret of her content.”

Culwin gets swept up in a rash, youthful wave of emotion and pledges himself to this creature, almost immediately realizing his mistake. He agonizes over his situation and it is during this period that he is plagued by the eyes. Unable to think of a way to back out of his “commitment,” he flees.

Years later, in Europe, he encounters a young man who carries with him a letter of introduction from this same cousin, beseeching Culwin to help the young man in his aspirations to become a man of letters. Culwin has always felt a pang of guilt regarding his mistreatment for Alice so is happy to do so as a small way of making amends. The youth, however, while clearly clever, is also clearly without a talent for the arts. Culwin doesn’t have the heart to tell him, though, and ends up stringing him along long past reason. It is at this point the eyes make a repeat appearance.

As ghost stories go this one was not particularly chill inducing for me. I loved Wharton’s writing, though, and the character of Culwin – and the way he looked at things – was quite interesting. It also got me thinking about what story I could/would come up with if I were in a circle of friends and charged with producing a “persoanl” ghost story (I do have a couple, one of which I once blogged about). Would you be able to come up with a story? Have you ever been in a group that exchanged ghost stories like that, or is it a thing of a bygone era?

Below: Edith Wharton



  1. Paula Cappa said,

    December 8, 2014 at 9:54 am

    I’ve not read this one. I love it already.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cedar Station said,

    December 8, 2014 at 11:19 am

    I read this over the summer, in a collection of ghost stories by Wharton. She wrote quite a few! I remember feeling the same way about them, for the most part — beautiful writing, great characters and eerie settings. ‘Small’ horrors I guess. This one did stick with me for a while, though!

    Are you planning on doing this challenge again in 2015? I’d love to join officially if you are!


    • Dale said,

      December 8, 2014 at 2:02 pm

      My experience with Wharton’s short stories is similar. Not the greatest plots but some absolutely brilliant paragraphs thrown in here and there. I still have not read any of her novels. “The House of Mirth” is the one I would probably read first.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jay said,

      December 9, 2014 at 9:04 am

      I have a collection of her ghost stories too, but I’ve never delved into it for some reason. Once I started reading her novel “House of Mirth” but got distracted and never got back to it. I think she deserves more reading, though.

      And YES! I will be doing this challenge again for 2015. I plan an official post on 12/21 (the “short”est day of the year 🙂 ) announcing the format and variation options. Hope you can play along!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Matt Cowan said,

    December 8, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    I loved this one. Wharton wrote fantastic ghost stories! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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