The Syntactical Aspect of A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf

by Sousan Qadeer

'The Syntactical Aspect of A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf' by Sousan Qadeer

As far as history can go, humans have been trying to interpret dreams and the mysteries behind the reason why we dream. Whether we do it individually or collectively. But whatever explanation we have come up with are only assumptions, for dreams do not exist in the physical realm. Dreams are derived from our reality and there is nothing in our imagination that has not been imagined by someone else. Illusions always entice us and we forcibly cement our dreams in our reality just to entertain our predilection, whether we crave the attention of our beloved or yearn to have one last word with a deceased parent. We try to give our dreams definition and significance by assuming that our special someone feels the same way about us or our late parent still love us from the grave. However, at the back of our minds, we are certain that our parent won’t be coming out of the grave just to say ‘hi’. We won’t entertain this idea no matter how much we want that to be true because that would shatter the core of our reality. Dead coming out of the graves can only be attributed to fiction. We watch these poor fictional characters being disemboweled by ghouls and zombies, all the while sitting safely behind the veneer of certainty that it won’t happen to us. That certainty is the only thing upon which we ground our reality. Similarly, waking up in the middle of the night from a nightmare situates us in our reality from the dream realm. But what if this veneer of certainty was lifted?

The question that we need to ask is whether we want definitive answers to our dreams or whether is it better if we remain in uncertainty. Uncertainty felt by the spectator is the only thing on which the horror industry resides whether it be literature or film. Was it the wind that opened the door or was it some invisible entity? Uncertainty is the priest who marries the reader with the character. They are two bodies and one soul and with only the death of one (more likely the character’s), they part ways. Together they contemplate whether what they are witnessing is true or not. They scratch their heads in unison as they try to explain their shared experience to each other with references from the laws of nature in their shared reality. If they fail to find any reasonable explanation then they must assume that their senses have betrayed them, for that is the only plausible explanation left. Neither wants to believe in the fact that the uncanny event might be real.

There is no better way to discern this eerie feeling of equivocation than that of the experience transcribed in The Haunted House by Virginia Woolf. The reader travels on this journey of a double narrative, taking her into multidimensional interpretations. The first narrator wakes up in the middle of the night, struggling to distinguish between dream and reality. The other narrator(s), the ghostly couple, in search of their hidden treasure, wander into the house that they are “haunting”, in a non-linear path. The reader is tossed between scenes from dream and reality which creates a hesitation on which the uncanny feeds.

There are two paths deviating from every horror story, one that is supernatural and the other one that can be domiciled in the logical realm. When a logical explanation is presented against the uncanny event, the hesitation is disintegrated into oblivion. Everything becomes rainbows and sunshine again. But Woolf doesn't provide us with this relief. She stifles the reader with multiple supernatural theories. The first one is quite simply being haunted by a couple of ghosts with the use of whispers and shadows, which is hackneyed in modern literature and cinema. But the other one transcends the space and time of the house itself, which the live couple occupy. The ghostly couple is after all the future {dead} self of the couple who is alive. The dead couple seek their joy in watching the live couple sleeping together in the same bed in which they slept all those years ago. This concept was recently intertextualized in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House in which a little girl (much to her horror) wakes up to the figure of a woman whose neck has been bent, hovering above her. Little does she know that this Bent-Neck Lady (as she dearly calls her) is herself from the future.

This postulation is further solidified with the reference to Woolfs’ own experience of renting a familiar domestic space between 1912 and 1919 in Asheham. The couple whose romantic liaison goes beyond the grave e.g. “Hand in hand” and “kisses without number.”

The uncanny effect is further enhanced by the constant yearning to go back to the safe arms of reality in which the ghostly couple is just a trick that an insomniac mind plays on its host. The narrator finds evidence for her affliction in “window panes reflected apples, reflected roses”, whereas “window panes” alludes to the veneer of certainty, where the ghostly couple might not even exist. “Not that one could ever see them” also hints to the reader to speculate the idea of hallucinations from sleep deprivation.

However, there is ample evidence to suppose that A Haunted House is nothing but a ghost story, no matter how many interpretations one could think of. The uncanny raises questions, which in turn evokes fear and every fear is ultimately the fear of death. The live couple, who is also the dead couple, is the allegorical representation of Ouroboros aka the snake eating its own end. No matter what the live/dead couple does, they cannot escape the infinite cycle of life and death. The treasure or “the light in the heart” is nothing but a transient object, fleeting every moment. There is a reason the narrator says “my hands were empty”. A couple of times she says “safe, safe, safe”, mimicking the beating of her evanescent heart, as if shaking her head in disbelief at life’s impermanence. This perplexity between life and death is what Todorov calls hesitation, “to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described”, whereas, the “natural” state is our reality in which we are alive, and the “supernatural” being the inevitable death towards which we are all headed. The reader situates themselves in the character’s reality all the while aligning with the latter’s hesitation. One can also interpret Todorov’s hesitation as the fear of the unknown, for it is impossible to comprehend.

The uncanny strives for a reaction from the reader. It makes various attempts to tear the veneer of certainty where the reader situates himself as if looking from a safe distance. But the uncanny has other plans. It wants to interact. As Todorov mentions in his essay The Fantastic, this interaction between the text and the reader can be called “the syntactical aspect” of the text. It relies on the formal embodiment of the reader as the character or the narrator. As in Woolf’s story, the rhythmic prose-like short sentences satirize the quickening heartbeat of its reader. Was it all just a madwoman’s delusion or was the ghostly couple real? And even if by some concrete explanation, we are able to decipher the true identity of the ghostly couple, wouldn't it have been better, if we remained in uncertainty?