‘Narrative of a Ghost of a Hand’ by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Short Story Analysis
‘Narrative of a Ghost of a Hand’ is a nineteenth-century Victorian Gothic ghost story penned by the Irish ghost story writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Sheridan is considered the leading proponent of the Gothic ghost story, popular in the nineteenth century. In this short story, he details the hauntings of a ghostly hand, which terrorizes the family of Mr. Alderman Harper’s daughter, who was married to a man by the name of Prosser. Ever since Mr. and Mrs. Prosser came to stay in ‘Tiled House’, they were haunted by a white, plump, aristocratic, and middle-aged hand. At first, the Prossers’ were annoyed by the whole occurrence but then, as the hauntings became more pervasive, they grew terribly afraid. So afraid were they that even though Lord Castlemallard had placed his huge mansion ‘Tiled House’ at their disposal, they were unwilling to stay there because they were certain it was haunted. Mr. Alderman Harper, Mrs. Prosser’s father, tried to convince Lord Castlemallard not only to release him from the lease of ‘Tiled House’ and the land upon it but was insistent that Lord Castlemallard should tear down the house because of the hauntings.
Sheridan loved to narrate his ghost and horror stories through the narrator’s voice, who in the beginning appeared sound in mind but towards the close of the tale manifested unsoundness. In ‘Narrative of a Ghost of a Hand’, he uses himself as the narrator. He portrays himself as too old, of unclear mind, given to speaking long monologues, and therefore not a reliable witness. This is just Sheridan’s way of adding a touch of unease to the story by making the narrator of the story seem to be an unreliable witness. He uses the same tactics in Carmilla a novella about a female vampire. If you want to read an abridged version of Carmilla with beautiful illustrations by Farzana Cooper, you can check out my adaption of the book here. It is a part of my Rare Classics series. Sheridan also narrates the story from various perspectives indicating that the tale may be true or distilled through so many hands and voices that it need not necessarily be true. Here is the list of the people from whom the narrator, Sheridan himself or a rather old man, has gotten his story of the ‘Tiled House’:
- Old Sally was acquainted with the narrator but not in a good light because he calls her a person who believes anything she is told.
- Miss Rebecca Chattesworth’s long detailed letter where most of the ghostly hand’s haunting details are noted. The narrator, Sheridan, intended to publish the letter, but his publisher vetoed the idea because the letter was too long and probably too frightful.
- The letters and conversations between Mr. Alderman Harper and Lord Castlemallard.
- The seven lengthy affidavits sent by Mr. Alderman Harper to Lord Castlemallard concerning the ‘Tiled House’. An affidavit is a written statement confirmed by oath or affirmation for use as evidence in court. Affidavits can be used for many purposes. They are most often filed with the court to show that specific information is accurate. In some cases, an attorney can use your affidavit so that you do not have to appear in court or at another official legal proceeding. Lord Castlemallard wanted to take Mr. Alderman Harper to court because Harper desired to be released from leasing Lord Castlemallard’s land. But after reading the frightful and horrific affidavits, he lets Harper and his entourage leave the ‘Tiled House’.
- Indirectly from the Prossers who resided at the ‘Tiled House’.
- From legends and folktales about the ‘Tiled House’.
- From James Prosser’s cousin at the end of the story.
It is important to remember that Sheridan goes to a great extent in most of his short stories about the supernatural to ratify that the story he is about to tell is true so that the person reading the ghost story or horror story can get spooked to the greatest extent. Modern and post-modern horror writers have been using this art picked up from early nineteenth-century horror writers like Sheridan and M.R. James. You can check out my analysis of horror writer M.R. James’s short stories here. M.R. James’s style of writing is similar to Sheridan Le Fanu’s. Note that Mr. Alderman Harper was Lord Castlemallard’s mother’s cousin; some readers may get that fact mixed up. Also, Sheridan seems to have a closer relationship with Lord Castlemallard than anyone else in the narrators’ list.
Then, at last, begins the actual haunting of the ghostly hand. The hand itself is only from the fingers to the wrist. The ghostly hand’s owner is never seen by those being haunted except in three-year-old James Prosser’s nightmares, the eldest son of the Prossers. The latter’s chatty cousin tells the stories of his elder cousin’s nightmares later to the narrator or Sheridan Le Fanu. James sees the man as a sensual, benignant, and unwholesome personage dressed in eighteenth-century clothing and wearing a period wig. There is indeed something sensual, sexually prohibitive, and loathsome in the behavior not only of the hand but also the ghost of the man seen in the little boy’s nightmares. The ghostly hand’s idea was to enter the ‘Tiled House’ and place his fingers on the temple or head of his victim to get into their minds. The hand does this to induce horrific dreams and fits of terror in the minds of his victims. Sheridan seems to like to include sensual elements in his short stories and other literature. We see it to a great extent in his novella Carmilla. However, for younger readers, in my adaption of Carmilla, I have omitted references to the story’s sensual aspects. But indeed, if you read the way the hand moves, one would think it to be a groping or sensual hand.
The hauntings began with the hand rapping on the windowsills, frames, glass, and wooden doors of the various rooms of the ‘Tiled House’. This, we realize later, was for the hand could enter the house to attack the minds of his victims through sensual dreams. The conceited and proud Mr. Prosser lets the ghostly hand into the house through the front parlor or hall door. He realizes his mistake too late and then takes succor in reading the Bible and saying his prayers. Before Mr. Posser let the fiendish and loathsome hand in through the front door, the hand only used to tap and rap the windows and doors of the back entrances to the ‘Tiled House’. Later, the ghostly hand realized it would be best to irritate the weak and proud Mr. Prosser and, therefore, tap and rap the front entrance to the house where Mr. Prosser usually lived. The hand first attacked little James’s mother inducing her to dream nightmares of horror. He then picked on little James, not allowing him to sleep, and when James did try to sleep, the hand made his dream frightening nightmares so that the poor boy screamed and had fits in his sleep.
The Prossers seem to be people with a strong staying power because they remained in the ‘Tiled House’ for much longer, despite being tormented even more intensely by the ghostly hand. This is the impression Sheridan Le Fanu gives when he mentions that he cannot continue to include too many details in this short story. Probably since they were looking after Lord Castlemallard’s land and the ‘Tiled House’, they felt it their bounden duty to stay there, hand or no hand! There is a particular instance from the text where after the ghostly hand entered the ‘Tiled House’, it made an impression on a dusty little parlor table. Sheridan very beautifully mentions that even the single footprint on the sands of Robinson Crusoe’s deserted island did not scare Crusoe as much as the impression of the hand did the Prossers family and their staff. Mr. Prosser suspecting every servant or domestic help in the house to be behind the haunting made each of them measure out their hands next to the ghostly hand print. However, he realized that none of them and neither the immediate Prosser family had a hand like the middle-aged ancient and highly disgusting ghostly hand. The idea of the ghostly hand groping as it were the glass and wooden frames of windows is indicative of a sensual tone in the text. The reference to Daniel Defoe’s bestselling eighteenth-century classic Robinson Crusoe is understandable as it was the most popular book at that time. Plus, the sight of the cannibals had frightened Crusoe. Many Victorian or nineteenth-century writers have mentioned how Daniel Defoe’s classic book greatly influenced their art. Indeed, the classic Robinson Crusoe truly is the precursor to all novels written after that. You can read more on this in the book An Outline History of English Literature by William Henry Hudson, which I have reviewed here.
Concerning the frightful state of James Prosser, the doctors thought that he was displaying symptoms of ‘incipient water on the brain’. This is indicative of Hydrocephalus, which is a condition that occurs when fluid builds up in the skull and causes the brain to swell. The name means “water on the brain.” Brain damage can occur because of the fluid buildup. This can lead to developmental, physical, and intellectual impairments. However, there was nothing of this sort because James was being persecuted by a ghostly hand. James dies early, as indicated in the text. His cousin with a white pigtail tells the story of his poor cousin to Sheridan, and then Sheridan links James to the haunted house called the ‘Tiled House’. Sheridan then ends the story in a way that indicates that he too is an old man given to talking long on subjects that may interest him but which are tiresome to others younger than him. There is a slight indication that Sheridan had something diabolic to do in this affair, but that is not the case.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I have a whole collection of his short stories in my office-cum-writing hut, which I hope to review. Interested in another adaption of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla for children penned by me and my author colleague Michaelangelo Zane with beautiful illustrations by Vivek Nag? You can check that out here. I hope to analyze more short stories by Sheridan Le Fanu soon.
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