Virginia Woolf’s short story A Haunted House is short indeed. It’s less than 700 words long, in fact. Despite this it’s easy to write an essay on it, because it’s full of interesting themes to discuss.
To make a short story even shorter, A Haunted House is about a couple living in a house that’s haunted by the ghosts of another couple. The ghosts are obviously looking for a treasure, and finally the narrator realizes what it is – the ghosts are in love.
There’s a lot to write about. Here are some suggestions.
The interaction between the ghosts and the living is interesting. The title calls up images of a traditional haunting – mystery and terror. There’s none of that in the actual story though. The ghosts are considerate, reminding each other not to wake the couple. In return the couple show no fear of them at all, only curiosity about what they’re looking for.
Ghosts are often portrayed as tormented, seeking justice or paying for their crimes. These ones aren’t; they seem quite happy, in fact. Their search for the “treasure” – the “light in the heart” as the narrator calls it – appears to be pleasant for them, bringing back fond memories.
The house where the couple live was the home of the ghosts; the couple discover by listening to them that the woman died hundreds of years ago and the man then traveled widely, returning home after death. Having been in the house so long the ghosts are now an integral part of it and, unusually, the young couple don’t mind.
A repeated motif in the story is that the house seems to have a pulse, which beats “Safe, safe, safe.” It’s ambiguous whether this means safety for the ghosts in their refuge, safety for the couple who share it with them or more likely – for them all. Woolf uses this as a device to control the story’s mood. It is a ghost story so naturally there are descriptions of mysterious movements, a ghostly lantern and the sounds of doors opening. At no point does this cause the reader – or the young couple – anxiety though, because of the constant reassurance that the house is “safe, safe, safe.”
For such a short work A Haunted House packs in a lot of imagery, and it’s a novel twist on the classic ghost story. As material for an essay it offers a lot more than you’d think at one glance.