Virginia Woolf

A Haunted House and Other Short Stories

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A Haunted House and Other Short Stories Summary

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A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944) is a collection of eighteen short stories by Virginia Woolf, published posthumously by her husband, Leonard Woolf. The collection includes reprints of six of the eight stories that appeared in her first short story collection, Monday or Tuesday (1921), as well as six stories published in magazines between 1922-1941, and six more unpublished stories that were in early stages of revision when she died. In the foreword, Leonard Woolf outlines the reasons why he chose the stories (some of them they had discussed before her death, others he made an educated guess about) and includes the caveat that some of the stories are unfinished or little more than their original first-draft sketches. Free, full-text editions of this collection exist online through Project Gutenberg and the University of Adelaide.

Many of the stories experiment with different points of view or ways of perceiving the world. “An Unwritten Novel” is an exercise in both empathy and imagination. The narrator is on a train when she notices a woman across from her is desperately unhappy—and worse, not doing anything to disguise it or distract herself. Other passengers read the newspaper, stare at a map, or smoke a cigarette, but this woman merely “looks at life.” The narrator and the woman engage in a brief, awkward conversation that quickly disintegrates, but the narrator’s imagination is caught—who is this woman? How does she see the world? What is her life like, that she is so unhappy? By the end of the story, none of the questions are resolved; whatever the narrator has imagined is a fiction, and the woman remains unknowable and unhappy. “The Mark on the Wall” also invites the reader to perceive the world differently and to find joy in imagining the unknown. The narrator notices a mark on a wall and wonders what the mark was made by and why. The narrator makes up stories about the mark, ultimately deciding not to get up to inspect the mark to know the truth. The truth is revealed at the end of the story by the other character, who makes an offhand comment about the snail on the wall—which is not a possibility the narrator considered.

“The String Quartet” uses a stream-of-consciousness style framed by music. In many ways, this story reflects the classic writing exercise wherein participants are instructed to sit in a public place and observe their surroundings, eavesdrop on conversations, people watch, and ultimately make up stories and impressions about all of it. The extra element of music adds more impressions—songs make the narrator feel different emotions characterized with imagery from the giddiness of springtime in bloom to the melancholy of a river framed by weeping willows in the moonlight. Joy and grief intertwine until it becomes hard to distinguish between them. Similarly, “Kew Gardens” alights on four couples as they stroll in the garden past a certain flowerbed. The people and their conversations are juxtaposed with a snail going about its business among the flowers. This juxtaposition of the slice-of-life portraits of people and snail invites the reader to see the inherent randomness and mundanity of people and the world in general.

“Lappin and Lapinova” is the story of young newlyweds, Ernest and Rosalind Thorburn. Rosalind imagines herself and her husband as rabbits, King Lappin and Queen Lapinova, and together they create an imaginary world of their own. Rosalind clings to the fantasy to cope with her husband’s huge, overwhelming family and her own unhappiness with marriage. More than once, she dissociates and wonders what she is doing and why she is married to Ernest. Eventually, Ernest stops playing the game, and Rosalind realizes that she has lost both King Lappin and her own alter ego Lapinova. The story ends abruptly with the line, “So that was the end of that marriage,” which is a rude awakening from the fantasy of an enchanted fairy tale forest ruled by rabbits.

“The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection,” experiments with perspective in a way that seems cinematic. The story begins and ends with “People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms” and is told in the reflections of the looking glass. Woolf skews perceptions by viewing Isabella through the mirror instead of directly—Isabella is secretive, but a well-known traveler; a spinster, but romantically experienced; she had many friends and acquaintances once but is ultimately alone. The letters brought by the postman are not love letters or missives dictated from faraway places, but bills that she will ignore even though she lives in wealth. Nothing about Isabella is how it appears, and Isabella makes the mistake of looking in the mirror and seeing the empty, lonely person that she has ultimately become.

The idea of facades is further explored in “The Man Who Loved His Kind.” Prickett Ellis runs into an old school friend of his, Richard Dalloway, and Dalloway invites him to a party that Ellis reluctantly decides to attend. Once there, he is intensely uncomfortable, especially when Dalloway introduces him to a demanding woman who thinks him a bore—these are not his people. They are expensive and classy members of society who do not know hardship and would be scandalized to find out that he smokes cheap tobacco, borrowed the suit he is wearing from his brother-in-law, and has nothing in common with them. He works for a living and does not have the extra income or time to go to plays and museums or to read poetry. He loves the quiet life and nature. The end of the story sees Ellis and the young woman he meets parting ways grumpily, not liking the party or each other. Two more stories, “Together and Apart” and “A Summing Up,” both seem to be set at the same party. Each story focuses on a socially awkward couple who meet at the party and do not quite get along. In “Together and Apart,” Mrs. Dalloway introduces two characters, Mr. Serle and Miss Anning, who try to strike up a conversation that does not go beyond small talk until they are stuck staring awkwardly at each other. The final story in the collection, “A Summing Up,” follows a shy widow named Sasha as she and the ever-prattling Mr. Pritchard take refuge in the cooler gardens outside the house. Sasha feels isolated, even in Pritchard’s sunny companionship.