Summary:

Tales of Men and Ghosts collects ten short stories previously published in Scribner's Magazine and The Century during the years 1909 and 1910:  "The Bolted Door," "His Father's Son," "The Daunt Diana," "The Debt," "Full Circle," "The Legend," "The Eyes," "The Blond Beast," "Afterward," and "The Letters." Set in Europe and New York City, the main characters usually are men--artists, dilletantes, or businessmen--and their friends, proteges, and hangers-on. Frequently, the unnamed male narrator also is a character in the story. Only two stories, "Afterward" and "The Letters," feature women as obviously central characters, although the peripheral female characters in the stories sometimes play important roles.

The plots of the "tales of men" are slight, often turning on some ironic moral or social insight gained by the protagonist. For instance, "The Debt" features the protege of a renowned biologist who eventually succeeds to his mentor's endowed university chair. The title of the protege's master work, "The Arrival of the Fittest," which disproves his mentor's own theory, announces perhaps ironically the inevitability and desirability of progress. When Ronald Grew learns that ordinary Brooklyn businessman Mason Grew, not glamorous European pianist Fortune Dolbrowski, is his real father, his disappointment proves all the more that he is indeed "His Father's Son."

The "tales of ghosts" are more riveting, relying as they do on the reader's susceptibility to what Wharton called a well-written ghost story's "thermometrical quality;" that is, its ability to "[send] a cold shiver down one's spine." These tales often depend on psychological, as well as moral or social insight, for example, when Andrew Culwin realizes that "The Eyes" that haunt him are his own. In "Afterward," when Ned Boyne leaves his bride for the ghost of the business partner he cheated out of his share of a mining fortune, Mary Boyne must realize the limits of the marital relationship that she had considered so idyllic.

In The Writing of Fiction Wharton defined a well-written short story as "a shaft driven straight into the heart of experience. Its crafting depended on carefully selected and ordered detail that built to a moment of insight." Readers may want to test the achievements of this collection against that standard.  Appearing as they did immediately before WWI, these stories also provide an interesting point of comparison with stories Wharton wrote during and after the war.  In addition, the gender relationships portrayed in this collection can be profitably examined against relationships in Wharton's later ghost stories.  

Discussion Questions:

1. Why do the eyes in "The Eyes" appear and disappear when they do, and what do they tell you about Wharton's moral code? Where in the other stories do you see evidence of these moral ideals?

2. How does Wharton use irony in the stories to create her effects and convey her ideas?

3. Discuss Wharton's use of houses and other architecture to reflect her characters' states of consciousness.

4. In discussing Wharton's ghost stories, Alan Gardner Smith quotes Schiller's definition of the "unheimliche" or uncanny: the "name for everything that ought to have remained . . . hidden or secret and has become visible."  How does Wharton use her ghost stories to explore such topics?

5. In "The Daunt Diana" the narrator speaks of "the old tragedy of the discrepancy between a man's wants and his power to gratify them." Where in the stories do you see Wharton playing out this theme?

6. Describe the various roles that women play in these stories. What effect does a female character's presence (or absence) have on any one of these stories?

-- Contributed by Anne Fields, Capital University