The Haunted House by Charles Dickens: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Karen Wolak

Karen has taught 4-8th grade English/Language Arts and has worked closely with adult learners for several years. M.Ed. in Adult Education.

Have you ever heard the phrase, 'You can't judge a book by its cover?' What if I told you Charles Dickens's 'The Haunted House' was a Christmas story? Let's take a closer look at this unusual story and the themes it presents.

Analysis: Overview

In 1859, Charles Dickens teamed up with five authors for an issue of his literary periodical, All the Year Round. Instead of creating an anthology, or a collection of works that have something in common, they collaborated in creating a story called The Haunted House. Dickens established the plot through his opening chapter, ''The Mortals in the House,'' and each author added on a chapter.

Each chapter contributes to the overall premise of the story, or the concept on which a story is built. However, the chapters can be considered self-contained short stories. Each chapter tells a new tale of a spirit or haunting, and each is stylistically different. In fact, one of the chapters is written as a narrative poem, or a poem that tells a story. The idea of having separate, but related stories within a single work is called a portmanteau story in film and literature.

The setting is a haunted house.
haunted house

A Surprising Title

At first, The Haunted House seems like it will live up to its title. In the story, a man decides to buy a country home despite rumors it is haunted. To disprove the haunting, he invites his friends and family to come stay with him for a time. He assigns each a part of the house and asks them to report back any unusual findings.

Given the title and the introduction, we expect to hear tales about long, suspenseful nights that will make our spines shiver with fear. Instead, we encounter tales of a woman who deceives her lover, a prodigal son who never sees the error of his ways, a servant of God who wanders away from the church, and a seaman who suffers a near-death experience. We even come across a comedic tale where an ill man is assumed drunk or hung over by his loved ones. While we do encounter spirits and the supernatural throughout the collection, it is drastically different from the ghost stories we imagine on a dark and stormy night.

A Christmas Story?

Even more puzzling, The Haunted House is actually a Christmas tale. Dickens created an annual Christmas edition of All the Year Round, and it is in one of these editions that The Haunted House was published. However, Christmas is not as central of a theme here as it is in Dickens's famous tale, A Christmas Carol. What is it about The Haunted House that makes it suitable to be published specifically for Christmas? In order to understand the puzzle behind these short stories and their connection to the Christmas season, we have to take a closer look at their themes, or the recurring ideas, between them.

The Haunted House is billed as a Christmas tale.

Theme: Haunting

The characters in our story are all haunted by something. While some encountered an actual spirit or have an out-of-body experience through one, the ''hauntings'' referred to here are emotional baggage. Mr. Beaver is haunted by his past near-death experience in ''The Ghost in the Cupboard Room,'' and he fears candles because of it. In ''The Ghost in the Clock Room,'' Stella is haunted by her guilt of manipulating Martin and his family. Sister Angela was tormented with her decision to leave the service of the church in ''The Ghost in the Picture Room.'' The ''hauntings'' in The Haunted House have less to do with the supernatural and more to do with the characters' preoccupation with past decisions.

Themes: Love and Forgiveness

To counterbalance this theme are the themes of love and forgiveness. Love in friendship, family, courtship, and marriage show up as a central idea in almost every chapter. With love comes redemption and forgiveness. In ''The Ghost in the Clock Room,'' Martin forgives Stella's deceit because of his love for her. In ''The Ghost in the Garden Room,'' Nathan, Hester, and Bessy repeatedly excuse Benjamin for his reprehensible behavior out of love for him. Benjamin abuses their love, and he is never repentant.

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