In high school courses I teach, we read about ghosts in short stories and plays, and students sometimes ask me why we do this. When I return the favor and ask them what they think, we often have some interesting discussions about the soul, spirituality, and self-knowledge.
Truly, literary ghosts are extremely important if we understand their metaphorical meaning.
First, the ghosts we know are often really–ourselves. Great literature reveals the human condition; it shows us how to rise above our weaknesses, mistakes, and sins, and what happens when we don’t. Ghosts tell us about ourselves and the things that haunt us, especially our own failings. They reflect what we are thinking, deep down, underneath self-delusions, guilt, and hidden self-knowledge. For instance, when we read Macbeth, we understand that ghosts can be the creations of our own minds: they may be forbidden desires, desires which dominate us so fully that against our own consciences, we believe in them and obey them. If we give in to them, we become ghosts ourselves: shells of our former selves who cower in fright as we hide from the results of our own selfish, evil actions.
Often, ghosts are about place and space. Virginia Woolf’s story, “A Haunted House,” expresses how connected we are to the places in which we’ve lived and loved. Here the new owners of a house find mysterious ghosts whose residual experiences inspire the them to continue the love which the original couple has, it seems, extended to them through time, in this cherished home which still emanates the deep, abiding commitment of its previous owners. As we grow older we learn how important our homes and communities have been to us, and they become part of the warp and woof of our own spirits–so much so that sometimes, we find it hard to consciously assimilate the depth and breadth of our past experiences.
Finally, ghosts reveal the spiritual nature of our existence and our connection to immortality: life which extends beyond the present. When Hamlet is presented with the ghost of his father, he is not sure if the ghost is a demonic deception, or his dead father, directing him from the beyond. Even those of us with strong religious beliefs can’t conceive exactly of what lies beyond, or how those who have died view us. While Christians are instructed not to attempt to hold seances with the dead, this doesn’t abrogate the question: what, exactly, is the relationship of those of us on earth to those who have died? And what is it like for them, in their new state? Hamlet wrestles with how he should relate to what he thinks may be his father’s spirit, and in so doing reveals the internal conflicts we all experience when we confront personal tragedies, and how we might have been responsible for them, or may be able to repair them afterwards.
Ghosts may bring forth our regrets: sorrows which challenge us to either wallow in self-pity and anguish, or to accept reality, in the recognition that it is only in embracing our situation and our own failings that we find healing, peace, and maturation. Or, perhaps ghosts will bring comfort to us: the memories of times with loved ones now gone, the times with children now grown. Whatever our personal ghosts are, reading and writing about them is a way forward to understanding ourselves, the world we live in, and the God who created us.
© Cindy C. Lange, MA