Ghostly Desires in Edith Wharton's 'Miss Mary Pask'
Don't get too excited. This is an academic article published in the Journal of the Short Story in English (Issue 70, Spring 2018). The following abstract contains spoilers. You've been warned.
As a ‘ghost story’ which uncannily turns out to be not a ghost story at all, Edith Wharton’s ‘Miss Mary Pask’ invites reading from a confluence of feminist, psychoanalytic, and biographical perspectives. The title character occupies the threshold between life and death, blending and intermixing oppositions while also exhibiting what Jane Gallop calls the ‘juicy receptivity which makes penetration not painful, but a free-flowing exchange.’ This provokes the male narrator’s fear and, more significantly, his inability to speak in Mary’s presence. The biographical matrix established by Cynthia Griffin Wolf allows the story to be understood further as Wharton’s therapeutic reconnection with the emotions that her society—and her mother—had taught her to deny, beginning a lifelong association of these buried emotions with the ability to communicate. Wharton began to understand ‘words, even “the sound of words apart from their meaning”’ as a ‘promise of an escape from loneliness and helplessness.’ Although Miss Mary Pask’s profusion of words—her profusion of emotion—shakes the narrator’s hard reserve, he later reconciles his failure to meet Mary on her own terms by holding her at the comfortable distance afforded by her apparent death. Only when he discovers that she is, in fact, alive, does he confess that he will ‘never again be interested in Mary Pask, or in anything concerning her.’ Wharton’s story negotiates a ghostly threshold between the articulation and repression of female desire, writing herself in the process.