Analysis Pages

Literary Devices in Afterward

Tone: As with many ghost stories, the tension builds throughout the story’s five parts. Initially, the Boynes are ecstatic with their new home, seeming to settle in quite well. However, mystery soon presents itself, creating tension between the couple as they struggle to figure out the truth regarding Ned’s business. The house, originally described in beautiful, comforting terms, becomes more and more foreboding and dreadful as Mary investigates further.

Foreshadowing: It’s clear after the first section that something is amiss in the Boynes’ idyllic new home, but what it is isn’t immediately clear. The mysterious stranger, Ned’s odd reactions to Mary’s questions, and Mary’s poor vision all foreshadow the eventual reveal of more information.

Literary Devices Examples in Afterward:


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"Her short-sighted eyes had given her but a blurred impression of slightness and grayness, with something foreign, or at least unlocal,..."   (I)

Because Mary’s vision is poor, she can’t quite identify the person who is approaching their home. His obscured identity—and her husband’s dramatic reaction to the figure—suggest that his identity will eventually be revealed.

"They’ve been able to lay the butter so thick on every exquisite mouthful.”..."   (I)

This demonstrates the Boynes’ version of “luxury” by using vivid, evocative imagery. Here, the Boynes’ not only conceptualize the history and aesthetic of their house as a commodity to own but also as a good to consume. This notion is further emphasized by the following line: “The butter had certainly been laid on thick at Lyng.” This metaphor deepens the contention that the Boynes’ desire is more closely connected to the “idea” of the quintessential country house rather than to the real estate itself.

"sepulchral sound..."   (I)

A “sepulchre” is a tomb in which someone is buried. So, traditionally something “sepulchral” is related to a tomb or burial. However, over time the word “sepulchral” has become less tied to this literal definition and can also merely mean something gloomy or somber. In this context, Wharton has created a play on words, as both meanings can be invoked. Mary’s tone is undeniably somber, but she is also speaking of a ghost, something associated with death and the supernatural.

"“Not till long, long afterward.”..."   (I)

The repetition of this refrain creates an ominous, foreboding tone, as readers and characters alike are kept in the dark as to the true nature of the ghost. The line is also deliberately confusing, because it seems impossible to “know” something only long after seeing it. This confusion increases the tension of the plot, as readers long to unravel the mystery.

"“Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.”..."   (I)

By beginning the narrative in the middle of a sentence, Wharton immediately plunges readers into the thick of the action. As we are unaware what is meant by the “one,” of which is referred, we are drawn in by mystery and the desire to know more. Wharton’s choice to begin the story this way immediately creates a tone of mystery and intrigue.

"“the exasperating thing is that there’s no use trying, since one can’t be sure till so long afterward.”..."   (II)

Though Mary wants to encounter a ghost, she remembers the warning: she will not know she has interacted with a ghost until the meeting has already passed. The continual repetition of this line serves to reinforce this notion and create a sense of foreboding in readers, as they guess who might be the ghost that Mary seems almost certain to encounter.

"it looked a mere blot of deeper gray in the grayness, and for an instant, as it moved toward her, her heart thumped to the thought, “It’s the ghost!”..."   (II)

Mary is quick to see the Lyng ghost—even welcoming its presence, since it makes their home more authentically Gothic. Again Mary’s weak sight betrays her, and the ghost does not appear. However, her continued mistaking of flesh-and-blood people for ghosts foreshadows the appearance of the actual ghost.

"seemed suddenly to grow less round and rosy, as though eclipsed by the same creeping shade of apprehension...."   (III)

Trimmle, who has been a fairly amusing and sarcastic character until this moment, is also depicted as physically affected by Mary’s dread. The characters’ apprehension increases, as they wonder if something terrible has happened to Ned.

"she stood alone in the long, silent, shadowy room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there audibly breathing and lurking among the shadows...."   (III)

In contrast to her earlier delightful descriptions of the house, her husband’s failure to return home incites a much more unpleasant characterization of the library. Now, her new home seems foreboding and full of horrible creatures, her fear practically personified in the lamp’s shadows.

"paused with the air of a gentleman—perhaps a traveler—desirous of having it immediately known that his intrusion is involuntary...."   (III)

The origin of the man’s hesitancy to approach the home is unknown at this time. All Mary can tell about him is that he appears sophisticated and eventually does approach despite his original reluctance. Though not immediately clear, the purpose of the man’s visit will make itself known by the end of the story.

"it sent her, from its open windows and hospitably smoking chimneys, the look of some warm human presence..."   (III)

Mary’s descriptions of the house make it seem almost alive, a character in its own right capable of memory and experience. Charmed by the house’s pleasant exterior, Mary renders it a welcoming, knowledgeable abode, which she is happy to inhabit.

" like the victim of some poison which leaves the brain clear, but holds the body motionless, she saw herself domesticated with the Horror, accepting its perpetual presence as one of the fixed conditions of life...."   (IV)

Mary compares the pain of not knowing her husband’s fate to being paralyzed by a poison. She perceives herself as being in the grip of “Horror,” unable to move beyond it but freely capable of pondering the implications of its existence. Her fate is one of domestication—ruled and ordered about by the terror of her home rather than in control of her own fate, speaking again to the subservient role of women.

"Cimmerian night...."   (IV)

The Cimmerians mentioned here likely references the Cimmerians (Greek Kimmerioi) of Homer’s Odyssey, a civilization portrayed as living in a dark, foggy land near the entrance to Hades, the Greek underworld. In the 1930s, Cimmeria and its darkness would be adopted as the homeland of literature’s Conan the Barbarian. Invoking Cimmerian darkness suggests that Mary is considering the possibility that Ned is dead, or beyond her reach for some reason.

"It leaped out at her suddenly, like a grin out of the dark, that they had often called England so little—“such a confoundedly hard place to get lost in.”..."   (IV)

The purpose of this sentence is twofold: it acts as an introduction to the section, which focuses on the investigation of Ned’s disappearance and the mystery of his continued absence, and also continues to further the eeriness established in the previous section. Since England is so small (in comparison to the USA), Mary reasons that Ned should be fairly easy to find—the question then becomes why no one has found him yet. The opening simile—“leaped like a grin out of the dark”—suggests a lurking danger, hiding unseen from its prey, contributing to the story’s foreboding tone.

"“You won’t know till afterward,” it said. “You won’t know till long, long afterward.”..."   (V)

The phrase which has been continuously repeated finally reaches its fully significance, taking on a resonance due to its repetition. Mary encountered a ghost months before, but she did not recognize him for what he was. Now she and readers realize with horror that the tale of the Lyng ghost was true all along.

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