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Themes in Afterward

The Inevitable Greed of Business: Using the traditional tale of the Gothic ghost story, Wharton is able to provide commentary on financial greed and income inequality inherent in the pursuit of wealth above all other goals. Such commentary is most notably found in Mary’s conversation with Parvis, in which Wharton paints a picture of businessmen who refuse to admit moral culpability, their emotion and empathy long squandered by a desire for wealth.

Flawed Role of Women as Support: As Mary notes in the second part of the story, she is kept separate from her husband’s monetary affairs—due to her own volition, general apathy, and conviction that a woman should support her husband in his work affairs. Throughout “Afterward,” Mary takes care of the domestic sphere, figuring out architectural changes and ways to spend money. Though she participates in spending money, she does not really know the means with which it was acquired, which raises the question, “Is she complicit in any crimes committed by her husband?” “Afterward” seems to suggest that women’s roles ought not to be confined to support but also include investigation and inquisitiveness.

Commodification of Gothic Tradition: Because of the Gothic ghost stories they have read, both Ned and Mary dream of a home in Europe rather than in boring Midwestern America. Mary in particular believes in the “rules” of the books she’s read and searches for a manor with an accompanying ghost because she longs to recreate the fictional Europe of her imagination. In this way, the Gothic tradition is seen as something to “own” by these newly rich Americans, viewed as something to possess rather than respect.

Themes Examples in Afterward:


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"Mary was too well-versed in the code of the spectral world not to know that one could not talk about the ghosts one saw: to do so was almost as great a breach of good-breeding as to name a lady in a club...."   (I)

Here Wharton introduces a theme of society and class relating to associated expectations and rules of appropriateness. This theme is rendered in a comical fashion here, as Mary is described as “well-versed in the code of the spectral world.” Comparing speaking of a ghost to naming of a “lady in a club” associates an otherworldly phenomenon with a social faux pas. Consequently, the association of a supernatural force with something so mundane as the politeness of social class produces a rather farcical effect.

"two romantic Americans perversely in search of the economic drawbacks which were associated, in their tradition, with unusual architectural felicities...."   (I)

The Boynes are not only willing to tolerate issues like lack of electricity and hot-water but also see these problems as part of the “charm” of older English architecture. The irony of this is further emphasized by the following line, in which Ned Boyne professes he needs to feel “uncomfortable” in order to believe he is living in an old house. The Boynes’ desire to purchase an old English country house is a marker of “New World” America’s fascination with “Old World” England’s associated traditions and histories.

"Now, for the first time, it startled her a little to find how little she knew of the material foundation on which her happiness was built...."   (II)

Mary’s realization—that she knows very little about what Ned does each day—affects her negatively for the very first time. As a woman, it was conventional at the time that Mary’s role be one of support rather than inquisitive action.

"Besides, she had felt from the first that, in a community where the amenities of living could be obtained only at the cost of efforts as arduous as her husband’s professional labors, such brief leisure as they could command should be used as an escape from immediate preoccupations, a flight to the life they always dreamed of living...."   (II)

Although Mary would like to find her husband’s business dealings interesting, the truth is that she doesn’t, and so she avoids learning more about them. She justifies this method of living by deciding that since her husband works so hard to provide for them, their time together should be focused on leisure rather than work. While Mary would like to be a well-informed wife, her focus is more on fleeing the unpleasantness of life rather than confronting it.

"It’s all rather technical and complicated. I thought that kind of thing bored you.”..."   (II)

Here, Mary’s ignorance of her husband’s work is further complicated. Her husband’s words indicate Mary’s own apathy is a factor in why she doesn’t know the full details of what he does.

"I can’t understand more than half.”..."   (II)

Though Mary is an upper-class and, presumably, educated woman, she is unable to comprehend the full extent of her husband’s financial dealings. This separation between them seems to be mixture of her own ignorance regarding business matters and her husband’s efforts to conceal the details of his dealings.

"“is there any legend, any tradition, as to that?”..."   (II)

Like Mary, Ned’s reference for their new home comes from superstition and the fictionalized Gothic tradition. In this line, he asks her whether there might be a time limit to when they ought to expect their household ghost, relying on Mary’s knowledge of the home’s legends and her own reading.

"If she had indeed been careless of her husband’s affairs, it was, her new state seemed to prove, because her faith in him instinctively justified such carelessness; and his right to her faith had overwhelmingly affirmed itself in the very face of menace and suspicion. ..."   (III)

Again, Mary seeks to justify her ignorance of her husband’s affairs. To be a good wife necessitates trust, which Ned is owed by virtue of their marriage. This relationship, though not entirely equal, seems to be satisfactory to Mary, who is content to be a supportive partner.

" 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.

"“I don’t say it wasn’t straight, and yet I don’t say it was straight. It was business.”..."   (V)

In the business world, the rules of morality and honor don’t apply in the same way they would in other situations. Parvis does not condemn Ned’s actions, only Elwell’s unintelligence and generosity. Wharton seems to be highlighting the unscrupulous nature of unregulated business, suggesting that greed will overwhelm generosity time and time again.

"Her husband had made his money in that brilliant speculation at the cost of “getting ahead” of some one less alert to seize the chance; the victim of his ingenuity was young Robert Elwell, who had “put him on” to the Blue Star scheme...."   (V)

Here, Parvis explains more fully what happened between Ned and Robert Elwell. Through quick-thinking and underhanded business tactics, Ned was able to elbow Elwell out of money, taking the profit from speculation for himself, despite Elwell’s having told Ned about the opportunity. The origin of the couple’s windfall is thus revealed: Ned’s greed and willingness to undercut those who have helped him.

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