This article contains the summary and analysis of Henry James’ gothic ghost story Owen Wingrave (1892).
This article series provides a summary of Owen Wingrave, the ending or the twist and a short analysis.
Henry James (1843-1916) was an American Author of literary realism and literary modernism. But he has also written ghost stories, stories of the supernatural and the spiritual. His themes compose romance, the fear of marriage, the doppelgänger motif and of course the supernatural that subtly sneaks into real life, ever posing the question if the paranormal is real or not. Often with an unreliable narrator, told in the first person, the events can be explained either by the existence of a real ghost or something that the mind conjured up. His ghost story genre lies in the genre of Romance, where the magical co-exists with everyday life, which creates an eerie uncanny feeling. His stories are always based in the real world of human action, psychology and morality. It therefore is up to the reader to interpret the story as they wish, which can lead to wonderful lively discussions.
This article contains one of his most gothic, dark, scary and famous ghost stories. Owen Wingrave is put to the test by a violent and sadistic family. Owen can’t escape his inevitable doom and deadly fate by not being the person what is expected of him. His fate was sealed when he behaved differently and came home to confront it.
Owen Wingrave (1892)
Owen Wingrave has an argument with his mentor Spencer Coyle. ‘Mr Coyle was a professional “coach’” he prepared young men for the army, taking only three or four at a time, to whom he applied the irresistible stimulus of which the possession was both his secret and his fortune. (…) He was an artist in his line, caring only for picked subjects, and capable of sacrifices almost passionate for the individual.’ Their arguments ends with a truce of three days. Later Coyle speaks to young Lechmere, Wingrave’s fellow-pupil, his intimate best friend. Only then it becomes apparent that the arguments was about Wingrave giving up his career in the army. Which Lechmere has to persuade him otherwise.
Before dinner Spencer Coyle goes to see Miss Jane Wingrave, Owen’s aunt who has come up from Paramore to Baker Street. Owen became the charge of Jane Wingrave at Paramore after his father died in India by an Afghan saber and his mother along with his stillborn sibling died during childbirth. He grew up at Paramore with his aunt and with Sir Philip Wingrave her father, in a ‘Jacobean house which was rather shabby and “creepy,” but full of character still and full of felicity as a setting for the distinguished figure of the peaceful old soldier.’ (…) ‘If she was military, it was because she sprang from a military house and because she wouldn’t for the world have been anything but what the Wingraves had been.’ She therefore wants Owen sent to her and she will change his mind. ‘“I think I’ve got a powerful argument.”’
After dinner Coyle again speaks to Lechmere and wonders if he has achieved anything. Lechmere tells him what Owen had said to him. ‘(…) his scruples were founded on an overwhelming conviction of the stupid – the “crass barbarisms” he called it – of war. His great complaint was that people hadn’t invented anything cleverer, and he was determined to show, the only way he could, that he wasn’t such an ass.’ But there’s something else. Lechmere thinks that maybe Owen is afraid.
The next week, after Miss Wingrave has taken her nephew back to Paramore, Spencer Coyle is invited to make one last plea to the boy’s military mind. His wife and young Lechmere are also invited. There, Owen tells Coyle that his grandfather has denounced him and that he has spent some terrible hours with him, to make his hair stand up on his head. His aunt was equally insulting and he even was called a coward. But he sticks to the idea that there should be another solution than war and he himself wants to lead a peaceful life.
But what worries him the most are the ghosts of Paramore. ‘“I’ve started up all the ghosts. The very portraits glower at me on the walls. There’s one of my great-great-grandfather (…) that fairly stirs on the canvas – just heaves a little – when I come near it.”’ And indeed a ghost story roams the halls of Paramore, so Coyle tells his wife. That particular great-great-grandfather Colonel Wingrave had struck one of his children, a lad just growing up, a blow to the head, of which the unhappy child died. The day of the funeral Colonel Wingrave went missing and was found dead on the floor of the room where he killed his child. That uncovered the truth of the child’s death.
Meanwhile Miss Kate Julian daughter of widow Mrs Julian who was taken in by Miss Wingrave after her husband died in the war, who was promised to Owen, is flirting with Lechmere, for Owen and Kate were more like brother and sister.
Kate fits right in Paramore, for she has a military pride of her own. She wants Owen to fight in the army. While Lechmere stays up late with Owen to talk some sense into him, Kate ventures downstairs in search for a jewel she has lost. Downstairs she quarrels with Owen dares him to spent the night in that room. As Lechemere just before proposed to do so, for he thought it rather fun. When he encounters Coyle before he goes to bed, Coyle is worried. After a rather restless night, for Mrs Coyle is worried too in this ghostly house, he is woken up by a woman’s scream. They run up to the room where ‘he found himself aghast at on the threshold of an open door. Owen Wingrave, dressed as he had last seen him, lay dead on the spot on which his ancestor had been found. He looked like a young soldier in a battle-field.’
The ending and the proceeding of the story are quite ironic. Owen has proven himself worthy a military man, for his courage, manliness, and determination to stand up against his family, he has traits that stem from a long military line. Even Coyle thinks so, for he has gone to Paramore with the thought to come to Owen’s aid and to withstand his family, standing by his side.
Owen, with his intelligence for wanting to forbid war and his other traits, has outgrown this hunger for violence in his family. The house is haunted by them, Spartan and gloomy it reflects the family that lives in it, even Kate. It symbolizes the family that has lived in it and that haunts it still. It would be no wonder if the great-great-grandfather has killed his son for not being military enough. But by defying his family and the house, Owen has condemned himself. Still in his determination to fight his family he died a soldier, killed by his enemy on the battle-field that is Paramore and lost.
Read more about Henry James’ Ghost Stories:
- Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (Summary & Analysis)
- Henry James: The Altar of the Dead [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Beast in the Jungle [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: De Grey A Romance [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Ghostly Rental [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Great Good Place [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Jolly Corner [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Last of the Valerri [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Real Right Thing [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Sir Edmund Orme[Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Third Person [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Way It Came [Summary & Analysis]
- The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) review