This article contains the summary and analysis of Henry James’ unusual gothic ghost story The Third Person (1900).
This article series provides a summary of The Third Person, 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 a ghost story that hasn’t so much got a dark feel, but tells a humorous story about a presumed ghost. But it causes some inconvenience and stirs up some truths about the main characters and raises some conflict in the character’s lives.
The Third Person (1900)
‘When, a few years since, two good ladies, previously not intimate nor indeed more than slightly acquainted, found themselves domiciled together in the small but ancient town of Marr, it was as a result, naturally, of special considerations.’ They were cousins, Susan Frush and the 10 years younger Amy Frush inherited the house from their aunt. The two women couldn’t be more different from each other in appearance and in spirit but also what they have done so far with their lives.
But they both shared that they have never married. And they both shared a curiosity to their ancestors who have lived in this very house. When they have come accustomed to each other they decide to explore the house, for buried secrets. The more sinister, the better, they didn’t even draw the line at murder, it feels so very romantic. One day they found a hidden box, not with treasure or coins alas, but with letters and documents. They give them to their friend the vicar Mr Pattern to go through them, who also has an interest in the village’s history, to report to them his finds.
One evening when they both got upstairs to bed, Amy heard her cousin and friend scream. She rushed out and met her on the landing. ‘“There’s someone in my room!” They held each other, “But who?” “A man.” “Under the bed?” “No – just standing there.” (…) “In strange clothes – of another age; with his head on one side.”’
They decide to spent the night in Amy’s room but soon come to the conclusion that it must have been someone who can’t really hurt them, for he could have done so that night. It must be a ghost. ‘The element in question, then, was a third person in their association, a hovering presence for the dark hours, a figure that with its head very much – too much – on one side, could be trusted to look at them. They had it at last – had what was to be had in an old house where many, too many, things had happened, where the very walls they touched and floors they trod could have told secrets and named names, where every surface was a blurred mirror of life an death, of the endured the remembered, the forgotten, Yes; the place was h -, but they stopped at sounding the word.’
When Mr Pattern had gone through the papers, letters and documents he has to tell them a dark tale of one of their ancestors. Cuthbert Frush was hanged! Not for murder, sadly so, but for smuggling, much less romantic and much more vulgar. The cousins figure that his appearance must have something to do with the unearthing of the chest that woke him up. But strangely enough they are both happy, he did. Especially when Amy also gets to see him, standing by the fireplace.
But their new housemate stirs up some trouble between the cousins. They don’t talk about him anymore, and he even causes them to rival each other and they even get jealous. Their once sisterly bond, is slowly turning them into silent strangers. Till one day they have come to realize that it’s enough.
They have both come up with a solution to get rid of the ghost. ‘What was definite was that they have lived into their queer story, passed through it as through an observed, a studied, eclipse of the usual, a period of reclusion, a financial, social, or moral crisis, and only desired now to live out of it again.’
‘The great questions remained. What then did he mean? what then did he want? Absolution, peace, rest, his final reprieve – merely to say that saw them no further on the way than they had already come. What were they at last to do for him?’
Each cousin comes up with a different solution according to their spirits. Susan’s plan fails. She donated money to the government to make up for Cuthbert’s smuggling. But that doesn’t seem to make him go away. Then it’s Amy’s turn. She asks if Susan can miss her for three days, but stays away for ten days. When she finally returns, they feel freed of Cuthbert. So what did Amy do, asks Susan. Amy went to Paris and smuggled back home a Tauchnitz. It was after all, bravado what Cuthbert longed for. One last smuggle.
This is a humorous romance ghost story about two gentlewomen spinsters. The two cousins have never been married and the need for romance, to dive into their old family history makes up for that. And when they dig up old smugglers tales from Cuthbert, they both get what they have longed for. Real ghost or not, the mere thought drives the two apart from each other, competing for a man’s attention, even if it is a ghost.
Conveniently it is a ghost, for neither one can prove that he visits them.
But they luckily come to realize that no man is worth to quarrel over or to let them ruin their bond. Both make an attempt to please the ghost, and the smuggling of a Tauchnitz does the trick. Tauchnitz was a German publisher that also printed the early paperbacks, in the English language, but only to be sold on the continent, forbidden to be allowed to compete with British publishers, they couldn’t be brought to England even if many tourists or holidaymakers did.
Read more about Henry James:
- 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: Owen Wingrave [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