This article contains the summary and analysis of Henry James’ spiritual gothic ghost story The Altar of the Dead (1895).
This article series provides a summary of The Altar of the Dead, 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 story that deals with love, life and death.
The Altar of the Dead (1895)
‘He had a poor mortal dislike, poor Stransom to lean anniversaries.’ But one date he remembered every year, the death of Mary Antrim. The day after he had asked her to marry him, she died. And although he was never married, he still felt like a widower. ‘There were other ghosts in his life than the ghost of Mary Antrim. He had perhaps not had more losses than most men, but had counted his losses more; he hadn’t seen death more closely, but had in a manner felt it more deeply. He had formed little by little the habit of numbering his Dead; it had come to him early in life that there was something one had to do for them.’ ‘He had wondered of old, in some embarrassment whether he had a religion; (…) it became clear to him that the religion instilled by his earliest consciousness had been simply the religion of the Dead.’
This feeling is even more intensified when he meets an old acquaintance Mr Creston with his new wife. Stransom is rather appalled by this change, for he loved the former Mrs Kate Creston dearly. That evening he reads in the papers that an old friend whom he had fallen out with had died, Sir Acton Hague.
The next day he walks home from a cemetery and sees a little church and decides to take a rest there. ‘He wandered softly through the aisles, pausing in the different chapels, all save one applied to a special devotion. It was in this clear recess, lampless and unapplied, that he stood longest – the length of time it took him fully to grasp the conception of gilding it with his bounty. He should snatch it from not other rites and associate it with nothing profane; he would simply take it as it should be given up to him and make it a masterpiece of splendor and a mountain of fire.” And so he spoke to the bishop and the altar was his.
‘Now they had really, his Dead, something that was indefensibly theirs; and he liked to think that they might in cases be the Dead of others, as well as that the Dead of others might be invoked there under the protection of what he has done. (…) Each of his lights had a name for him, and from time to time a new light was kindled.’ He felt like a shepherd of a huddled flock. ‘He knew his candles apart, up to the color of the flame, and would still have known them had their positions all been changed.’ But. ‘For Acton Hague no flame could ever rise on any altar of his.’
‘(…) after a year had passed, that he began to observe his altar to be haunted by a worshipper at least as frequent as himself.’ It was the woman who was in the church the first day he visited. When they are both at the same concert they get acquainted. He is then eager to go to the church to meet her agin. But he doesn’t. ‘The influence that kept him away really revealed to him how little to himself his Dead ever left him. He went only for them – for nothing else in the world.’ But when he doesn’t go back, he sees her again and they speak, he walks with her and both come to realize they have their worship in common, but don’t care for each other. But they become close friends, although it took a very long time before they even knew their names or addresses.
Where Stransom lights more candles, she has only one Dead to mourn. She became the priestess of his altar. And when his time comes he has arranged a fund to keep it intact and she will be the superintendent. But who will kindle one for her?
Everything changes between them when her aunt dies. She invites him in, where he is to discover a portrait of Acton Hague. It was he who was her Dead. But he wronged her, just like he wronged Stransom. But neither one will tell the other what Hague had did. When she finds out that Stransom didn’t light a candle for the one she kneeled for at the altar and came to remember, they can not worship together anymore. ‘“You had place a great light for Each – I gathered them together for One!”’ He does come to visit her at home, they even try to take walks together, but everting between them had changed. There has come a person between them: Hague. And to his astonishment Stransom finds he is jealous. Now he could even less light a candle for him, for he had wronged her.
‘There was proof enough besides in his being so weak and so ill. His irritation took the form of melancholy, and his melancholy that of the conviction that his health had quite failed. His later moreover had ceased to exist; his chapel, in his dreams, was a great dark cavern. All the lights had gone out – all his Dead had died again.’ So he eventually went back to the church. ‘It was in the quiet sense of having saved his souls that his deep strange instinct rejoiced.’ Then came the day he had survived all of is friends. ‘There came a day when, for simple exhaustion, if symmetry should demand just one he was ready so far to meet symmetry.’ When he falls ill, he even mummers in his sleep ‘“Just one more – just one.”’
He goes back to the church one more time. He sees a vision of Mary. ‘The whole altar flared – dazzling and blinding; but the source of the vast radiance burned clearer than the rest, gathering itself into form, and the form was human beauty and human charity, was the far-off face of Mary Antrim.’ When he comes to, his lady friend is there who went looking for him, for she had a sudden change of heart. She is shocked to see him so ill. ‘“Yes , one more,” he repeated, simply; “just one! And with this his head dropped on her shoulder; she felt that in his weakness he had fainted. But alone with him in the dusky church a great dread was on her of what might still happen, for his face had the whiteness of death.’
This is a tale of love, life and death. It plays out over years in Stransom’s adult life, and it passes by swiftly with the focus on his emotionally retrained relationship with the woman and the dead in the church. It’s about forgiveness, for she forgives Hague whatever he has done, but Stransom cannot. But it’s also about a life devoted to the dead. A life not led in full. And while she wants to add one more candle, to include Hague at the altar, he does too want to include one more. But it is never clear whether he means is own life, or that he finally forgives Hague too.
Read more about Henry James:
- Henry James: The Turn of the Screw [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