Jennifer Yee

A Visitor in the Land of the Enlightenment
Part 1: Ghosts

In my last year here I have taught a course on the Nineteenth-Century English novel at the Université de T. It is an introductory course for students studying French literature, who are supposed to master the basics of the English language but are not going to be English "specialists", so we work with extracts (something I will try to avoid hereafter). At the end of the year they will be required to do a "commentaire de texte", which corresponds more or less to the English tradition of "close reading". Most of them struggle so much with the language that their few critical ideas impress me considerably, like a beam of sunlight coming through thick cloud cover. But there are certain extracts for which these rare moments of understanding disappear altogether. Take the example of a text they analysed for homework.

In the extract the narrator recounts her fears at nightfall; she locks the door carefully, after searching the room to make sure she is alone; she goes to bed and, once she is asleep, she has a terrible nightmare; she wakes with a scream to see a dark figure at the foot of her bed, which gradually disappears through the door; she checks the door and it is still locked. The mood is one of terror, but the dark figure is described in some detail. The lamp, which had been left burning, is darkened in the dream, but still bright when the narrator wakes up to see the strange figure. The narrator herself has no doubt that she is awake, and her terror is all the more intense. You could analyse this extract in terms of mood and narrative techniques, which is what the better students did. A few students also considered that the relationship between reality and hallucination was ambiguous in the extract. But the overhelming majority pronounced that the theme of the extract was the influence of irrational fears on the human mind, and the fact that being too paranoid before going to bed would give you bad dreams.

Again, try giving them an extract from Wuthering Heights to study in class. In this extract Cathy is dying, and has a vision of herself as a future ghost and of Nelly the housekeeper as an old woman (which she is by the time she is telling the story). "Is there some truth in her vision?" I ask. "No, she is just delirious because she has a fever." What is the point of the extract? To show that she is really sick. If she imagines she is going to come back as a ghost, she must be pretty far gone.

Now you may not be familiar with the Gothic tradition in English literature, but I won't be revealing anything new and radical when I tell you that English novels sometimes involve ghosts, eerie happenings, mysterious dooms or moments of supernatural prescience. I doubt this will strike you as conceptually difficult. You may not believe in ghosts in real life, but it doesn't surprise you to encounter them in novels, and you have no trouble believing in them within that fictional framework. Well, in France, it seems that ghosts do not exist. The irrational exists: it is a medical condition, and the local pharmacy probably stocks some drugs that would help for such cases. Fevers exist, though nowadays we have aspirin. Ghosts, no; there may be some left up North in Brittany, but even there they are pretty thin on the ground, and under the sun of the South-West they evaporated long ago. When did they disappear? What killed them - Voltaire? - or did they go to the guillotine with the ancien régime?

In any case, believe me: over here, Cathy is really dead and gone.

Jennifer Yee