Edith Wharton was a short story writer and a novelist. She was American by birth but traveled to Europe for most of her life. This short story contains the gothic fiction element with its foundations laid upon a ghost and an isolated mansion, abundant with secrets and mysteries. The story is organized into four parts of unequal length and is told in the first-person narration. The description of the household’s noticeable features and Wharton’s writing style make the short story an epitome of gothic literature.
Wharton presents the narrator by establishing the narrator’s (un)reliability by employing a first-person narration style where Alice Hartley narrates her own experience while recounting the events that took place at Brympton Manor. Her account does seem to be truthful, however, the element of distrust also surfaces. One can deem the entirety of Hartley’s account to be delusional due to her being sick, which may automatically make the reader question the authenticity of the narration. Hartley’s case of the typhoid was severe as she had spent three months in the hospital, “when I came out, I looked so weak and tottery that the two or three ladies I applied to were afraid to engage me.” Even after she moves to Brympton place, she still feels “languid from the fever” and complains that she has not been sleeping well. This exhibits how the narrator is still suffering from the after-effects of typhoid and therefore, is likely to have a distorted perception about the environment whilst being subject to hallucinations and viewing things that may not even exist, such as ghosts. The choice between reliability and unreliability in this short story is similar to that of the gothic short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, by Edgar Allen Poe, where the readers are heavily dependent on the narrator to determine their reliability.
Furthermore, the narrator’s situation is presented in the short story through hints of oppression and sexual violence that has occurred in the premises of the Brympton Manor as a result of patriarchal dominance. From the beginning of the short story, the narrator is advised not to be too inquisitive and keep to herself by Mrs. Railton. Hartley’s and the house staff’s silence in the short story is portrayed as a symbol of oppression as they were aware of the sexual violence against their mistress, but they chose not to speak up against it. This can be seen in the short story when the house lady, Mrs. Blinder, avoids conversating with Hartley about the former maid, who is a symbol of sexual violence, “And now do run along, Miss Hartley, dear, for I hear the clock striking four and I must go down this very minute and put on Virginia ham for Mr. Brympton’s dinner.”
Moreover, Wharton presents the narrator to be entrapped inside the Mansion with a magnetic force that always seems to pull her back towards her fate. The location of the mansion plays a significant role in the portrayal of the narrator’s helplessness, with visual brooding imagery that may describe the house as one’s demise. “My heart sank lower than ever as I drove up to the Brympton in the dusk. There was something about the house- I was sure of it now…” The ellipses at the end of this reference contribute to towards the gloom that one suffers from upon the sight of the dreadful manor, where privacy seems to be a myth, which is extremely contradictory, considering the remote and isolated location of the mansion. The narrator is subject to witnessing sexual violence in the household, which may explain the prevailing gloom and darkness she experiences.
Additionally, the narrator is presented through her observations of the Brympton Manor and her eagerness to satiate her curiosity as to the reasons for the death of the former maid. The narrator somehow comes to the conclusion of the disappearances of the maids, which makes the element of suspicion arise in the reader’s mind, especially with Wharton’s usage of ellipses at the end of the reference, “what puzzled me was that it was always the maids who left…”. This indicates that as maids belonged to the lower levels of hierarchy, they were considered weak, and hence, easy to prey upon by patriarchal men, given their dominant and elitist status in the society, which in this short story is the Lady’s husband, Mr. Brympton. One may argue that the former maid, Emma Saxton, met her demise as a result of sexual violence enforced upon her by Mr. Brympton, “the kind of man a young simpleton might have thought handsome and would have been like to pay dear for thinking it. He swung about when I came in and looked me over in a trice. I knew what the look meant, having experienced it once or twice in my former places.”
Wharton exhibits the narrator’s encounter with Emma Saxton’s ghost through the employment of auditory imagery and the element of hallucinations, whilst the readers are left to choose between trusting the narrator or dismissing her entire account. “She looked at me long and long, and her face was just one dumb prayer to me- but how in the world was I to help her? Suddenly she turned and I heard her walk down the passage.” This reference indicates how Hartley sensed some suspicion regarding Emma’s death as her ghost seemed to symbolize a cry for help, and one might even argue, a warning to the narrator about the atrocities that take place in the household. However, Hartley remains helpless and silent and one might conclude that it was this silence and helplessness of hers, as well as of the rest of the staff members, that lead her mistress towards a miserable death at the hands of her own husband.
In the short story, “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”, it can be seen how Edith Wharton effectively portrays the narrator’s various situations through the gothic element that is vivid throughout the short story. It is ironic how in the gothic genre, a woman suffers from isolation, confinement, and claustrophobia in the house, yet simultaneously, she is vulnerable by extreme exposure and invasion of privacy at any time by her patriarchal husbands who belong to the dominant part of the societal hierarchy.