The Romance of Certain Old Clothes
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The Romance of Certain Old Clothes was written by Henry James in February 1868 and was first published in The Atlantic Monthly. The original debut was in Volume 21, Issue 124. James later made some revisions, including changes to the family name and eldest daughter when he published the story in the UK in 1885. This short fictional story can be considered Gothic Literature due to its ghostly nature, social and contemporary issues brought forth in this article. Since this short story had not debuted on its own, many authors included this ghostly story in their anthologies including American Gothic Tales, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, while several others decided to retell the story, for example, Ginevra written by, Samuel Rogers.
The Romance of Certain Old Clothes The tale begins in the eighteenth century in Massachusetts. It features the Willoughbys (changed to Wingraves in the 1885 revision), a widowed mother and her three children, one boy and two girls. The two girls, Viola (changed to Rosalind in the 1885 revision) and Perdita, are considered by the narrator to be equally beautiful. The girls were to be married, but their suitors seemed to be more interested in their looks and possessions than in the women themselves.
Both women fall in love with Mr. Arthur Lloyd, who then must choose between them. The sisters vow not to be envious or angry at his choice. Lloyd chooses Perdita, and Viola is jealous in spite of herself. The new Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd moved twenty miles away from the home, and Viola became bitter and depressed. Mr. Lloyd leaves the now-pregnant Perdita at home when he attends the wedding of his brother-in-law, where he meets Viola, and the two renew their friendship. Arthur receives a message that his daughter has been born, but that is wife's health is failing. Perdita, aware that she is dying and angry that her husband was with Viola while she (Perdita) was in childbirth, makes Arthur to promise to preserve the gowns she has saved in a chest for their daughter. She fears Viola will marry Lloyd and appropriate the dresses for herself. Arthur promises he will protect the chest and its contents.
Viola comes to the Lloyd home to help take care of her niece, and eventually she and Mr. Lloyd marry. A series of misfortunes follow, leaving them with significant financial losses and with Viola unable to bear children. At this time, Viola begins to pressure Arthur to open the chest. Arthur argues that he made a promise to Perdita and tells Viola that the matter is closed. However, Viola's hounding continues and eventually, Arthur surrenders and allows her to open the chest. Later in the evening, when Viola has failed to attend dinner or respond to several of Mr. Lloyd's summons, he climbs the stairs to the attic, where the chest is kept, to look for her. In the attic, he finds Viola dead, on her knees in front of the opened chest, with ten hideous wounds inflicted by ghostly hands.
This horrible tale is considered to be a Gothic Tale due to its Freudian uncanny nature. It is something that is familiar while at the same time as being repressed. It is possibly something that is hidden, but has been brought to life. Freud describes it as atavistic feelings of death.
“The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” makes the reader encounter several various feelings about the short story. It also brings diverse questions to its readers. Does Arthur really ever love Rosalind? Why does he really let Rosalind open the chest?
The Gothic short story is a representation of the century in which it was written with a twist. James invites several different types of emotions to the reader, as well as the characters. The story is written in a format that allows the reader to become angry and confused about Viola's actual motivations after her sister’s death. At the same time, others may understand this is her revenge. Her motivation is the opening of the chest that was not to be touched until the daughter was ready to wear the clothing and jewelry. Perdita is the one who actually has the last laugh or success so to speak, she was well aware of her sister’s intention, and her ghostly body guarded her family and the chest. Perdita haunts the family and eventually kills her sister. This is the something that Freud is trying to interpret when he describes the “uncanny.” This is the strange with the familiar. It is also a repetition. After all, both sisters have their revenge.
Many critics seem to agree this story is a reflection of the Freud’s theory of “the uncanny.” Critics say that it is a revenge story about the grudges of the dead combined with sibling rivalry. Arthur is considered to be a Shakespeare of his time, and he refers to Perdita's appearance as Shakespearian poetic character. Other critics note that James is an admirer of Hawthorne, and that his works reflect Hawthorne's writing style.
- AMERICAN GOTHIC TALES by Joyce Carol Oates (New York,The Penguin Group 1996) ISBN 0-452-27489-3
- AMERICAN GOTHIC FICTION: AN INTRODUCTION by Alan Lloyd-Smith (New York, The Continuum International Publishing Group 2004) ISBN 0-8264-1594-6
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