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Margaret Oliphant's The Open Door: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis

Sympathy was a byword in the Scottish Enlightenment – an intellectual movement that influenced the development of American politics, education, and capitalism. Adam Smith and David Hume were equally fond of the term, which meant “fellow-feeling” – a sense of imaginative empathy wherein a person realized that they could not judge the life or actions of another without first trying to vividly understand the pathos of their situation. Mrs Oliphant was a ghost story writer of the first rate, and like a true Scot inherited a love for sympathy. Her stories are tastefully drenched in psychological complexities, emotional richness, and social commentary. The following novelette, her masterpiece, could be viewed as an allegory of class reactions to sufferings which transcend personal experience. A truly beautiful ghost story – as graceful, elegant, and disquieting as anything in British literature – it rejects the sacred cows of British society (superstition, class, science, and authority) in favor of a truth which Oliphant believes to transcend social rank or intellectual philosophy: the power of sympathy.



II.


Having retired from the Indian army and decided to relocate his family back to Britain, the protagonist, Colonel Mortimer, buys his wife, two daughters, and young son a cozy country home just outside of Edinburgh. His son, Roland, is the only one left to him since several died in India, and has always been frail and sensitive. He and his wife love Roland deeply, and decide to let him drive to school in Edinburgh in a pony-cart instead of sending him to an English boarding school – which would have been typical of his class. The house is an 18th century manor, but the property is much, much older, with stone ruins of a much older house on a remote corner of the estate, including a sad-looking, solitary stone, gable-end wall with a door in the middle of it – a door to nowhere. The doorway, they can tell, was once part of the servants’ quarters. The country air seems to do Roland good, and Mortimer hopes that the change – from the malarial jungles of India – will spare him his son.


One bleak November, Mortimer decides to travel to England and visit with a series of old Army friends who are also retired. While there, he makes an impulsive decision to go off of his itinerary, and when he returns to his hotel, there are several frantic messages from his wife, begging him to return as soon as possible, and implying that Roland is in a desperate condition – on the point of death.


Horrified, Mortimer catches a train and speeds back to Edinburgh where he finds his son bedridden with a brain fever caused by a nervous reaction to what he claims to be a disembodied voice heard calling to him from the ruins. “It appeared that ever since the winter began—since it was early dark, and night had fallen before his return from school—he had been hearing voices among the ruins: at first only a groaning, he said, at which his pony was as much alarmed as he was, but by degrees a voice. The tears ran down my wife’s cheeks as she described to me how he would start up in the night and cry out, ‘Oh, mother, let me in! oh, mother, let me in!’ with a pathos which rent her heart.” Unable to stand it any longer, he lapsed into a fevered delirium, and has been pleading for his father to return, trusting that his father could save the troubled spirit, and that he will also believe his story (his mother tries to support him, but is clearly afraid that he is hysterical, and the nonplussed family doctor, Simson, is a devout atheist).


“That is what I always said to myself,” Roland explains “—Father will know. Oh, papa, papa, to have to face it night after night, in such terrible, terrible trouble, and never to be able to do it any good! I don’t want to cry; it’s like a baby, I know; but what can I do else? Out there all by itself in the ruin, and nobody to help it! I can’t bear it! I can’t bear it!” cried my generous boy. And in his weakness he burst out, after many attempts to restrain it, into a great childish fit of sobbing and tears.”


Disturbed by the story, but determined to demonstrate faith in his son, Mortimer consults his coachman, Jarvis, who knows the local lore. At first Mortimer wonders if it might be a lost (living) child, but Jarvis confirms that the ruins have an evil reputation, and are specifically said to be the most troubled in the months of November and December. It is so bad – and so real – that it has scared off many former tenants. At first Mortimer finds it hard to resist his natural upper-class skepticism, but as he walks home from Jarvis’ house, he passes through the ruins and has his incredulity is vaporized when he hears a boy’s voice, near to him, moaning piteously. Something stirs in the brush near the ruined doorway, and Mortimer rushes back to his home in fear.


He enlists Bagley, his stalwart batman (a soldier who acts as an officer’s personal valet and assistant), to help him investigate. Bagley is brave and loyal, his lower-class superstitions leave him catatonic when they return to the doorway and encounter the ghost. At first Mortimer is sure that he sees a crumpled body laying at the threshold, but he later realizes that it is a juniper bush he hadn’t noticed before. Nonetheless, the wailing voice resounds through the night sky, and after the two men retreat to the manor house, the shock leaves Bagley bedridden for weeks, and soon afterward he leaves Mortimer’s service.


With Bagley out of commission, Mortimer asks Simson to accompany him to the doorway the next night, and while he agrees, Simson is at first deeply offended at the suggestion that he – a rationalistic man of science – participate in a ghost-hunt, but does so in order to disprove it. As they head out, Simson bombastically lectures Mortimer on several naturalistic theories of the haunting, gloating that with a little light (he has brought a candle) and the presence of a skeptic, the ghost stands no chance. But when they arrive, the voice is heard louder than ever, and unmistakably coming from the doorway in front of them. Mortimer again thinks he sees a body at the door, and again realizes that it is the juniper bush, but is positive that, last time, the bush had been on the other side of the doorway. Simson attempts to use his phonetic theories to write it off, but his voice shakes, he clearly struggles to believe his own ideas, and by the time they get home, he begins gulping down brandy. In the morning, both men return to the site and now realize something truly bizarre: there is no juniper bush by the ancient stone doorway.


Let down by Bagley’s lower-class brawn and Simson’s upper-class education – and still desperate to save his ever-worsening son from what increasingly seems to be the ghost’s thirst for his life – Mortimer turns to spirituality. He asks a local minister, the elderly Reverend Moncrieff, to aid him. Moncrieff is known for his experience, humility, and gentle authority, and immediately agrees to visit the wretched ghost. He commends Mortimer for his son’s compassion and sympathy, and expresses deep pity – as an old man who is himself nearing death – for the “poor, lost soul.”


They journey to the stone wall that night, armed only with an antique lantern, and the voice is soon heard bounding off of the ruins: “Mother! Let me in!” But Moncrieff’s reaction stuns Mortimer: he recognizes the voice and calls to it by name – Willie – begging him to let go of the past, to stop pleading at his mother’s “ruined door,” and to turn his prayers to God. He humbly and emotionally reaches out to the spirit, expressing understanding and sympathy for its plight, and acknowledges the circumstances that led him there. Mortimer had approached the ghost with fatherly pity, Bagley with blind terror, Simson with disturbed incredulity, but only Moncrieff came with empathy, peace, and acceptance. Suddenly, something stirs in the abandoned doorway, and in a rush blasts through the night sky, bound for parts unknown. All that follows is a peaceful stillness.


With the ghost exorcised, Simson – whose faith in rationality had been rattled – reverts to his smug hubris and writes the whole experience off as a joke. As Professor Rosemary Mitchell notes in her essay, “Looking Back to Move Forward”: “Simson now reverts to his 'sceptical and cynical self' and tries to find some explanation for the phenomenon. This attempt to challenge the spiritual authority of the minster fails, as the clergyman modestly declares that 'There is just one thing I am certain of – and that is the loving-kindness of God'. His open-mindedness contrasts with the medical man's 'cold- blooded confidence' in his ability to explain everything scientifically.”


Returning to Roland’s bedside, Mortimer kisses his head and reports that “All is well,” and the boy immediately relaxes as health returns to his frayed body. Mortimer patrols the ruins for several evenings, but the spirit has truly departed, and the curse is lifted. Moncrieff explains that the ghost was the wastrel son of a former housekeeper who had worked in the old house: “He had been a prodigal,—weak, foolish, easily imposed upon, and ‘led away,’ as people say. All that we had heard had passed actually in life, the Doctor said. The young man had come home thus a day or two after his mother died,—who was no more than the housekeeper in the old house,—and distracted with the news, had thrown himself down at the door and called upon her to let him in.”


Mortimer theorizes that the crushing emotion of this scene must have somehow impressed itself “into the hidden heart of nature.” He notes how Moncrieff’s response was identical to his son’s – one of compassion rather than fear or even pity: “This spirit in pain,—if it was a spirit,—this voice out of the unseen,—was a poor fellow-creature in misery, to be succored and helped out of his trouble, to my boy. He spoke to me quite frankly about it when he got better. ‘I knew father would find out some way,’ he said.”


Bagley leaves his service, respectfully, but forever haunted by the experience, and Mortimer finishes his two year lease at the estate, but does not renew it. As for Simson, he never admitted that he was afraid or dared to ponder the possibility of there being a ghost, but – after finding evidence that a tramp had recently been living in a sunken room in the fallen foundations – proudly points to this theory as the incontrovertible explanation. However, one problem did have a habit of shutting Simson up: the moving “juniper bush” which Mortimer suspects was no bush at all: “The miserable voice, the spirit in pain, he could think of as the result of ventriloquism, or reverberation, or—anything you please: an elaborate prolonged hoax, executed somehow by the tramp that had found a lodging in the old tower; but the juniper-bush staggered him. Things have effects so different on the minds of different men.”




III.


To the very end, Oliphant weaves a story rich in psychological feeling, graceful elegance, and emotional power. Like Gaskell and Broughton, she saw fit to overturn prejudices of class and society in favor of the universal bond of the human spirit – something simultaneously beautiful and terrifying – which transcends the blandly simplistic conventions of socio-economic status, gender, or nationality.


The Open Door is a rich landscape of human vanity, compassion, and fear, which roots through a wide range of ultimately futile worldviews before unearthing sympathy and compassion, which finally bring peace to a tortured human spirit. Likewise, Oliphant suggests that the forces and authorities which we often cling to, expecting to be saved from our anxieties and from which we derive our existential identities (we are members of our class, men of science, servants of our countries, sons of our fathers, confident in our traditions) are helpless against the dark nights of the human soul – that rather than deriving externally hope and exterior definition, we should seek within, that by sympathy, by identifying the basic humanity that unites us (rather than dividing, compartmentalizing) of a common spirit, we can derive security and self-definition.


Kingdoms and classes are finite and fallible, she warns, but the shared bond of suffering – of fear and vulnerability – may ironically prove to be the means by which humanity can allude its deepest anxieties, and brighten its darkest nights.


Professor Rosemary Mitchell, in an essay on the story called “Looking Back to Move Forward” also notes the thematic importance of incorporating the past into the present, with particular attention to the motif of the sinister juniper bush:


“The juniper-bush is, I would argue, a clue to the subtext of the tale. Juniper was once used in Gaelic 'sainings', or blessings of the house at the Hogmanay celebrations of the New Year: the house was fumigated with torches of juniper wood and then the doors and windows were flung open to let in the fresh air of the New Year. The borders between old and new, unseen and seen, are multi-layered in Oliphant's story. The motif of the open door itself may well remind the reader of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of transitions, passages, doorways, and gateways who looked backwards and forwards - and who gave his name to the first month of the year.


“It is noticeable that the ghostly visitation in the ruins takes place in November and December and ceases at the New Year, the chronological boundary between the old and the new years. It seems likely that the publication of the story in January 1882 is no coincidence. The three visits made by the Colonel and his companions take place in the eleventh and twelfth hour of the evening, and when the spirit is exorcised, it is the 'middle of the night', when night passes into morning.


“It is the young boy and the old clergyman who have least trouble in accepting the ghost's reality, and responding to it with compassion, perhaps because they are nearest to the beginning and end of life and thus the borderlands of existence. And of course, it is religion (ancient knowledge nursed in the heart) rather than science (new knowledge born of the brain) which, for Oliphant, provides real understanding of the ghosts of the past, and the power to finally put them to rest. Moving forwards, it seems, requires looking back.”


You can read the original story HERE!


And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of the best Victorian ghost stories HERE!


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