Another Edith Wharton ghost story: "The Eyes"
Now to another effective ghost story. This is “The Eyes”, which first appeared in the June 1910 issue of Scribners’ Magazine. The frame has the narrator joining his friend Andrew Culwin, a “confirmed bachelor” (and yes that means exactly what you think it means), with 6 other men at Culwin’s house for dinner and conversation. The youngest of the men is Culwin’s latest “protégé”. All of them tell a ghost story except for Culwin. Finally, when the narrator and Phil Frenham, Culwin’s new young man, remain alone, they prevail upon Culwin to tell a story, and he does – a true one.
Culwin tells first of an experience many years before, when he was thrown into association with a young, plain, cousin, Alice Nowell (“She was neither beautiful nor intelligent—poor Alice Nowell!” says Culwin), and somehow Culwin, who thinks women “are necessary only because someone has to do the cooking” finds himself having offered to marry her, despite a complete lack of physical or intellectual attraction. Then one night he wakes to see a sinister pair of eyes looking at him … and he comes to the conclusion that he must flee Alice Nowell.
His next experience with the eyes is in Rome. He has taken a young man, Gilbert Noyes, under his wing (at Alice’s urging) ... Noyes wants to be a writer, and Culwin sees immediately that he has no talent, but he keeps him on for some time, continuing to encourage his efforts. He tells himself he’ doing it for the boy’s sake – but it’s fairly obvious he doesn’t want to give up the boy’s attentions – until the eyes appear again, and Culwin realizes he must disabuse Noyes of any illusions about his talent.
And that’s the end of Culwin’s story – we return to the frame, and a conveniently placed mirror allows the narrator (and Culwin) to see Culwin’s own eyes in the proper context – while young Phil Frenham, the latest protégé, is crushed, realizing, perhaps, what he is to the older man.
So what is the real meaning of the eyes? Obviously they are Culwin’s – and they seem to warn him away from doing more wrong – but always after he has done some wrong already. Looked at most simply, Culwin is something of a vampire figure, latching on to young men (of some talent, presumably, most of the time), and enjoying them while they are young (“juicy”, one character says). If this is the case, perhaps the eyes are simply warning Culwin that the likes of Alice Nowell and Gilbert Noyes are not worthy of his attention. Indeed this could be given a positive spin – one online writer tried to do so – the eyes only appear when Culwin is acting against his better nature. There is a suggestion that most of Culwin’s protégés benefit from his attentions. On the other hand, here’s how Culwin describes the eyes: “they seemed to belong to a man who had done a lot of harm in his life, but had always kept just inside the danger lines. They were not the eyes of a coward, but of someone much too clever to take risks;”. Not a good thing. And Culwin’s treatment of, say, Alice – indeed his inability to appreciate her (or any woman) – seems another wrong.