Short story: “The Eyes”

by look i have opinions

“The Eyes,” by Edith Wharton

Collected in Tales of Men and Ghosts (on Project Gutenberg), 1910; online here; looks like there’s an inexpensive audio version here

8,081 words

One of those horror stories where the horror is all unstated. The biggest hint about the nature of that horror is Culwin’s apparent willingness to believe, even now, that he was being kind to Nowell and Noyes (“making people happy”!). The other big hint is at the end, when he sees his own face in the mirror. Up until that moment, Culwin failed to grasp the meaning of his own “ghost” story. The revelation is carefully foreshadowed:

“[T]here came over me a sense of [the eyes’] tacit complicity, of a deep hidden understanding between us that was worse than the first shock of their strangeness. Not that I understood them; but that they made it so clear that some day I should …”

If Culwin is gay, as seems plausible, then his first self-betrayal lies in making a sham attempt at heterosexuality, his second in a failure to treat the man he admires with respect. He even uses the former to excuse the latter (“I’d done it for his cousin’s sake, not his”), as though, in his self-loathing, he thinks he can cancel out a homosexual love affair by invoking a heterosexual one.

This essay tries to paint Culwin as basically admirable, but I don’t think that interpretation holds up. Frenham’s reaction is too extreme to be simple fear of losing his relationship with his mentor; it’s the reaction of someone who’s lost faith in his hero. Besides, Frenham is too minor a character for his personal feelings to set off the climax of the story, even considering his parallels to Noyes; rather, his breakdown is significant because of what it reveals about Culwin.

I don’t know whether Culwin has mistreated Frenham, and I’m not sure I care. (The narrator seems to think not.) What’s at stake here is Culwin’s soul.

I want to read some double meaning into “No well” and “No yes!”

Another interesting essay here.

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