“Hints of Impermanence: Ghosts and Orphans in Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage,” by Kerstin W. Shands

Gail Godwin

Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

Gail Godwin’s new novel Grief Cottage (2017) is set in coastal South Carolina, an area rich in history, legend, and tradition. Evoking a real place and a real environment, Pawleys Island and the Isle of Palms, this novel introduces us to Grief Cottage, a profoundly charged site, a metaphorical rendezvous where different realities mingle and collide. It’s the meeting place for a ghost and an orphan, whose sense of vulnerability and abandonment point to Godwin’s central themes of loss and transformation.

Centered around the uncanny ruin of an oxymoronically denominated “grief cottage,” Godwin’s narrative calls attention to the disturbing boundaries between different levels of reality and consciousness, placing the manageable minuteness of the neat and cozy interiors associated with a cottage in unsettling contrast to the impermanence and uncertainty of life itself.

In Godwin’s previous novel, Flora (2013), regret, responsibility, and redemption were principal concerns through the eyes, first, of a precocious eleven-year-old and, later, of an older woman pondering how her past actions may have determined the course of her life and that of others. Grief Cottage, similarly, has an eleven-year-old protagonist whose story concludes with a chapter narrated at a later point in time.

The story begins with Marcus Harshaw looking back on the difficulties of his life in poverty and his struggling mother who recently died in a car accident. After a brief spell in a foster home, he’s placed with his great-aunt, Charlotte Lee, a painter living in self-chosen isolation in coastal South Carolina, who paints seascapes with titles like “Sunset Calm” or “Storm Approaching.” For Marcus, it will be a summer of coming to terms with loss and grief and adjusting to a new home in a new area.

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Having lost his mother and never known his father, Marcus is an orphan. Orphans and ghosts are key figures of loss and regret at the center of Godwin’s narrative. While family—and especially one’s parents—represents safety and security, in Grief Cottage parents are associated with secrets and memories of shame, abuse, and abandonment. Parent-child relationships in this novel are fraught with difficulties and in some cases terrors. In the foster home where Marcus stays briefly after his mother’s death, for example, he meets a boy who has had his face smashed in by his stepfather. Marcus’s mother and great-aunt have run away from home because of the sexual abuse perpetrated by Charlotte’s father, Marcus’s mother’s grandfather, who, in the eyes of Aunt Charlotte, is “the devil incarnate” (Godwin 126). Traumatized, Marcus’s mother and Aunt Charlotte have made themselves orphans to escape from a monstrous father figure.

Painfully aware of social hierarchies, Marcus has asked himself, “what [is] the point of ‘climbing the ladder’ when you know you’ll never fit in with the already-haves at the top?” (Godwin 140). Always conscious of social and economic differences, he becomes even more so as an orphan. At the end of the novel, when he has made an impressive class journey and almost finished his medical studies, Marcus has a visceral reaction when he approaches the Forster house (the home of his best friend, a place he associates with success, social power, and prestige). He asks himself, “Why this surge of anger and worthlessness at the sight of the house on top of its green hill? I [am] expected, I [am] wanted, [aren’t] I an equal player now?” (Godwin 303).

This sense of worthlessness, so difficult to eradicate, stems from Marcus’s background. The picture of “idealized poverty” and “his courageous single mom” that he wished to convey to his best friend, Wheezer, was far from reality (Godwin 170). Instead, Marcus feels stuck with his mother; he asks himself, “How will I ever get away from her?” (Godwin 261).

Since an orphan by definition lacks parents and stands outside the traditional family unit, archetypal orphans, those in literature, are “others,” often characterized in terms of ideology: measures of national identity and of ideals the polity does or does not stand for.

Diana Loercher Pazicky has found that orphans frequently embodied outsiderhood and social or religious difference during pivotal periods in American history and literature such as the Revolution, the beginnings of the Republic, and the Great Migration. Departing from a psychoanalytical perspective (that of René Girard), Pazicky suggests that “legitimate” children are insiders protected by their birth families whereas orphan figures (typically Native American, Catholic, or African American) are often portrayed as victims whose identities are suppressed by dominant, hegemonic culture. Pazicky senses a pattern: ‘‘a crisis that threatens identity; an identification with orphanhood in response to that crisis; a need for denial; the scapegoating of outsiders; and the projection of orphanhood onto scapegoats’’ (Pazicky 200).

The “potent literary type” of the orphan is “remarkable for its consistent recurrence and its metamorphosis as a register of cultural conditions,” according to William David Floyd (5). In early-and middle-period Victorian fiction, Floyd explains, orphans “function as barometers of burgeoning social concerns” (5). Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there are more “orphan narratives bereft of the stable home” and “allusions to cultural factors particular to the fin-de-siécle [sic], such as degeneration, sexual ambiguity and imperial enterprise” (Floyd 5). Floyd’s central focus “is on non-traditional orphan forms whose unusualness, apropos to the Gothic convention of irresolution and indeterminacy which, despite their genres, they emulate, makes them particularly effective as vivid emblems of the fin-de-siécle [sic]  anxieties to which they correspond” (14). His “approach focuses largely on the depiction of orphans as characterized by instability, malleability, uncertainty and an unclassifiable nature,” and he comments on key issues such as an “intrinsic ambiguity and exile” and the “orphanic attribute of malleability” (12) of orphans in literature. Showing how the symbolic importance of the orphan figure alters over time, Flood concludes that “the orphan must be considered in light of the family from which he or she is exiled, since through the nineteenth century depictions of the orphan noticeably change alongside perceptions of the family ideal” (19).

Maria Holmgren Troy, Elizabeth Kella, and Helena Wahlström examine the orphan figure in contemporary American literature and emphasize issues of gender and sexuality. They suggest that orphan figures represent a challenge to dominant culture and its views of “others” that leads to a rethinking of insiders and outsiders, of both personal and national ideas of belonging. Following Pazicky, they see orphan figures as related to notions of difference in depictions of American culture and literature that underscore ideas about a unified American nation. They argue, along these lines, that “the orphan has become an increasingly significant literary figure, particularly useful for explorations of what it takes to make home in the USA” (2). They also provide interesting examples of the symbolic and ideological associations of the orphan figure that range from a scathing criticism of dominant culture to hopes for a better future, greater harmony with nature, and a deep desire for belonging. Whereas the orphan figure once signaled freedom from domesticity and family, its contemporary representations do not generally denigrate family or belonging; they even question the traditional American ideals of fierce independence and extreme individualism. Many contemporary orphan figures “regender” routine assignations of male and female roles and paths in society. Kinship-building in these representations involves a rewriting of hierarchical notions of family based on biology. At the same time, as Holmgren Troy, Kella, and Wahlström suggest, even though literary orphans often “become agents in making new kinds of home” (3), the contemporary novels in their study rarely end with unproblematic celebrations of alternative families.

Such an alternative family is what Godwin’s hero in Grief Cottage is attempting to find the summer after he loses his mother. In Marcus Harshaw’s case, the alternative family turns out to include both real people and fantasy images as well as supernatural apparitions. The orphans of Grief Cottage are associated with the supernatural and the uncanny, occupying different levels of reality and consciousness.

Like orphans, ghosts signal fear of great changes on individual and societal levels. Ghost sightings have been dismissed as mere manifestations of unconscious or psychological conflict, of inner tensions, or as hallucinations. Ghosts appear in classical works of literature—consider Shakespeare, Dickens, and Wilde—and literary research has taken an interest in what their appearance says about conditions in society in specific time periods. The Victorian era, for example, saw far-reaching changes brought about by industrialization and profound shifts in religious belief. As Adrienne E. Gavin argues, ghost stories may affirm Christian beliefs in an afterlife at a time when scientific and rational views challenged religious belief: “spirits of the age, literary ghosts, served subliminally or overtly to send a message of reassurance to Victorians frightened by the spirit of the age, a spirit of religious doubt and social change” (20).

In Grief Cottage there are three ghosts. The first is the Gray Man, who, according to legend, appears before hurricanes in coastal South Carolina. The Gray Man, perhaps the ghost of Percival Pawley, is, as his name suggests, dressed in grey, or in a Confederate uniform.  Rumor has it he has been seen on Pawleys Island since 1822. Reportedly sighted before Hurricane Hugo in 1989, he has become something of a guardian spirit of Pawleys Island.

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The protagonist sees Grief Cottage itself as a ghost: “If a house could be a zombie, this grim husk . . .  would qualify as one” (Godwin 24). An eerie site of destruction, partly burned, this ruin on the beach has been called “Grief Cottage” by the locals ever since a family who rented it disappeared during the 1954 hurricane. It is believed that the parents went out to look for their fourteen-year-old son, but none of them were ever found.

Marcus becomes obsessed with Grief Cottage and its history. Reading historical books, he realizes the names of everyone who perished in previous hurricanes in the area are listed—except that of this unknown family. He finds it shocking that no one has bothered to record their names. This “out-of-state” family appears to have been subtly and sadly ostracized. They rented the cottage out of season (or had perhaps been invited to use it free of charge), bringing their problematic son who had perhaps been kicked out of school. Marginalized in life, in death they are completely washed away.

The principal ghost in Grief Cottage is a boy who becomes extremely important to Marcus during the summer months in South Carolina while Marcus searches for an alternative family and a sense of belonging. Marcus finds himself “commuting between reality and the supernatural” (Godwin 219) and grows obsessed with the ghost-figure haunting Grief Cottage. At first, he merely senses a presence; later, he sees the figure of a boy in the doorframe and detects a “frequency” between them. Sitting by Grief Cottage in what is almost a trance, Marcus becomes conscious of the presence of someone or something approaching him: “Pale and gaunt, the boy slouched against the frame of the doorway, wearing a faded red shirt and jeans and boots. Because his back was against the light his face was in shadow. But I could make out its lean contours and the flat unsmiling mouth and the hungry dark pools of his eyes. He seemed posted there in rigid stillness, having perhaps made an effort as strenuous as mine to confront the creature facing him” (Godwin 62-63).

The presence that seems to be appraising him makes Marcus cold with fear. Wondering if the apparition could be the spirit of the boy who disappeared in the hurricane of 1954, he notices that “it seemed as though we had been trapped together in a net of golden light charged with energy” (Godwin 64). This is a possibility that Marcus embraces: “I was one of those people willing to accept that uncanny things might turn out to be aspects of the natural world” (Godwin 65). The surprisingly unspectral apparition in his ghostly garments seems absolutely real: “He stood there in the doorway on his own terms, not mine. I reeled with the vividness of him. He was stronger and sharper in substance, and, unlike our last encounter, he didn’t slouch or seem to wait passively to see what I might do next. The tense way he braced himself against the door frame, pushing himself outward with both hands (I saw prominent knuckle ridges between the spread fingers), was that of a figure ready to spring after having been kept trapped for too long” (Godwin 152).

A manifestation of Marcus’s loneliness and forlornness, the ghost boy becomes “the most compelling presence in [Marcus’s] life” (Godwin 106). He is someone with whom, on a supernatural level, Marcus is “in some kind of time warp” (Godwin 86). By welcoming the ghost outsider and his “out-of-state family” into his consciousness, Godwin’s orphan protagonist also accepts the marginalized, ostracized, not-believed-in, and uncanny.

In his final exploration of the ruin, Marcus steps through rotten floor boards and falls into a murky enclosure nobody knew existed. He lands in a macabre space, right on top of a skeleton that turns out to be that of the vanished out-of-state boy, Johnny Dace, who had probably been smoking there and died from asphyxiation.

A mystery and a ghost story, Grief Cottage is also a psychological novel exploring the process of grief and the meaning of memory. As with Godwin’s oeuvre as a whole, her most recent novel resists easy categorization. Her stories are both soothing and strange. In Grief Cottage, orphans and ghosts are central figures that evoke fundamental themes: the forlornness of grief and loss on a psychological level and the realities related to another dimension of consciousness.

In his essay on das Unheimliche, Freud uses the term locus suspectus for a “suspicious” place where the familiar transforms into something uncanny. Freud argues that “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality” (244). Grief Cottage could be a locus suspectus, a place of profound mystery and ambiguity. The presence sensed by Marcus gradually seems to appear before him in tangible reality when the ghost and the orphan meet in the uncanny ruin of what was once a cozy cottage.

Grief Cottage is the contact zone for a ghost-boy and an orphan whose mutual experience of abandonment, vulnerability, and yearning accentuate Godwin’s central themes of loss, grief, and transformation. If, as Freud suggests, repressed emotions (of any kind) are transformed into anxiety, and if recurring instances of frightening elements make up the uncanny, we may reasonably assume that the uncanny apparition in Godwin’s novel is tied to Marcus’s emotional trauma, which has been partially repressed to facilitate his adaptation to a new, unknown environment. As Freud explains, our attitude toward death—especially “the strength of our original emotional reaction to death” (242)—may transform something frightening into something uncanny.

While the ruin of Grief Cottage stands open to the weather, it also harbors a hidden space. Motifs of transgression and of toxic mental states induced by the oft-fatal use of alcohol and drugs associates Grief Cottage with types of consciousness connected to unknown realities and subconscious yearnings. While entry into the ruined cottage symbolizes the dangers of high-risk exploration—“people who go in don’t always come out” (Godwin 52)—such forays may be necessary, literally and metaphorically, for anyone who wants to get beyond the murky structures of the past to revelations of truth, knowledge, and creativity.


Works Cited

Floyd, William David. “Orphans of British Fiction,1880-1911.” Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy English Studies at the University of Stirling, September 2011. http://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/3601#.WV5GDLZpxpg
Accessed 14 Dec 2017.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. Translated from the German under the General Editorship of James Strachey. In collaboration with Anna Freud. Assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1957. 219-53. Print

Gavin, Adrienne E. “Spirits of the Age: Ghosts in the Victorian Novel.” Critical Mass: Papers from the English Graduate Colloquium 1996-97. Ed. Andrew Palmer, Christopher Routledge, and Brett Mills. Canterbury: Christ Church College, Canterbury, Dept. of English, 1998. 19-28. Print

Godwin, Gail. Flora. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print

———. Grief Cottage. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Print

Holmgren Troy, Maria, Elizabeth Kella, and Helena Wahlström. Making Home: Orphanhood, Kinship, and Cultural Memory in Contemporary American Novels. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2014. Print

Pazicky, Diana Loercher. Cultural Orphans in America. Jackson: UP of Mississippi. 1998. Print

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