The Night the Ghost Got In | Summary and Analysis

The Night the Ghost Got In by James Thurber

The Night the Ghost Got In is a humorous, short- story by the American author and humorist, James Thurber in which he narrates a fictionalized account of an incident that occurred one night during his childhood. This short-story, inspired by events that occurred on the night of November 17, 1915, is Thurber’s recollection of the hilarious situation that they found themselves in, caused due to the misunderstandings of the author and his unconventional family. Appearing at first as a horror story, the story soon takes on a comical style as the events unfolding one after the other lead to a complete fiasco with shoes being thrown, windows being smashed and cops being attacked. Adding to the comedy are the whimsical characters such as the narrator’s hysterical mother, his eccentric grandfather, the farcical cops, his paranoid brother and the peculiar neighbors.


The Night the Ghost Got In | Summary


Written in the first- person narrative, the story begins at around quarter past one in the night when everyone except the young narrator is fast asleep. Having just come out of his bath, he hears the sound of hurried footsteps coming from somewhere near the dining room table. Believing that those steps might belong to his father and brother who were expected to return home sometime soon from their visit to Indianapolis, the narrator steps out of his room, with just his towel wrapped around his waist. He scans the dining room area in order to make sure that it isn’t a burglar.

Unable to make out anything in the darkness of the night, he decides to wake up his brother Herman. As the both of them head towards the stairs leading to the dining area, the steps seem to have ceased. Alarmed, Herman wants to return to his room when they again hear the sound of someone running downstairs. However, they see nothing coming. They think it could be a ghost. Terrified, Herman runs away and shuts himself inside his room, slamming the door loudly, while the narrator shuts the door at the staircase, opening it a minute later to find no further sign of what he now surely suspects is a ghost.

All this ruckus causes their mother to wake up. Turns out, she too has heard the footsteps and assumes that it’s the burglars. She decides to call the police. As their phone is downstairs, she throws a shoe at their immediate neighbor’s bedroom window. Awakened by this the neighbor, Mr. Bodwell, finally calls the cops. While the narrator and Herman are sure that the steps belonged to a ghost and not burglars, they refrain from telling this to their mother, lest she might get more hysterical.

The police arrive almost immediately, along with some reporters, and after surrounding the entire house, break through the front doors, scouting for any sign of the reported burglar.  The search does not yield any results. Determined to find something at least, the police continue the investigation, desperate for anything that they might’ve missed. One of the officers manages to find an old instrument called zither, and suspecting it to be something suspicious, questions the narrator regarding the same. However, this turns out to be quite futile as the narrator reveals that it was just the place where their old guinea pig used to sleep!

They then hear the speaker’s grandfather turning in his bed and set out to the attic looking for him. The narrator tells us that his grandfather was going through a phase and believed that he was in a war in which General Meade’s army, after being brought to their knees by Stonewall Jackson, had begun to retreat and desert. As he tries to hide from the police in the attic, the police barge in on him. Concluding that they were the deserters of Meade’s army, he turns to attack and yell at them. Though the cops immediately recognize him to be a family member, it’s too late. The grandfather, in his agitated state, slaps one cop on the head and grabbing the gun of the one who found the zither, shoots at him as the others begin to pull back.

They all somehow manage to lock grandfather in the attic again and return safely downstairs. Thus, the entire night proves to be a disastrous failure for them and though unwilling, the police finally decided to end their investigation. Feeling that something was still not quite right, they contemplate poking around a little more but then, after the narrator reveals to a reporter the truth about the cause of all conflict being ghosts, everyone- the reporters as well as the police- decided to finally call it a night and started to leave.

The next morning, everything seems to have returned back to normal. Grandfather, fully rejuvenated and without any trace of the happenings of the previous night, questions the narrator about the presence of cops, scolds all the family members for not leaving a water bottle near his bed due to which he had to stagger around in the night for water. What they had all conceived to be the footsteps of ghosts and burglars, was in fact the grandfather trying to look for water near the house! The main cause of the debacle was nothing but the result of their delusion and fear.



The Night the Ghost Got In | Analysis

Revolving around the themes of fear, paranoia and the element of irrationality and stubbornness that forms a part of the human nature, The Night the Ghost Got In is a rather funny story about the havoc that one’s imagined fear can wreak in the real world.

Though the story begins on a spooky note, with suspense building up as the events of night progress, it eventually starts to display a certain absurdity and ludicrousness. This absurdity is not only reflected in the chain of events that follow, but also in the actions of every character in the story.

The element of darkness is used masterfully at the beginning of the story to create a sense of fear. This use of darkness is significant, as darkness creates conditions conducive for the Unknown to occupy one’s mental space. We fear what we do not know, and what we do not know, we fear. Hence, the hysteria. Hence, the paranoia exhibited by the characters. In this sense, the darkness of the setting is also used as metaphor for one’s lack of knowledge and the irrationality that ensues from it. It is important to note that the “ truth” about the “ghost” of the night is realized by the narrator only the next morning, when the darkness of the night has melted away into the light of the day. This symbolic association of darkness and fear, truth and light is very easy to miss in the humorous hullabaloo of the story.

With very skillfully developed characters, each having their own quirks, Thurber paints a vivid picture of human follies and fancies. The main themes of the story are the constant battle between rationality and paranoia, and the aftereffects of giving in to the latter.

It is important that fear and the eccentric habit of imagining dangers that don’t exist is present in all the characters of the story and isn’t confined to the grandfather. While he may seem odd, imagining dangers of different armies, one must note that all the characters are afraid of something or the other. The narrator and his brother are afraid of ghosts, the mother is afraid of burglars and the policemen are afraid of failing to find the cause of the commotion which makes them act with irrational stubbornness. Everyone imagines the cause of their fear to be something that doesn’t exist. The story seems to suggest that everybody has their share of eccentricities and humans are prone to behave irrationally once they are gripped with fear.

Quite like the author, more often than not, we also tend to fall prey to our irrational fears, especially when it comes to the supernatural and such lack of pragmatism often puts us in a tight spot. The story lacks any sort of structure and the thoughts flow freely without any restriction. Thus, the form of the story mimics the content of the story as the chain of events that follow are also very unstructured – moving towards different directions at the same time.

The language used is quite simple and easy to understand and the use of colloquial language, especially by the police officers, adds to the natural, conversational tone of the story. The narrative is peppered with humorous bits and funny incidents such as the speaker not being able to find any clothes, and ending up wearing his mother’s blouse as well as the whole scene with grandfather. This story is also a satire on the contemporary American society, with their wilful fancies and irrational thinking. The characters refuse to acknowledge reality, preferring to wander about in imaginary, superficial thoughts. They exhibit a streak of defiance when it comes to accepting the factual reality and exercising prudence, as can be seen in the case of the cops who were hell-bent on finding abnormalities in perfectly normal places and things like an old instrument. This is also reflected in the nonsensical hysteria of the mother and the wackiness of the Bodwells. The Night the Ghost Got In thus makes for an interesting read that is sure to entertain all.









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