Interpretative Approaches to Women in “Time of the Ghosts” – Academic Musings

by Benedikt von Laufenberg 

This blog post is concerned with the way female characters are presented in Gillian Pollack’s The Time of the Ghost. Before the interpretation of the novel can be started, it is necessary to justify the chosen approach.

Interpretative Approaches

An interpretive approach, which completely transforms the regarded artwork is in need of justification because there are certain risks associated with it. First, there is the danger of ideologically manipulating the artwork. One might analyze Kafka’s Metamorphosis within a psychoanalytical framework but this inevitably validates the theoretical framework. X no longer means X but Y and this Y is defined outside of the work itself. Second, there is the risk of burying the artwork under a heap of theoretical assumptions. X no longer means X but might mean Y or Z. In both cases there is the danger of obscuring the artwork by interpretation instead of uncovering some elements of it. These negative consequences of interpretation are summarized by Susan Sontag: “(…) interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art” (Sontag 7). Sontag’s rather polemical solution is: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (14). This last statement is too general to be applied to every artwork. But why not analyze Polack’s novel in a way that is more immediate and not so reliant on interpretation? The answer is to be found in the novel’s subject matter. As the title indicates, it is about ghosts and if one does not take this at face value, one is interpreting because the subsequent question is: what do the ghosts stand for? An answer might be patriarchy, the bourgeoisie, the Dionysian element in human consciousness, or the subconscious itself. An interpretative approach could completely transform the novel in such a way that all these answers are possible. Thus, there is always a contingent factor in interpretation because someone is choosing a path to derive this answer and not another one. The justification is the novel’s subject matter which demands to be interpreted in such an emphatic manner that it is difficult to conceive of another approach to it.

“The Three Had Action Down to A Fine Art”

The chosen interpretive approach is concerned with the way female characters are portrayed and how this representation challenges representation of female characters in the past. Jia Tolentino, writing about female characters in novels, asserts: “If you were a girl, and you were imagining your life through literature, you would go from innocence in childhood, to sadness in adolescence to bitterness in adulthood – at which point, if you hadn’t killed yourself, you would simply disappear” (Tolentino 95). It is noteworthy that the three women, who assist Kat in tackling the ghosts, are about 70. Thus, they have not killed themselves nor have they disappeared. Besides that, they have profound knowledge in fighting ghosts:

“The three had action down to a fine art. They didn’t even have to think about it anymore, so often had they moved. Mostly it was for settling restless spirits (which really didn’t take action at all) or for investigating something that turned out entirely phony, but these things were obviously preparation for now. Because now, they knew what to do”

(Polack 84)

This fighting of ghosts, which is of real importance in the novel since ghosts are supposed to be existent, has a real-life counterpart, which is described by Tolentino: “Women are hunted by memories and stories of one another – shadow selves, icons, obsessions, ghosts” (Tolentino 123). Thus, one might read the ghosts in The Time of the Ghosts as physical manifestations of the psychic processes described by Tolentino (cf. ibid.). A reading which might be substantiated. However, it has to be noted that the novel is composed under the premise that ghosts are real and that they can be fought by certain techniques which of course cannot be transferred in our world.  Thus, Tolentino’s description of Ferrante is not entirely applicable to Polack’s novel: “It is transcendent, in the way de Beauvoir meant it, to watch Ferrante’s narrators triangulate themselves from these images, in their emotional and intellectual project of asserting selfhood and control” (Tolentino 122f.).

Real Life Implications

 Even though the real-life implications of Polack’s novel are not as profound as Ferrante’s might be, the case can be made that the constellation of female characters, who assert themselves and male spectral characters, who are controlled by the female characters, do have real life implications. This is due to the fact that the reader of novels has certain expectations (cf. Tolentino 95), which stem from other books. These expectations, indoctrinated by readings, influence the way we perceive the world. Tolentino mentions Emma Bovary, the heroine of the eponymous novel: “(…) Emma, a pretty and suggestible farmer’s daughter with a taste for romance novels, gets married to a doctor named Charles Bovary and finds herself confused. Marriage is much duller than she expected (Tolentino 115). In the end, after many failed affairs, she commits suicide (cf. ibid.). Emma, disillusioned by life with no opportunity of asserting herself, does not see any other solution except from killing herself. These storylines influence perception. But our perception is equally, if not more profoundly, influenced if stories differ from those we are used to. In that sense, Polack’s novel might influence the perceptions of the readers for the better.

            It was demonstrated that an interpretative approach which adds something to the novel is justified in this case because the subject matter is open for analysis and difficult to handle without an interpretive approach. After this it was shown that Pollack’s novel differs substantially from historical representations of women.


  • Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts, edited by Stephen Ormsby and Vonda N. McIntyre, Next Chapter, 2021.
  • Sontag, Susan. “Against interpretation“. Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin Group, 2009, pp. 3-14.
  • Tolentino, Jia. “Pure Heroins“. Trick Mirror Reflections on Self-Delusion, 4th Estate, 2020, pp. 95-129.