To acquire wisdom, one must observe

A long-awaited analysis of Edward Gorey’s ‘The Doubtful Guest’

From the darkened black cross hatching within its illustrations to purposeful and ominous poetry, “The Doubtful Guest” by Edward Gorey is a brilliant children’s book. Or is it? Indeed, this book may not even be for children, as Gorey’s publisher refused to publish the story in the children’s category. With a growing unease that rivals even “Coraline,” the story tells the tale of an unwanted visitor in an Edwardian home, and its inhabitants’ failure to remove the thing from the premises.

Over the summer, in a used bookstore in a small village in England, I discovered Gorey’s story, and it, much like the guest, has been plaguing my mind ever since. I pen this opinion piece in the hopes of putting the thing that moves in out of sight and out of mind at long last. But as “The Doubtful Guest” teaches us, sometimes the unwanted thing is here to stay. Permanently.

I say “the thing,” because, well, it is an unidentifiable being that moves in—almost penguin-like, with white converse and an eerie lack of a grin you just know would be splayed across its face if it had an illustrated mouth. Even within the story, the thing is only ever referred to as “something,” or “it.” The thing is never humanized and always othered—and it is always getting up to mischief.

“All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall, /

Where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall. /

It was seemingly deaf to whatever they said, /

So at last they stopped screaming, and went off to bed.”

The narrative begins in an almost playful yet mocking tone, laughing at the silly family for screaming at this thing and running about like chickens without heads. 

But the story continues, more sinister with every line. Yes, the guest “joined them at breakfast and presently ate / All the syrup and toast, and a part of a plate.” Yes, the guest “would vanish for hours from the scene, / But alas, be discovered inside a tureen.” But the delightful descriptions of activities the thing engages in leaves a glaring hole in the narrative that I am quite sure the home’s initial inhabitants wonder throughout it all: when will the doubtful guest leave?

Evidently, never. The story concludes with two lines: “It came seventeen years ago—and to this day / It has shown no intention of going away.” The guest is a permanent fixture in the household, silent, mischievous, unforgiving. And what does it represent? This thing, that is shocking to the residents initially, and despite continual efforts to remove it, stays anyway. This thing, that exists only as an agent of chaos. The story’s open nature allows readers to insert any number of social, political, or environmental issues into the guest’s place. The Edwardian family never feels comfortable coexisting alongside the thing, and still the thing never leaves.  

The black and white images alongside the story only increase the paranoia felt throughout the piece. Each drawing is immensely uncomfortable to look at. The drawings show signs of weathering and disrepair in every aspect of the art. Everything looks antiquated and disjointed, and despite all of the cross hatching taking up so much space, the art feels emotionally empty. There is no joy in this art—only unease. Because of its creepiness, the art beautifully complements the narrative. Had the art been upbeat and cheerful, as one would expect of a children’s book, the prose would lack depth. It would turn into the funny tale of a little penguin guest who tumbled into a family’s life and was here to stay. It would never stray into the dark and unknowing, as the sixth image of the story shows. (Pictured in the sixth image is the back of the thing, which is staring blankly at the wall, surrounded by a void of darkness, while the family watches afraid and worried on the staircase.)

The only true voice comes from the narrator, and we as readers must watch the story’s events play out with muted characters, looking at their guest with its beady eyeballs. 

The title, “The Doubtful Guest,” also piques my interest over the guest’s symbolism. Is the guest itself doubtful that it will never be accepted? Or is the home’s inhabitants doubtful that the guest will even leave? Can one even be considered a guest if one is not invited inside? There is a deep fear inside this piece that questions whether the uninvited will ever leave. The family is not willing to take drastic action, opting to adapt as best they can to the new situation and live around it. 

I love this story—from the way the thing plays in the house and plagues those around it to the artwork that stares at you just as much as you stare at it. Hats off to you Gorey, you’ve made something truly fantastic—and haunting.

Get Our Stories Sent To Your Inbox

Skip to content