"To Be Read at Dusk" by Charles Dickens (1852) 

Catalog & Introduction to the Literary Exhibition: Layers of Haunting in "To Be Read at Dusk"

Editorial team: Mattie Cooke, Gillian Guy, Kamryn Upson, Peyton Zahirnyi

(Additional editing by Heidi L. Pennington)
Please note: This catalog discusses key plot points. To avoid spoilers, please read "To Be Read at Dusk" first, then return to this introduction.

In response to his travels to Italy and the Swiss Alps, Charles Dickens wrote a complex narrative of unstable realities tethered to the locations he explored. “To Be Read at Dusk” centers around a group of five couriers discussing both explainable and unexplainable events. They assert that ghosts do not exist by listing coincidental circumstances that can be explained without supernatural reasoning before telling stories about strange occurrences that, ironically, do the opposite of disprove the existence of ghosts. Instead, they prompt the characters and reader to question the binary of existence, where something is either real or not. According to Jen Cadwallader in “Dickens’s Ghosts and the Christmas Spirit,” Dickens’s opinion is that “a ghost’s power lay not in its confirmation and description of the afterlife (the absorbing interest of the spiritualists), but in its ability to arrest the psyche, to make one question one’s sanity, and in doing so, to reflect on the self” (Cadwallader 51). In this story, the unexplainable nature of events is “arresting” to the psyche of both the reader, and of characters such as Clara and James.

Cadwallader writes that “Dickens’ ghosts… tread a middle ground,” rather than adhere to a binary of being either a lapse of the psyche or a supernatural entity (Cadwallader 56). In “To Be Read at Dusk,” this characteristic of his ghosts is made clear through the function of the various narratives bringing the couriers’ disbelief in ghosts further into question. Each narrative layer describes the inexplicable quality of these occurrences more deeply, heightening the ambiguous quality of the narrative’s realities, and ultimately making readers question the state of existence of the couriers themselves. What can be explained becomes harder and harder to distinguish, leaving what cannot be explained as a mysterious haunting.

Through the elements of our exhibit, we argue that although no supernatural entities are definite in Charles Dickens’ “To Be Read at Dusk,” the function of ontological layers and sensory details in determining reality, as well as the inclusion of historical context in the many narrative layers of the text, leaves the reader feeling haunted and unsettled nonetheless. The descriptions of sensory experiences and allusions to literary and historical contexts distinguishes between different time and space layers, but because the realities are not fully certain, the lines between what is real and what cannot be explained become blurry and lead to a disturbing haunting.

The elements within our exhibit showcasing “To Be Read at Dusk” include a map of narrative layers (in the Gallery), an audiobook (linked through the text’s annotations), a map of the geographical locations within the text, research on historical context and Charles Dickens, and interpretation of the role of sensory details in determining reality within the narrative. The text contains annotations that include timestamps of the audiobook (“audiobook” tag in COVE), cues for the narrative layers (“narrativeframing” tag in COVE), historical context (“historical” tag in COVE), appearance of specific numbers (“numbers” tag on COVE), and interpretations of sensory details and how that affects the perception of reality (“interpretive” and “textual” tags in COVE).

Map of Narrative Layers

 The first element of our exhibit is a map of the narrative layers found within “To Be Read at Dusk.” The purpose of this element is to familiarize the audience with the text’s multitude of narrative frames that “features narrators who do not themselves experience the haunting, but who narrate it honestly, insisting on the exactness of their representations, though without being able to say for sure that ghosts really exist” (Hay 82). This map will provide the audience with narrative familiarity as they proceed to explore our exhibit and understand how the story’s complex narrative structure diminishes any certainty of supernatural presence within the story, as well as impacts the reader’s perception of the haunting. Additionally, the vast amount of historical context within the text is woven through each of the levels of narrative framing, making an understanding of where each of these layers lie within the text crucial to recognizing each of these historical references. The map itself, made using the graphic design platform Canva, displays each of the narrative layers (deemed “Story Levels”) and where they fall within each other. They are each accompanied with a brief description of what occurs within that layer, the potential supernatural element that is introduced, and who is acting as the teller.

 The first Story Level of the text consists of the nameless narrator serving as both the teller and a character in the story events. This narrator recounts his experience observing and eavesdropping on a conversation between five couriers, describing everything he heard that night. The second story level is split into two sublevels, which are deemed Story Level 2a and Story Level 2b. At both of these levels, one of the five couriers takes over as the narrator as each one recounts their previous, perhaps ghostly, experiences. The first of the two couriers who temporarily becomes the teller of story events is Giovanni, the Genoese courier (Story Level 2a). He tells of his experience working for his master and the master’s wife, Clara. During his employment, he learns of a strange dream that Clara has frequently been having about a mysterious man whom she is quite frightened by. This dream is told to Giovanni by Carolina, Clara’s lady’s maid, as she heard Clara describe it to the master. Carolina briefly becomes the teller of story events in this instance, simultaneously telling both Giovanni and the reader about Clara’s dream, while still remaining a character in the story events. I deemed this level of narrative framing Story Level 3a, as it is found within Story Level 2a. Giovanni then returns as the teller, noting that a certain Signor Dellombra began to frequent their abode, whom they discover is the same man Clara has been seeing in her dreams. Giovanni ends his time as the teller by revealing that Signor Dellombra abducted Clara and she was neither seen nor heard from again.

The narrative then briefly returns to Story Level 1 and the nameless narrator before quickly turning to Story Level 2b, which is Wilhelm’s (the German courier) recounting of his time working for an English bachelor named James. During his time working for James, he witnesses his employer experience what is either a supernatural encounter or psychological anomaly, which consists of him seeing his brother John walk through his bedroom, even though John is nowhere near his home. The exact details of this experience are told by James himself at Story Level 3b, in which he becomes the teller of his experience while still remaining a character in the story events. Wilhelm then becomes the teller once again and finishes his story before the narrative ultimately returns to the nameless narrator at Story Level 1. He concludes the narrative by noting that the five couriers had stealthily left without him noticing, ending the story on a very eerie and ambiguous note.

Each of these layers contains a spooky element to it, and each one presents the possibility of being supernatural in nature. Whether it be the ontological standing of the couriers at Story Level 1, Clara’s dream come to life in Story Level 2a, or the image of the absent John in James’s bedroom related at Story Level 3b; each layer contains a seemingly impossible and inexplicable occurrence. The narrators give no concrete explanations for any of these events, “insisting knowledge about ghosts or the supernatural is impossible” and leaving the ontological standing of some of the characters up to reader interpretation (Hay 82).

There are annotations in the primary text that mark where each layer begins and ends, as well as where layers are returned to (they are each tagged under “narrativeframing”). In each of the annotations that introduce a new layer, there is a link to the map of narrative layers on Cove so that the audience can see where each layer falls in the text and read the description of the layer along with the narrative. The goal of these annotations is to help the reader navigate between each of the layers of narrative framing in order to better understand them as they read the text, and so they can therefore more thoroughly and easily understand how the ontological layers of the hauntings in the story function within the narrative. These layers create a profound sense of uncertainty, making readers—in parallel to the framed narrators—question what is real, and how we can ever know.


The audiobook of “To Be Read at Dusk” provides a cue for the narrative layers as well as enhancing the narrative’s accessibility. The audiobook has three narrators: one for each of the main narrative layers. Those narrators are: Narrator 1 (the first layer and main narrator), Narrator 2 (The German courier, a second layer narrator), and Narrator 3 (also known as Baptista or the Genoese courier, another second layer narrator). The audiobook has timestamp annotations within the text. This allows the reader to follow along with the audiobook as it switches narrators. Having three narrators provides an auditory cue for the narrative layers to the listener, presenting a digestible way to increase understanding of the narrative layers within the story. In addition to attempting to increase understanding of narrative layers, the audiobook provides accessibility to deaf and disabled readers who may not be able to engage with the text otherwise.

Background on Dickens

The timeline is a concise look at Charles Dickens’ life. It briefly addresses the possible inspirations for “To Be Read At Dusk” as well as examines Dickens’ childhood and career. The goal of this tool is to provide context for the story, as well as to create a baseline understanding of the author’s life. The timeline includes locations relevant to Charles Dickens’ life and short descriptions of events. Sources used included the Dickens Fellowship, The Dickens Project, and the Charles Dickens Museum.

The Gallery: Geographical and Historical Locations

The gallery includes images of places directly relevant to the text, whether they are the place in reference or look like the place being referred to. The images selected are paintings of locations, dated either within or very close to the Victorian period, to capture what these places would look like when they were being referred to, as opposed to what they have become in the modern day, if altered. Citations are within the gallery itself.

Historical Contexts
Women Literary Archetypes

Aside from religious allegory, Dickens harkens to the archetypes of women and numerology to explore unhappy endings and to examine the Victorian obsession with numbers and logic. Female figures in fictional narratives usually play specific roles in conventional ghost stories, often they are utilized as collateral to draw attention to gendered realities: in the article “The 1890s Ghost Stories of Lettice Galbraith” Emma Liggins finds that Galbraith utilizes her ghost stories “to hold men accountable for their deception and violence, bringing vanished lower-class women back from the dead for revelation rather than consolation” (Liggins 191). Dickens utilizes the endings of women as a warning against patriarchal violence, but instead of their ghost communicating the message, it is actually the last moments of their lives that send this critical message: even in this narrative, Dickens alludes to the traditional belief in “hysteria”, and the “spinster” archetype as two “bad” endings for women, which are also both brought on by men’s dismissiveness.

Mistress Clara fading into “infamous oblivion” after her forcible abduction is caused by the men in her life failing her. Her husband attempts to explain away the haunting circumstances of a dream, which is turning into reality; the narrative suggests she might fall into madness after the dismissal of her fears and her violent kidnapping (Dickens). Despite her dream repeating, Clara’s fears are not understood as empirical phenomena because her feelings come into play. Clara’s outcome means that this character falls into the realm of Catharine J. Golden’s definition of “Dickens’s fallen woman” archetype she writes about in her article “Late-Twentieth-Century Readers in Search of a Dickensian Heroine: Angels, Fallen Sisters, and Eccentric Women.” Golden finds that Dickens is apt to judge this archetype, while he sympathizes with his “angel” archetype due to his “lacking” ability to write women characters; the victimization of Clara serves as a message to future men. As a female character driven to possible madness and subjected to violence, Clara becomes no more than a tool to relay the grisly warning message. (Golden 6, 13) The spinster, or Old Maid archetype, is a supposedly bitter character who appears originally in contrast with the mistress. Being unmarried ties her to the spindle, and she becomes a sore sight. Her lack of socially sanctioned “success” in the marriage market makes this archetype subject to what is presumed to be an unhappy ending, through Victorian eyes. Men in this story have the power to dictate a woman’s happy ending, and whether it is through affirmation or upholding marriage ideals, the women of the story fade into nothingness because of these men.


The narrative seems to revolve around the number three, but it begins with the number five, through counting. Kimberly Jackson points in her article “Dangerous Similitude in Charles Dickens’ ‘To Be Read at Dusk’”, where she explores the language of the narration and setting, that “four couriers are introduced: German, Swiss, Neapolitan, and Genoese. What about the fifth?... ‘There were five of them.’ And yet there are only four who are identified as some particular nationality, only four who are identified at all, only four who speak. The fifth courier… never speaks, but is present nonetheless” (Jackson 7). The only proof of him talking is that he mumbled something at the same time as the Swiss courier, but he goes unseen and unnamed. This uncertainty regarding the fifth courier, in the context of the Victorian obsession with empirical modes of knowing, sets up doubt and, therefore, a doubtful reality in the text itself.  It becomes hard to trust the text when the fifth courier is never made concrete, and the reader can only rely on the narrator’s counting. The number “three” occurs various times throughout the text, directly or indirectly: three is a disruptor of a binary, becoming a haunting agent in itself. Three saints, three nights, three times a year when San Gennaro’s blood liquifies, three copies of the twins James and John, and three story layers demonstrate a profound interest in the number three—especially as it signals gaps in human knowledge, as it does throughout the narrative. The number annotations will fall under the “interpretive” tag. The remaining annotations tie into ways to understand rationalization through other occurrences.

Locations and Saints

The historical annotations (all tagged by the “historical” tag, some with an additional accompanying tag to clarify which function the allusion serves), call attention to the relevant cultural, historical, literary, and textual allusions Dickens utilizes in his work. Jackson writes that “Dickens was illustrating and perhaps working through episodes and concerns from his own life experience. As Ruth Glancy points out… the short story abounds with biographical references” (2). Not only does he reference his own literary work, but the allusions of people and locations are centered around his travels and his fascinations with the happenings surrounding them.

Dickens harkens to three separate saints within the story: San Gennaro, San Lorenzo, and Saint Bernard of Menthon. The first narrative story layer occurs at the Great St. Bernard Pass on the Swiss/Italian border. Jackson argues that the ghost story is created through Dickens’ language, and it assists the setting’s spookiness. She writes how the beginning simile description of “the likeness between the setting sun on the snow and spilt wine - it thinly veils a much more sinister one, in which the setting sun is like spilt blood” (2). With the interaction of the couriers taking place at this location, the image of saints, as well as recovered bodies of the hospice center, hangs over and sets up the story. Jackson writes about the function of the sunset simile in this haunting setup, that “whether the sun on the snow looks like wine or not, at this point the reader knows that under the snow there most certainly is blood. The danger in the figure lies in the… innocent simile (sun like wine) hides… the more sinister one (wine like blood), like the snow hides dead bodies, and we begin to sense that the story itself is built on just such a surface” (3). The reader is led to view the text through its connection to death and its connection to the name of an immortalized saint, a binary that becomes shattered through unexplainable occurrences and an ambiguous ending.

Sensory Details and Doubting Reality

Jackson contends that “Dickens illustrates something more akin to the latter’s view of language when he allows us a glimpse of the phantom nature of the simile in “To Be Read at Dusk.” In this short text, he has made a ghost story of language itself, one which disavows its own nature – ‘Ghosts! There are no ghosts here!’ – even as it spins its macabre tales” (Jackson 2). She finds that the connection of the concrete images and their ghostly comparisons is what crafts the ghostly effect of this story. The layers of the language in the sensory details add to the haunting nature of the text, and the annotations in this anthology find instances to support his idea.

Textual and interpretive tags in annotations often work together in the text when analyzing sensory details, and scenes of doubting reality. The rich language used to describe the scenery puts the reader directly into the story, and it is purposeful. Hidden underneath the sensory details, Dickens hints to the reader to look closer at the text than what appears on the surface. The diction the narrators use when discussing the unexplainable highlights instances where the reader doubts the reality asserted in the text. Both result in the unexplainable becoming haunting presences to the reader.

In the tale Baptista tells, vivid descriptions of the scenery and the house may seem unimportant to the reader, however, they serve to foreshadow Clara’s mental decline. The house Clara lives in is described as “smelling like a tomb”, with paint peeling off walls. In typical ghost stories, the state of a house points to unstable elements in the story. In this text, the house is described to be deteriorating, and represents Clara’s psyche. Throughout the story, the reader hears the couriers wonder if there is nothing to be afraid of because “there are no ghosts”, even as the narrative Baptista tells also shows Clara’s declining sanity and her violent abduction by Dellombra. Due to Clara’s fears being ignored by those around her, and the terrible outcome she faces as a result of being so dismissed, the readers may doubt the accuracy of the claim that “there are no ghosts here,” as the narrators assert. In the text, there are many more instances that make the reader question what is happening, blurring the lines of what can and cannot be explained.


Published @ COVE

December 2023