The story opens over a derelict farm, remote and lonely. The setting is cold and isolated to those who choose to see it as so, but has some natural beauty to those who are able to see it.
The ‘seafaring man’ who owned the farm is long gone, thought speculation of ‘buried treasure and a dark history’ remain. The death of its Scottish owner saw the land pass to the state and nature has taken over, as has a sense of ‘some uncanny existence.’
Once an officer of the Coast Survey broke in to the ramshackle property but soon left, with ‘an awful sense that some unseen inhabitant followed his footsteps’. Rumour had it that the place was haunted, that ‘the former owner was supposed to linger still about his old home.’ A tall, middle-aged stranger appears, with ‘an unusual pallor’ and ‘a grayish look’ Rumours abound that he could be ‘an escaped criminal’ or a former resident believed ‘long ago lost at sea.’ The locals are disturbed, feeling he could be ‘a fugitive from justice’. They nervously lock their doors.
The gray man is kindly to the members of the community and ‘he tried to be friendly.’ He had a ‘sober cheerfulness’ and offered ‘reasonable words of advice’ on topics such as crop rotation, cattle diseases, housekeeping and childcare. Some thought his wisdom was ‘supernatural’ due to ‘so many proofs that his horizon was wider than their own.’
With his obvious intelligence and skill, the stranger comes back under suspicion. He is mistrusted as he ‘never was seen to smile’ and folk took this as a bad omen. He appears sinister – ‘like a skeleton’ and is ejected from a community wedding as a ‘strange foreboding’ accompanies him. He continues to work on his estate, though cast out by his former neighbours. He is able to tame wild birds, and those who still keep company with him note ‘the orderliness and delicacy of his simple life’. It was said he had ‘strange powers’ and ‘amazing strength’. He did not sleep and hunters who stayed at the farm said they saw ‘an empty chair glided silently toward him.’
He left ‘rapidly’ at the outbreak of war, but this was not the last sighting. A farm boy, fighting in an early battle ‘saw the gray man riding by on a tall horse.’ He believed that ‘Death himself rode by in the gray man’s likeness.’ The omniscient narrator reflects that as Death, he was within the community to ‘teach and serve mankind’ and to win the community’s acceptance as ‘a faithful friend’.
The story starts in the present tense, with a negative foreboding tone enhanced by the adjectives selected – ‘ungathered’, ‘unassailed’ and ‘untended’. The summer evenings are personified as ‘drawing their brown curtain of dusk’.
The area described is sinister: of the people who pass ‘most will be repulsed by such loneliness.’ However, there are glimpses of beauty illustrated by the birds – ‘a choir of singers who rejoice and sing’ and the ‘wild pink roses.’ Here we see that the omniscient narrator understands the value of solitude though not the ordinary souls of the community. We feel the influence of Wordsworth’s poetry on Jewett’s ideals.
We are told that the derelict farm, once owned by a seafaring man, holds many mysteries, which add to the supernatural tone of the story. There is ‘a suspicion of buried treasure and of a dark history.’ Rumours abound that ‘some uncanny existence possessed the lonely place.’ Jewett uses a mystical simile to indicate the progress of the ominous farm: ‘The story grew more fearful and spread quickly like a mist of terror among the lowland farms.’
Because of this portentous beginning, the reader already has suspicions when a ‘stranger’ arrives and takes up residence in the farm. His residence becomes ‘the haunted house; and he is of ‘unusual pallor’. Pathetic fallacy is used to herald his arrival, the weather reflecting his cold gentleness: ‘the sky was heavy with snow.’
The unusual stranger is gradually accepted for his help and advice in the community, but ‘people thought his wisdom supernatural.’ Jewett is emphasising the superstitious nature of the village people. Unsurprisingly the stranger is outcast again, and Jewett uses sibilance to communicate the sinister stirrings of the community: ‘The whisper of distrust soon started’. The Gray man’s unemotional demeanour upsets his counterparts. He is described as ‘chilling’, ‘like a skeleton’ and ‘surrounded by strange foreboding.’ We are told that the gray man ‘never smiled’. There are several similes used to indicate his appearance and behaviour: ‘The gray man was like a sombre mask.’ When called upon to leave a wedding ‘the stranger went out like a hunted creature.’
Jewett was interested in the supernatural, and this awareness may have added to the inspiration for the ‘vague rumours’ of the gray man’s ‘strange powers’. He was said to be ‘gifted with amazing strength’ and capable of making objects move ‘silently toward him.’
The reader is not categorically told who the gray man is, but is led to believe by the reported account of a farmer’s boy that he is ‘Death himself.’ The omniscient narrator indicates that Death has had a purpose in being part of the community – ‘to teach and serve mankind so that he may at the last win welcome as a faithful friend!’ The implication is that the gray man should have been accepted for his strengths as any other member of the community, and judged on his actions not the reputation conjured by others. Jewett seems to be instructing the reader that treating all with care and concern is more likely to bring a peaceable end than cruelty or rejection.