Summary of “The Press of Their Ghosts”
Josiah’s death strikes Anna much harder than expected. She cries to Elinor, explaining all the abuse that Josiah put her through when she was a child and how he himself was abused growing up. Afterward, she feels better, knowing that she is free of her father. She mentions that the only reason Josiah did not leave the village when the plague struck was that Aphra most likely convinced him that she had talismans and charms to protect the family. Michael mentions that he has seen many other villagers using witchcraft charms as well.
Later, while she is out walking, Anna trips on a rock and begins thinking about the nature of the plague. For nearly a year, the villagers have believed that God is punishing them for their sins. Anna wonders if instead the plague is just an unlucky bump in their lives, like the rock she has just tripped on. She realizes that finding a cure for the plague is the only way to make life in the village better; religious fervor will have no effect on the sickness.
By June, nearly half of the villagers have died. People are at the end of their nerves and are looking for new means of prevention. One day, Anna and Michael see John Gordon scourging himself with a cat’s tail: they both realize that he is practicing self-flagellation, and they know that this type of zealousness will spread quickly if they do not stop it soon.
The two begin riding to the Gordon home when they see two people having sex on the roadside. Michael leaps off his horse and addresses the man calmly, telling him to go home. He then approaches the woman, Jane Martin, and lambasts her for her sin and debauchery. Anna is confused about why Michael is treating each participant unfairly, and she rebukes him for his biased outburst. She helps Jane get up and sends Jane on her way. Michael apologizes for his tone and asks Anna not to tell Elinor about his outburst.
At the Gordon home, Urith reluctantly lets Michael and Anna in when they mention that they have brought food. John has been forcing the family to starve themselves and practice self-mutilation after receiving a tract from London about how flagellation is the only way God will forgive people for their sins.
Michael later looks for John Gordon but finds him dead at the bottom of a crag; he fell off while tempting himself with sleep. The villagers feel pity for Urith’s situation, so they send her hay and blankets and food. Urith soon contracts the plague, though, and dies. Many people blame Urith’s lack of faith in John’s flagellation, but Anna knows that Urith most likely contracted the plague through infected hay bedding. Michael and many others go to the Gordons' property to burn the many misshapen cross effigies that John hung around his house.
Later, Anna is tending the Mompellions' home when she sees Michael having a tender moment with Elinor, who is asleep. Anna is suddenly filled with jealousy toward Elinor; she returns to the kitchen and begins throwing dining ware at the wall. She doesn’t understand why Elinor gets to have a loving, caring husband while she has nobody.
Summary of “A Great Burning”
Elinor and Anna are walking down the street discussing how the plague strikes its victims when Elinor begins coughing. Anna pretends not to hear, but the cough persists. Over the next three days, Elinor’s fever rises quickly and her cough worsens. Anna wants to be there for her friend and tries to remain by her bedside, but Michael asks her to leave. He says that Elinor’s bedside is not the place for Anna. Anna feels her jealousy returning. This time, though, she is jealous of Michael for getting to be near her friend.
One day, Anna is tending to Elinor when Elinor asks Anna to be a good friend to Michael when she is dead. Her fever then returns and she begins calling the name of the man who seduced her as a teenager. Michael comes forward and tells Anna coldly that she needs to leave. A few days later, though, Elinor’s health returns. She was struck by a fever instead of by the plague.
The next Sunday, Michael announces that he has an idea to get rid of the plague. He was struck by the idea when he was burning the gross effigies at the Gordons' home. He wants all the villagers to burn all their belongings. He admits that this is a large sacrifice, but he is certain that the fire will rid the village of the plague.
At the bonfire, Brand and another young man drag Aphra forward. The two caught her pretending to be the ghost of Anys Gowdie and selling villagers witchcraft charms. For the night, she is tossed into a deep pit of manure while her youngest daughter, Faith, stays the night with Anna. Aphra is brought out the next day for her punishment. However, the townspeople notice how pitiful she looks after nearly drowning in the pit, so they let her go.
Anna goes to visit Aphra, but Aphra refuses to acknowledge Anna. Anna can see Faith inside the house for the first few days, but then Faith disappears. Anna then notices that Aphra is dancing wildly with a snake while a fire burns in the home. Anna throws open the door to stop Aphra’s madness when she sees Faith’s plague-stricken corpse hanging from the rafters.
Summary of “Deliverance”
Two weeks later, Anna and Elinor notice that there have been no new plague outbreaks in the town. Elinor wants to celebrate by throwing a thanksgiving meal, but Michael rebukes her for being premature. He says that he does not want to get the villagers’ hopes up just for another outbreak to occur. Elinor is devastated at her husband’s tone, but she acquiesces.
Michael relents, though, and they put together a thanksgiving dinner in August. All the villagers come, feeling grateful that the worst is behind them. All of a sudden, Aphra appears at the dinner. She is holding Faith’s corpse and also wields the knife that bound Josiah’s hand. She is wild and crazed, so Michael tries to calm her down, and in fact succeeds after a few kind, calming words. Elinor steps forward and tries to give Aphra a hug, but the added pressure of Elinor’s body makes Faith’s head pop off and roll away. Aphra lunges at Elinor, slitting her throat; then she stabs herself in the midst of the villagers. She crawls to Faith’s head and cradles it as she dies.
Michael’s outburst towards Jane and his chastisement of Anna for speaking out against him offer new examples of how women were expected to be subservient and pure creatures while men were allowed to do whatever they pleased without facing much judgment. Women’s place dictated that women had to fill a certain religious and social stereotype. One aspect of this stereotype is sexual purity, which Jane violates when she is seen having sex.
So far, Michael has garnered a reputation for being kind to women. Even the troubled Elinor was given a second chance at happiness through his marriage to her. Elinor has told Anna about Michael’s kindness to her earlier, so it comes as a shock to Anna when Michael chastises Jane for having sex, especially after letting a man go without a harsh word. The reader is alerted to Michael’s possible hypocrisy when he asks Anna not to mention the exchange to Elinor. The reader also sees this new, negative side of Michael when Michael tosses Elinor’s idea for a thanksgiving dinner aside. Taken all together, these interactions foreshadow further disclosures: Anna will see more of Michael’s true feelings and personality in the future.
Anna realizes how much she loves Elinor when Elinor becomes sick. Though Elinor doesn’t have the plague, Anna is nevertheless frightened that Elinor is going to die. She not only sees Elinor as an instructor and companion, but also as a close friend. It comes as no surprise, then, that Anna is jealous of the bond that Elinor and Michael appear to share.
Such jealousy of Elinor first arises when Anna sees Michael looking tenderly at the sleeping Elinor. Anna sees this relationship in contrast with her own life, a life that no longer involves a family waiting for her back home. She doesn’t understand what Elinor has done to deserve this kind of happiness and this kind of compassionate man when her own husband and two children are dead. During Elinor’s sickness, though, Anna remembers how strong her bond with Elinor is. Anna wants to be there for her friend and to help her become well, but Michael refuses to let Anna take the coveted place by Elinor’s bedside.
In these sections of the novel, it is revealed that the ghost of Anys is none other than Aphra. Though the reader might not have anticipated this turn in the narrative, Aphra's actions are entirely plausible in the context of Aphra’s overall characterization. She has always been rash, and her superstitious tendencies are well documented. However, Brooks creates some sympathy for Aphra through Faith, her hapless daughter.
By contrasting the alternately brash and calculating Aphra with her innocent young daughter, Brooks enables the reader to see what Aphra is like as a mother. The one thing she cares about is her daughter: she wants to shield Faith from what she perceives are outside threats, and she is desperate not to lose her only remaining child. This desperation and paranoia explain why she refuses to bury Faith’s body. Burying the corpse is finite and will force her to accept Faith’s death. Nonetheless, she is forced to a finite realization of much the same sort when Faith’s head falls from Faith's corpse.
Elinor’s death has already been revealed at the beginning of the novel. When she appears at the thanksgiving dinner in a formal white gown and a garland of flowers, she appears as a bridal presence. While Brooks's choice of garment for her seems to subvert the expected color symbolism of purity, Brooks is also foreshadowing information that will be revealed soon about the unusual form of chastity forced on Elinor.