A Warning to the Curious by M.R. James
In A Warning to the Curious by M.R. James we have the theme of curiosity, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, greed and connection. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that James may be exploring the theme of curiosity. Paxton’s downfall appears to be based solely on the curiosity he felt with regard to the buried Holy Crown. If he had curtailed his curiosity he may not have encountered the death that he did. As to whether Paxton can be believed is difficult to say. Some critics may agree with the narrator that Paxton was killed by William Ager. However others will note that Ager is already dead. Which will lend some readers to consider that they are reading a ghost story. When the reality could be very different and Paxton’s death is simply a mystery. It is also worth noting how anxious and hopeless Paxton feels when he has the Crown. It has brought him nothing but fear and dread and ultimately cost him his life despite burying the Crown with the narrator and Long.
The reader might also like to question as to whether the narrator can be believed. If they are reliable. On the surface all the information fits into place neatly with the narrator at times transcribing what Paxton has told him. However there are key elements missing. Particularly the times when the narrator is not with Paxton and the late entry that advises the reader that Paxton had decided to move to Sweden. Yet no reason has been given by the narrator. If anything the narrator is limited in the information he knows and may be neatly piecing together a ghost story that has resulted in murder. It is for this reason that the reader also has to be wary of what the narrator tells them. He is not omniscient. It is very likely that Paxton could have been killed by the man that Paxton saw when he was digging up the Crown. No one can tell for sure. It is possible that the man that Paxton saw was after the Crown as well. Knowing its value and such driven by greed. It could also be important that out of the three men who saw the Crown only one (the narrator) is alive. As readers we have nobody else’s version of what may have happened.
What drove Paxton to dig up the Crown is also questionable. It does not appear as though he wishes to have it put in a museum and it is possible that Paxton just like the man who watched him dig up the Crown is driven by greed or his own self-importance. Which would have been boosted by public recognition that he found the Crown. However nothing but bad things happen to Paxton on his digging up of the Crown. Which may be the point that James is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that should a man be driven only by his own ego. What has happened in the past should be left in the past. Life would have been simpler for Paxton should he have abandoned his pursuit of the Crown but he was unable to do so. There is also a sense that the narrator and Long connect with Paxton and it is for this reason they believe Paxton’s story and as such agree to help Paxton to bury the Crown.
Something that the reader can easily understand due to the fact that the narrator and Long have both seen the Crown in Paxton’s room. Which lends credibility to Paxton more than it does to the narrator as the narrator is only relaying the story to the reader in a manner he thinks is best. If a reader believes in ghost stories then they will believe the narrator however others may dispute the facts the narrator is relaying to them and look for a more logical explanation. Of which there may be none. Paxton has been certified as being murdered by an unknown person and the case is closed. The Crown is back where it belongs and the narrator himself has not been to Seaburgh since Paxton’s death. Which leaves the reader still suspicious about Paxton’s death and the unidentified man who watched Paxton dig up the Crown. Not even the narrator makes mention of him at the end of the story when the reality might be he is the one who has killed Paxton. The narrator doesn’t know, Long doesn’t know and the reader doesn’t know. As far as the narrator is concerned William Ager could have killed Paxton but William Ager is himself already dead.