Wharton, Edith (1862 - 1937)
(1862 - 1937)
Wharton is best known as a novelist of manners whose fiction detailed the cruel excesses of aristocratic society in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her carefully crafted, psychologically complex novels, novellas, and short stories reflect concern for the status of women in society as well as for the moral decay she observed underlying the outward propriety of the upper classes. While her subject matter, tone, and style have often been compared with those of her friend and mentor Henry James, Wharton has achieved critical recognition as an original chronicler of the conflict between the inner self and social convention. Aside from her numerous tales of the supernatural, collected as Ghosts in 1937, Wharton's writings generally eschew overt Gothic machinery, while many nevertheless evoke the pervasive and elemental sense of foreboding and psychological terror typically associated with the genre. Among her most well-known works, the tragic novella Ethan Frome (1911) features an ominous mood of preternatural dread that underscores the self-destructiveness and alienation of its main character. Noted stories that demonstrate Wharton's fascination with the supernatural include "The Eyes," "Pomegranate Seed," and "Bewitched," works that were gathered and printed in her late volume of ghost tales.
Born into a wealthy New York family, Wharton was privately educated by governesses and tutors both at home and abroad. At an early age she displayed a marked interest in writing and literature, a pursuit her socially ambitious mother attempted to discourage. Nevertheless, Wharton finished her first novella at the age of fourteen and published a collection of verse two years later. From the perspective of an upper-class initiate, she observed the shift of power and wealth from the hands of New York's established gentry to the nouveau riche of the Industrial Revolution. Wharton considered the newly wealthy to be cultural philistines and drew upon their lives to create many of her best-remembered fictional characters and situations. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton. Becoming dissatisfied with society life and disillusioned with marriage, however, Wharton sought fulfillment in writing. Many of her stories and poems originally appeared in Scribner's Magazine, and both her first short story collection, The Greater Inclination (1899), and her novel The House of Mirth (1905) were well received by critics and readers. Suffering from ill health and forced to contend with her husband's growing mental instability, Wharton was granted a divorce in 1912. Soon after, she established residence in France. During World War I, Wharton organized relief efforts in France. With her financial support, an ambulance unit, a workroom for female garment workers, and a sanatorium for women and children with tuberculosis were established there. The French recognized her philanthropy by awarding her the Cross of the Legion of Honor, and she was made Chevalier of the Order of Leopold in Belgium for her work on the behalf of Belgian orphans. In the United States, her energetic fund-raising activities were aided by "Edith Wharton" committees in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Providence during the war. While her war novella The Marne (1918), generated little positive critical interest, Wharton became the first female recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence (1920) in 1921. In 1927, Wharton was nominated to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. During the final years of her life, Wharton continued to write short stories and novels, many of which reflect her growing disillusionment with postwar America and the Jazz Age. Several of her finest short stories featuring supernatural themes were also published during this time, these and other of her noted works of Gothic fiction were collected at the end of her life, while her final novel, The Buccaneers (1938), remained unfinished at her death in St. Brice-sous-Foret in 1937.
Wharton's most celebrated works of fiction include the novels The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, as well as her novella Ethan Frome. Of these, her longer novels are thought to be especially effective at piercing the veil of moral respectability that sometimes masked a lack of integrity among the rich. In The House of Mirth an intelligent and lovely girl must lose her status as a member of the leisure class if she is to avoid moral ruin. Lily Bart rebels against the standards of her social group enough to smoke, gamble, and be seen in public with married men; however, her sense of decency keeps her from marrying a wealthy but vulgar suitor merely to secure her fortune. Her other opportunity consists of a young lawyer who makes fun of the "high society" his modest but adequate means entitle him to observe. When the first proposes, she turns him down; when the second proposes, it is too late—he finds the distraught Lily dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. Written after World War I, The Age of Innocence, another novel about Old New York society, again showcases passionate characters hemmed in by their desire to keep their membership in a dispassionate social group. Newland Archer is engaged to marry an acceptable and attractive girl, but falls in love with Ellen Olenska, a European divorcee. Olenska had married a Polish Count, a villain from whom she escaped with the eager aid of his secretary. Equally passionate but seeking to reestablish her honor in New York society (which is not sure she is acceptable), Olenska encourages Archer to keep his commitment. To make it easier for him, she returns to Europe. A third work of social criticism, Ethan Frome is also notable for its enveloping atmosphere of decay and gloom, and reflects several of the Gothic themes that Wharton explored more fully in her short stories. Set in the aptly-named village of Starkfield in the hill country of rural New England, Ethan Frome portrays a world that offers no satisfactory escape from a loveless marriage. Wharton shows how the title character suffers when he is caught between two women—his wife, Zeena, on whom he depends for economic survival, and his true love, a younger relative of his wife's who has come to their farm. Near the conclusion of the novella, Ethan and his beloved realize that there is no escape from their predicament. When their attempt at suicide fails, they become invalids in the hands of Zeena.
Wharton gave full play to the literary allure of supernatural horror in her short stories, which included numerous ghost stories, as well as several works featuring Gothic tropes displaced into the milieu of the psychological and the domestic. One of her earliest works of short fiction, "The Fullness of Life" (1893) is an afterlife fantasy. In it, the spirit of a deceased wife finds herself attracted to another spirit she perceives to be her soul mate. After much deliberation, however, she decides to wait instead for the death of her husband so that they may be rejoined. With "The Moving Finger" Wharton moved more fully into the genre of the macabre. In the story, a man decides to have a painting of his dead wife altered so that the two may age together. He perceives this as her wish, but as time proceeds the painting seems to mysteriously change on its own, signaling the wife's realization of her husband's impending death. In "The Lady's Maid's Bell" the ghost of a former maid continues to serve her mistress. Seeking to protect the woman, an invalid, from an encroaching danger, the dead maid's spirit rings her bell, but to no avail. Wharton's supernatural stories written after her relocation to France are thought to bear affinities with the stories of Henry James, Wharton's close friend. Both writers remarked on their interpretation of the supernatural as an extension of the subconscious, particularly in its projection of the guilt or fear stimulated by the collapse of human relationships. In "Afterward" a vengeful spirit from the past returns to strip Ned Boyne of the fortune he has made years ago under questionable circumstances. This ghost of a young man Boyne once knew in America appears in England, where the story's protagonist has retreated with his new-made wealth. Both are never heard from again. In the hallucinatory story "The Eyes" the protagonist Andrew Culwin is haunted by a pair of repulsive, disembodied eyes. Only much later does he realize that the eyes are apparitions from the future, a phantasmal projection of his own wizened conscience as it looks back upon his youthful indiscretions and self-deception. In "The Triumph of Night" the protagonist Faxon becomes plagued by obsessive feelings of guilt after failing to respond to a nightmarish vision in which he sees his friend's death planned by a greedy uncle. "Kerfol" depicts a ruined French estate haunted by the spirits of dogs, animals murdered by the previous owner in revenge for what he wrongly believed was his wife's adultery.
Particularly in her later stories, Wharton employed the supernatural to project various aspects of the human psyche ranging from fear and guilt to joy and longing. In "Bewitched" a married man becomes infatuated with the spirit of a dead girl, a witch whom his wife believes has entranced him with black magic. "Miss Mary Pask" features a more jubilant tone than is typical of Wharton's ghosts stories, describing its narrator's meeting with an old friend whom he only belatedly realizes has already died. With "A Bottle of Perrier" Wharton produced a tale of psychological terror influenced by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and centered on a murderous relationship between master and servant. "Mr. Jones" is perhaps Wharton's most Jamesian piece. It tells of a house dominated by the spirit of a former caretaker whose rule was so formidable that it continues to control the dwelling and those living in it. The protagonist of "After Holbein," Anson Warley, is confronted with the specter of death and the realization that his dilettantish life has been wasted. Among Wharton's most well-received stories, "Pomegranate Seed" evokes the mythological tale of Persephone in recounting the story of a spirit that continues to send letters to her living husband while terrifying her perceived rival, the man's second wife and the story's narrator, Charlotte Ashby.
During her lifetime many of Wharton's works of fiction were lauded with high critical and popular esteem. The House of Mirth became a best seller in 1905 and provoked much discussion in the United States, where it was hailed as one of the best novels ever produced by an American author. The Age of Innocence was likewise highly acclaimed as one of Wharton's finest works, and earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Despite these successes, Wharton's fiction was for most of the twentieth century dismissed as the work of an outdated novelist of manners whose settings, style, and slow-moving pace belonged to the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth century, however, feminist scholars, genre critics, and mainstream audiences began to regard Wharton's writings with a much higher degree of distinction and appreciation, rehabilitating her reputation and suggesting the significance of her place in literary history between the moral and psychological fiction of the late nineteenth century and the iconoclastic realism of the early twentieth-century's Lost Generation. Wharton's ghost stories, in particular, have been linked to new insights into the overall thematic concerns of her work. In the 1937 preface to her collection Ghosts Wharton wrote: "the 'moral issue' question must not be allowed to enter into the estimating of a ghost story. It must depend for its effect solely on what one might call its thermometrical quality; if it sends a cold shiver down one's spine, it has done its job and done it well." While Wharton's own thoughts on her ghost stories appealed to a relatively straightforward test of audience response, contemporary scholars, without questioning the chilling effectiveness of her ghost tales, have subjected these works to more rigorous critical standards. Several have studied Wharton's adapted use of Gothic conventions in her ghost stories for the purposes of social critique, focusing on her career-long examination of class divisions in American society during the early decades of the twentieth century in conjunction with her use of psychological terror. A juxtaposition of feminist and Gothic concerns have also appeared frequently in contemporary critical estimations of Wharton's ghost stories. Of principal interest has been Wharton's fictional alignment of patriarchal value systems, capitalist-bourgeois repression of women, and the machinations of Gothic fantasy in not only her supernatural fiction, but also in her novels The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.
"The Fullness of Life" (short story) 1893; published in the journal Scribner's Magazine
The Decoration of Houses [with Ogden Codman, Jr.] (nonfiction) 1897
The Greater Inclination (short stories) 1899
The Touchstone: A Story (novella) 1900; published in England as A Gift from the Grave: A Tale
∗Crucial Instances (short stories) 1901
The Valley of Decision: A Novel (novel) 1902
Sanctuary (novella) 1903
†The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (short stories) 1904
Italian Villas and Their Gardens (essays) 1904
The House of Mirth (novel) 1905
Italian Backgrounds (memoirs) 1905
The Fruit of the Tree (novel) 1907
Madame de Treymes (novella) 1907
The Hermit and the Wild Woman, and Other Stories (short stories) 1908
‡Tales of Men and Ghosts (short stories) 1910
Ethan Frome (novella) 1911
The Reef: A Novel (novel) 1912
The Custom of the Country (novel) 1913
#Xingu, and Other Stories (short stories and novella) 1916
Summer: A Novel (novel) 1917
The Marne (novella) 1918
French Ways and Their Meaning (essays) 1919
The Age of Innocence (novel) 1920
The Glimpses of the Moon (novel) 1922
A Son at the Front (novel) 1923
Old New York (novellas) 1924
The Mother's Recompense (novel) 1925
The Writing of Fiction (criticism) 1925
‖Here and Beyond (short stories) 1926
Twilight Sleep (novel) 1927
The Children (novel) 1928
Hudson River Bracketed (novel) 1929
§Certain People (short stories) 1930
The Gods Arrive (novel) 1932
A Backward Glance (autobiography) 1934
∗∗The World Over (short stories) 1936
Ghosts (short stories) 1937; also published as The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton
The Buccaneers (unfinished novel) 1938
Collected Short Stories. 2 vols. (short stories) 1967
Edith Wharton Abroad: Selected Travel Writings, 1888–1920 (travel essays) 1995
The Uncollected Critical Writings (criticism) 1997
∗ This collection includes the short story "The Moving Finger."
† This collection includes the short story "The Lady's Maid's Bell."
‡ This collection includes the short stories "Afterward" and "The Eyes."
# This collection includes the short stories "Kerfol" and "The Triumph of Night."
‖ This collection includes the short stories "Bewitched" and "Miss Mary Pask."
§ This collection includes the short stories "A Bottle of Perrier," "After Holbein," and "Mr. Jones."
∗∗ This collection includes the short story "Pomegranate Seed."
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MARGARET P. MURRAY (ESSAY DATE AUGUST 1989)
SOURCE: Murray, Margaret P. "The Gothic Arsenal of Edith Wharton." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 10, nos. 3-4 (August 1989): 315-21.
In the following essay, Murray illustrates how Wharton uses horror in the Gothic tradition to highlight women's experiences, particularly with regard to power and identity.
Throughout Edith Wharton's life, we find several recurring themes related to her own emotional problems were not resolved in her novels. One of these themes is her ambivalence towards her femininity. However, she was an adept student of literature as well as a gifted author, and her strong literary background allied with her talents as writer enabled her eventually to put to rest, one by one, her own ghosts, through a careful manipulation of a genre familiar to her as a scholar: The Gothic. Nothing could have suited Edith Wharton, the writer's, deepest needs and fears more than the Gothic story. Only this genre and its Edwardian evocation of atmosphere and style would answer the needs of Edith Wharton, the Lady.
Many Gothic critics, such as Jack Sullivan, contend that a ghost story should not be reduced to a simple Freudian case reading (6), which can become little more than an act of vandalism perpetrated on a work of art. A Freudian study strips it of its atmosphere, which is probably the single most important characteristic of the tale of terror. Wharton would agree with this theory. She tells us in the preface to her ghost stories that a ghostly tale "must depend for its effect solely on what one might call its thermometrical quality: if it sends a shiver down one's spine, it has done its job and done it well" (4).
Thus Wharton takes a Gothic story out of the realm of "how and why." Any attempt to establish psychological cause and effect can tear the thin, extoplasmic tissue which chills. In the best tales of terror the explanation is totally irrelevant; the damage is already done; the reader is cold. However, we can't overlook what Freud tells us regarding storytelling in general:
A happy person never fantasies (sic), only an unsatisfied one. The motive forces of fantasies are unsatisfied wishes and every single fantasy is the fulfillment of a wish, a correction of unsatisfying reality.
(qutd. in Punter 409)
Freud's theory gives us a deeper insight into Wharton's creative drive. Her personal and social dissatisfaction, demonstrated through her themes, is well-documented. A quick perusal of the history of the Gothic tale explains why the most logical vehicle for her "correction of unsatisfying reality" became the Gothic tale.
In a Gothic tale, we are presented with motifs and images designed to terrify. Why they terrify can be explained by the Jungian theory of universal archetypes and the collective unconscious. Jung maintains that there are certain primordial images "universally present in the preconscious makeup of the human psyche" (69). This preconsciousness can be seen as a "preracial memory," exemplified in various mythical prototypes which are and have been extant throughout the history of mankind. Whether Wharton read Jung or not is irrelevant. When she tells us in the preface, "it is in the warm darkness of the pre-natal fluid far below our conscious reason that the faculty dwells with which we apprehend the ghosts…." (1), we are able to see her instinctive appreciation of the tools which build the Gothic tale.
Gothic tales may be divided into two categories: the tale of terror and the tale of horror. Varma says of the former: "the Gothic spirit makes humble obeisance before the great Unknown…." and thus a tension is kindled between the human and the divine (16). From this tension comes terror and in terror, there is a dark beauty. The reader is in the presence of something greater than himself, which is awesome and beautiful: but the ambiguity of the mechanism which evokes the presence raises fear or terror.
In horror, the mechanism is no longer ambiguous. There is no divine tension. Varma continues: "The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against the corpse" (130). Wharton is able to use Terror most adeptly but in "Pomegranate Seed" she completely masters the sub-genre of horror.
Wharton's works in the Gothic spanned her career. The first, "The Dutchess at Prayer," was written in 1900 during the Edwardian Gothic renaissance when the literature of alienation, paranoia, and nightmare came to be called the literature of power. Part of that power lies in its ability to move the soul by evoking the "unteachable" and the "unknowable" (Sullivan 10). The Edwardian ghost story was also characterized by stylictic sophistication. "Eschewing Gothic hyperbole, the best stories have elegant surfaces that gradually imply or reveal something not so elegant; the chills are evoked with care and control" (Sullivan 8). Here, as H. P. Lovecraft states, "'atmosphere is the all important thing'" (qutd. in Sullivan 8).
What we are given is a genre tailor-made for an author so careful and controlling she edits her own biographical material and writes her own epitaph.
A striking parallel exists between her examination of the displaced wife in The Fruit of the Tree and her later use of this theme in "Pomegranate Seed." Justine Brent, the second wife in The Fruit of the Tree, is supplanted by the dead Bessie Amherst. But the Bessie who supersedes her is not the woman who was, but the figment of the guilt-stricken imagination of their mutual husband, John Amherst. Justine cannot fight a ghost, particularly the ghost of a creature who never existed. Justine becomes just one more powerless, hopeless woman.
When Wharton reworks the theme twenty-three years later, she has arrayed her Gothic weaponry. Moving the plot reversal into the realm of the supernatural, she is able to assert her mastery over the societal restrictions that reduce women to mere shadow dancers on the fringe of a male-defined world. If women must remain in the shadows, then let the shadows come alive. In "Pomegranate Seed" exactly this happens: for it is in this tale of the nether world that Wharton unveiled her omnipotent woman.
In her preface Wharton tells us it is easier for her to imagine ghosts "wistfully haunting a mean house in a dull street than the battlemented castle with its boring stage properties" (3), and such is the house of Ken and Charlotte Ashby. Osbert Sit-well felt "ghosts went out when electricity came in"; (qutd. in Preface 3). Wharton strongly disagreed, and to make her point, there are more electric lights in "Pomegranate Seed" than this reader cares to count. What she did believe is that the reader must meet her "halfway among the primeval shadows" (Preface 2). It is through "the states of mind inherited from an earlier phase of race-culture" (Wharton, WF [The Writing of Fiction], 38), that we respond to the universal archetype in Gothic fiction.
Wharton tells us "the creative mind thrives best on a reduced diet," (qutd in Wolff 25), and "Pomegranate Seed" is certainly that. There are no Gothic mechanisms or motifs. "Pomegranate Seed" demands an alert reader because Wharton plunges right into the pit in the first paragraph.
In The Writing of Fiction, she tells us, "every phrase should be a signpost" (37). The Ashby home had been a "sanctuary" from the "soulless roar" (200). Now it is not. Charlotte must deal with the soulless in her own home, which has become no haven, but an antechamber of the abyss. And since a mortal has no power over ghosts, we see the hopelessness of the situation right away. In this simple evocation of the atmosphere of the doomed, we are immediately faced with a horror which "contracts and freezes the soul" (MacAndrew 125).
Margaret McDowill notes that "neither Ken nor Charlotte is equal to the spiritual demands imposed upon them by extraordinary circumstances" (139), but this is not the point. If redemption were possible through a battle of good and evil" "Pomegranate Seed" would be a tale of terror. Instead, it is a tale of horror, indicated by the "signposts" which identify the Ashby home as an entranceway to the underworld.
The second signpost comes when Charlotte realises the malevolence of the grey letters as soon as she sees one. In the Gothic lexicon, "grey is the most subtle of symbolic adjectives. It is the color of … fear" (Downey 89). Charlotte identifies it as "peculiar," and it always arrives after dark (201). Whenever Ken receives the letters he is "emptied of life" (202) and they take him "far away" (203) from her. Thus, as Wharton outlines in The Writing of Fiction, "the preliminary horror [is] posited" (39). Afterward, the only other symptoms of distress are a few more letters (nine in total). But Wharton keeps to her credo regarding the tale of horror, by "harping on the same string—the same nerve …" (39), which she tells us in the same place, does the trick. And she is right.
Wharton has turned on all the lights, left no shadows and given us a tale of contemporary horror. She is in the realm of "literature of power" in that she is "evoking the unknowable and unteachable" (Sullivan 10). Through her prose style she involves the reader on an atavistic level. Through our preracial consciousness, we know that something unspeakable is going on here. She has also, in this tale, answered the critics who think her prose doesn't stand the test of time. A young mother comes home, thumbs through her children's homework, and realizes in the course of her day something is wrong in her marital paradise. She plans a second honeymoon for her husband and herself, anticipating the advice of the contemporary marriage counselor. Problems ensue; she telephones mother. She hops in a taxicab, goes to mother's house, places a few more phone calls, trying to solve the problems, to no avail. Mother and she hop back into a cab, go home and call the police, "as if … it could do any good" (230). All these modern solutions are to no avail because her antagonist is impervious to the light of scientific development. Her anatagonist may be met only in the "pre-natal fluid." Her ghost, as McDowell points out, has "an archetypal dimension reaching beyond the purely abnormal to the universal" (135).
The third signpost comes when Charlotte, who is totally cognizant of the problem, tries to explicate the "unteachable": "on the other side of the door something I can't explain, can't relate…. Something as old as the world, as mysterious as life." (205). Her nemesis is unseen, but there is no doubt there is a ghost. Penzoldt, in his study of the supernatural in fiction notes "invisibility is an important quality of the gods of all known religions" (46). This theomorphic trait "is more terrifying than any other, especially if it asserts its presence through all the other senses" (47). To make sure we haven't missed these signs, Wharton follows up with her own omnipresent "premonition of something inexplicable, intolerable, to be faced … when she opened the door …" (203).
Charlotte knows that "her husband [is] being dragged away from her into some mysterious bondage …" (217). He has "the clutch of a man who felt himself slipping over a precipice," and he looks at her "as if salvation lay in [her] face …" (218). But it is too late. He has already kissed the letter: he has accepted Elsie's summons from the underworld. (This act of a lover's obeisance to a death image can be further clarified by looking at the role of women in the love-death archetype.)
Elizabeth MacAndrew provides invaluable information on the roles of women in the Gothic tale. Women, she tells us, are not split in half, as a male Doppelgänger is, in Gothic fiction. Whether she takes the form of seductress or gentle inspiration, she is in touch with the earth:
In its positive form, the female spirit ties the male to the earth, keeping him in touch with it…. In its malignant aspect,… it tempts, seduces, lures men to inevtiable destruction, and draws its power from the same tie with the earth.
Whether the woman is good or bad is therefore irrelevant. What is pertinent is, she is strong. Charlotte is the inspirational tie, but what good is that when she ties Kenneth to Mother Earth? Mother Earth is Elsie. This imagery explains R. W. B. Lewis's suggestion that Elsie "has assumed the role of Pluto and has summoned her spouse to … cohabit with her in the land of the dead" (Introduction xvi). In Lewis's reading she is the consort of Pluto, which identifies Elsie as the Magna Mater, Kore/Demeter. This image broaches the first archetypal aspect of Elsie, whose other incarnation is the femina alba.
Aniela Jaffe, through her work in Jung's theory of the collective unconscious explains there is a persistent transcultural image of "a lady in white," the femina alba, who is a harbinger of doom and who, in her radiant appearance is identified as the goddess Aphrodite. We must remember:
All archetypal contents are two-fold and ambiguous. In the unconscious the opposites are not yet separated: an unconscious content becomes conscious only through discrimination of its latent opposites. When the two sides stand face to face they can be comprehended and the conscious mind can grasp them.
Jaffe quotes Karl Kerenyi, a mythologist:
Aphrodite is not only the goddess of love, in secret she is the queen of the underworld or of death…. In Greek southern Italy there are superb works of art which show how Persephone … can appear in the guise of Aphrodite.
Jaffe demonstrates the universality of this archetype by citing the image of Frigg (or Freya) in the Germanic pantheon. She is literally, "the Beloved" of the sky-god who receives the souls of the dead. As the goddess of death she is called Hel, and in this incarnation, she is horrific.
More significant was Erda (or Hertha). "This earth mother was divided into the shining radiant Freya for she encompassed both: light and darkness, life and death" (91) It is in the persons of "Aphrodite-Persephone, Freya-Hel, [that] the goddess of love and the goddess of death are opposite aspects of the one primordial mother" (90). Jung himself notes, "these mythologies express the ultimate concerns of the psyche" (xxx).
There is, textually, proof of the convergent natures of Charlotte and Elsie. Persephone ate only a few pomegranate seeds. Her meager meal was enough to keep her locked in the netherworld for the length of the growing season. The twelve months become the twelve years of Ken and Elsie's mariiage. The seeds are transformed into letters, the impotent recipient of which is ken. But Elsie does not call him back for the short time of the growing season in the myth. There are nine she has strayed into the territory of her mirror image, Charlotte. As the dual natures converge, Charlotte, unconsciously, defends her own preconscious image when she berates Ken for being "too unstable" to bear the burden of a great love. She challenges his fidelity not on the grounds that he has emotionally deserted her, but that he has "already forgotten Elsie twice within a year" (212). Charlotte's nascent duality is further evidenced when she tells Ken time is "only a word" (213). To an immortal this is true; to a mere human being, time is a measure of mortality. Charlotte knows this to be true, because almost immediately, she characterizes herself as "unhuman" (213).
Justine Brent's hellish dream world has become the prehistoric realm of the Magna Mater. In this nether world Ken becomes an insignificant pawn in the battle, not of sister against sister, but of an ancient, primordial world versus the electrified, motorized, industrialized world. The power of the femina alba will not be denied. The authorial voice has elicited no sympathy for Ken. The emotional focus is entirely on Charlotte, who plans vacations, speaks to servants, visits mother, schemes, pleads; she acts and interacts. Ken only reacts—to letters and to Charlotte. John Amherst's egocentric vision is trampled by Wharton's illumination of life in the prenatal bath. Ken is the symbolic bagatelle awarded to the conquering power.
Through the language of the unconscious, Wharton was able to address the dichotomy between herself as an accomplished woman and her fictional powerless women. Such a focus enabled her to stop distancing herself from her own womanhood. In slaying the ghost of her ambivalence regarding her own gender, she was able to create an omnipotent woman: Charlotte-Elsie, who is Aphrodite-Persephone.
Wharton evoked an atmosphere of horror which traces its lineage to the Edwardian Gothics, who were much admired by her. Yet, for all "Pomegranate Seed" 's Edwardian style, she never lets the reader forget that the setting is most contemporary. She did not use a single Gothic mechanism, but never leaves the Gothic genre. Even though she makes a point of mentioning "skyscrapers, advertisements, telephones, [radios], airplanes, movies, motors and all the rest of the twentieth century" (205), she never lets the reader forget the timeless nature of fear.
Downey, June E.: Creative Imagination: Studies in the Psychology of Literature. New York: Hartcourt, Brace & Co., 1929
Jaffe Aniela: Apparitions: An Archetypal Approach to Death Dreams and Ghosts. Irving, Texas: Spring Publications, 1979.
Jung C. G.: Psyche and Symbol. Ed. Violet S. deLaszlo, Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1958.
Lewis, R. W. B.: "Introduction," The Selected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, by Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968. vii-xxvii.
MacAndrew, Elizabeth: The Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
McDowell, Margaret B.: "Edith Wharton's Ghost Stories." Criticism XII (Spring 1970): 133-52.
Penzoldt, Peter: The Supernatural in Fiction. New York: Humanities Press, 1965.
Punter, David: The Literature of Terror. London and New York: Longman, 1980.
Sullivan, Jack: Elegant Nightmares. Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 1978.
Varma, Devendra P.: The Gothic Flame. London: Arthur Baker Ltd., 1957.
Wharton Edith: The Fruit of the Tree. New York: Scribner's 1907.
――――――: The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.
――――――: "Pomegranate Seed." Ghost Stories 199-230.
――――――: "Preface." Ghost Stories 1-4.
――――――: The Writing of Fiction. New York: Octagon Books Inc., 1966.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin: A Feast of Words. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
MONIKA ELBERT (ESSAY DATE MARCH 1995)
SOURCE: Elbert, Monika. "The Transcendental Economy of Wharton's Gothic Mansions." American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 1 (March 1995): 51-67.
In the following essay, Elbert asserts that in her Gothic, domestic ghost stories, Wharton—like the Transcendentalists—offers an alternative to the perceived greed, corruption, and compulsion inherent in a capitalist society.
Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity.
—Edith Wharton, Preface to The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton 1
"Outside there," she thought, "skyscrapers, advertisements, telephones, wireless, airplanes, movies, motors, and all the rest of the twentieth century; and on the other side of the door something I can't explain, can't relate to them. Something as old as the world, as mysterious as life…."
—Charlotte Ashby in Wharton's "The Pomegranate Seed" 205
In her ghost stories Edith Wharton is really not diverging significantly from the social critique of her other stories or novels.2 However, instead of depicting mansions peopled with social climbers, Wharton creates mansions haunted by ghosts who stand in the way of social climbers. In fact, her depiction of a class structure in disarray and of the individual's alienation from an overwhelming business ethic is as pronounced in her Gothic tales as in her novels of Old New York. However, there is a slight twist: the ghosts outside, in the shape of bad business partners, mismatched lovers, unfaithful friends, and abused and disgruntled servants, are not half as terrifying as the ghosts within, a quandary which Charlotte Ashby faces and attempts to articulate (in the epigraph above), as she leaves the bustle of the city to discover the territory within. Ultimately, Wharton allows spiritual concerns to triumph over economic circumstances and suggests that there is a world elsewhere: in the process, she reaffirms the vision of the American Transcendentalists. Here is a Realism tinged with the idealism of the American Renaissance writers.
Behind the Gothic quandary is Wharton's ambivalence towards French and Old New York aristocracy: she is as obsessed with her confusion about her allegiance to European or New England origins as her Transcendental predecessors. On the one hand, she loathes the old order and wants the structures torn down; on the other, she is terrified of disorder and chaos: "[Wharton] was simultaneously appalled by the shams of her class and contemptuous of classes beneath her" (Conn 173); moreover, being so conservative, she felt that "disruption anywhere in the system threatens the disintegration of the entire culture…. Since anarchy represented for Wharton the worst of all possible outcomes—certainly worse than death—restraint always declared itself a better strategy than reform" (174). Not surprisingly, the inception of the Gothic novel corresponded with the burgeoning of industrialization and class fluctuations, and, similarly, Wharton's writing of Gothic stories corresponded with a growing consumer culture and mass technology: "The ideology of the gothic novel is the legitimization of burgeoning capitalist power, a dark fairy-tale assurance that the propertied, after surviving their troubles, could maintain their ascendancy in terms of political and economic powers" (Bernstein 161). Beneath the terror of Wharton's Gothic mode is her own ambivalence towards the servants in her life and towards the issue of class and culture in general.3
Wharton, in her Gothic stories, shows the corruption of the old aristocracy and the compulsiveness of the nouveaux riches; in so doing, she subverts and undermines the economic foundations of Western capitalism, as much as Thoreau did in escaping from the world of work to his Walden sanctuary. One finds the same dilemmas of a capitalistic economy in many of Wharton's ghost stories, most notably in "A Bottle of Perrier," "The Lady's Maid's Bell," "The Looking Glass," and "All Souls'," i.e., the tensions between the leisure class and the servant class, and the leisure class' increasing atrophy of the will, their alienation from nature and the countryside, as well as the discrepancy between rational and imaginative vision.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ANNETTE ZILVERSMIT ON WHARTON'S "POMEGRANATE SEED"
Near the end of her life, Wharton, like [Henry] James, wrote two of her best and most revealing stories of psychological terror, "Pomegranate Seed" (1931) and "All Souls'" (1937). In "The Jolly Corner" James finally exposes the true source of his isolation in the specter of the fingerless and maimed alter-ego his protagonist encounters. So Wharton, nearing her seventies, called up her most potent fears, the phantoms, not of men or society, but of other women, seemingly more attractive and deserving than herself or her heroines. These other women, like the rivals in many of her novels, seem so formidable as to be in touch with other-worldly powers that enhance them and allow them to defeat and destroy the seemingly helpless protagonists. The final brilliance of these last tales is that long before the external spectres are confirmed, the inner aberrations of the heroines are felt. The final presence of the supernatural only confirms the entrapment of these women in their own long-denied fears….
The strange and seemingly irrelevant title Wharton gives this story, "Pomegranate Seed," offers clues to perhaps the deeper identity of the letter-writing phantom who haunts Wharton's heroine. By alluding to one of the early subspecies of the supernatural tale, the Greek myth of Persephone, Wharton concedes that the fears of her heroines are rooted in the mesh of Western civilization even as Wharton's modern retelling yields new meaning.
SOURCE: Zilversmit, Annette. "Pomegranate Seed." College Literature 14, no. 3 (1987): 296-305.
Many of the pacts made between master/mistress and servant in Wharton's gothic fiction center on duplicitous appearances and economic necessity: thus, for example, in "The Looking Glass," Cora tells a lie to the bedridden Mrs. Clingsland to make her final days less oppressive: in fact, she concocts a dead lover's letters in order to pacify one of those "discouraged … grand people" in one of those "grand houses" (232). The servant-nurse ostensibly wanted to keep the greedy, fraudulent clairvoyants away from Mrs. Clingsland, who wanted to resurrect her youthful good looks and lover; i.e., the servant wanted to protect her from a bad business deal, but by having a dying man concoct the letters for her, Cora feels guilty—the servant who has transgressed her boundaries—and also vindicated: "For it was true I'd risked my soul, and that was something she couldn't pay for; but then maybe I'd saved hers, in getting her away from those foul people, so the whole business was more of a puzzle to me than ever" (148). Ironically, feeling guilty for lying and for selling her soul, Cora manages to wheedle one hundred dollars out of Mrs. Clingsland to have masses read for the repose of the dead letter-writing man's soul, and she feels some comfort in that the priest had been "a sort of accomplice too, though he never knew it" (250). Here, as in most of Wharton's Gothic tales, the spirit is weighed against money, and strangely enough, the terms are often interchangeable, though the servant's province is more often than not more allied with the soil (the country) and the soul, even if s/he doesn't wield much power in the marketplace world. Thus, the protagonists in "Afterward" and in "The Triumph of Night" suffer because of a bad business transaction (deception or self-deception on their part), and the protagonist in "All Souls'" is weighed down by her possessiveness and by her dependence on modern luxuries. Implicit in Wharton's attack is the sentiment behind Thoreau's admonition in the "Economy" section of Walden that humankind needs to simplify and get back to basic necessities to find meaning in life.
Though the vision of ghosts allows the Wharton protagonists to escape (temporarily) the rampant materialism surrounding them, inhabiting the Gothic edifices leads to stasis, a clinging to the past, and finally to illness, if not to death, if the inhabitants cannot imagine another cultural construct. The visions of the past are not organic, but solipsistic; the masters use their servants to bridge the gap between past and present, body and spirit, but the servants do not eradicate the past, nor can they connect the master to a primeval, agrarian past, but rather, they serve as a constant reminder of the present. Thus, in "A Bottle of Perrier" the master Almodham attempts to recapture the past by pursuing his archaeological interests in the desert, but the servant murders him; similarly, Sara Clayburn in "All Souls'" attempts to find shelter in her old "Colonial" house, but her servants possess her mind, and she is left without any social or mental stability. In the latter case, the "coven" of servants, like Cora in "The Looking Glass," offered the potential of viewing anew, though ostensibly, the servants appear to be the medium to some irretrievable past for the wealthy mansion-owner.
In some ways, though, Wharton is more of a Romantic than the Realist James, more Emersonian than Jamesian, in suggesting that enlightenment might come from the silence within, when one is removed figuratively, in one's psychic home or mansion, or literally, from society, but the fears and neuroses which characterize her protagonists cannot be overcome through a simple sojourn in the country. Indeed, the business mentality of contemporary New York weighs heavily upon Wharton, and she looks for meaning to counteract the loudness of American technological civilization, in the mythology of the European past—in the many abandoned villages and haunted castles of her ghost stories. In other words, she turns aesthetic in her tastes and longings.
Considering that the Gothic was a European art form (on both the literary and architectural levels), it is not surprising that Wharton should feel at home with it, since she is ambivalent about all that is European. She resembles the Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, in both affirming and denying her allegiance to an aristocratic European past, while trying to establish her American identity. She manifests the anxiety of influence, as surely as Emerson does in "The American Scholar." The only other critic to consider Wharton's Transcendental affinities, Toby Widdicombe, does a close reading of Wharton's "The Angel at the Grave" as a "problematic memorial to Transcendentalism" (47). He asserts that "If Wharton is considered the doyenne of realism, then the story, with its focus on the philosophical problems inherent in Transcendentalism, overturns expectations" (47). One of those problems, evident in the story, is the Transcendental belief that one needed to create something new, while reappraising the genius of the past (55). Certainly, Wharton was also caught in this bind, as I mention earlier in describing her allegiance to the "old" and "new" European and American culture.
At times Wharton is downright elitist about her mythologized European past, especially aesthetically speaking, when she advises writers not to "disown" the past, not to waste the "inherited wealth of experience" (154); she praises Proust, for example, for his ability to combine originality with respect for the past and reads his strength as "the strength of tradition" (Writing of Fiction 154). She attacks young contemporary writers for their "lack of general culture" and of "original vision" as they "attach undue importance to trifling innovations" (154). Wharton did not think much about contemporary American writers; in fact, in a letter to Comte Arthur de Vogue, who wanted to be introduced into cultural circles in America, she regrets that she cannot recommend any authors' names to him, even though she has "several men of science" to recommend: "but the new America is so little literary that I do not know to whom I should direct you" (October 1919). She sees the world of intellect divided between the scientist and the writer, with the scientist (Emerson's ver-sion of the Materialist) faring remarkably better. She writes to John Jay Chapman that he and she are the "only valid survivors" of "a milieu litteraire" (8 October 1919).
Moreover, Wharton is nostalgic about her own personal European past, as she reminisces fondly about her childhood in A Backward Glance. Suffering a financial setback after the Civil War, the father let "his town and country houses for six years to some of the profiteers of the day," and, ironically, the family goes "to Europe to economize" (44). This is actually the reverse situation of the rich American couple who go ghost-hunting in an old Tudor mansion in Wharton's ghost story, "Afterward":
… [the mansion's] remoteness from a station, its lack of electric light, hot water pipes, and other vulgar necessities—were exactly those pleading in its favor for two romantic Americans perversely in search of the economic drawbacks which were associated, in their tradition, with unusual architectural felicities.
In her own life, Wharton's family was forced to move to Europe for six years, and from this crucial period of her life, she gathered sustenance from the traditions of the past.
Happy misfortune, which gave me for the rest of my life, that background of beauty and old-established order! I did not know how deeply I had felt the nobility and harmony of the great European cities till our steamer was docked at New York.
Wharton juxtaposes the eyesore of New York ("the shameless squalor of the purlieus of the New York docks") with "the glories of Rome and the architectural majesty of Paris" (44).
It is this sense of being lost in America which allies her with fellow expatriates, James and T. S. Eliot. Towards the end of her life, though, she realizes that one urban center is like another, as she describes a veritable modern Wasteland:
Paris is simply awful—a kind of continuous earthquake of motor busses, trams, lorries, taxis, & other howling & swooping & colliding engines, with hundreds of U.S. citizens rushing about in them & tumbling out of them at one's door—&, through it all, the same people placidly telephoning one to come to tea.
(To Bernard Berenson, 23 May 1920)
To escape the commotion and the American tourists (who seem synonymous with noise) in Paris, Wharton escapes to the natural landscape of her country getaway: "The country—the banlieue even—is divine, & my humble potager gushes with nightingales" (23 May 1920).
It is no wonder that with this malaise of modern culture weighing upon her, Wharton finally spends the last years of her life not in a sprawling urban center like Paris but in a country villa, Pavillon Colombe, outside Paris. In many ways, she lives her last years as her protagonist in "All Souls'" (Mrs. Clayburn) does: isolated and outside the realm of modern communication. When Wharton hears about the death of a family friend, she writes to Dr. Beverly Robinson about the gap in communications:
The news of Anna's death comes as a great shock to me, for I had not heard of her illness. Since I have given up Paris, & live entirely in the country, I sometimes miss a letter or newspaper containing news of friends at home, and thus remain for weeks in ignorance of what has happened to them.
(21 January 1921)
This self-imposed isolation causes all news from the outside to seem garbled, fantastic, and fragmented; thus, as the ghosts without are held in check, the ghosts within loom large for the aging Wharton.
Wharton invites both the protagonist and the reader to explore the power of the imagination in order to validate one's private space in the face of overwhelming odds. The wireless, telegraphs, telephones, movies, the constant static, "white noise," of everyday life prevent the protagonist from encountering the "silence and continuity" of oneself alone (stripped of the accouterments of modern culture).4 One is reminded here as elsewhere in Wharton's Gothic tales of Thoreau's need to shut himself off from news, telegrams, and trains in an effort to ward off the debilitating effects of civilization and to "live deliberately." To Wharton, too, modern channels of communication cut off one's life-line to an inner self: on a trip to New York, after settling down in France, she comments about the crippling effects of her sojourn, paralyzing, that is, in terms of her self-expression:
The fact is, my wonderful New York fortnight reduced me to absolute inarticulateness—of tongue and pen … moreover, I had acquired [in New York] a proficiency in telephoning and telegraphing which seemed to have done away with my ability to express myself in any less lapidary style.
(Letter to Corinne Robinson, 2 March 1914)
In her Gothic fiction, Wharton forces the skeptic and the non-introspective reader to believe and to move within the realm of the unconscious: she asks us to suspend belief or disbelief momentarily and seduces us into the realm of ghosts, to a higher understanding of self. She invites us to move from the "soulless" roar of the city to the "soulful" existence within the home one creates (e.g., "Pomegranate Seed" ), even if that requires some painful psychic experiences—or an encounter with a ghost. Essentially, Wharton asks the reader to return to some primitive, psychological state: she explains that "No one with a spark of imagination ever objected to a good ghost story as 'improbable'…. Most of us retain the more or less shadowy memory of ancestral terrors, and airy tongues that syllable men's names" (The Writing of Fiction 38-39). The belief in ghosts, according to Wharton, has its origin in "states of mind inherited from an earlier phase of race-culture" (Writing 38).
In telling her life's story, Wharton discusses how her reading of ghost stories was crucial to the development of her imagination. In her autobiographical sketch "Life and I," Wharton recounts the story of her childhood encounter with death and the underworld: she "fell ill of typhoid fever, and lay for weeks at the point of death" (1079). In her later Gothic stories, one can find traces of this moment of fear she experienced as a child, when the two worlds of body and spirit—of the physician's diagnosis and scientific advice and of the magic of children's fairy tales—seemed to collide. She was in Germany, in the Black Forest, a natural setting for ghosts, at the time, and two little playmates lent her a book of ghost stories which terrified her: "To an unimaginative child the tale would no doubt have been harmless; but it was a 'robber story,' and with my intense Celtic sense of the supernatural, tales of robbers and ghosts were perilous reading" (1079). This particular story brought on a relapse of the fever (perhaps the fever intensified the reaction), and for many years after, she lived in "a world haunted by formless horrors" (1080). This nameless horror lasted for eight years, until she was seventeen or so, and even as a woman of twenty-seven, she "could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghoststory" (1080) and found herself burning books of this kind.
The fear of something "on the other side of the door" which the protagonist Charlotte Ashby articulates ("Pomegranate Seed" 205) is similar to Wharton's threshold experience with death and her initiation into terror—"something as old as the world, as mysterious as life." This fear, since it was wrought at a time of sickness, could have been her awakening to mortality, or to the secrets of her unconscious, as she was left alone for many hours. The stimulus of the ghost story exacerbated this apprehension, this recognition of life beyond the body. Indeed, it was after this experience that she could no longer sleep at night because her "terror"—"some dark undefinable menace"—was "forever dogging [her] steps," and when she took walks with her nursemaid, she would return terrified at the thought that something was pursuing her, "I could feel it behind me, upon me; and if there was any delay in the opening of the door I was seized by a choking agony of terror" (1080). This symbol of the opening and closing door—bridging the external life to one's unconscious—becomes prominent in Wharton's ghost stories.
The collision of two realms—spiritual and material—was ultimately liberating for Wharton and her characters because it sparked her creative potential; Wharton reveled in the chaos and unbounded freedom of the moment of collision. One of the reasons Wharton so admired Nietzsche was his abandonment of rules, his predilection for the unbounded, the chaotic: "He has no system, and not much logic, but wonderful flashes of insight, and power of breaking through conventions that is most exhilarating" (To Sara Norton, 7 July 1908). Wharton praises Nietzsche for his "get[ting] back to a wholesome basis of naked instinct." According to R. W. B. Lewis, Wharton greatly admired Emerson for his influence on Nietzsche: "Nietzsche, she said, was Emerson's chef-d'oeuvre" (236). In the letter praising Nietzsche, Wharton laments the split between body and soul which Christianity has created, "There are times when I hate what Christianity has left in our blood—or rather, one might say, taken out of it—by its cursed assumption of the split between body and soul." Interestingly enough, this is the same kind of distress felt by Emerson in "The Transcendentalist," where he describes the separation of body and spirit in his discussion of the Materialist and Idealist, and by Thoreau in his chapter of Walden, "Higher Laws," where he feels compelled to devour a woodchuck raw: "I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both" (257).
Wharton attempts to go beyond the eternal binary opposition of body-soul, and this is what makes her both Transcendentalist and modern. Thus, in her ghost stories, she shows the dangerous consequences of bifurcating the world of spirit and matter, and one can make the case that Whar-ton creates pagan ghosts rather than Christian ghosts to initiate the reader into her own conflicts between the spiritual and material realms. Though the context may be ostensibly Christian, as in "All Souls'," the ghosts are, psychologically seen, the passions which have been repressed in the individual psyche; they are not aroused by the Christian remembrance of the dead, but in the ritualistic evocation by a coven of witches who feel close to the earth. Indeed, All Souls' is the evening upon which the veil between life and death is the thinnest, when the realms between body and spirit are not totally distinct, and Wharton is provocative in allowing Sara's transformation to occur on this very evening. Bereft of the luxuries of modern communication (the material), Sara is forced to contend with her own voice, or spirit, by herself. Ghosts most often manifest themselves in Wharton's Gothic when a character experiences a psychological crisis in development—whether that be an inappropriate marriage (involving class differences or emotional incompatibilility, e.g., "Kerfol," in which the eternal bachelor-narrator recreates the drama of an unhappy marriage), a mid-life crisis (e.g., "Pomegranate Seed" ), an encounter with illness ("The Lady's Maid's Bell" ), with aging ("The Looking Glass" ), or with death ("All Souls'" ), or the adolescent search for one's profession ("The Triumph of Night" ). Wharton's repeated use of the Persephone myth in her ghost stories shows her coming to terms with her childhood terror of mythical descent into the underworld, into the unconscious.5
For Wharton the stasis of life—in Old New York—could be overcome by other-worldliness. An overly intrusive business world or a scientifically determined milieu necessitates a ghost. One of the prerequisites for the appearance of a ghost in Edith Wharton's world (of the ghost stories) is a deep sense of ennui emanating from a routine business life, which is often intertwined with a disintegrating married life. Often such characters try to re-establish their history by purchasing an old haunted house, but the ghosts they meet are their own bugaboos, taken from the depths of their unconscious. Thus, for example, in "Afterward" Mary and Ned Boyne attempt to escape their American past and the drudgery of work: Mary Boyne had been "exiled" from New York when her husband's engineering business forced them to move to the "soul-deadening ugliness of a Middle Western town" (50); finally, after much hard work, her husband enjoys a "prodigious windfall" of a particular mine which puts them "in possession of life and the leisure to taste it" (50). With their newly acquired American fortune, they seek an old secluded house in Europe (in old England), but they tell the real estate agent that it must be haunted. Ironically, while the husband writes his long-planned book on the "Economic Basis of Culture," his deceased business partner from the past, whom Boyne has deceived and ruined, comes back to haunt him and finally to destroy him: the New World ghost returns to the Old World to have his vengeance. Meanwhile, the wife, who waits patiently, years even, for the return of her husband, whom the ghost has taken hostage, finds herself "domesticated with the Horror, accepting its perpetual presence as one of the fixed conditions of life" (71). All her visions of painting and gardening disappear as she becomes the harshest critic of culture, by dropping out of the work world and social life altogether: "She watched the routine of daily life with the incurious eye of a savage on whom the meaningless processes of civilization make but the faintest impression" (71).
This watching and being watched are crucial factors in Wharton's Gothic, and the visual motif may be read in several ways. On the most obvious level, the protagonists feel haunted by something which they cannot fathom: in "Kerfol" and in "A Bottle of Perrier," for example, the characters feel eyes gazing at them from behind the window as they traverse the courtyards. Of course, the most nightmarish vision of being watched occurs as a result of technology—as Wharton would show in such stories as "All Souls'." Moreover, Wharton shows, even in her non-Gothic fiction, as in the aptly titled "Atrophy," that the disjunction between seeing and being, between public and private, added much to twentieth-century anxiety, ironically through such illusory images provided by the media (film, newspaper, and literature):
You took up the morning paper, and you read of girl bandits, movie star divorces, "hold-ups" at balls, murder and suicide and elopement, and a general welter of disjointed disconnected impulses and appetites; then you turned your eyes onto your own daily life, and found yourself as cribbed and cabined, as beset by vigilant family eyes, observant friends, all sorts of embodied standards, as any white muslin novel heroines of the sixties!
In such a world, there is nowhere to escape public and private scrutiny, even though the wish to be invisible is there.
On another level, the gaze of the eyes does not so much represent the gaze of the other as it does the protagonists' own moral conflict, their own guilt for putting personal business interests above those of their friends; thus, in "The Triumph of Night," George Faxon, recuperating from his nervous breakdown, reads of his friend's death and feels utter remorse: the friend's obituary "stared up at him as if with Rainer's dying eyes" (128). In "The Eyes" the protagonist Culwin seeks his soul in the eyes of others, for he is haunted by his own soul—as reflected in his eyes; in the darkness of night, he has visions of eyes that "hung there and drew me. I had the vertige de l'abime, and the red lids were the edge of my abyss" (37). To his horror, he finds the eyes are his. Nonetheless, as a good post-Darwinian character, he tries to deny these "hallucinations" through the power of science, explaining them away by attributing the "illusion" to the flicker in the fireplace or the reflection of the mirror. Moreover, he suggests that his ghosts would have disappeared with "a pair of spectacles" (31). He feels that he is "afflicted by an optical or a digestive delusion" (31) but decides not to go to a doctor because he wanted to pursue the eyes' "interesting double life" (31).
Always beneath the scientific vision of Wharton's non-believing Gothic protagonists is a wish for another realm beyond the physical/empirical; in fact, she follows an American tradition that is not simply Gothic, in making claims for a double vision which encompasses binary oppositions and destroys traditional categories of thinking. Thoreau and Emerson, with their Transcendental beliefs, explore similar spiritual realms and similar out-of-body experiences. Thoreau, for example, speaks of a "certain doubleness" which makes him as "remote" from himself as from another: "However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it" (Walden 180). Similarly, Emerson discusses the nature of his dreams in terms of ghostly apparitions and marvels at the easy reconciliation between subjectivity and objectivity in these dreamscapes:
Their [the dreams'] double consciousness, their sub- & ob- jectiveness is the wonder. I call the phantoms that rise the creation of my fancy but they act like volunteers & counteract my inclination. They make me feel that every act, every thought, every cause, is bipolar & in the act is contained the counteract. If I strike, I am struck. If I chase, I am pursued….
(Jrnl., 20 April 1838)
However, in his essay, "The Transcendentalist," Emerson, in his attack upon the marketplace, shows the discrepancies between the materialist's and idealist's views and the contradictions which surface through this double vision: "The worst feature of this double consciousness is, that the two lives, of the understanding and of the soul, which we lead, really show very little relation to each other; never meet and measure each other" (254). Moreover, Emerson feels that behind every material fact are levels of some higher spiritual meaning or meanings: "… the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or shall I say the quadruple or the centuple or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact" ("The Poet" 260). Like her predecessors Emerson and Thoreau, Wharton is deeply concerned with the binary oppositions resulting from the rampant materialism of American culture.
Indeed, Wharton prefers the "ghost-feeler," "the person sensible of invisible currents of being in certain places and at certain hours" over the rational "ghost-seer" who relies upon his senses for truth ("Preface" 1). Though she believes that "deep within us … the ghost instinct lurks" (2), she feels that science and technology are robbing us of this instinct; she chastises those who need scientific or rational data to "believe" in ghosts. For her, "To 'believe' … is a conscious act of the intellect," but superior to this realm is the unconscious: "it is in the warm darkness of the prenatal fluid far below our conscious reason that the faculty dwells with which we apprehend the ghosts we may not be endowed with the gift of seeing" ("Preface" 1).
Many of Wharton's ghost stories revolve around ocular deception in the marketplace: a belief in the physical realm with one's earthly eyes or an obsession with one's professional (but superficial) identity, but finally, the deceived party is made to see the ugly reality of his business ethics through his encounter with the supernatural. Thus, for example, in "The Eyes," every time the protagonist, Culwin, cheats or deceives another character (often by being non-committal), he is haunted by dreams of eyes: "What turned me sick was their expression of vicious security. I don't know how else to describe the fact that they seemed to belong to a man who had done a lot of harm in his life, but had always kept just inside the danger lines" (34, emphasis mine). Though he initially attempts to explain the phenomenon by applying "scientific principles," he ultimately is undone by them, for they are his own eyes. There is often a relationship between the narrator telling the story and the ghost story he tells. For example, the dilettante-author Culwin in "The Eyes" makes his ghost public and finally realizes his mistake. He has discouraged an artist disciple (Gilbert) of his from a life of the imagination. By telling him that he cannot write, he relegates him to a tedious life on Wall Street: "He vegetated in an office, I believe, and finally got a clerkship in a consulate, and married drearily in China. I saw him once in Hong Kong, years afterward. He was fat and hadn't shaved. I was told he drank" (45). Similarly, in "The Triumph of Night," George Faxon, out of a job and on his way to a secretarial job in the country, could have saved his alter-ego Frank Rainer from the manipulations of his Wall Street uncle, but instead, he ignores the signs of the ghost lurking over the mercenary uncle's figure. Faxon suffers a nervous breakdown and is forced to retreat into solitude, away from the work-world. His doctor diagnoses the problem as "overwork" and advises him "to be quiet for a year. Just loaf and look at the landscape" (126).6 Faxon ultimately realizes that if he had not fled the ghost, he "might have broken the spell of iniquity, the powers of darkness might not have prevailed" (127).
The most horrific of Wharton's ghost stories, "All Souls'," suggests that it is not so much ghosts as modern civilization which terrifies man. It is the most modern of men or women who become most victimized by the apparitions; thus, while the servants, the people who live on the land and are close to early traditions, can live in the world of ghosts, the newcomer, the idle rich man or the marketplace success, is most uprooted. As in the other servant-master Wharton ghost stories, two tensions emerge. There is a disjunction between the new business mentality and an old domestic, agrarian ideal, and there is the attendant rift between social classes, between servant and master (with the dynamics often upset, so that the servant is more master of the situation than the master, who is portrayed as paralyzed or diseased and whose intellectual powers atrophy as he loses touch with his hands and body). The narrator of "All Souls'" (significantly, the title suggests the universality of the soul's link with the supernatural), the cousin of Sara Clayburn, the woman who encounters the ghost, insists that ghosts didn't go out when "electric lights came in" (252). She also suggests that it is people like Sara who are most susceptible to ghosts, simply because they suffer from a lapse of the imagination, as they rely heavily on the false light of technology and logic: "it's generally not the high-strung and imaginative who see ghosts, but the calm matter-of-fact people who don't believe in them, and are sure they wouldn't mind if they did see one? Well, that was the case with Sara Clayburn and her house …" (252). In fact, the narrator's obsession with explaining her haunted cousin's fate may emanate in part from her own "matter-of-fact" rational self, which puts her at the same risk as her "modern" cousin. The cousin-narrator clearly expresses that of all the relatives she is "more likely than anybody else to be able to get at the facts, as far as they can be called facts, and as anybody can get at them" (252). Ostensibly, the cousin-narrator and Sara suffer (initially—before Sara's breakdown) from the same practical, level-headed outlook on life.
However, the narrator makes the point that one need not retrace one's steps back to England to discover a ghost; in fact, she sounds a great deal like Hawthorne pleading the case that New England would offer as much material for his romances as Old England. However, once again, the turn of the screw is that the real ghost story, the real terror, belongs to the modern New Englander. Wharton's narrator explains the misconception as she evokes a parody of the traditional ghost story: "As between turreted castles patrolled by headless victims with clanking chains, and the comfortable suburban house with a refrigerator and central heating where you feel, as soon as you're in it, that there's something wrong, give me the latter for sending a chill down the spine!" (252). The real horror then is the wasteland of urban sprawl and suburban uniformity; the frustration comes from not being able to break the continuity of meaningless gestures and conventions.
As Sara Clayburn's surname suggests, the class to which Sara belongs is rather rigid and unyielding; however, the steadfastness that traditionally belongs to the land-owning class is slipping away, and ironically, it is the servant/working class who are in control in this setting. After her husband's death, Sara Clayburn continues to inhabit her husband's Connecticut Colonial estate, which has housed three generations of Clayburns. Though the Clayburns have been considered a "good influence" on the countryside, it is also obvious that they have exploited the land and perhaps usurped power: "There was a lot of land about it, and Jim Clayburn, like his fathers before him, farmed it, not without profit, and played a considerable and respected part in state politics" (254). It is obvious that one does not need European history to reclaim the sins of the fathers—that New England history does just as well. Though the Clayburn estate was built in circa 1780, it "was open, airy, high-ceilinged, with electricity, central heating, and all the modern appliances" (252), and the past and present clash in Sara's All-Souls' night breakdown.
The Clayburns, indeed, seem excessively civilized, in the most corrupt sense of possessing the most modern accouterments and in subjugating the wills of the townspeople and servants. It is rather ironic, then, when Sara suffers from a fall and finds herself totally dependent on the servants, who abandon her for an evening (and who, according to the rational narrator, go off on an All Souls' witch's vigil, at the prompting of a ghost). Left to her own devices, Sara becomes a bundle of nerves as she is cut off from civilization, as surely as the house's electricity and telephone lines are cut for the night. She awakens to a house of "Silence. A deep nocturnal silence in that day-lit house" (258) and is terrified by the equally silent snow outside: "It [snow] was still falling, with a business-like regularity, muffling the outer world in layers on layers of thick white velvet and intensifying the silence within. A noiseless world …" (259). She is temporarily crippled from her fall, so she crawls to the kitchen for sustenance, and, literally groping in the dark, she finds something much more terrifying than the female ghost she encountered earlier in the morning. If, at first, the terrifying silence of being alone is disturbing, the encounter with the bodiless voice is maddening: the silence is broken by "a man's voice, low and emphatic, and which she had never heard before" (264). Her earlier fears emanated from the too white landscape, with its "business-like" monotony, and the white noise of silence: "Her previous terrors had been speculative, conjectural, a ghostly emanation of the surrounding silence" (264), but now she is struck to the core by this strange unintelligible voice. It is none other than the blasting of the radio: the voice of the "invisible stranger" is "passionately earnest, almost threatening" and is incomprehensible to her (he was speaking "a language unknown to her" (264). Significantly, she loses consciousness, not at the sight of a ghost, but at the sight of the monster of the twentieth century—the deadening radio: "in the middle of the perfectly scoured table stood a portable wireless, and the voice she heard came out of it" (264). (It is the same feeling of contempt that Thoreau describes in the "Economy" section of Walden towards the telegraph, the railroad, and the transatlantic cable.) The horror of it is that the electrical current is ostensibly cut, but still there is noise and no silent realm to which to retreat.
In the end, Wharton's ghost stories suggest that there is a higher realm of knowing than what the practical world of business teaches us. In the post-Darwinian, post-Freudian milieu of Wharton's settings, all reality becomes suspect, and there is no particular way to interpret the phenomenon of ghosts. In the preface to her ghost stories, Wharton chides the type of ghost-seeker emerging in England, the type of person who wants to "validate" or "authenticate" the appearance of a particular ghost in a particular mansion. That pseudo-empiricist is uninteresting to her. For her, "the warm darkness of the prenatal fluid" ("Preface" 1) is associated with the ghost-seeing power or intuitive faculty, but this "ghost instinct" is "being gradually atrophied by those two worldwide enemies of the imagination, the wireless and the cinema" (2). Ultimately, Wharton seems to suggest that the pre-Darwinian ghost is still significant, that some other mode of perceiving reality is deep within each individual and is linked to some distant universal past. Or in Emersonian terminology, one could say that Wharton looks back to a Transcendentalist ethos. To Emerson, the reality of the Materialists is based on "experience," while that of the Idealists is founded on "consciousness"; the former group "think from the data of the senses," whereas the latter "perceive that the senses are not final, and say, 'The senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell'" ("The Transcendentalist" 239). While the Materialist is weighed down by the "external world," the Transcendentalist, much like Wharton's ghost-feeler, "believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration …" (243).
In this context, one should recall the words of a doubter, the bachelor-narrator of "Kerfol," who, with his fortune, can afford to buy a solitary and romantic but dilapidated old house in Brittany, especially since the owners are "dead broke, and it's going for a song" (80). He begins to be absorbed by the atmosphere of the place, "Certainly no house had ever more completely and finally broken with the present…. I wanted only to sit there and be penetrated by the weight of its silence" (81). Overcome "by the pressure of the invisible," he experiences the collision of past and present values, of material and spiritual realms, and begins to see anew as he recreates and relives the history of the former inhabitants: "I was beginning to want to know more; not to see more—I was by now so sure it was not a question of seeing—but to feel more: feel all the place had to communicate" (81-82). Once again, Wharton has been able to convert yet another skeptical protagonist (and simultaneously, the reader) from "ghost-seer" to "ghost-feeler."
1. Wharton, Ghost Stories, 3. Further references to Wharton's ghost stories are to this edition, unless otherwise indicated. "A Bottle of Perrier" is cited from the Lewis collection of short stories. The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (Scribner's, 1973) is somewhat different from the original Appleton-Century edition of Wharton's Ghosts (1937). Among other changes in the reprint are the inclusion of "An Autobiographical Postscript" from "Life and I" and the substitution of "The Looking-Glass" for "A Bottle of Perrier" (McDowell 313).
2. Cf. Judith Fryer; though she does not speak about the ghost story at great length, she does mention that the ghost stories as well as the major novels share an underlying dichotomy: Wharton explored "the issues of social order and the wildness of individual abandon …" (199).
See also Margaret McDowell, who examines Wharton's later ghost stories in an effort to understand Wharton's relationship with the past and to explore Wharton's concern with "the intimate connection of body with spirit" (293), especially as it relates to aging and death.
3. For a discussion of Wharton's complex relationship with her servants, see Erlich, who discusses one of Wharton's most intimate (and earliest) relationships—with her nanny: "Wharton regarded her nanny as a benevolent goddess who wrapped her in a cocoon of safety, but even good care proffered by a nursemaid is a commodity purchased by parents who renounce this role for themselves" (7).
Cf. also Carol Singley, who analyzes Wharton's Gothic story "A Bottle of Perrier" in terms of "the interrelations of sexuality, class, race, and power as functions of both the female and male gothic" (272); significantly, Singley chooses a Wharton Gothic story dominated by males to show that Wharton "… not only critiques patriarchal power and the damaging sexual relations it spawns, but she offers a fleeting glimpse of what these new, revisionary relations may be" (272-273).
4. For a discussion of the use of the letter, the cable, and the telegraph as a structural and dramatic device in Wharton's novels, see Jean Frantz Blackall's informative essay; she focuses on the telegram as emphatic and representative of the "authoritative voice, or the intrusive presence of its sender" (164).
5. For readings of the Persephone myth in Wharton, see Candace Waid, who analyzes mother-daughter relationships using the myth of Persephone as well as the position of the woman writer (195-203). See also Josephine Donovan for a discussion of the Demeter-Persephone myth in terms of the mother-daughter dynamics in Wharton's fiction (43-83), and see also Erlich (42-25).
6. This fear of the "rest cure" might be a manifestation of Wharton's own fears of inertia, since, as a young woman, Wharton was sent to Philadelphia for S. Weir Mitchell's famous "rest treatment" (Lewis 82-84). Like Faxon, too, she felt that she was constantly under surveillance during the treatment; in Lewis's words, she felt that "ghostly presences were peering in on her morning and night" (84).
Bernstein, Stephen. "Form and Ideology in the Gothic Novel." Essays in Literature 18 (Fall, 1991): 151-165.
Blackall, Jean Frantz. "The Intrusive Voice: Telegrams in The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence." Women's Studies 20 (Dec. 1991): 163-168.
Conn, Peter. The Divided Mind: Ideology and Imagination in America, 1898–1917. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Donovan, Josephine. After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.
Emerson, R. W. Emerson in His Journals. Ed. Joel Porte. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1982.
――――――. "The Transcendentalist" and "The Poet." Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays. Ed. Larzer Ziff. New York: Penguin, 1982: 239-258, 259-284.
Erlich, Gloria C. The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
McDowell, Margaret B. "Edith Wharton's Ghost Tales Reconsidered." Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. Eds. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit. New York: Garland, 1992. 291-314.
Singley, Carol. J. "Gothic Borrowings and Innovations in Edith Wharton's 'A Bottle of Perrier.'" Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. Eds. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit. New York: Garland, 1992. 271-290.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and "Civil Disobedience." New York: Penguin, 1983.
Waid, Candace. Edith Wharton's Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of Chapel Hill Press, 1991.
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Scribner's, 1933.
――――――. "A Bottle of Perrier" and "Atrophy." The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton. Vol. II. Ed. R. W. B. Lewis. New York: Scribner's, 1968. 511-531, 501-510.
――――――. "Life and I." Novellas and Other Writings. Ed. Cynthia Griffin Wolff. New York: The Library of America, 1990. 1071-1096.
――――――. The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribner's, 1973.
――――――. The Letters of Edith Wharton. Eds. R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. New York: Collier, 1988.
――――――. The Writing of Fiction. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.
Widdicombe, Toby. "Wharton's 'The Angel at the Grave' and the Glories of Transcendentalism: Deciduous or Evergreen?" American Transcendental Quarterly 6:1 (1992): 47-57.
KATHY A. FEDORKO (ESSAY DATE 1995)
SOURCE: Fedorko, Kathy A. "The Gothic Text: Life and Art." In Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton, pp. 1-21. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
In the following essay, Fedorko maintains that "the Gothic in her fiction allows Wharton both to mirror and to revise issues that inform her life as well as the genre."
Wharton's conflicting and conflicted views of women and men and feminine and masculine reflect a complicated interweaving of family and social environment, historical time, and individual psychology. These conditions and the gender tension they foster in turn provide the impetus for Wharton to use and recast Gothic conventions and narratives in her fiction as a way to dramatize psychic conflict. Indeed, as a dreamlike interaction among parts of the self, the Gothic in her fiction allows Wharton both to mirror and to revise issues that inform her life as well as the genre: an ambivalent terror of/attraction to the supernatural and the threatening; a fascination with incest; a fearful ambivalence about marriage, about breaking out of social restraints, about being "different"; and an attraction to houses as signs of self and to the "abyss" as a state of being beyond the rational. Wharton's handling of these issues distinctly evolves throughout her career. In the process, Wharton progressively imagines a fe/male self, moving from gender-bound women and men in the Gothic-marked fiction written early in her career to characters in the later fiction who struggle toward or even attain a degree of gender mutuality.
Family and Society
Wharton's autobiographies—the published version, A Backward Glance (1934) and the unpublished version, "Life and I" 1—and her autobiographically colored nonfiction French Ways and Their Meaning and The Writing of Fiction document the personal and professional struggles that drew Wharton to a Gothic perspective. "Life and I" also vividly dramatizes that perspective, for in it Wharton remembers her child self as a Gothic heroine—trapped in suffocating interiors, suppressed by patriarchal restraints embodied by her mother, isolated by her writing and tortured by her acute sensibilities, but at the same time pleasurably, even erotically, charged by those sensibilities. As a passionate, secret lover of words and literature, Wharton felt herself to be the isolated, emotionally orphaned heroine, alone in her "other side," a supernatural world where the flow and energy of words brought ecstatic release while producing inordinate guilt because she was so "different" ("Life" 23, 36). This intermingling of eroticism and fear, pleasure and pain, is the quintessential Gothic psychology.
"Life and I" demonstrates Wharton's uneasiness with the patriarchal value system that tells women they are worthwhile only if they are attractive, especially to men, and that they risk being excluded if they are intelligent or strong willed or in any other way "unfeminine."2 "To look pretty" is one of the "deepest-seated instincts of my nature," Wharton writes there. Her clarification of this instinct identifies her as both gazed-at (female) art piece and (male) artist: "I say 'to look pretty' instead of 'to be admired,' because I really believe it has always been an aesthetic desire, rather than a form of vanity. I always saw the visible world as a series of pictures, more or less harmoniously composed, & the wish to make the picture prettier was, as nearly as I can define it, the form my feminine instinct of pleasing took" ("Life" 1-2).
Wharton's earliest memory, with which she begins A Backward Glance, is of being dressed beautifully while walking with her father and realizing for the first time the value of being a "subject for adornment" (2). Yet at the same time, in "Life and I," she confesses humiliation about being laughed at by her brothers for her red hair and the "supposed abnormal size" of her hands and feet; she was, she felt, "the least good-looking of the family" and therefore intensely conscious of her "physical short comings" (37).
Though pronouncing at a young age that when she grew up she wanted to be "the best dressed woman in New York" like her mother, Wharton felt herself no match and no daughter for the elegant Lucretia Jones (BG 20). While she recalls her "tall splendid father" as "always so kind," with strong arms that "held one so safely," and her childhood nurse Doyley as "the warm cocoon" in which she "lived safe and sheltered," she remembers that her mother's abounding interest in flounced dresses and ermine scarves was accompanied by her indolence and capriciousness, that her mother stressed politeness and reserve rather than nurturing (20, 26). This model of old New York womanhood upheld the patriarchy with her "shoulds" and "musts," her withering judgmental demeanor, and her physical reserve, an outcome, perhaps, of her own "internalized oppression" that she encouraged in her daughter (Wehr 18). Sandra Gilbert describes Wharton's situation in her comment that "the more fully the mother represents culture, the more inexorably she tells the daughter that she cannot have a mother because she has been signed with and assigned to the Law of the Father," the law that means "culture is by definition both patriarchal and phallocentric" ("Life's" 358).
Even speaking was a hazardous business for the precocious, acutely sensitive young Edith, because, in Wharton's view, her mother scorned verbal imperfection and risk taking. Over sixty years later the daughter writes, "I still wince under my mother's ironic smile when I said that some visitor had stayed 'quite a while,' and her dry: 'Where did you pick that up?'" (BG 49). The anger is palpable in the memory that "my parents—or at least my mother—laughed at me for using 'long words,' & for caring for dress (in which heaven knows she set me the example!); & under this perpetual cross-fire of criticism I became a painfully shy self-conscious child" ("Life" 37). And a shy adult. For throughout A Backward Glance runs the theme of her "incorrigible shyness" that she blames time and again for missed opportunities of intimacy. The mute girl is mirrored in the passive female Gothic character, holding her tongue, afraid to question, unable to defend herself.3
It is worth remembering that "the image of the repressive mother is the daughter's creation" and that Wharton's autobiographies should not be assumed to be factual documents (Fryer 359-60 n.4).4 Although there are hints in A Backward Glance about Lucretia's difficult childhood, we have no "backward glance" from Lucretia to counter her daughter's perspective and to help us understand her own childhood pain and losses. Still, however skewed Wharton's memories of her mother, her perception was that she was rejected by a cold mother who criticized and restrained more than she accepted and nurtured. From her Wharton learns the intense self-criticism, the self-hating voice, that women internalize from patriarchal judgment of them as inadequate. Wharton's reiteration in "Life and I" that she "frankly despised" little girls clearly seems to include herself (12). This "self-hater" turns up in her Gothic short stories as the female victim who colludes in her own destruction and as the villainous male who oppresses the passive woman (Wehr 20).5
As a child Wharton is beset by "the most excruciating moral tortures" instilled by her internalized mother ("Life" 2). She illustrates this point with an anecdote about telling a little boy in her dance class that their dance teacher's mother looks like an old goat. When she admits to the teacher that she made the remark, she gains a scolding and the tormented sense that her own mother would have thought her "naughty" not to have known how to do the "right" thing ("Life" 7). Noting that she had two "inscrutable beings" to please, God and her mother, and that her mother was the most inscrutable of the two, Wharton confesses that "this vexed problem of truth-telling, & the impossibility of reconciling 'Gods' standard of truthfulness with the conventional obligation to be 'polite' & not hurt anyone's feelings" plunged her into a "darkness of horror" (6-7).
Wharton's intense moral anxiety resembles the impetus for traditional Gothic fantasy of the eighteenth century, springing as it did from uneasiness about "problems of personal moral responsibility and judgement, questions of restrictive convention, and a troubled awareness of irrational impulses which threatened to subvert orthodox notions of social and moral propriety" (Howells 7). Wharton's girlhood, as she perceives it, thus is haunted by a late nineteenth-century version of the "grim realities" of eighteenth-century womanhood that inspired Ann Radcliffe's and Fanny Burney's Gothic, "the restraints on her freedom, all the way to actual imprisonment; the mysterious, unexplained social rituals; the terrible need always to appear, as well as always to be, virtuous; and, over all, the terrible danger of slippage from the respectable to the unrespectable class of womanhood" (Moers 206-207).
Bourgeois men were actors in the eighteenth-century world, and women were passive possessions whose good behavior was often the deciding factor in their material well-being. Female respectability involved passive obedience to male authority, since women were seen as "inescapably Other" (Day 95). Societal emphasis on reason and repression of feeling, the "male" sphere, made that which was repressed, the "female" sphere, all the more threatening and thereby in need of destruction or imprisonment. The rebellious Gothic probed fears, spoke the unspeakable, meddled in the taboo, like rape, sex among the clergy, and, especially, incest. Social institutions like the church and the family, symbolized by the ruined church or castle, were considered claustrophobic and hypocritical because they suppressed and denied part of human experience.
Initially Wharton's "devastating passion" for "making up" stories as a child was a way of finding release from a threatening, confining, judgmental world into a supernatural one ("Life" 11). The sound and sight of words produced "sensuous rapture," regardless of her inability to understand them (10). She writes in "Life and I" that words "sang to me so bewitchingly that they almost lured me from the wholesome noonday air of childhood into some strange supernatural region, where the normal pleasures of my age seemed as insipid as the fruits of the earth to Persephone after she had eaten of the pomegranate seed" (10). Wharton might well be describing immersion in le sémiotique, Julia Kristeva's term for a pre-Oedipal, preverbal, sensual state associated with the maternal voice and bodily rhythms. The sensuousness of language thus provides the young Wharton with a haunted maternal bower, a "secret garden."6
Even when Wharton learns the meanings of words, it isn't intellectual discourse but rather the language of erotic secrecy and mystery, of supernatural otherworldliness that pervades her descriptions of immersion in books. She feels a "secret ecstasy of communion" with the books in her father's library: Coleridge; Goethe's Faust and Wilhelm Meister; The Duchess of Malfi; The White Devil; the "Song of Solomon"; Irving's Tales of the Alhambra, no small dose of the romantic, the erotic, the Gothic (BG 69). These "enraptured sessions" with poetry, philosophy, religion, and drama become part of her "secret retreat" within her where she "wished no one to intrude" (70). "Words and cadences haunted it like song-birds in a magic wood," nurturing the way her mother did not (70). Her father's library becomes analogous to "my strange inner world," conflating the symbolic and spiritual, the paternal and maternal (72). In Wharton's Gothic, startling, disorienting, and often erotic discoveries take place in libraries, as intellectual knowledge is expanded by intuitive, uncanny awareness.7
Wharton's dilemma as female child and woman is that intellectual knowledge and activities endow male-identified power at the same time that they estrange her from her female self as it has been defined by her society and her mother. Discovering Sir William Hamilton's History of Philosophy in her brother's room gives the young Wharton the hope that "now I should never be that helpless blundering thing, a mere 'little girl,' again!" ("Life" 32-33). But her intense intelligence and engagement with language also increase her sense of abnormality. As she confesses, "it humiliated me to be so 'different'" (36). The social ramifications of difference were clear. According to an 1882 story in the Newport Daily News the engagement between Edith Jones and Harry Stevens, when she was nineteen, was broken because of "an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride" (Lewis, Biography 45).
Her own writing intensified Wharton's gender conflict. This public, and thereby unfeminine, act was met with silent disapproval: "My literary success puzzled and embarrassed my old friends far more than it impressed them, and in my own family it created a kind of constraint which increased with the years. None of my relations ever spoke to me of my books, either to praise or blame—they simply ignored them; and among the immense tribe of my New York cousins, though it included many with whom I was on terms of affectionate intimacy, the subject was avoided as though it were a kind of family disgrace, which might be condoned but could not be forgotten" (BG 143-44). In having her own writing avoided as though it were a "family disgrace," Wharton faced the quintessential woman writer's dilemma. Writing is a fearful, "naughty" thing to do, for it involves honesty of feeling, assertiveness, and noticing and talking of things not polite to acknowledge. Like sex, it is fraught with guilt, this uncontrolled, unladylike, other-worldly act. Hélène Cixous, in urging women to "write her self," shows that Wharton's dilemma is still a current one for women: "Where is the ebullient, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naiveté, kept in the dark about herself, led into self-disdain by the great arm of parental-conjugal phallocentrism, hasn't been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a … divine composure), hasn't accused herself of being a monster? Who, feeling a funny desire stirring inside her (to sing, to write, to dare to speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn't thought she was sick?" ("The Laugh" 876).8
The denial by silence of Wharton's writing by her extended family and their dread of creativity is not unlike the denial of intense and sometimes supernatural experiences by characters in her Gothic stories. Their attempted suppression of disorienting awareness is undermined when the reader joins Wharton in an act of voyeurism and recognition as the story plays itself out.9
Her family relationships and experiences were not Wharton's only impetus for using Gothic conventions and narratives in her fiction as a way to tell the disallowed story of female sexuality and power. Her Victorian/Post-Victorian Anglo-Saxon society, with its penchant for ignoring what it considered inappropriate human experience, was an impetus as well. In French Ways and Their Meaning, Wharton describes maturity in a society as the ability to face primal terrors. "Intellectual honesty, the courage to look at things as they are," she writes, "is the first test of mental maturity. Till a society ceases to be afraid of the truth in the domain of ideas it is in leading-strings, morally and mentally" (58-59).
One of the main aspects of life to which Wharton refers in the phrase "things as they are" is sexuality. The French, she observes, are criticized by Anglo-Saxons for talking and writing freely about sexuality, as if to do so were "inconsistent with … purity and morality." Wharton notes approvingly that the French just take sex for granted "as part of the great parti-coloured business of life" (60, ellipsis mine).
Wharton felt that Anglo-Saxon literature had been no better than the society at acknowledging female sexuality in particular. In The Writing of Fiction she argues that English novelists create women whose passion is banked by prudery. Scott, for instance, "became conventional and hypocritical when he touched on love and women," substituting "sentimentality for passion" and reducing his heroines to "'Keepsake' insipidities" (5). Thackeray, Dickens, Brontë, and Eliot were also affected by the "benumbing" restraints of their time (63).
Wharton's own portrayal of passionate women in her novels was hindered not only because, as Elizabeth Ammons argues, she felt the American woman she wrote about "was far from being … a whole human being" but also because her society, her background, and the very form of realism resisted such portrayal (3, ellipsis mine). In A Backward Glance, Wharton recounts that early in her career she had a reader protest, "have you never known a respectable woman? If you have, in the name of decency write about her!" (126) Those were the days, she remembers, when an editor stipulated that no "unlawful attachment" should appear in her projected novel and when her friend Charles Eliot Norton warned that "no great work of the imagination has ever been based on illicit passion" (126-27). But decades later the situation remained unchanged. The Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, and Collier's wouldn't publish Hudson River Bracketed and The Gods Arrive because of the "illicit liaison" in them, and the editor of Delineator, which finally did publish them, commented that "the situation, that of a man and woman unmarried and living together, is a little startling for magazine publication" (Lewis, Biography 502).
Wharton's anger about the problem of portraying sexuality in literature surfaced most heatedly when she chided younger novelists for not realizing that portraying whole people, complete with passions, had been difficult for their predecessors. In a 1931 letter to Sinclair Lewis she rebukes him for the depreciatory comments he had made about Howells in his Nobel acceptance address; Wharton points out that Howells had to contend with a country "reeking with sentimentality and shuddering with prudery" (Dupree 265). She returns to the matter in A Backward Glance, commenting bitterly that "the poor novelists who were my contemporaries … had to fight hard for the right to turn the wooden dolls about which they were expected to make believe into struggling suffering human beings…. The amusing thing about this turn of the wheel is that we who fought the good fight are now jeered at as the prigs and prudes who barred the way to complete expression" (127, ellipsis mine).
Contemporary critical discussion of realism has shown that the difficulty of portraying passions in realistic fiction that Wharton pinpointed (and a reason why she relied on a Gothic subtext to show passion constrained) is a problem inherent in the form. The dilemma is the very strength of realistic fiction, Leo Bersani has argued; its recreation of social structures militates against a full portrayal of the forces that would deny their validity. "The technical premises of realistic fiction—the commitment to intelligible, 'full' characters, to historical verisimilitude, to the revealing gesture or episode, to a closed temporal frame—already dooms any adventure in the stimulating improbabilities, of behavior which resists being 'placed' and interpreted in a general psychological or formal structure" (67). Because it keeps characters coherent, "the containment of desire is a triumph for social stability" (73).
Feminist criticism has enlarged the conversation about how this "containment of desire" in deference to "social stability" is a culturally created gender issue, a containment of the "natural" feminine/maternal by the "symbolic" masculine/paternal. Often "submerged meanings" appear in women's writing as surreal or uncanny eruptions in and interruptions of the text (Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman 72). Grace Poole's intrusion into Jane's story in Jane Eyre is one of the most discussed examples. A novel such as Villette, as well, which seemingly doesn't recognize the Romantic or Gothic, nonetheless can be said to possess a "buried letter of Romanticism" and "the phantom of feminism" conveying "the discourse of the Other, as the novel's unconscious … struggles for articulation within the confines of midnineteenth-century realism" (Jacobus, "Buried Letter" 42, 59; ellipsis mine).
Brontë's texts have been called examples of "new" Gothic in that intense feeling and extrarational experience are not only contained in "marvelous circumstance" but interpenetrate the "ordinary world" and thereby enlarge the sense of reality in the novels, especially the reality of women (Heilman 123, 121). Traditional Gothic male villains are deconstructed when "dark magnetic energy" characterizes female protagonists (127). Such a view privileges the realist form with which Wharton was comfortable in her novels but into which, like Brontë, she interwove a Gothic text to accommodate the gender tension central to her life as a writer.
Wharton's sense of being an outsider, the "separated one," as a precocious child and a woman writer, uncomfortable with the male-identified power of writing and the intellect while at the same time lured by the nourishing female-identified "rich world of dreams" and the sound and sight of words, helps explain her use of mystical/supernatural rather than "realistic" language to describe her creative process, the goddess's descent into the soul, as she puts it (Wilt 19; "Life" 12; BG 198). The moment of creation is akin to the mysterious moment just before sleep when "one falls over the edge of consciousness" (BG 198). Similarly, the storytelling process "takes place in some secret region on the sheer edge of consciousness" where characters haunt the brain and names spectrally appear without characters (205). The creative act is "like the mystic's union with the Unknowable" (121) or "that mysterious fourth-dimensional world which is the artist's inmost sanctuary (WF 119)."10
Wharton's language of creativity—the "unknown depths," the "sheer edge of consciousness," the mysterious and the spectral—is the language of her Gothic as well. Characters anxiously facing the dark abyss of preternatural knowledge or entering a mysterious life removed from society in the Gothic stories and the Gothic-marked novels replicate Wharton's creative process of entering the "unknown depths." Wharton's Gothic thus enacts the writing process as a plunge into awareness beyond the realistic, where the unexpurgated "real" story is told, the "unlabeled, disallowed, disavowed" of which her patriarchal mother and society would not approve (Stein 126).
The omnipresent Gothic abyss traditionally threatens damnation, a fall into "the demonic underworld" that leads to "the rejection of human identity and the embracing of the monstrous" (MacAndrew 49; Day 7). Rather than this chaotic loss of humanity, the abyss as Wharton uses it is a plunge into a realm that threatens loss of the controlled self at the same time that it promises new understanding. And what realm could be more frightening and yet more alluring for this unmothered daughter of the patriarchy than the feminine/maternal darkness, with its overwhelming intimacy and primal power?
Wharton acknowledges the occult power of the maternal when she places the faculty for apprehending ghosts in "the warm darkness of the pre-natal fluid far below our conscious reason" (G vii). Her Gothic portrayals of inner journeys into threatening knowledge take characters into maternal places: houses, cabins, caves. Within the place within the mind of the character, an abyss opens, threatening annihilation at the same time that it promises self-awareness if s/he can acknowledge the experience.11
Facing the abyss is crucial to Wharton's Gothic, for the willingness of characters to face the maternal darkness indicates their willingness to understand the inner life, the loss of the known self that has opened before them. Arrogant intellectual men in her Gothic fiction are usually those least willing to acknowledge what they have seen in the abyss and most apt to ignore or deny their experience with the darkness. Wharton seems to be mirroring her sense of the limitations of her own rationality, of the patriarchal symbolic, her sense that, emphasized at the expense of respect for the maternal erotic darkness, such logocentrism becomes tyrannical and repressive.12 Since the characters, especially in the stories, are themselves too timid to fully assimilate what they have experienced, Wharton depends on the reader to decipher their lost knowledge. Thus the woman's story is heard despite the attempts of the male narrator or other (usually male) character to deny or suppress it.
Contemporary feminist criticism of the Gothic argues that what draws a woman in particular to the "forbidden center" of the Gothic mystery is not threatened incest within the Oedipal plot, a reading that privileges the male reader, but rather "the spectral presence of a dead-undead mother, archaic and all-encompassing, a ghost signifying the problematics of femininity which the heroine must confront" (Kahane, "Gothic Mirror" 336).13 The "ubiquitous Gothic precipice on the edge of the maternal blackness" thus draws female characters to a confrontation with the mysteries of identity (340).
Sexual maturity, the secret knowledge and power of the mother, is both feared and desired. "Bad" women the heroine confronts in the Gothic text are the "monstrous" other parts of herself, and the parts of the mother, that she cannot accept—her passions, her ambitions, her energy (Stein 123ff.). The Gothic gives "visual form to the fear of self," the dark, knowing mother/self who might appear in the fiction as a mad woman or a freak or a sexual monster and therefore beyond the pale of respectable society (Moers 163). Wharton gives such "visual form to the fear of self" when Lily Bart has her disturbing vision of herself in the mirror early in The House of Mirth and in the mirror of her thoughts after Trenor's attempted rape. Wharton's own fear of her sexual self is reflected in the exaggerated mirroring of Lily's vaguely erotic activities by the omnivorously sexual Bertha Dorset.
Wharton's use of the abyss in her Gothic fiction as a character's disorienting confrontation with primal human emotion or experience recalls Jung's theory of individuation, "the process by which a person becomes a psychological 'individual,' that is, a separate, indivisible unity or 'whole,'" by assimilating knowledge from the unconscious as part of consciousness (9:275). This process has been called an adaptation to inner reality as well as outer, to what one is "meant to be"; one recognizes the next step in what one is meant to be by looking for what attracts and frightens at the same time (Whitmont 48-49, 62). The "rebirth journey," as individuation has been called, brings to consciousness "the lost values of the psyche, which lie so largely in the realm of Eros, and by this means the human being becomes more complete" (Harding 245). The goal of the journey is an assimilation of gender selves, inner and outer worlds, consciousness with unconsciousness.14
Jung conforms with most androcentric Western theory in his association of consciousness with the masculine and unconsciousness with the feminine. "Psychologically the self is a union of conscious (masculine) and unconscious (feminine). It stands for the psychic totality" (9:268). These realms accrue, however, the sexist associations of reasonable, reasoning masculine consciousness as opposed to feared, fearful feminine unconsciousness. In Jung's theory the male hero's plunge into the abyss of the unconscious involves confronting his "shadow," the hated, repressed side of the personality and thereafter the "anima," the archetypal image of the female in a man's unconsciousness, an awesome, organic power associated with the Terrible Mother or with a dual mother, part destructive, part creative (Wehr 59-67, 112-13). The ultimate encounter is thus with an Other that must be overcome to be assimilated.
Feminist archetypal critics have revised Jungian theory to make it more compatible with women's experiences as women themselves have written about them. The shadow a woman confronts often carries with it the gynophobia of the social world that fuses with the animus (the archetypal image of the male in a woman's unconscious) into "a masculine character who loathes the woman as much as she loathes herself" (Pratt, "Spinning" 104). Annis Pratt cautions that for women the rebirth journey entails psychological risk that is as likely to lead to madness as to renewal (Archetypal 142). But women may also overcome this self-destructiveness and assimilate a mother/self that engenders a sense of female power and erotic independence by accepting rather than fearing the life forces of sexuality, birth, and death. Thus "the woman's encounter with a feminine figure at the depths of her psyche … is more a fusion than an agon; the woman encounters a being similar to herself which empowers even as it exiles her from the social community," since she then becomes a woman unreconciled to a patriarchal world (Pratt, "Spinning" 106, ellipsis mine). In imagining this feminine archetype encountered in the inner world, women writers often draw on female-identified mythology: Demeter/Persephone, Celtic Grail legends, Ishtar/Tammuz rebirth legends, and witches and other wise women (Pratt, Archetypal 170). This is Wharton's practice in her Gothic-marked fiction.
While male reading of the Gothic places the "maternal blackness" beneath the ruined castle, "the crumbling shell of paternal authority," as imprisoning womb/tomb, feminist reading is more apt to identify the castle or other enclosure as the mother, "mother as nurturer, as sexual being, as body, as harboring a secret, as an indifferent hardness" (Fiedler 112; Holland and Sherman 289). The mother, especially for the woman reader, threatens nothingness, overwhelmingness, nonseparation (Holland and Sherman 283). The female Gothic character's entrapment in or explo-ration of a Gothic house is thus an extension of her relationship to the maternal body she shares (Kahane, "Gothic Mirror" 338).15
Kristeva's theory of the abject provides another way to read the abyss in Wharton's Gothic. Though Kristeva emphasizes the abject as a reiteration of separation from the maternal, her discussion of the self-awareness gained in the process of struggling against and being pulled into the abject sheds light on the response of Wharton's Gothic characters. Lying just on the edge of meaninglessness and nonexistence, the abject represents "our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language" (13). "The phantasmatic mother," constitutes, in the history of each person, "the abyss that must be established as an autonomous (and not encroaching) place, and distinct object, meaning a signifiable one," so that the person might "learn to speak" (100). In spite of this "placing," one does not "cease separating" from the abject; it retains the power to recreate the act of attempting to break away from the maternal entity punctuated by the pull back from it (13).
Reexperiencing the act of separation from the mother forces the limits of one's psychic world and the limits of self-knowledge. "The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgments. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away…. Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance" (15, ellipsis mine).
Such a definition of the abject as a rebirth into new understanding through the pull of the maternal abyss helps explain why Wharton's characters are both terrified of and attracted to extrarational experiences. Wharton's Gothic emphasizes the maternal abyss as "repellent and repelled" to those most frightened by it, yet Wharton also emphasizes that it is also a state of being that one must assimilate within oneself rather than reject or pull away from (6). In dramatizing primal experiences in her Gothic fiction—of ghosts, madness, and sexual threat—Wharton is courting disorder. She is pressing the limits of rationality and having her characters risk temporary egolessness for the sake of greater awareness, particularly of the feminine. She is speaking about those things considered unspeakable by her family and society—the erotic, the antisocial, the grotesque, the energetic, the fearful—those emotions and conditions that, like the regression to the maternal, threaten to overwhelm one.16
Wharton dramatizes the power of the uncontrollable and overwhelming in her autobiographical account of recuperating, when she was nine years old, from a near-fatal bout of typhoid and of being given a book to read: "To an unimaginative child the tale would no doubt have been harmless; but it was a 'robber-story,' & with my intense Celtic sense of the super-natural, tales of robbers & ghosts were perilous reading. This one brought on a serious relapse, & again my life was in danger" ("Life" 17).
Thereafter, until she was a "young lady," she lived in "chronic fear" of an unexplained terror, "like some dark undefinable menace, forever dogging my steps" (17). Most terrifying was returning from daily walks outside with nurse, governess, or father and, while waiting for the door to her home to be opened, feeling the menace behind her, on top of her, and being "seized by a choking agony of terror" until she could escape inside (18). The memory suggests an overwhelming need to reconnect with the sheltering maternal body/house across the threshold. But the intensity of the "undefinable menace" that sends her to the mother also suggests an anxious fear of separation intensified by never having felt solidly connected in the first place. In Wharton's Gothic fiction, terror of the outside unknown is transmuted into terror of the internal unknown, within the house/mother rather than outside of it. Facing that terror is a courageous means of claiming and transforming it.
Wharton states, in "Life and I," that until the age of twenty-seven or twenty-eight, she "could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost-story" (19). Using the progressive tense of recent occurrence, she admits, "I have frequently had to burn books of this kind, because it frightened me to know that they were down-stairs in the library!" (19). Such a sensational reaction to the threat posed by the supernatural—such books almost killed me and I subsequently burned them—reveals how much Wharton feared the uncontrollable and how much power she granted fiction as a means of recreating the terror of uncontrollable forces. Julia Briggs's idea that "by recounting nightmares, giving them speakable shapes and patterns" in "stories of the terrific unknown," we hope to "control them and come to terms with them" might well account for both Wharton's autobiographical "confession" and her Gothic fiction that draws one into the "terrific unknown" (11).
In recasting the "abyss" as a restorative, regenerative place for those courageous enough to face it, Wharton reconceives its destructive power. Her several nervous breakdowns and her bouts of "occult and unget-at-able nausea" and overwhelming fatigue during the period when she was most conflicted about her identity as writer/wife/socialite/intellectual/homemaker made her familiar with the risks of the journey into the self (Wolff 52). Wharton's experience with the Weir Mitchell Rest Cure for her nervous collapse was more salutary than the experiences of Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Virginia Woolf, since she was encouraged to write during her time of separation from the outside world (Lewis, Biography 84). Nonetheless her imposed infantalization, during which she was barred from visitors yet felt "ghostly presences … peering in on her morning and night," reappears as a dominant theme in many of her Gothic stories (84). Walter Berry's comment in his letter of November 9, 1898, that he is "delighted to hear" that Wharton had "loosened the first stone in your cell toward an escape" suggests that Wharton saw herself as a prisoner during her "cure" (Beinecke).
Her visit with her dear friend Henry James during his period of despair in 1910 is another encounter with the abyss. She observes that his eyes are those of a man who "has looked on the Medusa," and as she sits beside him, she looks "into the black depths over which he is hanging—the superimposed 'abysses' of all his fiction" (Lewis and Lewis, Letters 202). Most notable for Wharton is that James is no longer in control of his emotions: "I, who have always seen him so serene, so completely the master of his wonderful emotional instrument …, I could hardly believe it was the same James who cried out to me his fear, his despair, his craving for the 'cessation of consciousness,' & all his unspeakable loneliness & need of comfort, & inability to be comforted!" (202, ellipsis mine).
Wharton later comments how "haunted" she has been by James's condition (203). The tension between complete mastery over one's emotions and being incapacitated by them is part of the gender-identified duality that Wharton dramatizes in her Gothic fiction. Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence is perhaps her most successful example of a character who exemplifies balance between the extremes, though it comes at the cost of "leaving home" for good. Because she has faced the Medusa and the darkness of the abyss, Ellen possesses a maturity of mind and spirit that Newland Archer admires, even marvels at. He himself skirts the edge and the Medusa's gaze, thereby sacrificing the "flower of life" (AI 350).
Confronting the Medusa, without the deflecting mirror in which Perseus sought refuge, is one of Wharton's favorite ways of describing the act of facing powerful femaleness directly, unflinchingly. Yet the drama and tension of traditional female Gothic is in good part dependent on the concealment of female knowledge, the mysteries of birth, death, and sexuality, within the threatening maternal space of dungeon, castle, or haunted room. One female reader of the form, Leona Sherman, describes recreating in the Gothic a figurative confrontational dance with her mother about the essence of femaleness: "I know she knows but she won't tell me. I know I know, but I doubt because she won't tell me. She says one thing, but I see another on her face. I feel we can't really talk about what we know, because she would be calling her whole past life into question and endangering her present. She thinks the concealment necessary for my survival, and finally, she loves me and wants to protect me above all. The mysteries are the issues of sex and birth and death and, too, the necessity of concealing them" (Holland and Sherman 287).
Wharton describes in "Life and I" just such an evasive encounter with her mother about sexuality. I quote this much quoted passage in its entirety because Wharton's dramatic, even melodramatic, rendering of her request for information about the secret of sexuality so uncannily mirrors Sherman's description of a woman reading/recreating a Gothic story:
… a few days before my marriage, I was seized with such a dread of the whole dark mystery, that I summoned up courage to appeal to my mother, & begged her, with a heart beating to suffocation, to tell me "what being married was like." Her handsome face at once took on the look of icy disapproval which I most dreaded. "I never heard such a ridiculous question!" she said impatiently; & I felt at once how vulgar she thought me.
But in the extremity of my need I persisted. "I'm afraid, Mamma—I want to know what will happen to me!"
The coldness of her expression deepened to disgust. She was silent for a dreadful moment; then she said with an effort: "You've seen enough pictures & statues in your life. Haven't you noticed that men are—made differently from women?"
"Yes," I faltered blankly.
I was silent, from sheer inability to follow, & she brought out sharply: "Then for heaven's sake don't ask me any more silly questions. You can't be as stupid as you pretend!"
The dreadful moment was over, & the only result was that I had been convicted of stupidity for not knowing what I had been expressly forbidden to ask about, or even think of!
Wharton recreates herself here as the traditional Gothic heroine probing the dread-producing mother/castle for answers about "the whole dark mystery" of sexuality, but she leaves both uninformed and humiliated because she is so uninformed.
Perhaps because Wharton didn't believe, as Sherman posits, that the mother/Gothic denies the knowledge to the questing daughter because she "loves me and wants to protect me above all," in her own Gothic fiction Wharton turns the "Gothic denial" of "the whole dark mystery" of sexuality, birth, and death figured by the woman/ mother on its head (Holland and Sherman 292, 287). By denying access to the mother and thereby to femaleness, both women and men wield patriarchal power, power defied by characters such as Charity Royall in Summer and Lady Jane Lynke in "Mr. Jones." More often, a character shrinks from rather than claims this powerful knowledge, and the reader is left with an awareness of the sacrifice that the character has made because of her or his timidity.
1. Cynthia Griffin Wolff posits that "Life and I" was written in 1920 or 1922 (417, n.3).
2. Wolff discusses the tension in Wharton between doing and being, between creating art and becoming a beautiful art object. See especially 40-43.
3. According to Wolff, Wharton's experiences taught her that "strong emotions of any kind were innately dangerous" (38). For the young Wharton nothing was worse than to be mute. "To be 'mute' … is to be vulnerable to pain," and words offered "the promise of an escape from loneliness and helplessness" (25-26, ellipsis mine). I argue that in the Gothic stories dangerous emotion is projected onto the dangerous man, preying upon the mute woman, whose imprisonment is partly a result of self-censorship. Although she doesn't mention the Gothic, Wolff discounts most of Wharton's ghost stories as inferior fiction.
4. Wolff also notes that the inclination "to fall into the formula of nasty mother and clever daughter" ignores the complexity of the relationship between Lucretia and Edith Jones (32). Erlich posits that Wharton's image of her mother may well have been "a projection of the child's need for punishment rather than an accurate description," but she acknowledges that whatever the "historical truth," Wharton's "internalized mother" was a "persecutory figure" (25, 26).
5. As Pablo Freire writes, "The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized" (32).
6. Several critics have noted that Wharton's use of "secret garden" in connection with her writing probably refers to Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 children's classic of the same name. What is important for my purposes are the similarities The Secret Garden bears both to Wharton's childhood and to her Gothic. At the beginning of the novel, two emotionally abandoned children, Mary and Colin, are angry, pale, and lonely, living together in what Mary calls a "queer house," where "everything is a kind of secret. Rooms are locked up and gardens are locked up" (159). Both think the other is a ghost when they first meet, both live in their own world of stories and dreams. Together they enter the secret, neglected garden, care for it, and are rejuvenated by the activity. This plot resembles Wharton's Gothic heroes/heroines entering the spirit of the mother in a mysterious enclosure and being shaken and changed by the encounter.
7. Erlich calls Frederick Jones's library Wharton's "emotional center" (32). She notes that Wharton even makes the connection in "Life and I" between the library and her self or body and that books and libraries are thereafter "libidinized" (34, 154). Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney discuss Wharton's anxiety about reading, in her father's library, books forbidden by her mother. They quote Paula Berggeren as even suggesting that in disobeying her mother Wharton is figuratively gazing on her "father's nakedness" in the library (185).
8. Gilbert and Gubar also identify the "anxiety of authorship" that a woman writer experiences because of "her culturally conditioned timidity about self-dramatization, her dread of the patriarchal authority of art, her anxiety about the impropriety of female invention" (Madwoman 50). Singley and Sweeney discuss how Wharton expresses her anxiety about reading and writing in the narrative of "Pomegranate Seed." My sense of Wharton's gender discomfort in relation to writing differs slightly but significantly from both of these useful studies. I believe Wharton felt anxious about writing not only because she was a woman but because speech and writing do have the potential to be aggressive, harmful acts regardless of which gender engages in them. Lucretia Jones's power to wound with words was an early model for her daughter of this potential. Thus although the culturally constructed anxiety Wharton felt about writing influenced her projective creation of menacing intellectual men in her Gothic fiction, she is also responding to her discomfort with destructive verbal power.
9. Howells refers to readers of the Gothic as "literary voyeurs" (15-16), and Wolstenholme extensively discusses this quality of the Gothic experience.
10. Fryer discusses the haunted quality of Wharton's creative process (158-59).
11. Wolff talks about Wharton's realization that good art develops from the artist's courage to plunge into the primal depths and confront "his most secret self" (9). Wolff stresses Wharton's need to outgrow and reject her relationship with her mother, however, while I see Wharton attempting to assimilate and recreate her maternal relationship and using the Gothic abyss as a locus of this interaction.
12. A key characteristic of ghost stories by American women, according to Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar, is that they not only expand "reason" to include the supernatural but more often replace reason with sympathy as the key interpretive faculty (13).
13. Fleenor notes that "this confrontation can be seen in a literary context as the confrontation of the female author with the problem of being an author, not the father of her work but the mother of it" (16).
14. Jung's tendency to ignore socially derived, sexist assumptions in the construction of his archetypes, which I discuss earlier, also colors his theory of individuation; this emphasizes the importance of feminist archetypal criticism of women's rebirth journeys as portrayed in their writing.
15. Kahane points out that the maternal body carries such "archaic fantasies of power and vulnerability" because society encourages it with its cultural divisions ("Gothic Mirror" 350).
16. Tzvetan Todorov discusses the fantastic as a means of combating social and internal censorship. The function of the supernatural in particular "is to exempt the text from the action of the law, and thereby to transgress that law" (159).
- The Age of Innocence
- A Backward Glance
- Crucial Instances
- Certain People
- Collected Short Stories
- The Descent of Man and Other Stories
- Ethan Frome
- The Gods Arrive
- Here and Beyond
- The House of Mirth
- Hudson River Bracketed
- The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories
- "Life and I"
- The Writing of Fiction
- Xingu and Other Stories
Garrison, Stephen. Edith Wharton: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990, 514 p.
Provides a descriptive bibliography.
Lauer, Kristin O. and Margaret P. Murray. Edith Wharton: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Pub., 1990, 528 p.
Offers an annotated bibliography.
Benstock, Shari. No Gifts From Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994, 546 p.
Biography of Wharton.
Coolidge, Olivia. Edith Wharton, 1862–1937. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964, 221 p.
Biography of Wharton.
Dwight, Eleanor. Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life. New York: Abrams, 1994, 296 p.
Biography of Wharton.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975, 592 p.
Definitive biography of Wharton.
McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne, 1976, 158 p.
Provides a biographical and critical overview of Wharton's life and career.
Singley, Carol J., editor. A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, 302 p.
Offers a biographical and critical examination of Wharton.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, 453 p.
Offers a biographical and critical analysis of Wharton's career.
Banta, Martha. "The Ghostly Gothic of Wharton's Everyday World." American Literary Realism 27, no. 1 (fall 1994): 1-10.
Probes Wharton's fiction as it responds to modern society through "ethnographic surrealism," a form of cultural study focused on the discovery of primitive knowledge and particularly evident in her Gothic short story "Afterward" and novella Ethan Frome.
Beer, Janet, and Avril Horner. "'This Isn't Exactly a Ghost Story': Edith Wharton and Parodic Gothic." Journal of American Studies 37, no. 2 (August 2003): 269-83.
Argues "that some of Wharton's ghost stories contain a further dimension, beyond allusion, where they shift into a parodic and humorous strain that enables her to engage self-reflexively with the Gothic tradition."
Dyman, Jenni. Lurking Feminism: The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. New York: Peter Lang, 1996, 199 p.
Book-length study of Wharton's short Gothic fiction that concentrates on the incipient feminist awareness demonstrated in these works.
Elbert, Monika M. "T. S. Eliot and Wharton's Modernist Gothic." Edith Wharton Review 11, no. 1 (spring 1994): 19-25.
Argues that in her short story "A Bottle of Perrier" Wharton emulates the mytho-historical and rationalist modernism of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land.
――――――. "Wharton's Hybridization of Hawthorne's 'Brand' of Gothic: Gender Crossings in 'Ethan Brand' and 'Bewitched.'" American Transcendental Quarterly 17, no. 4 (December 2003): 221-41.
Compares the use of Gothic conventions associated with male desire in Wharton's short story "Bewitched" and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand."
Kaye, Richard A. "'Unearthly Visitants': Wharton Ghost Tales, Gothic Form and the Literature of Homosexual Panic." Edith Wharton Review 11, no. 1 (spring 1994): 10-18.
Studies male homosexuality depicted as a supernatural threat in five stories by Wharton: "A Bottle of Perrier," "The Triumph of Night," "The Eyes," "Afterward," and "Pomegranate Seed."
Singley, Carol J. "Gothic Borrowings and Innovations in Edith Wharton's 'A Bottle of Perrier.'" In Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays, edited by Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit, pp. 271-90. New York: Garland, 1992.
Argues that in her short stories Wharton "follows a tradition of Ghost Fiction by British and American women writers … which deals in varying ways with the missing or longed-for mother."
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Wharton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 25; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865–1917; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 132; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 12, 78, 189; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 13; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 2, 3; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vols. 5, 11, 15, 20; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 6, 7; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 6, 84; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 9, 27, 53, 129, 149; 20th Century Romance and Historical Writers; and World Literature Criticism.