Wharton, Edith: General Commentary
EDITH WHARTON: GENERAL COMMENTARY
LINDA WAGNER-MARTIN (ESSAY DATE 1996)
SOURCE: Wagner-Martin, Linda. "Prospects for the Study of Edith Wharton." Resources for American Literary Study 22, no. 1 (1996): 1-15.
In the following essay, Wagner-Martin surveys the critical reception of Wharton's writings since the mid-1970s, highlighting the diversity of approaches to her work and its implications for contemporary feminism.
To assert that serious criticism of the writing of Edith Wharton began with R. W. B. Lewis's 1975 Edith Wharton: A Biography would be an exaggeration. Yet for many readers and scholars of the 1980s and the 1990s, this single book—and its attendant publicity and awards—led to waves of reevaluation. In the long run, the attention meant that Wharton's work would be assessed in the context of the later twentieth century, rather than the earlier, a shift that has been healthy in a number of ways.
Following the Lewis biography by just two years was Cynthia Griffin Wolff's A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, a more psychologically based study of not only Wharton's life and writing, but also the integral relationship between the two. The acclaim for Wolff's book signaled both a wide popular market for scholarship on Wharton and a hunger for information about the supposedly remote and austere "Mrs. Wharton" among women scholars who thought of themselves as feminist. In the project of the 1970s and 1980s, to reclaim and—in Adrienne Rich's term—to revision writing by women, reading Wharton's novels and short stories was truly a "feast."
In the early 1980s, the now-flourishing Edith Wharton Society was formed. Its leadership arranged panels on Wharton's work at existing professional conferences and at several important meetings devoted entirely to discussions of Wharton (in Lenox, Massachusetts; New York; Paris; and, most recently, New Haven, Connecticut). Part of the society's mission was to institute a journal—first known as The Edith Wharton Newsletter but now titled The Edith Wharton Review. Included regularly in the journal, which was often edited by Annette Zilversmit, was a comprehensive bibliography prepared by Alfred Bendixen. The excellent leadership in Wharton studies continues, providing both information and support to scholars interested in her work.
I emphasize the society and its publication because Wharton studies had previously been marked by an air of dutifulness. Good and generous work had been done by many critics, among them E. K. Brown, Percy Lubbock, Vernon L. Parrington, Edmund Wilson, Blake Nevius, and Irving Howe. However, their writings so obviously championed Wharton, aimed so apparently at creating a solid, scholarly reputation for her, that some readers were skeptical. Was Wharton being placed in the canon because professors of American literature taught no other women fiction writers? One might have suggested this when Arthur Mizener wrote a chapter on Wharton's The Age of Innocence in his 1967 Twelve Great American Novels: Wharton was the only woman writer included.
Graduate students were not rushing to write dissertations on Edith Wharton; undergraduates were not eager to read her fiction. The atmosphere surrounding the study of Wharton—like that surrounding the study of Ellen Glasgow—was one of nostalgia. Yes, Wharton was a novelist of manners and, yes, she had been one of the best of the local color writers. Yes, those of us interested in the New York scene in the 1870s and 1880s—particularly those of us interested in the narratives of the socially elite—would continue to read her novels. Nonetheless, there was little passion attached to the study of her writing. The person who "did Wharton" in most English departments was probably the aging woman teacher whose publications were counted but seldom read. The assumption, even as late as the 1970s, was that women writers were of little interest to those faculty members who taught Wordsworth, Chaucer, and Hemingway—writers the study of whose work was the real business of English departments.
This is not to say that James Tuttleton's 1972 The Novel of Manners in America was obsolete, but rather that new ways of viewing the written text had begun to eclipse those based on existing literary classifications. A knowledge of history became less important a consideration for even Wharton's most-acclaimed novel, The Age of Innocence, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921. In addition, the usual way of establishing that Wharton belonged among the great American writers—because, in E. K. Brown's words, she was "at ease in a man's world" and was, therefore, a gentlemanly novelist rather than a woman writer—had fallen into disrepute. No matter how often she had been labeled "Mrs. Wharton," Edith Newbold Jones was coming into her rightful place in American letters as a great woman writer. During the late 1970s, readers focused more intently on Wharton as woman writer—traveling widely, living abroad in France, and succeeding as a bestselling author until her death in 1937.
The figuration of Edith Wharton as a striking and powerful woman, a woman who accrued power both because of her ability to create memorable, sympathetic protagonists and because of the clear financial success of her fiction, appeared on the horizon of Wharton studies in ways that embarrassed some literary critics. Better that Wharton remain the dignified upper-class woman whose personal energy terrified the more leisurely Henry James. (Even though Millicent Bell had clarified the relationship between James and Wharton in her 1965 study, the tendency to reduce Wharton to James's apprentice lingered.) Better that readers continue to negate the fiery intelligence and feeling that made Wharton's writing more forceful than many other turn-of-the-century and modernist fictions.
The past twenty years of criticism, drawing partially on the biographies, have created a new sense of Edith Wharton as woman writer. They have brought innovative critical perspectives to some of her fiction, although a great deal of her extensive oeuvre remains neglected. Even though Alfred Bendixen claims in his 1993 bibliographic essay that Wharton's place as major novelist is firmly established ("New Directions" 20), a great quantity of work remains to be done. In this essay, I will suggest only a few of the kinds of explorations that would be fruitful.
All Americanists recognize that criticism of Edith Wharton is at a far different place from that of Walt Whitman or Ernest Hemingway—that is, truly canonized writers. For them, the scaffolding of good bibliographies, good biographies, and good collections of essays and letters has long been in place. The tools so necessary to excellent scholarship, then, are already accessible. So far as research on Wharton is concerned, the past decade has brought improvement in such resources. To Marlene Springer's 1976 reference guide to both Wharton and Kate Chopin (the combination of the two writers reflective of the amount of work then being done—as well as of publishers' views of the importance of these writers) came other listings of secondary criticism (Tuttleton, "Edith Wharton"; Springer and Gilson; Bendixen, "A Guide," "New Directions," "Recent Wharton Studies," "Wharton Studies," "The World"; Joslin, "Edith Wharton at 125"; and Lauer and Murray). To Vito J. Brenni's 1966 bibliography came Stephen Garrison's 1990 descriptive work, published in the Pittsburgh series. And to help make research for Wharton students somewhat manageable, in 1992 Tuttleton, Lauer, and Murray brought out the useful Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews in the Cambridge series. Of all twentieth-century writers, Wharton had amassed a huge, almost underscribed, body of reviews. Because she lived abroad during many of the years she published, she herself had been unable to collect the newspaper and magazine commentaries extant. Tracing these materials and collecting representative reviews has been a valuable project.
What now exists suggests further lacunae that need to be filled. Scholars would benefit from having a volume—or several volumes—of retrospective critical essays, drawing from the quantity of excellent recent work as well as those essays already published in Irving Howe's 1962 collection. Millicent Bell's recent The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton, with essays by Gloria Erlich, Elaine Showalter, William Vance, Elizabeth Ammons and others, begins to fill that need. Such a collection begins the process of making standard Wharton criticism easily available to students. Today, doing research on Wharton remains an arduous library task, and an Edith Wharton: Six Decades of Criticism (or perhaps Seven Decades) would at least begin to describe some patterns in the commentary.
Even more valuable would be a collection of Wharton's own reviews and occasional essays. Perhaps her 1925 The Writing of Fiction could be republished in conjunction with her comments on her art from both reviews and letters; an Edith Wharton on Writing would help readers understand the author's pose of modest irony, which she tended to assume whenever she discussed her craft (see Wegener). It goes without saying that publication of Wharton's previously unpublished writings will also be both desirable and, eventually, necessary. The interest provoked by R. W. B. Lewis's inclusion (as an appendix to his biography) of Wharton's "Beatrice Palmato" fragment, a previously unknown fiction about father-daughter incest, suggests the need to publish materials that remain inaccessible. When Cynthia Griffin Wolff found the Palmato fragment in the Yale Wharton collection, she asked Lewis—whose book was to be in print before her own—to make the work available. Many scholars are less generous; to ensure that interested parties have access to materials, we should both publish these materials and catalog them.
An obvious gap in resources for Wharton scholarship is the lack of either print or on-line catalogues for the largest manuscript and correspondence collections: the Beinecke collection at Yale; the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center collection at the University of Texas, Austin; and the Lilly Library collection at Indiana University. Also of interest are materials in the Firestone Library at Princeton, the Houghton Library and the Pusey Library at Harvard, the Villa I Tatti (Bernard Berenson's former home in Florence, which is now the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies), and other collections. Access to these materials is now dependent upon actually visiting the site, an expensive and time-consuming process for researchers.
One of the most dramatic illustrations of scholars' lack of awareness of what a collection held was the discovery in the early 1980s that the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at Texas had, in 1980, purchased the three hundred letters written by Wharton to her lover Morton Fullerton (Gribben, Colquitt). Presumed to have been destroyed, the cache of poignant, passionate letters had an immense impact, both on the biography of the author and on readings of her fiction. Eighty of the letters were published, at least partially, in the Lewises' 1988 The Letters of Edith Wharton, and Shari Benstock and other recent critics and biographers have made great use of the collection (see Benstock's appendix in No Gifts From Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton on the history of the discovery).
The difficulty of trying to publish a meaningful sample of Edith Wharton's letters is apparent: she wrote hundreds, perhaps thousands, of letters. Lewis recounts that, on one instance in 1924, Wharton returned from a short trip to find sixty-five letters (three days' mail) waiting for her (Letters 3). Most of her correspondents were not famous, of course, so many of her letters are simply lost. Of the four thousand pieces of correspondence that the Lewises located, they could print only a tenth, four hundred, in their volume. That volume has since been supplemented by Lyall Powers's collection of the James-Wharton letters, but much more of Wharton's correspondence needs to be made available. Literally hundreds of letters from Wharton to Sara Norton, Gaillard Lapsley, Bernard and Mary Berenson, and others exist; it appears that, regrettably, either Wharton or the recipients destroyed her letters to Percy Lubbock and Walter Berry.
The impact made by the discoveries of both the "Beatrice Palmato" fragment and Wharton's letters to Fullerton suggests a pervasive problem within Wharton studies. Perhaps because the earlier critical history of response to Wharton's work followed such predictable patterns, new pieces of information have a great potential to change the existing body of work. The shock value of discoveries, then, depends as much on their effect on the critical givens as on their intrinsic meaning. Accordingly, criticism of Wharton and her work tends to plateau, to halt in pools of agreement, while evidence that supports new information is put forth. This tendency is especially noticeable because publication outlets for criticism about Wharton are relatively few: when one reads essays in the Society publication, or in American Literary Realism, American Literature, or Studies in American Fiction, the same material is often repeated—or at least alluded to.
Such a pattern suggests another problem within Wharton studies: even current criticism tends to reify its past history. Discussions of Wharton's various uses of irony, for example, always a significant tactic for this writer, still return to Blake Nevius's excellent early work. Those considerations could be grounded as easily in the more recent work on irony of such critics as Wayne Booth and Linda Hutcheon. In other words, today's scholars might study Wharton's work by using theories of critics who do not treat Wharton's work. One instance of reliance on non-Whartonians is Kathy Miller Hadley's 1993 book, In the Interstices of the Tale: Edith Wharton's Narrative Strategies, which discusses Wharton's narrative achievements from The Reef to The Mother's Recompense and The Children, using such feminist narratological approaches as those given in Rachel Blau DuPlessis's Writing Beyond the Ending and work by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Others are essays by Ellie Ragland Sullivan (a psychoanalytic reading) and D. Quentin Miller (a language-based narratological reading).
More diverse critical approaches would seem to be particularly useful in dealing with Wharton's women characters, and with themes that must be characterized as women-centered (as in The Mother's Recompense or Twilight Sleep, for example). Dale M. Bauer's 1994 study, Edith Wharton's Brave New Politics, shows the kinds of wide-ranging information provided by a serious look at social, philosophical, and medical issues contemporary with Wharton's fictions from Summer through the late 1920s. As useful as Bauer's 1988 Bakhtinian reading of Wharton was (Female Dialogics), Brave New Politics breaks more—and newer—ground. It places Wharton's late writing in the mainstream of philosophical and biological theories of reproduction and eugenics, as well as such less often scrutinized currents of popular culture as the self-help movement, the marriage market, and the public obsession with film stars. Bauer here draws Wharton as a novelist keenly aware of the foibles of modernism, an author far different from the aging woman said to be past her peak as writer.
A different kind of contextualization occurs in Shari Benstock's 1986 Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1910-1940. In this rich study of more than a dozen women's lives, Benstock both describes the existences of expatriate women and shows the way insistent parallels from their lives create a culture that shaped much of twentieth-century modernism. In this context, Wharton was one of the most essential figures of European and American modernity. Similarly, Elizabeth Ammons's 1992 study, Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century, juxtaposes what might appear to be singular, even unique, lives into parallel patterns. Her sometimes harsh criticism of privileged white culture, represented in part by Wharton, is a long-overdue corrective to critical views of what is normative about modernist writing.
While Women of the Left Bank and Conflicting Stories have been immensely important in helping readers place Wharton and her work, two books by Susan Goodman have had as their aim the further surrounding of Wharton with her own immediate cultural context. In her 1990 Edith Wharton's Women: Friends and Rivals, Goodman explores key relationships between Wharton and other women, pointing out that many of her most intimate letters were to women correspondents. In her 1994 study of the men who comprised what she terms Edith Wharton's Inner Circle, Goodman again provides a quantity of previously uncollected information to show Wharton's deep interest in aspiring artists, and her genuine gift for friendship with achieving people (many of them, given the cultural climate of her time, male).
For all this attention to the context of Wharton's life as a writer, however, much criticism of the work itself remains myopic. It is as if readers find Wharton's characters so fascinating, her plots so involving, that many are unwilling to discuss more than one text, or more than one character, at a time. Yet some of the best earlier studies of Wharton's works (McDowell; Lawson; Ammons, Edith Wharton's Argument; Wershoven, Gimbel) surveyed most of her novels. Much recent criticism of Wharton tends, in contrast, to be New Critical. At its best, as in essays by D. Quentin Miller, Sherrie A. Inness, and Jean Frantz Blackall, or the book by Catherine M. Rae, close readings of texts are never outdated. Some publishers' formats call for readings of single texts (Springer on Ethan Frome, Wagner-Martin on The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence ). For students trained in various kinds of criticism, however, the close-reading approach makes Wharton's work seem less interesting than works by her peers—Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Djuna Barnes, Katherine Mansfield—who have received attention from scholars whose critical practices are more diverse.
Partly because of the reification of past criticism, coupled with an emphasis on close-reading techniques, it has been difficult to change—or even modify—the ways in which Wharton's best-known texts are read. Male characters still occupy the center of critical attention, for example. (An index of the power of the male-focused interpretations of the novels was the kind of attention Judith Sensibar's 1988 essay in American Literature—questioning Wharton's view of "the bachelor type"—received [and see Holbrook].) Readings are still dominated by the view that Wharton was as good a writer as she was largely because she was one of the boys, voiced in studies by Percy Lubbock and others through Lewis's biography, although countered by Goodman in her book on Wharton's male circle. This view discounts the issue of whether or not she was influenced by Henry James by contending that in some ways she was Henry James—or at least Walter Berry.
A corollary to the problem that Wharton is identified with male writers is that earlier criticism often identified her with her male protagonists. Such identification causes immense problems for today's readers, who are accustomed to having women writers, like writers of color, identify themselves proudly rather than disguise their gender and race. The logical autobiographical correspondence in The Reef, for example, is between Wharton and some composite of Sophy Viner and Anna Leath—just as in The Age of Innocence the logical correspondence is between Wharton and Ellen Olenska. The traditional reading of the latter novel, however, is to identify the author with Newland Archer (Mizener, Parrington, Lewis; but see Benstock, No Gifts, and Wagner-Martin, Introduction). Any attempt to rescue Wharton's work from long-entrenched perspectives will require serious investigation of her treatment of gender roles and new kinds of analyses of both female and male characters.
The impulse to give Edith Wharton as writer the characteristics and attributes of a male author is understandable: "raising" women writers into the largely male canon was most often accomplished in this way. Nonetheless, a 1995 book by Carol J. Singley proves just how weak a strategy this division of writers' traits into male and female is. Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit establishes Wharton's crucial involvement in the compelling intellectual, philosophical, and religious debates of her times (i.e., Wharton assumes an intellectual—and perhaps "male"—role in her culture). Singley combines biography, cultural history, and focused readings of a number of texts—short stories as well as such novels as The Reef, Summer, The Age of Innocence, Hudson River Bracketed, and others.
Singley treats this body of work in conjunction with wide-ranging discussions of Wharton's knowledge of, and responses to, Darwinian science, aestheticism, rationalism, and such religious movements as Calvinism, Catholicism, and transcendentalism. She often presents the more abstract contextualizations through her readings of Wharton's texts. Through her discussion of "The Angel at the Grave," for example, the reader comes to understand why Wharton preferred rationalism to William James's pragmatism. Similarly, in Singley's reading, Ethan Frome illustrates not realism so much as Calvinism, showing "both a personal and cultural defeat" (122) while The Reef posits a kind of feminine wisdom and power, Summer evokes Emersonian beliefs, and Hudson River Bracketed and The Gods Arrive explore Catholicism.
Singley deals with a myriad of ideas in Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit—information about Wharton's affinity with George Eliot, discussion of the scientists and philosophers Wharton called her "Awakeners" (Henry Coppée, William Hamilton, Blaise Pascal, and Charles Darwin), the pervasive New York Episcopalian social (if not religious) forms. She has written a comprehensive study of Wharton and her intellectual times, and I would group this book with Dale Bauer's 1994 study of Wharton and politics and Kathy Fedorko's 1995 Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton to create an impressive paradigm for future directions in Wharton criticism. Each book gives an immense amount of new factual information, providing contexts that few Wharton critics have ever associated with her work. Because each scholar has written widely not just on Wharton, but also on other American writers, the systematic application of the factual material to Wharton's writing is managed with balance and acumen. This is not to say these three studies avoid the controversial; sometimes large claims are made, but they are palatable because the reader has confidence in the scholarship. These three books are filled with the evidence of diligent work. No one has taken short cuts. Even more to the point, Singley, Bauer, and Fedorko are keenly imaginative, so that the quantities of facts are put to expert use.
Such a triumverate implicitly answers a somewhat petulant 1989 essay by a dedicated Wharton scholar. James Tuttleton's New Criterion defense of R. W. B. Lewis's work on Wharton—the ostensible purpose for his publishing "The Feminist Takeover of Edith Wharton"—met with much less opposition than did his assumption that only women scholars could be feminist, and that all women scholars, by virtue of biology, were feminist. That a great amount of the best criticism on Wharton's work is currently being done by women scholars is apparent, but the critical persuasion of at least some of these scholars is far from feminist, or it is feminist in so broad a sense as to be comparatively meaningless. If one defines feminist to mean using a methodology dependent on the work of the French feminist critics Kristeva and Cixous, or British or American scholars influenced by them, then very little current criticism on Wharton's work is feminist.
In surveying significant publications during the 1980s and the 1990s, however, I have noted (with some initial surprise) that women scholars have written a number of these works (what follows is a very limited list; for more inclusion, see Bendixen's bibliographic essays). One explanation for this phenomenon is that women scholars are likely to be pushed to try newer methodologies—perhaps because they are looking for strategies that allow their text-based readings more sophistication. It also appears that some of the most interesting criticism on Wharton's works in the 1980s was economically grounded: Wai-chee Dimock's "Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth" in PMLA for 1985 became an instant reference point (and see DuBow, Kaplan, and Robinson). Much more study of Wharton and the literary marketplace could be undertaken.
A quantity of criticism in the 1980s and 1990s insists that Wharton's writing be read as a woman's text (Gilbert and Gubar, Herndl), while one approach to that kind of reading is the mythic (Donovan's After the Fall; Waid's Edith Wharton's Letters from the Underworld). Other interesting attempts to fuse the diverse elements of Wharton's oeuvre are made from the perspective of the author's use of space (Fryer's Felicitous Space) and of the domestic trope of the house (Chandler's Dwelling in the Text).
Excellent work on Wharton as a local color writer (Donovan, Local Color), or the opposite of that classification (Campbell), has set the pace for what may prove to be one of the most helpful ways of reading Wharton—that of as a practitioner of the Gothic. Martha Banta's 1994 essay, "The Ghostly Gothic of Wharton's Everyday World," extends work done by Lynette Carpenter and Kathy Fedorko into the field of anthropology. Fedorko's 1995 book, a consummate and convincing study of the way the trope of horror/suspense informs a great deal of Wharton's writing, not merely her identifiable ghost stories, provides yet another point of departure for critics who question the finality of existing readings. In Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton, Fedorko uses feminist archetypal theory to explore the ways in which Wharton adopts Gothic elements as a means of describing the nature of feminine and masculine ways of knowing and being, thereby dramatizing the tension between them. Fedorko's reading of six novels and sixteen stories, written in four different periods of Wharton's career, provides the reader with plausible and, in many cases, new interpretations.
The apparent genre study, in the case of Wharton's writing, provides a workable format to delineate freshly observed patterns in the work. Much more extensive investigation needs to be done on Wharton's memoirs and travel writing (excellent models are the 1987 essay by Mary Suzanne Schriber and the 1990 book by Janet Goodwyn). Barbara A. White's careful work on Wharton's short stories (Edith Wharton) revisits her important two-part essay on incest in Wharton's writing and perhaps her life ("Neglected Areas"). More attention needs to be given to Wharton's novellas and short stories. Like James, Wharton wrote a great deal and well in shorter forms, yet most critical attention has gone to her novels. Evelyn E. Fracasso's 1994 study reads many of the short stories from Wharton's dominant trope of imprisonment; it also deals with the figurative imprisonment of fear, often that of the supernatural. Useful in this connection would be studies of Wharton's reading, particularly her reading of the Gothic tale.
Recent book-length studies of Wharton's work have helped to change the direction of future critical investigation. Incorporating psychoanalytic methodologies, both Gloria Erlich and Lev Raphael assume somewhat atypical stances toward Wharton and her work: Raphael's Edith Wharton's Prisoners of Shame: A New Perspective on Her Neglected Fiction scrutinizes such texts as The Touchstone, Sanctuary, The Glimpses of the Moon, her war writing, and the later fiction, discerning the pattern of shame (in affect theory) that marks so many of her characters' behaviors. While Raphael does not make what might seem logical biographical extensions, Erlich, in her 1992 The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton, continues various interrogations about, not only incest, but also the full extent of Wharton's relationship—or lack of relationship—with Fullerton.
Much of the impetus for excellent criticism seems, in Wharton's case, to remain biographical. The R. W. B. Lewis biography of Edith Wharton remains in print, and, in 1995, the Radcliffe Biography Series brought out a new edition of Cynthia Griffin Wolff's A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, a book that includes a new introduction and several of Wolff's previously uncollected essays. Also useful as treatments of Wharton's life and work are Katherine Joslin's clearly written and always accurate Edith Wharton, Margaret B. McDowell's much-revised edition of her earlier Edith Wharton, and Eleanor Dwight's Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life, the best illustrated of the recent biographies. Superior even to these is Shari Benstock's No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton.
An assiduously drawn portrait of Wharton as woman writer, Benstock's creation pulls together strands of aesthetics, biography, cultural history, and feminist insight into the problems of Wharton's dilemma. Plagued by issues of class, race, and sexuality, the writer led a life more often disguised than transparent. In a period when being unlettered was fashionable, Wharton was truly well educated; when being poor was not onerous, Wharton was wealthy; when being sexually adventurous was fashionable, Wharton had little opportunity for any kind of sensual exploration. Benstock's achievement is not in adding to the chorus of lament for Edith Wharton, but in showing how her writing became her joy, and how she conceived of herself and her life, her strength. The immense amount of new material, the calmly evocative style, and the obvious clarity of judgment make No Gifts from Chance the starting point for the next twenty years of Wharton criticism.
In conclusion, I would remind readers that much work remains to be done. We would all benefit from more attention to manuscripts. There is also the fact that Wharton's novels were often serialized before they were published entire; criticism that deals with the history of the publication of her work, as well as criticism that deals with manuscript revision, such as Alan Price's essay on The Age of Innocence, would be useful. Recent collections of essays (see Bendixen and Zilversmit, Joslin and Price), as well as past special issues of College Literature and Women's Studies, provide a number of insights into the critical health of the Wharton project; more such collections would continue to build a body of solid Wharton criticism (see Werlock). Attention to the various film versions of Wharton's texts also interests many readers, and much could be learned about cultural history and the perceptions of women characters in women's fiction through further study in that area. The 1993 publication of Wharton's early novella, Fast and Loose, in conjunction with her unfinished last work, The Buccaneers, edited by Viola Hopkins Winner (or in its somewhat bastardized 1993 form, completed by Marion Mainwaring), also suggests the keen interest in whatever material remains unpublished (plays, translations, essays, fiction). It seems clear that—nearly sixty years after her death—Edith Wharton has once again become an American author to be reckoned with.
Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
——. Edith Wharton's Argument with America. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980.
Banta, Martha. "The Ghostly Gothic of Wharton's Everyday World." American Literary Realism 27.1 (1994): 1-10.
Bauer, Dale M. Edith Wharton's Brave New Politics. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994.
——. Female Dialogics: A Theory of Failed Community. Albany: State U of New York P, 1988.
Bell, Millicent, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.
——. Edith Wharton and Henry James: The Story of Their Friendship. New York: George Braziller, 1965.
Bendixen, Alfred. "A Guide to Wharton Criticism, 1976-1983." Edith Wharton Newsletter 2 (1985): 1-8. [Comments also by others]
——. "New Directions in Wharton Criticism: A Bibliographic Essay." Edith Wharton Review 10.2 (1993): 20-24.
——. "Recent Wharton Studies: A Bibliographic Essay." Edith Wharton Newsletter 3 (1986): 5, 8-9.
——. "Wharton Studies, 1986-1987: A Bibliographic Essay." Edith Wharton Newsletter 5 (1988): 5-8, 10.
——. "The World of Wharton Criticism: A Bibliographic Essay." Edith Wharton Review 7.1 (1990): 18-21.
Bendixen, Alfred, and Annette Zilversmit, eds. Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992.
Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribners, 1994.
——. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.
Blackall, Jean Frantz. "Edith Wharton's Art of Ellipsis." Journal of Narrative Technique 17 (1987): 145-61.
Booth, Wayne C. A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.
Brenni, Vito J. Edith Wharton: A Bibliography. Morgantown, VA: McClain Printing, 1966.
Brown, E. K. "Edith Wharton: The Art of the Novel." The Art of the Novel: From 1700 to the Present Time. Ed. Pelham Edgar. New York: Macmillan, 1933. 196-205.
Campbell, Donna M. "Edith Wharton and the 'Authoresses': The Critique of Local Color in Wharton's Early Fiction." Studies in American Fiction 22 (1994): 169-83.
Carpenter, Lynette. "Deadly Letters, Sexual Politics, and the Dilemma of the Woman Writer: Edith Wharton's 'The House of the Dead Hand.'" American Literary Realism 24.2 (1992): 55-69.
Chandler, Marilyn. Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.
Colquitt, Clare. "Unpacking Her Treasures: Edith Wharton's 'Mysterious Correspondence' with Morton Fullerton." Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin ns 31 (1985): 73-107.
Dimock, Wai-chee. "Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth." PMLA 100 (1985): 783-92.
Donovan, Josephine. After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow. University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1989.
——. Local Color: A Woman's Tradition. New York: Ungar, 1983.
Dubow, Wendy M. "The Businesswoman in Edith Wharton." Edith Wharton Review 8.2 (1991): 11-18.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.
Dwight, Eleanor. Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life. New York: Henry A. Abrams, 1994.
Erlich, Gloria C. The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.
Fedorko, Kathy A. Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1995.
Fracasso, Evelyn E. Edith Wharton's Prisoners of Consciousness. New York: Greenwood, 1994.
Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.
Garrison, Stephen. Edith Wharton: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1990.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land. Vol. 2 of Sexchanges. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1989.
Gimbel, Wendy. Edith Wharton: Orphancy and Survival. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Goodman, Susan. Edith Wharton's Inner Circle. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.
——. Edith Wharton's Women: Friends and Rivals. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1990.
Goodwyn, Janet. Edith Wharton: Traveller in the Land of Letters. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Gribben, Alan. "'The Heart Is Insatiable': A Selection from Edith Wharton's Letters to Morton Fullerton, 1907-1915." Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin ns 31 (1985): 7-18.
Hadley, Kathy Miller. In the Interstices of the Tale: Edith Wharton's Narrative Strategies. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Herndl, Diane Price. Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine Illness in American Fiction and Culture 1840-1940. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993.
Holbrook, David. Edith Wharton and the Unsatisfactory Man. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
Howe, Irving, ed. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Hutcheon, Linda. Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Inness, Sherrie A. "Nature, Culture, and Sexual Economics in Edith Wharton's The Reef." American Literary Realism 26.1 (1993): 76-90.
Joslin, Katherine. Edith Wharton. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
——. "Edith Wharton at 125." College Literature 14.3 (1987): 193-206.
Joslin, Katherine, and Alan Price, eds. "Wretched Exotic": Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
Lauer, Kristin O., and Margaret P. Murray. Edith Wharton: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990.
Lawson, Richard H. Edith Wharton. New York: Ungar, 1976.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Lubbock, Percy. Portrait of Edith Wharton. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1947.
McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne, 1976; revised, 1990.
Miller, D. Quentin. "'A Barrier of Words': The Tension between Narrative Voice and Vision in the Writings of Edith Wharton." American Literary Realism 27.2 (1994): 11-22.
Mizener, Arthur. Twelve Great American Novels. New York: New American Library, 1967.
Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1961.
Parrington, Vernon L. "Our Literary Aristocrat." The Pacific Review 2 (1921): 157-60.
Powers, Lyall H., ed. Henry James and Edith Wharton, Letters: 1900-1915. New York: Scribners, 1990.
Price, Alan. "The Composition of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence." Yale University Library Gazette 55 (1980): 22-30.
Rae, Catherine M. Edith Wharton's New York Quartet. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1984.
Raphael, Lev. Edith Wharton's Prisoners of Shame: A New Perspective on Her Neglected Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
Robinson, Lillian S. "The Traffic in Women: A Cultural Critique of The House of Mirth." Edith Wharton, "The House of Mirth." Ed. Shari Benstock. New York: St. Martin's, Bedford Books, 1994. 340-58.
Schriber, Mary Suzanne. "Edith Wharton and Travel Writing as Self-Discovery." American Literature 59 (1987): 257-67.
Sensibar, Judith. "Edith Wharton Reads the Bachelor Type: Her Critique of Modernism's Representative Man." American Literature 60 (1988): 575-90.
Singley, Carol J. Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.
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——. "Ethan Frome ": A Nightmare of Need. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Springer, Marlene, and Joan Gilson. "Edith Wharton: A Reference Guide Updated." Resources for American Literary Study 14 (1984): 85-111.
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——. "The Feminist Takeover of Edith Wharton." The New Criterion 7.7 (1989): 6-14.
——. The Novel of Manners in America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1972.
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——. "The House of Mirth ": A Novel of Admonition. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
——. Introduction. The Age of Innocence. New York: Washington Square P, 1995. vii-xxiv.
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——. The Children. New York: Appleton, 1928.
——. The Collected Short Stories. 2 vol. Ed. R. W. B. Lewis. New York: Scribners, 1968.
——. Ethan Frome. New York: Scribners, 1911.
——. Fast and Loose & The Buccaneers. Ed. Viola Hopkins Winner. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1993.
——. The Glimpses of the Moon. New York: Appleton, 1922.——. The Gods Arrive. New York: Appleton, 1932.
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——. Hudson River Bracketed. New York: Appleton, 1929.
——. The Letters of Edith Wharton. Ed. R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. New York: Scribners, 1988.
——. The Mother's Recompense. New York: Appleton, 1925.
——. The Reef. New York: Appleton, 1912.
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SCOTT EMMERT (ESSAY DATE AUTUMN 2002)
SOURCE: Emmert, Scott. "Drawing-Room Naturalism in Edith Wharton's Early Short Stories." Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 39 (autumn 2002): 57-71.
In the following essay, Emmert explains the influence of literary naturalism on Wharton's early short stories, showing the connections between the formal elements of short fiction and the deterministic themes of naturalism.
In her biography of Edith Wharton, Cynthia Griffin Wolff discusses the ways in which the nineteenth-century upper-class girl was encouraged to deny her feelings, particularly sexual ones. As a young girl of that class, Wharton was pressured into early self-denial. One of the primary lessons Wharton learned was that "[s]ociety had decreed that 'nice' young women didn't really have feelings to be explained: if you did have feelings—well, then, obviously you weren't 'nice.' Lady-like behavior demanded the total suppression of instinct." As a reaction against her repressed upbringing, young Edith Jones turned to books and to "making up" stories. Her "lifelong love of words," Wolff insists, "sprang from her early emotional impoverishment," and nothing terrified young Edith more than the prospect of remaining forever mute, which was connected in her mind with the existence of "helpless" animals (Wolff 37, 27 and 25)1.
The notion of being seen and not heard was applied especially to female children of Wharton's class. Wolff summarizes Wharton's training in proper gender roles with the simple infinitive "to be." Young women were meant to be looked at and admired, and they were not expected "to do" much more than fulfill that ornamental role. Independent action and opinion were not fostered in female children, and early on Wharton learned to suppress her "impulse 'to do'" (Wolff 42). Indeed, a portrait of Wharton done when she was five years old displays her in a luxurious blue dress and standing next to a vase of flowers; her long red hair drapes one shoulder, over which the girl gives the viewer a coy look. The painting freezes the child in a purely decorative posture2.
The need to present a proper appearance oppressed Wharton. Her first short story, written when she was eleven, contains in its first paragraph the line: "'Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?' said Mrs. Tomkins. 'If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room.'" When Edith's mother, Lucretia, glanced at the story, she returned it to her daughter with the acidic remark, "Drawing rooms are always tidy" (Wharton Backward Glance, 73). Her words are borne out by an 1884 photograph of the interior of Lucretia Jones's house on West Twenty-Fifth Street, shown in the R. W. B. Lewis biography of Wharton. The visible rooms are nothing if not rigidly ordered.
Wharton's literary rebellion against the stifling nature of these rooms results in what could be termed "drawing-room naturalism". Repeatedly in her short fiction, female characters are depicted in a variety of narrow spaces in which they suffer the restrictions of social decorum. Wharton made an explicit connection between the rooms of a large house and the psychology of upper-class women in "The Fulness of Life" (1893) when the protagonist muses:
"I have sometimes thought that a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone."
The deterministic element in Wharton's fiction is social, and it is made concrete by her presentation of spaces such as drawing rooms in which formal requirements impinge upon a woman's individual needs and desires.
A careful student of the literary marketplace, Wharton first began publishing fiction during the development of literary naturalism in America. Although she eschewed the usual subject matter of naturalist fiction, several of her early short stories, those published around the turn of the nineteenth century, may be considered naturalistic because they present characters who are aware of the social forces arrayed against them, forces that prevent them from expressing original thoughts or becoming autonomous selves. These characters may wish to be realist characters in possession of an essential self, but they are pressured into living as naturalist characters subject to a tyranny of appearance that grants them limited agency. While realist characters are allowed a self-defining ability to act—permitted "to do" first in order "to be" themselves—Wharton's characters, especially her female characters, are often allowed merely "to be" passive constructions of external forces4.
Although the scholarship on Wharton's involvement in literary naturalism appears mainly in connection with her novels, a common property in all of her fiction is the dramatization of the inability to act or the insufficiency of action. That such a dramatization is especially clear in her short stories results largely from the greater sense of restriction the form allows. Wolff has identified Wharton's frequent use of "enclosed space" to suggest the limited options of her characters (60). But in addition to depicting a variety of enclosures—rooms in houses and compartments on trains, for example—Wharton's short stories become restrictive spaces themselves. Andrew Levy argues that Wharton took thematic advantage of the short story form, because "[a]mong prose genres, it is most like an enclosed space, most concentrated in form. Among all genres, it is most 'locked,' requiring the synthetic closure of an impact-filled beginning and a dramatic conclusion" (65).
The connection between form and deterministic theme is often stronger in short stories than it is in novels, and Wharton made effective use of this connection in her short fiction. As Philip Fisher and June Howard have noted, naturalist novels are frequently structured by plots of decline in which a character degenerates physically, socially, and even morally over an extended period of time. Such a plot served most obviously to give form to Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) and Frank Norris's Vandover and the Brute (1914) (Fisher 169-78; Howard 63-69). In addition to the plot of decline, Fisher finds the structure of naturalist novels to be dependent upon different "temporary worlds" through which characters carry their desires and seek their identities (138-53). Short stories, in contrast, cannot easily form narrative with the plot of decline or with a series of temporary worlds. Their length makes it nearly impossible to present the span of time needed to make plausible a character's gradual degeneration, and at best a short story may focus successfully on a limited number of settings. The short story form nonetheless provides advantages to naturalist writers. A story's limited length and formal compression allow for a keener dramatization of the oppositional forces arrayed against naturalist characters. Often the sense of restriction and entrapment felt by these characters is more dramatic and less ambiguous in short stories than in novels. While critics (e.g., Richard A. Kaye and Lori Merish) often identify certain of Edith Wharton's early novels as only partially committed to literary naturalism, in a number of her early short stories Wharton's commitment to extending naturalism to the social sphere is reflected by the unambiguous deterministic plight of her characters, a plight that is apparent both formally and thematically.
Wharton embraced the short story form, eventually producing nine story collections; furthermore, she admitted to struggling with the structural demands of the novel. She wrote, in a letter to Robert Grant in 1907, that the need to view a novel "more architectonically" required her to "sacrifice … the small incidental effects that women have always excelled in, the episodical characterisation, I mean." Appreciating the "smaller realism" made possible by the story form, Wharton confesses to possessing "the sense of authority with which I take hold of a short story" (Letters, 124). And, significantly, in chapter two of The Writing of Fiction, entitled "Telling a Short Story," Wharton elucidates a clear distinction between short fiction and the novel, demonstrating a cogent understanding of the short story's aesthetic requirements.
Among those requirements is the story's dependence on "situation" rather than "on the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters" to which the novel is devoted (Writing of Fiction, 48 and 42). Characters in short stories, then, will possess less of an individual "inner life" which must be sacrificed to the story's "situation." In Wharton's stories, that dramatic situation often centers on the ways in which characters are deprived of an inner life; thus the form of the story aids Wharton in enacting a principal theme: that is, the psychological confinement of her characters. Wharton writes that "the characters engaged" in short stories "must be a little more than puppets; but apparently, also, they may be a little less than individual human beings" (Writing of Fiction, 47). The ways in which her characters are puppets and not fully autonomous selves is central in many of Wharton's early short stories, which arguably makes them her most naturalistic fictions.
ON THE SUBJECT OF…
Wharton was not by any standard measure a feminist. The muse's tragedy is not the fact that she is not a poet herself but that the poet never loved her as a woman. The public speaker is ridiculously bad at the work she can't bear to give up. But no one between Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir was so ruthlessly clear in depicting the deforming effects of social history on the human female, in examining the dreadful methods she has been constrained to use in order to obtain the trivial things she has been taught to want. And no one has given us so many ways to love and to hate, often simultaneously, the weak, manipulative, pitiful, dangerous, and beautiful creatures this history produced.
Pierpont, Claudia Roth. An excerpt from "Cries and Whispers." New Yorker (2 April 2001): 68.
While recognition of the early influence of literary naturalism on Wharton's fiction is relatively recent, the critical case for such an influence now enjoys acceptance. Indeed, Donna M. Campbell has identified a naturalist impulse in Wharton's first published short story, "Mrs. Manstey's View" (1891), which depicts an aging widow living a cramped and lonely existence in a small room. Mrs. Manstey fails to prevent the construction of a building extension that threatens the view from her single window. Often in her short stories, Wharton explores the illusion of independent action, and the dramatic use of this exploration is present in her fiction from the beginning. "Mrs. Manstey's View" ironically dramatizes the false belief in autonomy by presenting a protagonist who dies while under the delusion that her actions have been successful. Arguing for an analysis of Wharton as a writer "caught in the historical shift between local color and naturalism," Campbell discovers in this often overlooked story the threatening nature of the "landscape of naturalism", of an urban Hydra that recalls the fiction of Frank Norris and Stephen Crane (152-3).
Even though it indicates Wharton's interest in an ironic donnée, "Mrs. Manstey's View" does not reflect the aesthetic control of the more mature author. That literary maturity is reflected in other stories by a deft merging of irony with narrative voice to implicate the reader more closely in the realization of a character's limitations. As critics have noted, Wharton's best short stories require the reader's active, inferential engagement to "meet her halfway and fill in the gaps" of meaning (White 24). Wharton's frequent use of ellipses has been interpreted as an attempt to "entice the reader to enter into imaginative collaboration" with the narrator (Blackall 145), and her reliance in her stories on "situation" over complex plot emphasizes thematic significance more than action. In addition, her preference for the third-person limited point of view, strictly focalized through a central consciousness, tends to place readers immediately within an interpretive situation, instantly involving them with a single character's vision and, usually flawed, judgment. For Wharton the limited vision of the "reflector," the character from whose point of view the story is told, should be strictly enforced; as she wrote in The Writing of Fiction, a short-story writer should "never … let the character who serves as reflector record anything not naturally within his register" (46). Naturalist novelists, preferring omniscient narrators and making frequent use of authorial commentary, often create distance between a novel's characters and its readers, who are positioned as spectators5. Wharton's limited reflectors, in contrast, create kinship between protagonists and readers, for both find themselves in similar interpretive situations.
The limits of the reflector have thematic significance in the story "The Other Two" (1904), which is told from the point of view of Waythorn, a New York City stockbroker who has recently married a twice-divorced woman. The story's irony derives from the reader's growing awareness of Waythorn's limited understanding of his wife's past. He believes that he knows Alice even as his view of her changes, but as Barbara A. White notes, the story's frequent use of economic imagery makes apparent the "limitations of his vision" (17). Even though they tend to be as restricted as Wharton's female characters, her male characters are often deluded by their own sense of importance, a sense that is reinforced by their social and economic position6.
Secure in his position as husband and successful businessman, Waythorn is confident that he understands his new wife, an understanding the reader initially has no reason to doubt. He appreciates her stable personality and "perfectly balanced nerves". Early in the story, as Waythorn waits for Alice to come down to dinner, he stands before "the drawing-room hearth" thinking of her "composure," one that "was restful to him; it acted as ballast to his somewhat unstable sensibilities" (380). Although she has been divorced from two men, Alice appears unperturbed by society's negative view of divorce. Waythorn admires her "way of surmounting obstacles without seeming to be aware of them," (381) but his admiration of her apparent mastery of external circumstances blinds him to the fact that Alice is adept at masking her own feelings. When she appears for dinner, Alice wears "her most engaging tea gown" but "she had neglected to assume the smile that went with it" (382). Concerned about her daughter's health and about a visit from the girl's father, Alice naturally cannot appear cheerful. Waythorn tells her "to forget" her concern, and he is later confident "that she had obeyed his injunction and forgotten" (382-83). In fact, as White points out, Waythorn may simply be accepting Alice's outward composure as a sign that she has indeed forgotten her maternal worries. But Alice, the story makes clear, is an accomplished pretender.
To make Waythorn happy, Alice pretends to be "serene and unruffled"; she works hard to appear like "a creature all compact of harmonies" (385, 386). At first, Waythorn is untroubled by Alice's previous marriages because he believes these relationships have left her unaffected. Alice's past intrudes upon Waythorn's harmony, however, when he must allow Haskett, the first husband, to enter "his" house to visit Lily, the daughter Haskett had with Alice—and when he has to begin a business relationship with Varick, Alice's second husband. In a significant scene, Alice mistakenly pours cognac into Waythorn's coffee, forgetting that it was Varick who preferred such a drink. Aware of Varick's preference, Waythorn begins to be disturbed by Alice's history: "He had fancied that a woman can shed her past like a man. But now he saw that Alice was bound to hers both by the circumstances which forced her into continued relation with it, and by the traces it had left on her nature" (393).
Waythorn's opinion of his wife is changed but not deepened by this revelation, for she simply becomes a different kind of possession to him. At first, he thought of her as a rare object "whom Gus Varick had unearthed somewhere" (381). He believes that her outward poise reflects her inner life, and he basks in the comfort of her attentions. After close association with her previous husbands, however, Waythorn scorns Alice, likening her to a common thing. "She was 'as easy as an old shoe,'" he thinks, "a shoe that too many feet had worn" (393). At this point for Waythorn, Alice no longer possesses an essential self: "Alice Haskett—Alice Varick—Alice Waythorn—she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides" (393). Waythorn thus considers himself only a partial investor in Alice; he "compared himself to a member of a syndicate. He held so many shares in his wife's personality and his predecessors were his partners in the business" (393). From being an object that belonged to him exclusively, Alice has changed for Waythorn into a "third of a wife" in which he owns stock.
By perceiving of her as an object or an investment, Waythorn denies to Alice the possibility of an essential identity. Only his valuation of her matters to him, a valuation that she must constantly seek to maintain. "The Other Two" is not merely, as R. W. B. Lewis terms it, a "comedy of manners" (134); it is, rather, an indication of the ways by which a woman is divested of a coherent sense of self when she must always act in accordance with a man's expectations. White argues that "when she is viewed independently of Waythorn," Alice presents "an identity in shreds" (16).
Ironically, of course, a judgmental Waythorn is blind to his own limitations. He does not perceive the full meaning of Alice's reactions upon her meeting with both Haskett and Varick in the library. Surprised to see her ex-husbands in the same room with her current spouse, Alice betrays her emotions. Although she greets Varick "with a distinct note of pleasure," the sight of Haskett causes her "smile" to fade "for a moment" (395-96). She quickly regains her mask, however, and Waythorn remains oblivious to his wife's true feelings. Both Waythorn and Alice, the reader eventually discerns, are locked into fixed roles. They are not husband and wife but collector and possession. Waythorn has enough discernment to appreciate Alice's "value" to him, but his utilitarian viewpoint prevents him from appreciating any of her possibly unique qualities.
The terror of discovering oneself at the mercy of societal dictates afflicts both male and female characters in Wharton's stories. The male protagonist of "The Line of Least Resistance" (1900), for instance, discovers the social costs of divorcing an unfaithful wife and recognizes his lack of freedom. More often, however, Wharton's social victims are intelligent women who recognize society's deleterious effect on their personal development. Such is the case with Mrs. Clement Westall in "The Reckoning" (1902) who is stripped of legal identity and emotional security when her husband asks for a divorce in order to marry another woman. In an equally evocative story, Mrs. Vervain of "The Dilettante" (1903) is forced to confront her vacant sense of self.
For seven years, Vervain has been the subject of Thursdale's oppressive training in emotional reticence and equivocation. Thursdale prides himself on his apt pupil: "He had taught a good many women not to betray their feelings, but he had never before had such fine material to work with" (412). The story begins with Thursdale about to meet with Mrs. Vervain to discuss his fiancée, Miss Gaynor. Thursdale loves Miss Gaynor, in part because she cannot control her emotions. He has introduced his fiancée to his pupil and been delighted by the "naturalness with which Mrs. Vervain had met Miss Gaynor" (412). Of course, Mrs. Vervain's "natural" reaction was to suppress her own feelings, and Thursdale once again goes to her to continue their game. Upon entering the familiar house, Thursdale notes "the drawing room [which] at once enveloped him in that atmosphere of tacit intelligence which Mrs. Vervain imparted to her very furniture" (413). Introduced early as a metaphor for Mrs. Vervain herself, this room will be instrumental in her ultimate self-revelation.
"The Dilettante" has been interpreted as a "feminist revenge story" in that Mrs. Vervain succeeds by tricking Thursdale into revealing an undisguised emotion, and—perhaps—gains a triumph by ending his engagement with Miss Gaynor (White 59). Mrs. Vervain tells Thursdale that Miss Gaynor has come to visit a second time, and in his anxious desire to learn the outcome of that visit, Thursdale declares, "You know I'm absurdly in love" (414). Further twisting the knife, Mrs. Vervain confronts Thursdale with his sin of withholding a genuine affection from her. But although she informs him plainly that he "alwayshated … to have things happen: you never would let them," Thursdale, from whose point of view the story unfolds, misses her implication, considering her words to be "incoherent" (415). Mrs. Vervain tells Thursdale that Miss Gaynor has come to her to discover whether she and Thursdale had been lovers. When Mrs. Vervain tells the truth—that she and Thursdale have never had a sexual relationship—Miss Gaynor appears disappointed. She has apparently looked into Thursdale's "past" for evidence of a genuine passion, but having found none, Mrs. Vervain intimates, Miss Gaynor will likely break her engagement. Naturally, Thursdale despairs until Mrs. Vervain offers a potential solution. She urges him to lie about their relationship, to suggest that they have indeed been lovers. She offers him, in short, her social reputation, and the offer momentarily strips away all pretenses: "It was extraordinary how a few words had swept them from an atmosphere of the most complex dissimulations to this contact of naked souls" (418). For once, they have shown their true feelings.
The ambiguous ending complicates the story, making it difficult to accept revenge as its subject7. It is not certain whether Miss Gaynor has in fact visited Mrs. Vervain a second time or whether she has sent a letter to Thursdale to break off their engagement. Mrs. Vervain could have fabricated the entire incident, and it is she who suggests that Miss Gaynor may have written to Thursdale. Nor is it certain that Thursdale intends to break the engagement himself, lest he turn Miss Gaynor into another Mrs. Vervain. Thus both the success of Mrs. Vervain's revenge and the possibility of Thursdale's moral growth are left in doubt.
A more obvious theme inheres in the story's last sentence, which occurs after Thursdale leaves: "The door closed on him, and she hid her eyes from the dreadful emptiness of the room" (419). Representing her inner self, the "empty" drawing room forces Mrs. Vervain to acknowledge her lack of individuality. The social propriety she and Thursdale have practiced has led Mrs. Vervain to suppress emotion and passion, to deny the expression of any personal desire that could make her unique. In her drawing room, a barren site devoid of warmth, Mrs. Vervain recognizes a confinement of spirit. By internalizing Thursdale's training never to betray an emotion, she comes to betray herself. Set within a single room that takes on metaphorical significance, "The Dilettante" deftly merges form and theme.
Wharton's highly praised "Souls Belated" (1899) is perhaps her best illustration of the social restrictions women and men encounter when they try to establish a relationship outside of marriage. The story's naturalism is evident, as both main characters, Lydia and Gannett, have their personal freedom curtailed by social decorum. The first story by Wharton to make extensive use of the "prison cell" metaphor (Lewis 87), "Souls Belated" presents a female character who desires an identity outside of the socially determined one, but who is ultimately imprisoned by social approval.
Lydia, whose lack of a last name figures her absence of identity (White 58), has been living with Gannett, a successful writer not her husband. Her divorce from Tillotson has just been granted, so she is presumably free to marry Gannett. But for Lydia, independence lies in not having to marry, in not having to follow the staid morality of society. She becomes angry when Gannett assumes that she will indeed marry him. Instead, she intends to pursue her version of personal liberty. Marriage to Tillotson revealed to her the dreary obligation of "doing exactly the same thing every day at the same hour" (106). Meeting Gannett relieves her of this "dull" life, and she revels in a new-found freedom, even though she pretends "to look upon him as the instrument of her liberation" (107) when in fact she recognizes that to be truly free she must leave Gannett. Lydia is fully aware that social propriety restricts her individuality, but she remains committed to living according to her own code. "Of course one acts as one can," she tells Gannett, "as one must, perhaps—pulled by all sorts of invisible threads; but at least one needn't pretend, for social advantages, to subscribe to a creed that ignores the complexity of human Motives—that classifies people by arbitrary signs, and puts it in every-body's reach to be on Mrs. Tillotson's visiting list" (110-11). As this passage suggests, Lydia resists social determinism, its iron grip of propriety, its insistence on uniformity, and its desire to render people in the simplest of terms.
Although to express her autonomy Lydia refuses to marry Gannett, nevertheless she soon finds herself trapped in a naturalist environment. At the Hotel Bellosguardo, the other guests assume she is married to Gannett, and she does not disabuse them of that assumption. The hotel's social order is policed by Lady Susan Condit who presupposes that Lydia is Mrs. Gannett. Lydia's security is threatened, however, when Mrs. Cope tries to blackmail her into revealing what Cope's young companion, Lord Trevenna, has revealed to Gannett. Knowledge is the source of Mrs. Cope's power over her young lord; she needs to control him to ensure he will marry her once her divorce is final. Perceiving that she and Lydia are "both in the same box," (118) Mrs. Cope threatens to expose the truth that Lydia and Gannett are not married. Even after Mrs. Cope's threat is averted, however, Lydia realizes that she enjoys the security of respectability, even though having to pretend she is married belies her sense of freedom. Gannett again asks her to marry him, but she refuses, knowing that society will still reject her because she has been married before. To society she will appear to be a social pariah whom Gannett has rehabilitated.
The story's last section alters the point of view by narrating events from Gannett's perspective instead of Lydia's, one of the few instances in Wharton's short fiction of a change in focalization. The effect creates more distance between Lydia and the reader. But as we see her from the outside only, Lydia's restriction comes sharply into focus (White 59). As she tries to leave Gannett, he watches from a window while she retreats from the steam launch and returns to the hotel. Implying that they will be married, the story's ending intimates that Lydia will have to give up not caring about society's opinion, which has been the principal expression of her desire for a free will.
This last section of the story also allows the sympathy Gannett feels for Lydia to register keenly with the reader. Earlier in the story Gannett appears incapable of understanding Lydia's arguments for personal freedom; as the narration dryly notes, "Nothing is more perplexing to a man than the mental process of a woman who reasons her emotions" (111). But watching her from the window, Gannett perceives "the cruelty he had committed in detaching her from the normal conditions of life" (125). Gannett may certainly be taking too much credit for ending Lydia's marriage and severing her from "normal" social relations, but he does sympathize with her limited choices: "Even had his love lessened, he was bound to her now by a hundred ties of pity and self-reproach; and she, poor child, must turn back to him as Latude returned to his cell" (125). While aware that he and Lydia are "two separate beings," Gannett nevertheless recognizes the hard fact of their being "bound together in a noyade of passion that left them resisting yet clinging as they went down" (125).
The story's title implies the pathos of Gannett's and Lydia's "belated" attempt to live independently of social opinion, thereby possessing their souls. In the end, they will presumably travel to Paris to be married, for neither of them can resist society's pressure to conform. At one point early in the story, Lydia expressed their mutual contempt for conformity:
"We neither of us believe in the abstract 'sacredness' of marriage; we both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each other; what object can we have in marrying, except the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back gradually—oh, very gradually—into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated?"
Even in a hotel as remote as the Bellosguardo that "conventional morality" prevails, denying independent action and the prerogatives of self-definition.
In these stories, Wharton's social or drawing-room naturalism poignantly dramatizes the struggle of individuals to resist a socially constructed sense of self. That struggle for individuality occurs amid impersonal social forces that prevent self-definition. Confined in drawing-rooms and in the compressed space of the short story form itself, Wharton's characters are often abruptly stripped of their affected autonomy. As a result, her characters have more in common with the powerless naturalist character that Lee Clark Mitchell identifies than with realist characters who exhibit mastery over, or at least successfully negotiate, social forces.
Wharton understood, furthermore, that characters in short stories are by necessity more limited than characters in novels. Yet, for Wharton this requirement offers a thematic opportunity in that she is able to use her short story characters as symbols of socially determined lives. Recently, narrative theorists have argued that characters in short stories may be interpreted more readily as symbols than characters in novels. Charles E. May, for example, argues that characters in short fiction are often "symbolic projections" that serve aesthetic and thematic functions (66-7). These characters frequently act according to the needs of a story's plot and theme, becoming "stylized figures rather than 'real people'" (64). As a naturalist writer, Wharton is interested in portraying static, socially determined characters without an essential identity, figures of determinism. This portrayal is assisted by the short story's formal requirements vis-à-vis characterization8.
Social determinism remains a consistent theme in Wharton's stories throughout her career, as she continued to take advantage of the short story's compressed form to dramatize the limited inner lives of her characters and their inability to control personal destiny9. Wharton shared this struggle for autonomy with her protagonists, but she eventually discovered freedom in the creation of art. She found a way "to do" and not simply "to be". On the small canvas of much of her short fiction, however, Wharton's characters are arrested in passive poses while nonetheless offering an appeal to the reader's sympathy. Readers of these stories may share with characters such as Lydia and Gannett the disturbing recognition of an illusory free will, of the absence of hope for a unified selfhood.
- Shari Benstock provides a different view of Wharton's childhood and her mother's reaction to her desire to "make up" stories and to play as a "tomboy," 20-21.
- This painting, done by Edward Harrison May, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. It is dated 1870, but Benstock identifies Edith's age as five years, (13).
- Page references refer to volume one of R. W. B. Lewis's edition of Wharton's collected stories.
- Lee Clark Mitchell argues persuasively for the essential difference between autonomous and self-defining realist characters and passive naturalist characters whose sense of self is determined by external circumstance, 1-33.
- See Howard and Rachel Bowlby on naturalist novels as spectacle.
- On the self-importance of Wharton's male characters, see Elsa Nettels, 252.
- Indeed, White ultimately rejects the revenge theme entirely, 59.
- See also Suzanne Hunter Brown's theory that the "[t]echnical factors" of short stories "lead many short-story writers to project an individual's nature as an essential given," 199.
- See, for example, the often anthologized "Roman Fever" (1934) in which a woman's actions, inspired by jealously and hatred, result in a sudden realization that strips her of an assumed superiority.
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Bowlby, Rachel. Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola. New York: Methuen, 1985.
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May, Charles E. "Metaphoric Motivation in Short Fiction: 'In the Beginning Was the Story.'" Short Story Theory at a Crossroads. Ed. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989. 62-73.
Merish, Lori. "Engendering Naturalism: Narrative Form and Commodity Spectacle in U. S. Naturalist Fiction." Novel 29 (1996): 319-45.
Mitchell, Lee Clark. Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.
Nettels, Elsa. "Gender and First-Person Narration in Edith Wharton's Short Fiction." Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. Ed. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit. New York: Garland, 1992. 245-60.
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1934.
——. The Collected Stories of Edith Wharton. Vol. 1. Ed. R. W. B. Lewis. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968.
——. The Letters of Edith Wharton. Ed. R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. New York: Collier Books, 1988.
——. The Writing of Fiction. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.
White, Barbara A. Edith Wharton: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1991.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. 2nd ed. Reading, Mass.: Merloyd Lawrence, 1995.