Wharton, Edith: Title Commentary

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Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome


SOURCE: Marchand, Mary V. "Cross Talk: Edith Wharton and the New England Women Regionalists." Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 30 (2001): 369-95.

In the following essay, Marchand explores the gendered nature of the style and theme of Ethan Frome, contrasting the novel's representation of women's culture with the literary aesthetics and feminist politics of early twentieth-century New England female regional writers.

To read through the contemporary reviews of Edith Wharton's work is to be struck by the contradictory assessments of her attitude toward her female characters. It is not unusual to find among reviews of the same novel praise for Wharton's "sympathetic delineation of her heroine's character, her acute analysis of women's minds," and the complaint that these "pictures of American women for harshness of uncharity are difficult to parallel."1 Equally open to dispute, apparently, was the gender of her writing. In their chapter on Wharton in Some Modern Novelists (1918), Helen and Wilson Follett allude to a long-standing debate over whether Wharton, "of all women, [writes] most like a man" (291). For the Folletts, the putative masculine qualities of Wharton's fiction—its balance, asperity, detachment—are "but a species of protective coloring adopted in order to escape being obviously a woman" (292). Her fiction, they conclude, "escapes the limitations of both sexes, of sex itself. It is fundamentally sexless" (200). More recently, feminist scholars have clarified how Wharton's representations of women issue from her "argument with America," to use Elizabeth Ammons's fine phrase, her sympathetic, complex and often deeply pessimistic assessment of the plight of American women. And yet Wharton scholarship continues to exhibit a startling array of conclusions regarding Wharton's women. Janet Malcolm's characterization of Wharton as "the woman who hated women," and of her work as pervaded with "profound misogyny," has been largely dismissed as bizarre and capricious, and yet not all objections to Wharton are of this cruder variety. Among the more sophisticated is James W. Tuttleton's argument that the sweeping nature of Wharton's satire and her social conservatism resist any lopsided account of her social and political views.2 In light of the ambiguities surrounding both Wharton's attitudes toward women and the "sex" of her own writing, it is perhaps not surprising that several recent critics have discovered in the Demeter-Persephone myth an apt text for understanding Wharton's mind and work.3 This image of the daughter who divides her year between the world of the mother and the province of the father, which appears throughout Wharton's own writings, implicitly allows us to both view her as one of then "key figures" in the feminist debates of her day (Ammons, Argument ix) and acknowledge certain stubborn facts, including the revelation by her most recent biographer that when she endowed a scholarship for students of design she stipulated that the recipient be male: women had "much better stay at home and mind the baby" (qtd. in Benstock 387). All of this taken together begins to suggest why Wharton's work continues to represent a challenge to feminist criticism.

I want to argue that the vexed question of Wharton's representations of women and her ties to the feminist debates of her day cannot be adequately posed apart from investigation of her rival affiliations as an elite cultural critic and as a woman writer with high art ambitions. The burden of my argument is that certain developments in both the argument for women's rights and against the spread of what Henry Canby would decry as "vast," "engulfing" middlebrow culture irrevocably complicated the commitments of writers like Wharton who had ties to both the feminist and cultural debates of her day. In contrast to an earlier generation, who generally linked political emancipation to the ideal of the assimilated woman, many in this generation of activists articulated their vision of women's rights in terms of the superior contributions of womanliness to the public sphere. It was precisely the intolerable prospect of the widening influence of the "feminine" in public life that stimulated antifeminist rhetoric among the cultural elite, who tended in their writings to conflate the political demands of activists with the undisciplined feminine tastes linked to the spread of middle- and lowbrow culture. This overlap between sexual and cultural politics gave rise to "cross talk" between the two; because the debate over the political uses of women's culture also concerned the boundaries between high-and lowbrow tastes, these sexual and cultural politics continually interfered with one another. This volatile cross talk characterizes much of Wharton's fiction, its presence shaping and disrupting her representations of women and her attitude toward the presence of the feminine in American politics and letters.

Many of these tensions are played out in Wharton's relationship with New England women writers, whose regionalist fiction came to Wharton as an active term in these tense overlapping debates concerning the political and aesthetic standing of women's culture. Cross talk finds its virtual embodiment in her 1911 novel Ethan Frome, which much more closely reads and rewrites the tradition of New England women writers than previously recognized. Wharton's acerbic reflections on these women writers are well known, as is her claim, renewed over the years, that her own small body of New England fiction was written in response to their writings. And while a few critics have pursued the broader significance of Wharton's claim to revise the local color tradition, this essay explores how meaning in Ethan Frome accrues through an elaborate system of differences from these regionalist texts. The novel's polemical intertextuality, which I argue ultimately entangles Wharton in telling contradictions and challenges current understandings of both the gendering of Ethan Frome and Wharton's place in the gendering of literary history.

I. The Politics and Aesthetics of Women's Culture

The nature of Wharton's feminism clearly depends on the historical character of the arguments available to her. Restoring some of the complexity to these arguments entails distinguishing between the more conservative rhetoric of so-called social feminists4 and the radicalism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Harriot Stanton Blatch, and others. The various positions activists maintained frequently turned on the controversial question of the role of women's culture in furthering one or another of "woman's causes." Largely acquiescing in the premise of essential sex differences and sexually determined roles, social feminists sought to enlarge these roles by appealing to the potentially superior contributions of women's culture to the public sphere. We see this gender consciousness reflected in Rheta Childe Dorr's assertion in What Eight Million Women Want (1910) that "women now form a new social group, separate, and to a degree homogenous"; "they have evolved a group opinion and a group ideal" (5). In translating domestic virtues to serve a larger context, social feminists, including many suffragists (social feminists included "antis" as well), had the force of progressive ideology behind them. Having taken up the social policy issues and public services that were once the province of women, a newly domesticated state bolstered in turn the activists' claims that women were uniquely fitted to serve the state as Municipal Housekeepers.5 As suffrage historian Aileen Kraditor observes of this crucial alignment of progressive and sexual politics, the cultural piety that "home was woman's sphere was now an argument not against women suffrage but in favor of it, for government was now 'enlarged housekeeping'" (68).

While scholars continue to dispute the compatibility of women's culture and feminist politics,6 the decision among "sex-conscious feminists," as one dissenting suffragist called them, to take the "sex line" was a storm center in Wharton's day as well. Where social feminists accepted in large part received notions of sex differences, often, in fact, emphasizing them, Gilman, for example, considered most of these differences manifestations of "excessive sex-distinction."7 Where social feminists demanded equality on the basis of their essential womanliness, Gilman argued for women's rights on the conviction that "the whole area of human life is outside of, and irrelevant to, the distinctions of sex" (Home 217). Gilman's conviction that centuries-long economic dependence had crippled women also put her deeply at odds with social feminists over the sensitive issue of the present state of women's culture. Where social feminists propounded the alternative virtues of women's culture and female values to an acquisitive nation, Gilman argued that because her "economic position is reactionary and unjust," woman "reacts injuriously upon industry, upon art, upon science, discovery, and progress" (120).

Wharton's work suggests that she shared many of Gilman's assumptions. Like Gilman, her partial repudiation of essentialism sharpened her skepticism about whether the politics of women's culture could contribute to any real adjustment in women's status. Social feminist separatist strategies and their limitations emerge as the major theme in Wharton's chapter on "Frenchwomen and Their Ways" in French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), which insists that despite "her 'boards' and clubs and sororities, her public investigation of everything under the heavens from the 'social evil' to baking-powder, and from 'physical culture' to the newest esoteric religion," the American woman is "a Montessori infant" who lives in a "kindergarten" (101). For Wharton the salient feature of these "seemingly influential lives" and "independent activities" is that they are all conducted in a separate female realm, where women are confined in "improved" public but no less restrictive surroundings. She subsequently points out, through the example of French women of various classes, the benefits that accrue for women when the sexes are instead fully integrated. Among members of the leisure class, it is the salon that promotes an extraordinary degree of interaction between the sexes, based as it is "on the belief that the most stimulating conversation in the world is that between intelligent men and women who see each other often enough to be on terms of frank and easy friendship" (117). Together with Susan Goodman's arresting portrait of Wharton as the "extraordinary" woman in an otherwise male circle of intimates, these glowing tributes to acts of individualist assimilation and integration into male institutions suggest just how deeply at odds Wharton was with the values of women's culture.

But the debate over women's culture arose simultaneously in another context. Lawrence W. Levine's and Paul DiMaggio's historical studies of the "sacralization" of the arts reveal the growing chasm between highbrow and lowbrow culture. Partly in response to social developments associated with modernity, including the new reign of money (embodied for Wharton in the colossal fortunes and philistine tastes of the "invaders from Pittsburgh," the "barbarians from the West"), the old bourgeoisie sought to define "legitimate" culture that they could control. Wharton is in many ways exemplary of the elite cultural critic. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ways her views on the artist and intellectual as guardian of high culture come to involve her in a tendency to stigmatize low- and middlebrow tastes as feminine.

While it is true, as Tania Modleski has observed, that images of women and the feminine seem invariably to turn up at the center of explanations for the debasement of tastes, there is also an historically specific basis for the gender inscriptions of this era's cultural criticism: the first mass women's movement. What especially interests me is that the spread of low- and middlebrow culture, persistently described in terms of a feminine threat, is somehow associated with the prospect of women's emancipation. What seems clear is that the presence of a politicized women's culture—the power of this new social group, in Dorr's words, to advance feminine values, opinions, and ideals—fed high art anxiety over the boundaries between high and low culture, and suggests why elite critics tended in their writings to collapse women's political demands with the feminine presence that ostensibly threatened the conditions surrounding the production and consumption of high art in America. There is a kind of confusion in the writings of many conservative intellectuals at turn of the century, but one that becomes intelligible in light of the cross talk between the gender inscriptions of the era's political and aesthetic struggles. It is precisely because the culture circulated both a feminist critique of women's culture and antifeminist rhetoric directed against women's share in the decline of taste, that challenging the politics of women's culture left Wharton vulnerable to antifeminist appropriation.

Recognizing the vexed relationship between Wharton's feminism and her cultural criticism returns us to Ethan Frome with a new awareness of how this cross talk shaped her response to the New England women writers, a tradition that, by its subject, was inscribed at the intersection of these debates.

II. Wharton and the New England Authoresses

In an introduction to a 1922 edition of Ethan Frome, Wharton indicates that she conceived of the novel as a corrective to the fiction of the local colorists, whose work she felt had only "a vague botanical and dialectical […] resemblance to the harsh and beautiful landscape," a landscape she knew from her years living and touring in the Berkshires. And again in A Backward Glance (1934), Wharton recalls that both Ethan Frome and Summer were formed in reaction to the "roseand-lavender productions" of New England's "favourite authoresses" (1003). She writes, "For years I had wanted to draw life as it really was … utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett" (1002). While these remarks are well known, critics have tended to either interpret them loosely or discount them altogether as disingenuous.8 And indeed, the problem with Wharton's alleged contrast between her own grim story and that of the local colorists is that Wharton singles out Jewett and Wilkins, whose fiction adheres to the tenets of realism.

However, recent scholarship on American women regionalists, which has clarified the extent to which their work forms a distinct and coherent tradition,9 a tradition that relies on what Josephine Donovan has called a "feminine literary mode" in its depictions of a rich, women-based culture, brings to light a central impulse behind Ethan Frome, one until now not sufficiently clear: Wharton's novel is both a structural and thematic response to the matrifocality of these regionalist texts. It is, inextricably, an aesthetic and political response; this popular tradition of women's writing at once embodies the feminist strategies Wharton opposed and constituted one source of the feminine presence in arts and letters that she and other elite critics repudiated.

I argue that Ethan Frome rewrites many of the shared conventions of regionalist fiction, but there are good reasons to suspect that she was more narrowly responding to Jewett's work. Few authors were as closely identified with this tradition as Jewett, whose 1896 novel The Country of the Pointed Firs was hailed early on as a masterpiece of the genre. Moreover, as Richard Brodhead reveals, Jewett shared Wharton's high art aspirations. In Culture of Letters, his illuminating account of this tradition's location in late nineteenth-century social and cultural space, he demonstrates that regional writing was a project exquisitely attuned to the needs of the upper class. For elite readers of the Atlantic and Harper's, fictional excursions in coastal Maine and rural Vermont performed the important cultural work of allowing these readers to "rehears[e] the leisured outlook that differentiated [them] as a social group" (144). In Brodhead's account, Jewett and a small circle of intellectuals and artists formed a women's community that was not separate from the high art literary establishment but "nested" in it (156). But if Jewett challenged the (masculinist) norms that limited the woman artist's access to high culture, she did so under distinctly feminine auspices, an aspect of her work and career that Brodhead tends to underplay. Again and again in the reviews of her fiction, one encounters views like those expressed by Edward Garnett in a 1903 essay, in which Jewett's art is embraced as "exceedingly feminine." "She has that characteristically feminine patience with human nature which is intimately enrooted in a mother's feeling" (qtd. in Sherman 266).

In this light, Jewett came to Wharton as a figure with the admixture of sameness and difference that would compel Wharton not, as Brod-head suggests, to sidestep Jewett, the sketch, and the regional subject (175), but to engage them head on. In almost every dimension, Ethan Frome reveals its intertextual dependence. As many critics have observed of the matrifocality of the New England women regionalists' texts, despite the significant differences among them, they all point towards a conception of women's community more fully realized than that of any previous generation of women writers. Their work repeatedly inscribes a compelling vision of a female realm, what Donovan in New England Local Color Literature has broadly characterized as a "counter world of their own, a rural realm that existed on the margins of patriarchal society, a world that nourished strong, free women" (3). This vision culminates in Pointed Firs, where the absent, dead, or taciturn men only serve to highlight the richness of the community of single and widowed women, a community traditionally marginalized in the romantic novel. In her deepening relationship with Dunnet Landing's two great matriarchs, Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Blackett, the urban female narrator learns, and we through her, that in Marjorie Pryse's words, "there still exists a country—a world—where the vision of women is not only vital, but can be shared" ("Introduction" xix).

In Ethan Frome, Wharton subverts this vision of a benevolent rural matriarchy. If New England women's fiction took as its premise that the country is a place where "strong, authentic women flourished" (Donovan 104), in Starkfield not only do both men and women falter, but the effects of rural life are strangely magnified and turn threatening in the women. We learn that Ethan's mother "got queer and dragged along for years weak as a baby" when the stage stopped traveling past the Frome farmstead (68). The details of Zeena's own obscure illnesses are too well known to need recounting, and yet Ethan observes of her case that it is merely the most notable in a "community rich in pathological instances" (98). When Zeena grows increasingly taciturn, he wonders if, like his mother, she too is "turning queer": "Women did, he knew. Zeena, who had at her fingers' end the pathological chart of the whole region, had cited many cases of the kind while she was nursing his mother; and he himself knew of certain lonely farm-houses in the neighborhood where stricken creatures pined, and of others where sudden tragedy came of their presences" (99). Here Wharton characterizes women's sickliness as decidedly threatening, and the sympathetic image of "stricken creatures" turns ominous with Ethan's recollections that these women brought "sudden tragedy" to their households.

Ethan immediately associates Zeena with these darkly mysterious tragedies; he observes her "shut face" and feels the "chill of forebodings" (99). And certainly her psychosomatic illnesses bring a measure of tragedy to their marriage, forestalling his plans to move to a larger city (98), depleting their meager funds in her "therapeutic excursions," and ultimately furnishing Zeena with unassailable grounds for dismissing Mattie from the household. Nearly every female character, however, is subject to Wharton's insistence on projecting the rural matriarchite as a menacing community of women. This insistence is most evident in Mattie's transformation. The prevailing narrative tension, which derives from the explicit and forcible contrast between Zeena's gray, pinched aspect and Mattie's rosy beauty, is grotesquely resolved in the novel's vivid final tableaux, where the two women are rendered indistinguishable. Here the lines are no longer drawn with Mattie and Ethan on one side and sadistic Zeena on the other; it is clearly Ethan "shut up there'n that one kitchen" with two embittered women (155). As Ammons observes, this scene projects Zeena and Mattie as one woman, as the witch or shrew (Argument 66). Mattie in effect becomes Zeena, much as Zeena replaces Ethan's mother. Together these women fall under the category of "queer" women whose presence brings tragedy.

In this context, even Ethan's encounters with genial old Mrs. Hale, whose sympathetic words check him in mid-flight from Starkfield, and the widow Homan, whose prescient query when Ethan buys glue from her—"I hope Zeena ain't broken anything she sets store by" (115)—only sharpens his dread of Zeena discovering that her prize pickle dish was broken during his dinner alone with Mattie, assume a threatening aspect. The community of women in Jewett's novel, for whom "tact is after all a kind of mindreading" (46), and whose "constant interest and intercourse" have forged "golden chains of love and dependence" (90), becomes in Wharton's hands a community of women that seemingly act in concert to expose the romantic subplot and head off the male protagonist's escape from village life. To focus too narrowly on Zeena or discount the harsh depiction of women as expressive of male fears ignores the disturbing implication that women in general finally entrap Ethan; it ignores as well the novel's concluding sentiment, uttered, after all, not by the male narrator but by Mrs. Hale.10 She compares the Fromes "up at the farm" with the Fromes "down in the graveyard" and grimly concludes that at least "down there […] the women have got to hold their tongues" (156).

For many women regionalists, the imagined world of women's community is strengthened by and sustains in turn rural traditions of folk knowledge. The opposition between rural and urban life frequently finds literary expression in what Donovan describes as the deep tensions between women's preindustrial forms of knowledge—herbology, witchcraft, mysticism—and the male scientific-technological knowledge that "threatened to recolonize the matriarchal world of the New England local colorists forever" (New England236). These ancient matriarchal powers are famously embodied in Mrs. Todd, the "Sybil" and herbalist at the center of Pointed Firs. Her "rustic pharmacopoeia," with its mysterious plants and pungent odors, resonates for the narrator with "a dim sense and remembrance of something in the forgotten past [… of] sacred and mystic rites, and […] some occult knowledge handed with them down the centuries" (3-4). Jewett and other women regionalists understood women's collective life to take shape through these shared forms of knowledge, and the narrative is crisscrossed by and organized around visits to and by Mrs. Todd to dispense advice and herbs to the women of Dunnet Landing.

In Ethan Frome, Wharton retains this association between women and rural traditions of healing only to turn it on its head. We need to recognize in Zeena's nursing skills (98), Mrs. Hale's "doctoring," her "authority on symptoms and treatment" (99), and the community "rich in pathological cases," Wharton's ferocious satire of the occult knowledge promoted by Jewett and others as an important facet of the vitality of community life. Through Zeena in particular, Wharton satirizes the tradition of women's healing as the other side of a hypochondriacal concern for one's own health. While Ethan is initially "shamed and dazzled" by Zeena's mastery of the sick-bed duties (97), Wharton subsequently exposes her interest in medicine as neurotic, her knowledge acquired from "absorbed observation of her own symptoms" (98). Wharton seems to have grasped what the women local colorists perhaps perceived only implicitly, that these rural traditions of knowledge formed the basis for matriarchal power, and Zeena's power over Ethan derives almost entirely from her familiarity with the rituals of illness and death. Her efficient handling of the duties surrounding his mother's sickness and death instills in Ethan a sense of gratitude mingled with obligation, "magnif[ying] his sense of what he owed her" (97). Zeena further uses the authority of her mysterious illness both to bring Mattie to the farm and then to send her away when she recognizes her as a rival. Throughout the novel, woman's involvement with illness and death is systematically portrayed as destructive, and women's lore, which operates in Jewett's novel to create a community, as collective neurosis.

For many women regionalists, the tensions between rural and urban, between women's traditions and male scientific-industrial knowledge, were irreconcilable. In this, Wharton concurs. Matriarchal authority flourishes only in the absence of technology, either in Starkfield the rural pocket of twenty years ago or Starkfield of the present day, when, as the narrator observes, winter effectively rolls back progress. Wharton registers rural women's resistance to the encroaching modern world in Zeena's refusal to leave Stark-field for a larger city, where she would "suffer a complete loss of identity," an identity that we are told derives entirely from her "sickliness" (98). Rural women's traditions are indeed threatened by the modern world, Wharton implies, but it is a loss of identity she refuses to romanticize.

The vision in Pointed Firs of rural Maine as a counterreality to urban life can be traced back to the woman visitor-narrator. A frequent device in this body of women's fiction, the figure of the "insider-outsider" suggests what Pryse has described as the modern woman's "metaphysical isolation," her alienation from the female-identified realm ("Introduction xi"). This distance is subsequently diminished through the narrative's invocation of community life. An ambivalent member of the modern world, the narrator of Pointed Firs discovers a women's community that has retained much of its preindustrial character, and thus its potency, and she discovers in the oracular Mrs. Todd no less than "a force of Nature [that] gave her cousinship to the ancient deities" (199). As part of the process of reconnecting with this world of the ancestral mothers—a process she compares to falling in love (1)—she serves as erstwhile apprentice to her landlady, temporarily setting aside her own work in order to imbibe Mrs. Todd's folk wisdom, attend to the community's stories, and participate in its rites.

In polemical contrast to New England women's fiction, where the vision of a transcendent female realm frequently issues from the woman visitor's own yearning for female ties, Ethan Frome 's male visitor-narrator is primed for sympathetic identification with the male protagonist, who shares many of his "tastes and acquirements," including an interest in science and technology (70). Most importantly, he identifies with Ethan's thwarted ambition to escape village life, his touchingly modest aspiration to "live in town, where there were lectures and big libraries and 'fellows doing things'" (98). The novel is set in motion not, as in Jewett's work, by the narrator's desire to partake of "rustic simplicities," but by his determination to learn what hindered Ethan's flight from Starkfield (66).

This unapologetic representative of modern technology, an engineer whose stay in Starkfield is connected with his job at a nearby power station, Wharton's narrator is the very figure women local colorists decried as the "burglar in paradise" (Donovan, New England 120) and he exhibits none of the woman visitor's nostalgia for rural life. In his attitude towards the pastoral myth, Wharton seizes on the chance to neatly invert the poles of New England local color fiction. Progress, growth, the technology available to rural locations: these developments, he argues, bring life to small towns, and when winter temporarily turns back progress, the inhabitants must confront once again the void, the "negation" of life (65). Wharton transvalues the regionalists' opposition between rural and urban, but she leaves the gendering of this dialectic intact, consistently identifying the male characters with scientific-industrial knowledge and suggesting that the bonds between men are formed on the basis of this knowledge. A shared interest in engineering supplies the initial and vital tie between Ethan and the narrator, and borrowing the visitor's volume of popular science affords Ethan a rare and liberating glimpse of the modern world outside Starkfield's narrow confines. So, too, a year of physics at Worcester technological college has left a deep impression that is indissolubly connected with images of male mentors, of the "friendly professor of physics" who helped Ethan in the lab, and the minister who befriended him and lent him books. The patriarchal forms of knowledge that the regionalists decried as the greatest threat to the female sanctuary, Wharton projects as her protagonist's only means of escape from this realm.

A final trace of the novel's thematic connections with local color fiction appears in the images of women as failed housekeepers and in the scenes of failed domesticity. The novel repeatedly encourages the reader to assess the female characters in light of domestic virtues. While Ethan initially perceives Zeena as possessing "all the household wisdom that his long apprenticeship had not instilled in him" (97), every trace of this wisdom disappears with the onset of her illness. Nor does Mattie exhibit any of the traditional domestic talents. Ethan sees her at certain key points as a paragon of household efficiency, but this is largely belied by his own observation that while love may awaken "a dormant instinct" in her, Mattie had "no natural turn for housekeeping. […] Domesticity in the abstract did not interest her" (80). Wharton suggests the failure of domesticity in the image of the farmstead's squalid kitchen. Even with Zeena's absence, when the kitchen appears "warm and bright," Ethan characterizes it as a "poor place, not 'spruce' and shining as his mother had kept it in his boyhood" (96). The narrator's sentiments echo Ethan's when he renders his first impression of the Frome kitchen. "Even for that part of the country," he observes, it "was a poor-looking place" (152). This is all by way of preparing us for Mrs. Hale's final pronouncement on the tragedy: "It's bad enough to see the two women sitting there—but his face, when he looks around that bare place, just kills me. […] You see, I can look back and call it up in his mother's day, before their troubles" (154). In its implication that Ethan's suffering is best gauged by the bleakness of his kitchen, the remark reflects how the text repeatedly measures the tragedy against domestic norms.

Here, too, understanding the significance Wharton attaches to the image of the home as a "poor-looking place" entails giving full weight to her declared intention of writing against New England women's fiction. In "Distilling Essences: Regionalism and Women's Culture," Pryse has shown how women's culture as rendered by the regionalists effectively dismantles the concept of home as women's proper place and of "mother" as defined by separate spheres ideology. In these texts, she argues, women have turned to "domesticating public space" (7), and "mother" has become a "model of generativity that links generations," a model that moves motherhood beyond biology (10-11). We see this put to startling effect in Pointed Firs, where women's domesticity has little to do with men, marriage, or even children. This strategy is reflected as well in the representation of Mrs. Todd, "mateless and appealing" (131), but also in the portrayal of her mother, Mrs. Blackett. On one level, their lives of sewing, visiting, cooking, nurturing, and healing are fully consonant with traditional expectations of women, and yet these domestic duties, translated to serve the larger context of the community, operate as reasons for leaving the privatized home and family.

The specific nature of Ethan's dream, the dream of perfect domesticity, reveals Wharton's grasp of the challenge Jewett's work and the notion of women's culture presented to a narrow conception of women's sphere. The text is full of wistful allusions to warm kitchens and domestic intimacy. As Ethan and Mattie walk home from a dance, he fantasizes about a kitchen where he and Mattie could sit side-by-side at the stove, a "little enclosure" that would provide him with a much longed for sense of "continuance and stability" (88). This fantasy of perfect domesticity materializes at the very center of the narrative in their one evening alone in the house: "She set the lamp on the table, and he saw that it was carefully laid for supper, with fresh dough-nuts, stewed blueberries and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay red glass. A bright fire glowed in the stove and the cat lay stretched before it, watching the table with a drowsy eye. Ethan was suffocated with the sense of well-being" (103). In this scene, Wharton draws on all of the kitchen's powerful associations with domestic comfort. She subsequently underscores her intentions here, calling attention to "the ancient implications of conformity and order" embodied in this "warm lamp-lit room" (104). In keeping with these "ancient implications," the characters rediscover the pleasure of playing out conventional gender roles. Ethan basks in his new-found aura of "protection and authority"; Mattie sits blushing in maidenly modesty with her eyes downcast (104). Thus, while Jewett quietly maneuvers her female protagonists out of the home, Wharton puts them back in the kitchen. In the interest of systematically overturning the regional-ist project, Wharton's text occupies the conservative position of reasserting women's ties to the home, a rhetorical move that as I discuss below ultimately renders the text deeply at odds with itself.

In addition to thematic connections of this sort, I want to postulate that Ethan Frome reveals an intertextual dependence that is structural as well. In her study of Jewett's critical theory, Donovan suggests that early on she worried about her relation to the novel form: "I can furnish the theatre, and show you the actors, and the scenery, and the audience, but there never is any play!" (qtd. in Donovan, "Notes" 218). As Donovan describes it, Jewett eventually resolves this in favor of cultivating a "feminine literary mode," one that rejects the conventional plot as inadequate for reflecting women's experience, and adopts instead a "plotless" structure that scholars have described as "centric" and "weblike."11 Jewett and other women who wrote within the genre of narratives of community, as Sandra Zagarell has called it, organized their depictions of community and the bonds between women around the transactions of village life, the exchange of visits, its hospitalities, rites and rituals. This orientation toward the viewpoint of the community is exemplified by the narrators and female protagonists. Through their attentiveness to the stories of the community, their willingness to include other voices in their texts, they exhibit what Marcia Folsom has characterized as the "empathic style" and Zagarell as the exceptional "porousness" of these narratives (515). In Pointed Firs, Jewett's narrator makes room for, among others, Captain Littlepage's haunting tale of the "waiting place," Joanna's story as jointly reconstructed by Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Fosdick, and Mrs. Todd's own account of her marriage.

When we turn back to Wharton's novel, we find that she employs a male narrator as her "sympathizing intermediary" ("Introduction" 260), and perhaps no aspect of the novel has given rise to more discussion than his status in the text. Criticism of this narrative device, which goes back at least as far as John Crowe Ransom's "Character and Characters," suggests this is the weak point of the novel. Despite Wharton's claim that the narrative is composed in part of the details supplied the narrator by various villagers, each of whom "contributes just so much as he or she is capable of understanding" (260), they actually furnish very little of the story. Instead, his "vision" of the story, as it is called (74), seems improbably pieced together from one night's stay at the Frome farmstead. One way to make sense of this awkward construction and the value Wharton attached to it (she defends it in a preface to the novella, a foreword to the play, and again in her autobiography) is to consider how it renegotiates the important elements of Jewett's narrative: this narrator's "vision" is both irreducibly his own—not, as in Jewett's novel, porous or truly collaborative—and objective. Indeed, in her discussions of the novel Wharton insists that this story yields up the hard truth overlooked by the regionalists, and she attributes this to the narrator's capacity for "seeing all around" the characters. "Only the narrator," she maintains, "has scope enough to see it all, to resolve it back into simplicity, and to put it in its rightful place among his larger categories" ("Introduction" 260). This brings us to a potentially alienating aspect of Wharton's thought: while she almost certainly conceived of the novel as a male version of a conventionally female narrative, she did not then view this version as partial or limited. The combination of the male point of view and the sympathetic male center and subject makes this an extraordinarily pro-male story, but instead of emphasizing the distortions that inhere in the narrator's perspective, Wharton's reflections on the novel invariably assign wider truth and greater objectivity to his "vision" of the events.

The chief question raised by what I have argued thus far is why Wharton so insistently overturns the conventions associated with this tradition of women's writing. A partial explanation lies with Amy Kaplan's insight that Wharton's interest in the profession of authorship involved distancing herself from the "volubility and commercial success of the domestic tradition of American women novelists" (43). In this light, it is perhaps not surprising that Wharton repeatedly links the writing of this novel with her emergence as a professional writer. "It was not until I wrote Ethan Frome, " she claims in her autobiography, "that I suddenly felt the artisan's full control of his implements" (Backward 209). And the deep note of tragedy sounded in Ethan Frome, which critics have not failed to connect to Wharton's tumultuous personal life, is somehow belied by "the greatest joy" and "fullest ease" she says she brought to the writing of the novella, and the "fatuous satisfaction" she reports feeling as she read over its proofs (Backward 209; qtd. in Lewis 297).

But Ethan Frome also occupies a similar place in the growing body of cultural criticism to that of Henry James's "Speech and Manners of American Women" and F. Marion Crawford's "False Taste in Art," sharing their tendency to disparage popular forms by invoking the specter of a politicized women's culture. In linking the women's regionalist tradition, with its emphasis on the exalted value of femaleness, with popular tastes and inferior art, Ethan Frome recalls the web of signification that turns up at the center of anti-feminist rhetoric directed at public women. To the extent that Wharton's narrative acquires meaning in asserting its opposition to this tradition, Wharton was engaged in the novella in an act of cultural criticism, one intent on using the putative aesthetic threat of a politicized women's culture to shore up the fledgling distinctions between high-, low- and middlebrow tastes.

If Ethan Frome discloses the interests and affiliations of both the elite critic and the woman writer with high art aspirations, these interests are ultimately complicated by the feminist context of Wharton's concerns. The significant thematic subversion of the text occurs in its idealized descriptions of domesticity. Wharton is intent in these scenes on reasserting the domestic ideology that Jewett and her female protagonists struggled to dismantle, but she cannot sustain the sentimental mode these scenes demand. In passages like the one cited above describing the details of the supper table, the clichéd prose and the discordant note struck by the allusion to suffocation inevitably introduce an antithetical interpretation of Ethan's domestic fantasy as a sentimental and, finally, disabling ideal.



The Reef is perhaps the most Jamesian of Wharton's novels. Artistically it falls short of the superb economy and control manifested in Ethan Frome; however, if it is a less successful work than its predecessor, it is at the same time much more ambitious in scope. Ethan Frome deals with the tragic and sterile renunciation of sexuality; The Reef attempts to deal with the complex personal and social implications of acting on one's sexual impulses, and it examines this question as it pertains to both men and women. For its time, The Reef was an audacious experiment.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. An excerpt from Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by James J. Martine, Saint Bonaventure University. The Gale Group, 1981. pp. 126-42.

Wharton's dilemma emerges most clearly in connection with the gender roles defined by domestic ideology. In the interest of overturning the nondomestic images of women in Jewett's work, Wharton uses the crucial kitchen scene as the occasion for projecting exemplary male and female behavior. When the pickle-dish breaks, Ethan sheds his characteristic passivity for the conventional male role and Mattie becomes the very image of appealing feminine weakness: she immediately breaks into tears, looks to Ethan's greater authority with "stricken eyes," and when he commands her in a "voice of sudden authority" to give him the pieces of glass, she content-edly defers to him. The scene's resolution stops just short of parody: "Completely reassured, she shone on him through tear-hung lashes, and his soul swelled with pride as he saw how his tone subdued her. […] Except when he was steering a log down the mountain to his mill he had never known such a thrilling sense of mastery" (106). As in the stock description of the domestic scene, the sentimental mode of "tear-hung lashes" and the ludicrous comparison of subduing women to steering logs introduce a note of irony that makes reading these scenes straight almost impossible. The false note struck by these exaggeratedly male and female postures reveals Wharton at cross purposes with her own text. In writing against women's fiction, Wharton reasserts the prevailing sexual codes that prize submissiveness in women and mastery in men, but the clichéd prose betrays her skepticism about these roles.

Wharton's ambivalence is even more visible in her treatment of Mattie's plight after Zeena replaces her with a hired girl. Her distraught cry as Ethan drives her to the station—"where'll I go if I leave you? I don't know how to get along alone"—invokes the grim specter of her plight prior to working for the Fromes. Wharton touches illuminatingly on the orphaned girl's inadequate training for self-support: she could "trim a hat, make molasses candy, recite 'Curfew shall not ring tonight,' and play 'The Lost Chord' and pot-pourri from 'Carmen,'" but her health broke down when she tried stenography, book-keeping, and clerking at a department store (92). Wharton explicitly links Mattie's economic plight to her lack of professional training and the social conventions that trained her instead for her dependent status as a decorative object. And like the clichéd prose Wharton falls back on in projecting the domestic scene, this signals the text's major contradictions. If Jewett advocates through her protagonists the necessity of self-reliance, Wharton, at least on one level, reassures us that if men and women conform to the "ancient implications" of the ideology of separate spheres, the "true woman" will be taken care of by the masterful man. Yet Mattie's harrowing predicament, pointing as it does to the necessity for self-support and nondomestic work for women, undermines this conservative thematic insistence on the value of specifically feminine virtues and ideals.

In Ethan Frome, cross talk thus manifests itself as Wharton's ambivalence towards domesticity. Starting from the premise that she declares in the novel her high art allegiance by systematically overturning the conventions of a popular tradition of women's writing—a strategy that entailed in this instance endorsing separate spheres ideology—I argue that Wharton could not entirely erase from the text her commitment to nondomestic work for women and her concern that social feminism, in accepting women's link to the home and domestic virtues, had failed in this regard. Thus the novel shows Wharton as a more complicated figure, even a deeply conflicted one, devoted, on the one hand, to asserting her class culture against the rising factions of the middle class (whose tastes she stigmatizes as feminine) while, on the other hand, offering an alternative feminism that seeks to subvert, not simply revaluate, conventional female identity.

At one level Ethan Frome makes vivid the sororophobic tensions in her work. When one tries to put Wharton back into a tradition of women's literary community, somehow she ends up testing the limits of the familial idiom that Helena Michie argues feminist discourse has come to rely on. She becomes, as in Donovan's analysis, the "rebellious but male-identified daughter" (After 44).Itis tempting to measure only the losses incurred in her rejection of a female-identified realm—the "emotional alienation from the maternal bower" (83) that Donovan alludes to, the loneliness that emerges as part of Goodman's complex portrait of Wharton as the only woman in the inner circle (16-17). But Wharton's response to women's culture was also the other side of her ambition to be a self-made man,12 an ambition that situates her within a different feminism. Perhaps one of Wharton's most telling comments was that it was "doubtful if a novelist of one race can ever really penetrate into the soul of another" ("Great American" 157). Strikingly, she seems not to have held similar doubts about adopting the sex of another. In Ethan Frome and almost all of her first-person narratives, Wharton wrote as a man. Unlike Jewett, who would advise Willa Cather that "when a woman writes in a man's character,—it must always, I believe be something a masquerade" (Letters 246), Wharton apparently felt one could successfully mask one's presence in a text as male.13 What does it say about Wharton's conception of the nature and extent of sex differences that unlike racial characteristics, which she argued would inevitably "peep disconcertingly through the ill-fitting disguise," sex attributes could be convincingly shed and adopted? As a successful literary cross dresser—the woman author the Folletts tell us was widely regarded as writing "most like a man"—Wharton defied what Nina Baym has characterized as the contract between women writers, reviewers and readers: "women may write as much as they please providing they define themselves as women writing when they do so," whether by "tricks of style," "choice of subject matter" or tone (257). This, then, is the singularity of Wharton, if we may believe the Folletts: she produced writings that, by their style, threatened to abolish the frontiers between male and female writing. If Jewett's art reconciled alternatives separated by the dominant theories of art—a feminine realism—it is not, it seems to me, to force the meaning of Wharton's ambition to be a self-made man to see there the program of an aesthetic that would situate her above the plane of ordinary alternatives. Whether, in the terms of her contemporaries, Wharton's writings were perceived as convincingly male or fundamentally sexless, they formed a rebuke to the scientific and cultural orthodoxies that asserted the leading role of sex in explaining human differences. Thus the polemical intertextuality of Ethan Frome reveals Wharton's necessarily complicated and vexed relationship with women's culture, but it also frees us to begin to appreciate the creative transgression embodied in the specter of Wharton as a literary cross dresser.


  1. The contemporary reviews have been collected by Tuttleton et al.
  2. As its title suggests, Tuttleton's "The Feminist Takeover of Edith Wharton" is occasionally marred by strenuousness.
  3. Lewis first notes Wharton's "lifelong obsession" with this legend (Edith 495). See also Donovan and Waid. Psychobiographies of Wharton reveal how this gender split might have its roots in her childhood relationship with a cold and critical mother and loving and permissive father (see Wolff 9-54; Erlich 16-49).
  4. I use "conservative" advisedly here, taking my lead from historical accounts that suggest just how successfully the forces militating against women's rights had defined the terms of the debate. See, for example, Russett's stunning account of how the science of sex difference limited the kinds of challenges mounted against the secondary status of women; O'Neill 3-48; Kraditor 123-62.
  5. This is Baker's thesis in "The Domestication of Politics."
  6. Here as elsewhere I am relying on DuBois's definition of women's culture as "the broad-based commonality of values, institutions, relationships, and methods of communication, focused on domesticity and morality and particular to late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women" (Walkowitz 29).
  7. Darwin's legacy in Gilman's work is well documented, as is her fascination with the gynecocentric theories of Lester Ward, but Russett convincingly argues that "Gilman's suspicion that there existed a bedrock residuum of sex distinction played second fiddle, nonetheless, to her exasperation with the social overemphasis on sexual distinction" (13).
  8. For important exceptions to this failure to ascribe much subtlety to Wharton's assessment of this fiction, see Donovan, After the Fall (43-82), Waid's convincing analysis of the possible relation between Summer and Wilkins's "Old Woman Magoun" (85-172), and Campbell.
  9. My discussion of Jewett and the conventions of the regionalist genre is informed by Donovan, New England and "Notes"; Fetterley and Pryse; Pryse, "Distilling" and "Introduction"; Zagarell, and Boone. An early and implicitly dissenting view of the significance of this tradition is represented in Wood's pungent essay. A recent collection of essays on Jewett's Pointed Firs renders more complexly her depictions of women's culture. See in particular Zagarell's and Ammons's essays on the political and racial implications of the novel's reliance on the idiom of community.
  10. See Hovey, for example, whose argument was conceived in part as a rebuttal to recent readings that discover in the female characters the novella's real victims and that trace the distorted images of women back to the narrative's masculine perspective (see Ammons's discussion of both rural women's harder lot and the male narrator's role in unlocking the "deepest, the psychosexual level, of Ethan Frome," "the fear that woman will turn into witch", Argument 74; and Goodman's argument that the narrator's perspective precludes sympathetic awareness of Zeena's plight, Friends 72).
  11. See Boone's illuminating discussion of the "centric structures" in what he calls the "novel of female community." Ammons argues that Pointed combines a linear plot with a "weblike structure," a fusion of forms that neatly embodies the fruitful tensions in Jewett's work between the city as the world of "modern 'masculinized' opportunities" and the "affectional world of women" (58, 54). See also Donovan, "Notes"; Zagarell; Folsom; Fetterley and Pryse. Bell argues that the importance of Jewett's work might lie with how it resists any easy link between gender and genre.
  12. Lubbock notes that someone once referred to Wharton as a "self-made man" and that she enjoyed repeating the remark (11).
  13. Nettels notes that Jewett employed a male narrator in the short story "Hallowell's Pretty Sister" only to be strongly advised against this by Howells: "it appears to me impossible that you should do successfully what you've undertaken in it. […] When it comes to casting the whole autobiographical being in a character of the alien sex, the line is distinctly drawn" (qtd. in Nettels 245).

Works Cited

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——. Edith Wharton's Argument with America. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980.

——. "Jewett's Witches." Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Gwen L. Nagel. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. 165-84.

——. "Material Culture, Empire, and Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs." New Essays on The Country of the Pointed Firs. Ed. June Howard. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 81-99.

Baker, Paula. "Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920." DuBois and Ruiz 66-91.

Baym, Nina. Novel, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.

Bell, Michael Davitt. "Gender and American Realism in The Country of the Pointed Firs." New Essays on the Country of the Pointed Firs. Ed. June Howard, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 61-80.

Benstock. Shari. No Gifts From Chance. New York: Scribner's, 1994.

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Brodhead, Richard. Culture of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

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.

Donovan, Josephine. After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow. University Park: Penn State UP, 1989.

——. New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition. New York: Ungar, 1983.

——. "Sarah Orne Jewett's Critical Theory: Notes Toward a Feminine Literary Mode." Nagel 212-25.

DuBois, Ellen Carol, and Vicki L. Ruiz, eds. Unequal Sisters. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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Fields, Annie, ed. The Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: Houghton, 1911.

Follett, Helen Thomas, Wilson Follett. Some Modern Novelists: Appreciations and Estimates. New York: Holt, 1919.

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Malcolm, Janet. "The Woman Who Hated Women." New York Times Book Review 16 Nov. 1986: 11-12.

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Modleski, Tania. "Femininity as Mas(s)querade: A Feminist Approach to Mass Culture. High Theory/Low Culture. Ed. Colin McCabe. New York: St. Martin's, 1986. 37-52.

Nagel, Gwen L., ed. Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Nettels, Elsa. "Gender and First-Person Narration in Edith Wharton's Short Fiction." Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. Eds. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit. New York: Garland, 1992. 245-60.

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——. "Introduction." Country of the Pointed Firs. New York: Norton, 1981. 5-14.

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Walkowitz, Judith R., ed. "Politics and Culture in Women's History: A Symposium." Feminist Studies 6.1 (1980): 26-63.

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Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. Novellas and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 1933. 767-1069.

——. Ethan Frome. Novellas and Other Writings. New York: Library of America. 61-156.

——. French Ways and Their Meaning. New York: Appleton, 1919.

——. "The Great American Novel." The Uncollected Critical Writings. Ed. Frederick Wegener. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996. 151-59.

——. "Introduction to Ethan Frome." The Uncollected Critical Writings, Ed. Frederick Wegener. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996. 259-61.

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——. "The Writing of Ethan Frome." The Uncollected Writings. Ed. Frederick Wegener. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996. 261-63.

——. "Foreword to Ethan Frome: A Dramatization of Edith Wharton's Novel." The Uncollected Writings. Ed. Frederick Wegener. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996. 263-64.

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——. "Narrative of Community: The Identification of a Genre." Signs 13.3 (1988): 498-527.

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