Wharton's Sharp Eye

Our author, one of Britain's great novelists and literary biographers, explores Edith Wharton's short stories

Wharton had a sharp eye for the whims and dictates of fashion in literature, in art, in intellectual debate, in décor, and in haute couture. She could detect a fake, and she could recognize the real thing. She was in every sense a well-traveled woman of the world, and the range of her discrimination was considerable. She was no modernist in manner, but she was formidably well read and relentlessly up-to-the-minute—indeed, ahead-of-the-minute—in her methods of social analysis. Her astute perception of the changing of fashion in morals has long been recognized as one of the major strengths of her novels, and in many of these stories she applied herself to charting the new social map of the twentieth century. She foresaw the declining power of conventional religion and the growth of various forms of relativist thinking. (In "The Seed of the Faith" she sketched, with a sympathetic and admirably understated assurance, the doubts of a poor young missionary stranded in North Africa who has been made tragically aware of his own ignorance by two or three talks with "a quiet French ethnologist who was studying the tribes of the Middle Atlas.") She drew the graph of the inexorable rise in the divorce rate, and the slow and at times hesitant movement toward the emancipation of women. In "The Reckoning" and other stories she carefully delineated the high personal cost of struggles between theory and practice for those who professed to believe in what she labeled "The New Ethics." Divorce and various manifestations of adulterous love provide many of her plots, and her tone modulates from the ironic to the tragic to the tragicomic, sometimes subtly shifting within a single story.

We are accustomed to thinking of Edith Wharton as the chronicler of unforgiving codes of behavior and of the fierce and cruel exclusivity of New York's aristocratic old money, but some of the stories here strike a shockingly modern note. In "The Other Two" the happy husband of a charming and much married woman comes, by a sequence of bizarre coincidences, to be entertaining his two predecessors at tea in his home, a situation that, he finds, loses its grotesqueness through the "sense of ease and familiarity" with which his wife greets her unexpected visitors. That phrase is beautifully chosen, and speaks volumes: this is a new world—though whether or not the complaisant third husband will long remain happy in it is another question.

Compare the more somber note of "Autres Temps" and "The Long Run," both of which deal with age and failure in the sexual arena. In the first of these Mrs. Lidcote, exiled from New York for many years owing to a sexual transgression, returns home to her newly divorced and newly remarried daughter, amid bewildering assurances that divorce is now socially acceptable. But she finds herself entering a maze of innuendo and misapprehension, in which she is rejected even by those who are most eager to tell her that all is changed. For her daughter, maybe, the future is here, and it is bright. But for Mrs. Lidcote it is too late.

Similarly, in "The Long Run" a courageous and unorthodox married woman risks all, in Anna Karenina mode, by offering herself to the man who loves her, in the full awareness that he is already envisaging, à la Count Vronsky, a post-elopement future of "listless couples wearing out their lives in shabby watering places, and hanging on the favour of hotel acquaintances; or the proud quarrelling wretches shut up alone in a fine house because they're too good for the only society they can get." But her courage is in vain: he rejects her and the idea of an improvised life together, and "in the long run," as we are shown, they both—having missed this one chance, this one choice—dwindle into conformity and mediocrity.

Wharton depicted women caught between constraint and the possibilities of a new sexual freedom—a freedom that she herself enjoyed, though at high cost. She portrayed the historical deformations imposed on women by social relations and expectations—within the family, between the sexes, and between women. Female rivalry and jealousy—emotions of the old regime which Virginia Woolf predicted would pass away under the new—are well caught in the celebrated "Roman Fever."

Wharton's descriptions of the maternal deformation are particularly interesting. She had no children, and she was not generally overindulgent toward the maternal impulse. Her early tale "The Pelican" is a simple story of misguided and destructive motherly devotion. The long and deeply ambiguous "Sanctuary" is a much more complicated piece that does not lend itself to any one definitive reading. Is it a portrait of benign and altruistic maternal love or of blighting maternal possession? Are we presented with a woman who fatally retards her son, preventing him from finding true adult freedom, or with a woman who saves her son from his father's fate of moral turpitude? The tone is so evenly balanced that it is almost impossible—indeed, I think it is impossible—to be sure. The psychological insight into motive is so keen, the moral meaning of the acts within the story so opaque, that the story takes on its own meaning. We can interpret it as we may, or as Freud might have us. It is a fine portrait of inner conflict, but the good angels and bad angels wear multiple disguises.

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