Too often known only as “that society lady author,” a writer of irrelevant and obsolete books, Wharton cannot be dismissed so easily. Although primarily dealing with a narrow social range and short historical span—the upper echelons of New York society from the 1870’s to the 1920’s—she mines verities about the whole of human nature from these small, seemingly unrepresentative samples of humanity. Far from being anachronistic or irrelevant, Wharton’s novels go deeper than their surface manners and mores to reveal universal truths about individuals in relation to their society, and she explores themes relevant to any era.
Regarded as one of America’s finest realists, along with her friend and literary inspiration Henry James, Wharton emphasized verisimilitude, character development, and the psychological dimensions of experience, all of which placed her in this tradition, although with some significant variations. Some of her fiction, such as Ethan Frome, owes a greater debt to romantics such as Nathaniel Hawthorne than to the realists, and most of her work deals with the upper rather than the middle classes more common to realist fiction; critic Blake Nevius remarks: “She was destined from the beginning to be a realist. As a child in Paris, she used to . . . make up stories about the only people who were real to her imagination—the grownups with whom she was surrounded. . . . Mother Goose and Hans Christian Andersen bored her.”
The United States premiere novelist of manners, Wharton employs intricately detailed descriptions of outward form, including manners, customs, fashion, and decor, to reveal the inner passions and ideals of her characters. Using manners to register internal events as well as external circumstances allows her to indicate deeper emotions indirectly. The constricting effect of an elaborate and confining set of behavioral guidelines on the human psyche and the human spirit’s survival within these narrow boundaries provides one of the overriding themes of her fiction.
This emphasis on the power of environment over the individual sets her apart from the writer to whom she is most often compared, Henry James. Frequently mentioned in the same breath, the two indeed have many similarities. They traveled in the same social circles, wrote about similar kinds of people, held the same values, and dealt with many of the same themes, particularly innocence versus experience. James, however, placed more emphasis upon the individual within the society than on the society itself. Perhaps the strongest bond between these two writers lies in their mutual devotion to the art of fiction, their continual study of the novel’s form, and their interest in the technique and processes of art.
As a realist, Wharton describes the houses, fashion, and social rituals of “old New York” in minute detail, studying this small stratum of society as an anthropologist might study a South Sea island. The Age of Innocence, for example, abounds in anthropological terminology, as the protagonist, Newland Archer, reveals when reflecting that “there was a time when . . . everything concerning the manners and customs of his little tribe had seemed to him fraught with world-wide significance.” He describes his own wedding as “a rite that seemed to belong to the dawn of history.” Archer’s use of this anthropological jargon reveals Wharton’s almost scientific fascination with the social milieu.
Similarly, in The House of Mirth, structured as a series of scenes that reflect the social status of its heroine, Lily Bart, Wharton meticulously records even the finest lines between classes, noting that “the difference [between them] lay in a hundred shades of aspect and manner, from the pattern of the men’s waistcoats to the inflexion of the women’s voices.” Although no such subtlety of detail exists in the very different world of Ethan Frome, a nevertheless fixed and immovable social structure offers the novel’s protagonist no avenue of escape from his equally barren business and marriage. In all these novels, the elaborate rituals that sustain a culture protect tradition and stabilize the society, but they also constrict the freedom of the individual within that society.
Often victims of society’s narrow definition of acceptable behavior, Wharton’s multifaceted, psychologically complex characters are also victimized by their own weaknesses. Lily Bart, one of Wharton’s most fully realized characters, suffers under the limitations placed on women in her circumstances, but she falls equally victim to her own selfishness and snobbery. Similarly, Newland Archer, imprisoned within the narrow behavioral confines of old New York, is also imprisoned by prejudices and lassitude. The eponymous character of Ethan Frome, as a result of his own and society’s limitations, also fails to escape a suffocating town, business, and marriage in order to seek intellectual and emotional fulfillment.
Although not involved in the feminist movement of her day, Wharton’s preoccupation with the limiting effects of societal restrictions on the human soul necessarily invokes feminist issues, for women especially suffered under this society’s narrow boundaries. Lily Bart, for example, finds her options severely limited because of her gender; even taking tea alone with a man in his apartment results in social condemnation.
Newland Archer often muses on the peculiar demands and expectations placed on women. When he declares, “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” Wharton notes that he is “making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.” May Welland Archer is yet another victim—in this case, of her husband’s narrow definition of her character—and Ellen Olenska is the victim of society’s preconceptions of a woman’s behavior.
The principal theme of Wharton’s fiction involves the individual in society: how personal relationships are distorted by societal conventions, the clash between changing characters and fixed society, and the conflict between nature and culture. Wharton therefore stands a bridge between an older, more established nineteenth century world and the world of the twentieth century, which placed increasing emphasis on individual experience.
The House of Mirth
First published: 1905
Type of work: Novel
A young woman falls from the heights of New York society to the depths of poverty and despair when she fails to conform to society’s expectations.
The House of Mirth, Wharton’s second full-length novel, not only guaranteed her literary reputation but also established the setting and themes she would explore throughout her career. Set in the early twentieth century New York society with which she was so intimately familiar, the novel offers an angrier and more bitter condemnation of this social milieu than Wharton’s later work, which mellowed with the passage of time. Both a meticulously thorough examination of a complex social structure and a brilliant character study, it offers a compelling exploration of the effects of social conformity upon the individual.
As the novel opens, its heroine, twenty-nine-year-old Lily Bart, has achieved the height of her powers: Beautiful, intelligent, charming, and sought after, she has nevertheless reached a turning point, knowing too well that society has no place for an unmarried woman past her prime. Her parents having left her no legacy but an appreciation for the finer things in life, Lily occupies a precarious social position under the protection of her dreary, socially prominent Aunt Peniston, and she must rely on the favors of the wealthy ladies and gentlemen who find her company amusing.
Lily’s craving for the secure foothold that only marriage can provide cannot entirely overcome her distaste for the hypocrisy and insensitivity of her class. Hardly lacking for opportunities to marry well, Lily nevertheless manages to sabotage her best chances, as she does in bungling her courtship with Percy Gryce, an eminently eligible but overwhelmingly boring pillar of the community.
Lily’s unique place in New York society—simultaneously insider and outsider—makes her one of Wharton’s most fascinating creations and offers the reader a privileged perspective on this world. A product of her society, “at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine . . . [who] must have cost a great deal to make,” Lily is also “so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”
Lily’s need to be surrounded by the beautiful things that only immense sums of money can buy and her distaste for the common and ugly enslave her to those she might otherwise find at best ridiculous and at worst repellent; they cause her to reject the only person for whom she feels genuine emotion, Lawrence Selden, a cultivated lawyer of modest means. As Lily can neither totally accept her society’s values nor be hypocritical enough to survive without doing so, she finally must perish.
Lily’s fall from social grace is incremental rather than precipitous, occurring gradually as she makes small compromises in order to survive. The novel opens with one of many small lapses in...
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