Edith Wharton Essay - Wharton, Edith (1862 - 1937)

Wharton, Edith (1862 - 1937)

Introduction

EDITH WHARTON (1862 - 1937)

(Full name Edith Newbold Jones Wharton) American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and autobiographer.

Wharton is best known as a novelist of manners whose fiction detailed the cruel excesses of aristocratic society in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her carefully crafted, psychologically complex novels, novellas, and short stories reflect concern for the status of women in society as well as for the moral decay she observed underlying the outward propriety of the upper classes. While her subject matter, tone, and style have often been compared with those of her friend and mentor Henry James, Wharton has achieved critical recognition as an original chronicler of the conflict between the inner self and social convention. Aside from her numerous tales of the supernatural, collected as Ghosts in 1937, Wharton's writings generally eschew overt Gothic machinery, while many nevertheless evoke the pervasive and elemental sense of foreboding and psychological terror typically associated with the genre. Among her most well-known works, the tragic novella Ethan Frome (1911) features an ominous mood of preternatural dread that underscores the self-destructiveness and alienation of its main character. Noted stories that demonstrate Wharton's fascination with the supernatural include "The Eyes," "Pomegranate Seed," and "Bewitched," works that were gathered and printed in her late volume of ghost tales.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Born into a wealthy New York family, Wharton was privately educated by governesses and tutors both at home and abroad. At an early age she displayed a marked interest in writing and literature, a pursuit her socially ambitious mother attempted to discourage. Nevertheless, Wharton finished her first novella at the age of fourteen and published a collection of verse two years later. From the perspective of an upper-class initiate, she observed the shift of power and wealth from the hands of New York's established gentry to the nouveau riche of the Industrial Revolution. Wharton considered the newly wealthy to be cultural philistines and drew upon their lives to create many of her best-remembered fictional characters and situations. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton. Becoming dissatisfied with society life and disillusioned with marriage, however, Wharton sought fulfillment in writing. Many of her stories and poems originally appeared in Scribner's Magazine, and both her first short story collection, The Greater Inclination (1899), and her novel The House of Mirth (1905) were well received by critics and readers. Suffering from ill health and forced to contend with her husband's growing mental instability, Wharton was granted a divorce in 1912. Soon after, she established residence in France. During World War I, Wharton organized relief efforts in France. With her financial support, an ambulance unit, a workroom for female garment workers, and a sanatorium for women and children with tuberculosis were established there. The French recognized her philanthropy by awarding her the Cross of the Legion of Honor, and she was made Chevalier of the Order of Leopold in Belgium for her work on the behalf of Belgian orphans. In the United States, her energetic fund-raising activities were aided by "Edith Wharton" committees in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Providence during the war. While her war novella The Marne (1918), generated little positive critical interest, Wharton became the first female recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence (1920) in 1921. In 1927, Wharton was nominated to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. During the final years of her life, Wharton continued to write short stories and novels, many of which reflect her growing disillusionment with postwar America and the Jazz Age. Several of her finest short stories featuring supernatural themes were also published during this time, these and other of her noted works of Gothic fiction were collected at the end of her life, while her final novel, The Buccaneers (1938), remained unfinished at her death in St. Brice-sous-Foret in 1937.

MAJOR WORKS

Wharton's most celebrated works of fiction include the novels The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, as well as her novella Ethan Frome. Of these, her longer novels are thought to be especially effective at piercing the veil of moral respectability that sometimes masked a lack of integrity among the rich. In The House of Mirth an intelligent and lovely girl must lose her status as a member of the leisure class if she is to avoid moral ruin. Lily Bart rebels against the standards of her social group enough to smoke, gamble, and be seen in public with married men; however, her sense of decency keeps her from marrying a wealthy but vulgar suitor merely to secure her fortune. Her other opportunity consists of a young lawyer who makes fun of the "high society" his modest but adequate means entitle him to observe. When the first proposes, she turns him down; when the second proposes, it is too late—he finds the distraught Lily dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. Written after World War I, The Age of Innocence, another novel about Old New York society, again showcases passionate characters hemmed in by their desire to keep their membership in a dispassionate social group. Newland Archer is engaged to marry an acceptable and attractive girl, but falls in love with Ellen Olenska, a European divorcee. Olenska had married a Polish Count, a villain from whom she escaped with the eager aid of his secretary. Equally passionate but seeking to reestablish her honor in New York society (which is not sure she is acceptable), Olenska encourages Archer to keep his commitment. To make it easier for him, she returns to Europe. A third work of social criticism, Ethan Frome is also notable for its enveloping atmosphere of decay and gloom, and reflects several of the Gothic themes that Wharton explored more fully in her short stories. Set in the aptly-named village of Starkfield in the hill country of rural New England, Ethan Frome portrays a world that offers no satisfactory escape from a loveless marriage. Wharton shows how the title character suffers when he is caught between two women—his wife, Zeena, on whom he depends for economic survival, and his true love, a younger relative of his wife's who has come to their farm. Near the conclusion of the novella, Ethan and his beloved realize that there is no escape from their predicament. When their attempt at suicide fails, they become invalids in the hands of Zeena.

Wharton gave full play to the literary allure of supernatural horror in her short stories, which included numerous ghost stories, as well as several works featuring Gothic tropes displaced into the milieu of the psychological and the domestic. One of her earliest works of short fiction, "The Fullness of Life" (1893) is an afterlife fantasy. In it, the spirit of a deceased wife finds herself attracted to another spirit she perceives to be her soul mate. After much deliberation, however, she decides to wait instead for the death of her husband so that they may be rejoined. With "The Moving Finger" Wharton moved more fully into the genre of the macabre. In the story, a man decides to have a painting of his dead wife altered so that the two may age together. He perceives this as her wish, but as time proceeds the painting seems to mysteriously change on its own, signaling the wife's realization of her husband's impending death. In "The Lady's Maid's Bell" the ghost of a former maid continues to serve her mistress. Seeking to protect the woman, an invalid, from an encroaching danger, the dead maid's spirit rings her bell, but to no avail. Wharton's supernatural stories written after her relocation to France are thought to bear affinities with the stories of Henry James, Wharton's close friend. Both writers remarked on their interpretation of the supernatural as an extension of the subconscious, particularly in its projection of the guilt or fear stimulated by the collapse of human relationships. In "Afterward" a vengeful spirit from the past returns to strip Ned Boyne of the fortune he has made years ago under questionable circumstances. This ghost of a young man Boyne once knew in America appears in England, where the story's protagonist has retreated with his new-made wealth. Both are never heard from again. In the hallucinatory story "The Eyes" the protagonist Andrew Culwin is haunted by a pair of repulsive, disembodied eyes. Only much later does he realize that the eyes are apparitions from the future, a phantasmal projection of his own wizened conscience as it looks back upon his youthful indiscretions and self-deception. In "The Triumph of Night" the protagonist Faxon becomes plagued by obsessive feelings of guilt after failing to respond to a nightmarish vision in which he sees his friend's death planned by a greedy uncle. "Kerfol" depicts a ruined French estate haunted by the spirits of dogs, animals murdered by the previous owner in revenge for what he wrongly believed was his wife's adultery.

Particularly in her later stories, Wharton employed the supernatural to project various aspects of the human psyche ranging from fear and guilt to joy and longing. In "Bewitched" a married man becomes infatuated with the spirit of a dead girl, a witch whom his wife believes has entranced him with black magic. "Miss Mary Pask" features a more jubilant tone than is typical of Wharton's ghosts stories, describing its narrator's meeting with an old friend whom he only belatedly realizes has already died. With "A Bottle of Perrier" Wharton produced a tale of psychological terror influenced by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and centered on a murderous relationship between master and servant. "Mr. Jones" is perhaps Wharton's most Jamesian piece. It tells of a house dominated by the spirit of a former caretaker whose rule was so formidable that it continues to control the dwelling and those living in it. The protagonist of "After Holbein," Anson Warley, is confronted with the specter of death and the realization that his dilettantish life has been wasted. Among Wharton's most well-received stories, "Pomegranate Seed" evokes the mythological tale of Persephone in recounting the story of a spirit that continues to send letters to her living husband while terrifying her perceived rival, the man's second wife and the story's narrator, Charlotte Ashby.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

During her lifetime many of Wharton's works of fiction were lauded with high critical and popular esteem. The House of Mirth became a best seller in 1905 and provoked much discussion in the United States, where it was hailed as one of the best novels ever produced by an American author. The Age of Innocence was likewise highly acclaimed as one of Wharton's finest works, and earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Despite these successes, Wharton's fiction was for most of the twentieth century dismissed as the work of an outdated novelist of manners whose settings, style, and slow-moving pace belonged to the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth century, however, feminist scholars, genre critics, and mainstream audiences began to regard Wharton's writings with a much higher degree of distinction and appreciation, rehabilitating her reputation and suggesting the significance of her place in literary history between the moral and psychological fiction of the late nineteenth century and the iconoclastic realism of the early twentieth-century's Lost Generation. Wharton's ghost stories, in particular, have been linked to new insights into the overall thematic concerns of her work. In the 1937 preface to her collection Ghosts Wharton wrote: "the 'moral issue' question must not be allowed to enter into the estimating of a ghost story. It must depend for its effect solely on what one might call its thermometrical quality; if it sends a cold shiver down one's spine, it has done its job and done it well." While Wharton's own thoughts on her ghost stories appealed to a relatively straightforward test of audience response, contemporary scholars, without questioning the chilling effectiveness of her ghost tales, have subjected these works to more rigorous critical standards. Several have studied Wharton's adapted use of Gothic conventions in her ghost stories for the purposes of social critique, focusing on her career-long examination of class divisions in American society during the early decades of the twentieth century in conjunction with her use of psychological terror. A juxtaposition of feminist and Gothic concerns have also appeared frequently in contemporary critical estimations of Wharton's ghost stories. Of principal interest has been Wharton's fictional alignment of patriarchal value systems, capitalist-bourgeois repression of women, and the machinations of Gothic fantasy in not only her supernatural fiction, but also in her novels The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.

Principal Works

"The Fullness of Life" (short story) 1893; published in the journal Scribner's Magazine
The Decoration of Houses [with Ogden Codman, Jr.] (nonfiction) 1897
The Greater Inclination (short stories) 1899
The Touchstone: A Story (novella) 1900; published in England as A Gift from the Grave: A Tale
Crucial Instances (short stories) 1901
The Valley of Decision: A Novel (novel) 1902
Sanctuary (novella) 1903
The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (short stories) 1904
Italian Villas and Their Gardens (essays) 1904
The House of Mirth (novel) 1905
Italian Backgrounds (memoirs)...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Primary Sources

SOURCE: Wharton, Edith. “Preface.” In The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. 1973. Reprint edition, pp. 7-11. New York: Scribner, 1997.

In the following preface to her Ghosts, first published in 1937 (also published as The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton), Wharton discusses ghosts, belief in ghosts, and the various techniques employed by authors of ghost stories.

Do you believe in ghosts?” is the pointless question often addressed by those who are incapable of feeling ghostly influences to—I will not say the ghost-seer, always a rare bird, but—the ghost-feeler, the person sensible of invisible...

(The entire section is 1678 words.)

General Commentary

Margaret P. Murray (Essay Date August 1989)

SOURCE: Murray, Margaret P. "The Gothic Arsenal of Edith Wharton." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 10, nos. 3-4 (August 1989): 315-21.

In the following essay, Murray illustrates how Wharton uses horror in the Gothic tradition to highlight women's experiences, particularly with regard to power and identity.

Throughout Edith Wharton's life, we find several recurring themes related to her own emotional problems were not resolved in her novels. One of these themes is her ambivalence towards her femininity. However, she was an adept student of literature as well as a gifted author, and her strong literary background allied with...

(The entire section is 2992 words.)

Monika Elbert (Essay Date March 1995)

SOURCE: Elbert, Monika. "The Transcendental Economy of Wharton's Gothic Mansions." American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 1 (March 1995): 51-67.

In the following essay, Elbert asserts that in her Gothic, domestic ghost stories, Wharton—like the Transcendentalists—offers an alternative to the perceived greed, corruption, and compulsion inherent in a capitalist society.

Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity.

—Edith Wharton, Preface to The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton1

"Outside there," she thought,...

(The entire section is 7831 words.)

Kathy A. Fedorko (Essay Date 1995)

SOURCE: Fedorko, Kathy A. "The Gothic Text: Life and Art." In Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton, pp. 1-21. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

In the following essay, Fedorko maintains that "the Gothic in her fiction allows Wharton both to mirror and to revise issues that inform her life as well as the genre."

Wharton's conflicting and conflicted views of women and men and feminine and masculine reflect a complicated interweaving of family and social environment, historical time, and individual psychology. These conditions and the gender tension they foster in turn provide the impetus for Wharton...

(The entire section is 7607 words.)