Article abstract: Edith Wharton was a novelist who was noted for her portrayal of the decline of New York aristocracy and for her characters’ trapped sensibilities.
Edith Newbold Jones, the daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelender Jones, was born into a society of aristocrats who led a leisured, proper life and disdained business and politics. Wharton’s family was a prime example of “old” New York: moneyed, cultivated, and rigidly conventional.
According to custom, young Edith was educated by tutors and governesses. She also spent much of her childhood abroad with her family. Edith was forbidden to read literary “rubbish,” so she fell back on the classics on her father’s bookshelves. Despite her culture and education, Edith was expected to excel primarily in society, which involved rigid adherence to proper manners, dress, and lifestyle.
In 1885, Edith was married to another American socialite, Edward Wharton, an easygoing and unintellectual man. The Whartons led an affluent, social life in America and in Europe, uninterrupted by children or financial concerns.
Although Edith Wharton performed her social tasks well, her duties were not enough for her hungry mind. She began writing poems, stories, books on interior decorating, and travel pieces. Her husband was embarrassed by his wife’s writing, and her friends also did not approve. Fortunately, Edith Wharton made the acquaintance of writer Henry James. James not only supported her writing but also served as her confidant throughout periods of emotional turmoil. Although Edith claimed that she wrote for distraction, her diary notes that only by creating another imaginary world through writing could she endure the “moral solitude” of her marriage. Despite obvious incompatibilities, Edith and Edward lived together for twenty-eight years. That they did not divorce until 1913 is probably because of conservative class traditions.
Wharton’s divorce plus other personal tensions spurred her to do some of her best work. She converted her anguish into writing about the corrosive effects of social class upon a woman’s identity. Young Edith Wharton found her society’s indifference to anything but forms stultifying. Much of her writing examines the superfluous details of a refined class frozen in convention. Wharton also portrayed struggling characters trapped by larger social forces and, sometimes, by morally inferior individuals. Nevertheless, when Wharton grew old, she concluded that the “Age of Innocence” in which she was reared was preferable to the modern world, which valued nothing.
The declining aristocracy became Edith Wharton’s principal subject matter. She most often depicted the society of “old” New York in conflict with nouveau riche capitalists of the Gilded Age, who respected only money.
Edith Wharton’s early literary output included poems, decorating books, short stories, and three novels. In 1899, a volume of short stories, The Greater Inclination, was published, followed by The Touchstone (1900). In 1901, Crucial Instances followed; these short books have a Jamesian influence. Wharton’s three poetry collections are overserious and overornamented. Her first novel, The Valley of Decision (1902), another form of George Eliot’s Romola, is notable because its descriptions capture the spirit of eighteenth century Italy. Wharton’s novel Sanctuary (1903) and her short stories in The Descent of Man (1904) are still experimental. Nevertheless, in these early works appear two of Wharton’s basic themes: the aristocratic, cold, egoistic male and the strong female, who eventually dominates the male.
The House of Mirth (1905) marked the beginning of Edith Wharton’s mature artistic period. Wharton had discovered her medium and subject: the novel of manners and the invasion of old New York society by the millionaire “nouveau riche.” Wharton indicated her realization that Knickerbocker society would eventually make peace with the “invaders.” Her story concerned those who were trampled in this social clash. The novel’s Lily Bart is similar to a Dreiser heroine in that she is doomed by heredity and a materialistic environment. Lily struggles to improve herself but is defeated by her embrace of a heartless social ideal and by scruples that prevent her from marrying only for money.
Despite the success of The House of Mirth, Wharton delayed for years before returning to the subject of society’s clash with the invaders. Madame de Treymes (1907) is an innocents-abroad story with a Jamesian influence. The Fruit of the Tree (1907), a reform novel, considers labor reform and the morality of euthanasia, but it fails because of lack of unity. The Hermit and the Wild Woman (1908) is made up of slender stories of artists, but Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910) contains chilling ghost stories.
The novella Ethan Frome (1911) made Edith Wharton famous. Although Ethan Frome involves a poor New England farm family, Wharton’s familiar themes predominate: a man under female domination and a human being crushed...
(The entire section is 2176 words.)