Best known as a novelist of manners, Wharton chronicled the cruel excesses of American genteel society both at home and abroad at the beginning of the twentieth century in works ranging from The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911) to The Age of Innocence (1920) and The Buccaneers (1938). Her carefully crafted, psychologically complex fiction also reflects a concern for the status of women in society and for the moral decay she observed beneath the outward propriety of the social elite. Critics have often compared her subject matter, tone, and style with those of Henry James, her friend and mentor, but Wharton has also received recognition for her original observations on the conflict between social convention and the inner self.
Born into a wealthy New York City family, Wharton was privately educated by a series of governesses and tutors both at home and abroad, who schooled her in foreign languages and European culture. As a child, she displayed a marked interest in writing and literature, from which her socially ambitious mother attempted to dissuade her. Nevertheless, Wharton finished her first novella at the age of fourteen and anonymously published some verse in the Atlantic Monthly four years later. As an upper-class initiate, she witnessed the shift of power and wealth from the hands of New York's established gentry to the Industrial Revolution's nouveau riche, whom she considered to be cultural philistines obsessed with status rather than character and upon whom she modeled many of her most memorable fictional characters and situations. In 1885, she married the Boston banker Edward Wharton, who shared few of her interests or opinions and never understood her affinity for literature. Assuming the public responsibilities of society matron during her marriage, Wharton traveled widely with her husband and maintained fashionable homes in Manhattan, Newport, and Paris. However, she gradually grew dissatisfied with society life and disillusioned with marriage, so she sought personal fulfillment by writing in private. Many of these early poems and stories first appeared in Scribner's Magazine, and her best fiction of the period was collected in The Greater Inclination (1899), whose critical reception not only surprised her but also steeled her resolve to hone her literary skills. Subsequently, Wharton published the novel The Valley of Decision (1902), the story collection The Descent of Man (1904), and The House of Mirth, which established her critical and popular reputation as a leading writer of the era. Wharton's professional success, along with her husband's eroding sanity and marital infidelity, prompted her in 1907 to take up permanent residence in France and in 1913 to divorce her husband, which greatly pained her. Once she settled in France, however, Wharton produced some of the most notable works of her career, including the short story collections The Hermit and the Wild Woman (1908), Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), and Xingu and Other Stories (1916) as well as the novels Ethan Frome, The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), and Summer (1917). During World War I, Wharton organized war relief efforts for refugees, for which she earned the French Legion of Honor, and wrote propaganda for the Allies as well as the undistinguished war novels The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923). Following the armistice, Wharton resumed her literary career, and in 1921 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence, which she followed with The Mother's Recompense (1925) and the best-selling Twilight Sleep (1927). During the last decade 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, most notably the novels Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932). In 1934, she published her autobiography, A Backward Glance. Wharton died at St. Brice-sous-Foret in 1937, leaving behind the unfinished manuscript of her final novel, The Buccaneers, which was published in 1938.
A number of thematic concerns characterize Wharton's works. A central theme is the repressive nature of genteel society in the United States, especially for women who usually endured diminished roles in courtship rituals and marriage arrangements. For example, in the short story "The Last Asset," a mother sanctions her daughter's engagement to a wealthy Frenchman as a means of restoring her own social position, while in "The Letters," a wife painfully reevaluates her marriage after she discovers her unopened love letters in her husband's desk. The novel House of Mirth also examines the limited and narrow roles for women in high society. In this novel, twenty-nine-yearold Lily Bart has beauty and social connections but lacks both money and a husband to secure her place in society. In order to remedy these circumstances she pursues two men: one is rich but outside her class, the other socially acceptable but relatively poor. As her fortunes decline and the privileges of her milieu recede, she is either unable or unwilling to commit to either gentleman and instead overdoses on sleeping pills. Another common theme in Wharton's fiction illumines the limitations of society upon personal freedom for women and men alike, usually in ironic terms. Attempts to circumvent social convention through adultery and divorce often prove futile in her stories, demonstrating how social codes thwart the possibility of meaningful human relationships. For instance, the short story "Autres Temps …" focuses on an expatriate American woman ostracized by her community for her divorce twenty years earlier. She returns to her former neighborhood after learning of her own daughter's divorce and quick remarriage in the same place. Assuming her daughter suffers a similar fate, she soon discovers that community standards have changed, but society still cannot tolerate her actions because they occurred in different times and under different mores. In "Souls Belated," a woman leaves her husband for another man only to have her hopes for a life unfettered by conventional mores destroyed when her lover proposes marriage and a return to their former social circle. Similarly, The Age of Innocence centers on the conflict between the personal desires and social obligations of representative members of high society, exploring issues of hypocrisy and fidelity. Set in New York City in the 1870s, the novel delineates the relationship that develops between Newland Archer, a socially prominent young lawyer engaged to wed the respectable May Welland, and the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left her unfaithful Polish husband and returned as an outsider to the old New York society into which she was born. A cousin of Welland, Olenska possesses European sophistication and a self-confidence that both attracts and threatens Archer. Torn between the predictable world of propriety and tradition to which he and his fiancée belong and the personal freedom and fulfillment that he imagines a life with Olenska represents, Archer ultimately marries Welland, unable or unwilling to break either his moral code or flout social convention. However, a number of social meetings present Archer and Olenska with the possibility of establishing a more intimate relationship, which Welland dashes with the announcement of her pregnancy. Consequently, Olenska returns to Europe, and Archer stays behind, resigned to a life as faithful husband, loving father, and upstanding citizen. The novel concludes years later as the widowed Archer travels to Europe with his grown son. Despite realizing that he finally has the social freedom and opportunity to engage in a relationship with Olenska, Archer decides not to pursue a reality that might disappoint a lifetime of dreams. Many critics have suggested that the moral, social, and intellectual dilemmas that confront Archer and Olenska mirror similar experiences in Wharton's personal and professional lives, as do other characters and situations in her oeuvre. One of Wharton's best-known and most popular works, Ethan Frome, is set in the aptly-named village of Starkfield in the hill country of rural New England and portrays a world that offers no satisfactory escape from a loveless marriage. This novella examines the frustration and limitations imposed on individuals by poverty and strict adherence to social codes concerning decency, propriety, and loyalty, particularly as they impinge upon male-female relationships, and suggests that infidelity invariably leads to further unhappiness. The narrative is mainly told through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of the title character's employee, who is fascinated by the fifty-two-year-old crippled Frome and seeks information about his history from the villagers. The narrative gradually reveals that twenty-four years before the narrator encounters him, Frome and his hypochondriac wife Zeena opened their home to Zeena's destitute young cousin, Mattie Silver. As time passes, Mattie and Frome fall in love in sight of Zeena's jealous eyes. Zeena eventually decides that Mattie must leave, and Frome reluctantly complies, bound to his jealous wife by his sense of duty. On the way to the train station, Frome and Mattie profess their love for each other and impulsively decide to go sledding. Unable to accept the idea of a lifetime of separation from Frome, Mattie suggests that they commit suicide by crashing their sled into an elm, but as they hurtle downhill, Frome is distracted by a vision of his wife and fails to steer the sled squarely into the tree, leaving the pair severely crippled and dependent upon Zeena to care for them. Because of their poverty and immobility, Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie are unable to improve their situation, spending interminable hours together in the decaying farmhouse.
Despite the popular appeal and critical acclaim of both Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence throughout most of the twentieth century, readers and critics have often failed to acknowledge essential concerns in Wharton's fiction and have dismissed her as an outdated novelist of manners whose settings, style, and slow-moving pace belong to the nineteenth century. With the rise of the women's movement in the 1970s, criticism began to focus on Wharton's expression of feminist issues, occasionally to the exclusion of Wharton's other concerns, yet feminist scholarship has also diversified approaches to her work, focusing on its implications for contemporary feminism in particular and American culture in general. For example, some critics have investigated Wharton's portrayals of women's political status at the turn of the century, particularly in connection with the woman's suffrage movement during the decades surrounding World War I, while others have contrasted her fictional representation of women's culture with the literary aesthetics that inform the writings of such early twentieth-century New England female regional writers as Sarah Orne Jewett and Kate Chopin. In addition, commentators have explained the influence of literary naturalism on Wharton's fiction in light of the deterministic themes that characterize the works of such American masters as Mark Twain and William Dean Howells. Although Wharton's works underwent a period of relative neglect during the mid-twentieth century, most contemporary critics have rehabilitated Wharton's canon as a significantly vital link between the morally and psychologically oriented works of the late nineteenth century and the iconoclastic realism of the early twentieth-century's Lost Generation.