A Feast of Words

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

While Edith Wharton has been recognized as one of America’s outstanding novelists ever since the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905, interest in her life and work has increased dramatically in the last ten years as a result both of the new focus on women writers and of the opening of her private papers to scholars in 1968. R. W. B. Lewis’ fine biography, published in 1975, has contributed much to a new understanding and appreciation of Wharton’s achievements, and A Feast of Words should bring many more readers to her books. Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s study is a brilliant synthesis of biography, literary criticism, and psychological analysis that provides new insights into Wharton’s novels and short stories through a discussion of her emotional development, and at the same time demonstrates how her writing contributed to her transformation from an affection-starved child and neurotic young wife into a confident, creative, mature woman.

Drawing on Lewis’ Edith Wharton: A Biography, Wharton’s own autobiographical writings, and studies of her psychological development by Anna Freud, Eric Erikson, R. D. Laing, and others, Wolff shows how Wharton struggled for much of her life to compensate for the emotional deprivations of her childhood in the most privileged stratum of New York society. The villainess of the story in Wolff’s view was Edith’s mother, Lucretia Jones, a domineering, often cold and moody socialite whose feelings about her daughter seem to have been alternately possessive and rejecting. Young Edith turned for affection to her nurse and to her adored father, though she craved her mother’s approval to an obsessive degree, setting impossibly rigid standards for her own thoughts and behavior as a child and an adolescent.

While she was repressing her anger and resentment of her mother and her passionate love of her father, the child found one way to satisfy her starved emotions—words. She spent hours “making up,” sitting or walking around with a book in her hand “reading” aloud stories of her own invention about people like her parents and their friends. As she grew older, she begged for scraps of wrapping paper to write down these compositions—Wolff finds Lucretia’s stinginess in this regard quite unforgivable. Edith had completed a novel, Fast and Loose, by the time she was fourteen, and had written enough poetry to fill the small volume her mother had privately printed when she was sixteen. Lucretia’s action even in this matter is seen as damaging, for in choosing this “respectable” path to recognize her daughter’s talent, she was establishing her control over what had been Edith’s private world.

Wharton’s literary efforts came to a temporary halt with her debut when she was seventeen, and for the next decade she tried to mold herself into what Lucretia Jones’s daughter should be, a “nice” girl, a proper young matron, preoccupied with clothes and beaux, not books and ideas. After an abortive engagement and a brief romance with Walter Berry, who was later to become her closest friend, she was married in 1885 to Edward Wharton, a Bostonian of independent means, suitable social standing, a love for travel that she shared, and almost no interest in things of the mind.

The marriage was a disaster for both, though they must have had periods of pleasure during their European journeys in their first few years together. The repressions and unresolved conflicts of Edith’s childhood, Wolff suggests, made it impossible for her to function effectively within her marriage either sexually or socially. She suffered frequently from asthma and nausea for twelve years, revealing in physical symptoms the feelings she could not express in any other way. Her roles as daughter (Lucretia remained a dominant force in her life until she died in 1901) and wife left her feeling caged, imprisoned. Again she turned to words as a way of asserting her own identity. She published a few poems and short stories during the early years of her marriage, but it was not until after her emotional collapse and recovery in 1898 that she chose writing as a real vocation. From this point on she was able to work out many of her internal conflicts in her fiction and at the same time gain a new sense of personal worth as her books won recognition and respect.

Wolff entitles her chapter on the works written between 1889 and 1911 “Landscapes of Desolation,” an apt description of the fictional worlds Wharton created at this stage in her life. The Bunner sisters of an early short story, Duke Odo of The Valley of Decision, Lily Bart of The House of Mirth, Justine Brent of The Fruit of the Tree, Ethan Frome—all are denied in one way or another the fullness of life. They live, literally or metaphorically, in enclosed spaces, and their efforts to create meaningful relationships are crushed by fate or society. Women, especially, seem doomed to sterile, unfulfilled existences. The lesson to be learned, Wolff notes, is “submission to suffering, with no release save the release of death.”

Wharton’s growth beyond this point of view can be attributed to a number of events in her life: her mother’s death, her husband’s mental illness that resulted in separation and divorce in 1913, her professional success, and, perhaps...

(The entire section is 2191 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, July, 1977, p. 686.

Ms. VI, November, 1977, p. 80.

National Review. XXIX, September 30, 1977, p. 1127.