The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Old Maid consists of five acts, or episodes, which span the twenty-one-year period from 1833 to 1854. The first episode is set on the day of Delia Lovell’s marriage to Mr. James Ralston. Nora, Delia’s maid, is superstitious about Delia’s wedded future and wants to be sure that the bride has something borrowed and something blue. Delia agrees to borrow Nora’s garter but carefully averts her head when Nora lifts her skirt. This incident calls attention to the conservative social conventions of the era. Parts of the body are treated with great delicacy and modesty; polite society disapproved of any discussion or suggestive hint of sex. Charlotte, Delia’s cousin, gives her something blue, a turquoise from Clem Spender, Delia’s rejected suitor. Delia is still in love with Clem, but she has chosen to marry the more affluent and so more socially acceptable James Ralston. Delia asks Charlotte to console Clem after her marriage to James. Charlotte, who is also in love with Clem, proudly announces that, had he returned Charlotte’s affections, she would have waited for him forever. In a statement that has ironic resonance and becomes prophetic, Charlotte passionately claims that she would even be willing to be an old maid for his sake.

The second episode occurs five years later in the home of Charlotte and Delia’s grandmother on Mercer Street. In a room above the stable, Charlotte has opened a nursery for the children of poor working women and has become engaged to Joseph Ralston, the wealthy and equally conventional brother of Delia’s husband. One of the poor children, whose name is Clementina, is a foundling who was left on the porch of a black family with a one-hundred-dollar note pinned to her dress. Several of the children torment five-year-old Tina and cruelly taunt her that she must live with “niggers” because her father and mother do not want her. When Charlotte reveals that she plans to continue to visit the day-nursery after her marriage, Joseph, her fiancé, disapproves. Charlotte is torn between the prospect of a safe future as a married woman secure in her respectability and the pain of parting with Tina and the other children.

The third episode takes place later that evening in the drawing room of James and Delia Ralston. Mrs. Mingott, a worldly-wise relative, explains the respectability of the Ralstons to Delia, who is still wearing Clem’s turquoise around her neck, by saying that their family was not founded by gentlemen but by people who wanted to move up the social ladder, implying that this is also Delia’s motive. Charlotte enters and begs Delia to persuade Joseph to let her continue with her nursery school, but she also reveals the secret that she had a love affair with Clem and that Tina is their daughter. On his own, Joseph decides to let Charlotte keep her nursery after they marry.

Meanwhile, Delia, intervening in Charlotte’s future, tells Joseph that Charlotte coughed...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The shift in time from 1839 to 1853 is suggested by changing the style of the set’s furnishings from Empire to Victorian. The continuity, however, is important; the room is still the same. Like society, the setting has not really changed. Tina, a young woman without an identifiable social status or fortune, is as unacceptable as her father was. This parallelism is emphasized by beginning the play with a scene occurring just before Delia’s wedding and concluding the play with a scene just before Tina’s wedding to Lanning Halley.

At the end of the third episode, Delia, after revealing to Charlotte that she has broken her cousin’s engagement to Joseph Ralston, promises Charlotte that she will live by herself with Tina. Charlotte picks up a skein of bright silk from Delia’s embroidery and draws it through her engagement ring. She stands hesitating and then slips the silk through the ring and lets the ring swing away from her. Symbolically, she accepts her future as an old maid. Without looking at Delia, she rushes from the house.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bradley, Jennifer. “Zoë Akins and the Age of Excess: Broadway Melodrama in the 1920’s.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.

McDowell, Margaret B. “Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid: Novella/Play/Film.” College Literature 14, no. 3 (Fall, 1987): 246-262.

Shafer, Yvonne. “Zoë Akins (1886-1958).” In American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Sutherland, Cynthia. “American Women Playwrights as Mediators of the ‘Woman Problem.’” Modern Drama 21 (1978): 319-336.

Wharton, Edith. The Old Maid. New York: D. Appleton, 1924.