(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

This two-volume romance chronicles the rise to power of Odo Valsecca during the intellectual and political tumult which preceded the French Revolution. During his childhood and early manhood, Odo comes in close contact with all the major factions—the peasantry, the clergy, the liberal freethinkers, and the nobility—which have a vital stake in maintaining or subverting the antiquated power structure based on rigid class distinctions and superstitious religious traditions. How Odo’s actions and ideals are shaped by these forces and the traditions that they represent is the focus of the novel. He comes to the throne with high ideals and expectations and the zeal of a reformer, only to discover that compassion and logic are no match for superstition and self-interest.

As a child reared in extreme poverty by peasants on his mother’s estate, Odo experiences at firsthand the brutality of the feudal system. He escapes the drudgery of this life by daydreaming; he feels a “melancholy kinship” with the suffering face of Saint Francis of Assisi painted on the chapel walls.

Once he is seen as a possible heir to his ailing cousin, the duke, Odo is brought to court and indulged in the luxuries of the ruling class. As the years pass, he grows increasingly comfortable with the superficial life of the aristocracy, a life which “made manners the highest morality, and conversation the chief end of man.” Although he retains a sense that society needs to be...

(The entire section is 608 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. Ammons proposes that Wharton’s “argument with America” concerns the freedom of women, an argument in which she had a key role during three decades of significant upheaval and change. This engaging book examines the evolution of Wharton’s point of view in her novels and discusses the effect of World War I on Wharton. Contains a notes section.

Bell, Millicent, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Essays on The Age of Innocence, Summer, The House of Mirth, The Fruit of the Tree, and The Valley of Decision, as well as on Wharton’s handling of manners and race. Bell gives a critical history of Wharton’s fiction in her introduction. Includes a chronology of Wharton’s life and publications and a bibliography.

Bendixen, Alfred, and Annette Zilversmit, eds. Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992. Studies of The House of Mirth, The Fruit of the Tree, Summer, The Age of Innocence, Hudson River Bracketed, and The Gods Arrive, as well as on Wharton’s treatment of female sexuality, modernism, language, and gothic borrowings. There is an introduction...

(The entire section is 457 words.)