Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Valley of Decision, Wharton’s first full-length novel, was preceded by three novellas, a volume of poetry, and a nonfiction volume, The Decoration of Houses (1897). The close attention to detail and design in the latter proved to be extremely valuable in her effort to evoke the myriad sights and life-styles of eighteenth century Italy. It is one of only three historical novels of her long career, the others being The Age of Innocence (1920) and the posthumously published The Buccaneers (1938). In a sense, The Valley of Decision might be seen as her first novel of manners, although it is very different from her careful scrutiny of upper-class New York society in her later novels.

The novel is also a harbinger of the social criticism which is an important quality in the later work. Although the characters are rather stock romantic figures, the insight into social conditions is penetrating. Wharton displays a remarkably evenhanded approach in her presentation of diverse segments of society. She demonstrates that the pride and prejudice within a social system run very deep. One reason why Odo’s reforms do not succeed is his failure to understand that prejudice and superstition have become “a habit of thought so old that it had become instinctive. . . . To hope to eradicate it was like trying to drain all the blood from a man’s body without killing him.”

Wharton wrote during an age of political and social progressivism. Her first novel is impressive in its balanced view of the evils both of the established order and of reform movements. As in her later novels, she leaves the reader not with answers but with a series of disturbing questions.