Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Contributing Editor: Elizabeth Ammons
Classroom Issues and Strategies
In my experience, students divide sharply on Wharton. Some love her work, responding particularly to the elegance and precision of her prose and the sharpness of her wit; others don't like her at all, finding it hard to "get into" her fiction because she seems so cold, the prose seems so detailed and self-conscious, and the subject matter is so elite.
Mainly I try to get the two groups talking/arguing with each other. The result usually is that each can appreciate the point of view of the other, and we can start there: with a view of Wharton in which she is both marvelously accomplished as a stylist within a particular aesthetic and--in some ways on the very same grounds--limited as a writer by class and temperament.
One issue students are very interested in is sexuality in Wharton's fiction, ranging from what birth control was available at the time and in the class she wrote about to what her own attitudes toward sex were. Another question is: Why care about all these rich privileged people in Wharton's fiction? Who cares? (One response I give to this is that the top of the pyramid gives a very good sense of what the whole culture aspires to, since those are the people that everyone envies and wishes to be--or is supposed to envy and wish to be. Wharton's fictive world tells us a lot about how the whole culture works and what it values and is supposed to value.) Finally, a question that often gets asked is "What other works by Wharton would you recommend reading?" A good sign.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Major themes in Wharton's work include the effects of class on both behavior and consciousness (divorce, for example, often horrifies the established upper class as much for its offense against taste as for its violation of moral standards); the American belief in progress as actual and good (many "advances" Wharton welcomed; others she was contemptuous of); the contrast between European and American customs, morality, and sensibility; the confinement of marriage, especially for women; women's desire for and right to freedom in general, and particularly sexual and economic freedom, and the reality that, usually, the desire and right are thwarted; the preference of powerful, white, usually upper-class men for childish dependent women; the complexity and pain of relationships between women within patriarchal culture, including (and especially) rivalry and animosity among women.
Historically, Wharton was both the product and the beneficiary of a highly developed, even if recent, high-culture tradition of brilliant, educated women able to write and publish fiction for a living. Before Wharton, in France and England George Sand, Madame de Staël, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, and the Brontës had used fiction to examine many of the issues that engaged Wharton: marriage, the restraints of class, the repression of "respectable" women's sexual desire, the structure of patriarchal power, and the desire of middle-class white women for respectable, paid work. In the United States, in addition to popular women novelists in the nineteenth century, artistically ambitious women writers such as Stuart Phelps and Sarah Orne Jewett preceded Wharton. Contemporary with Wharton was a whole group of accomplished women fiction writers-- Chopin, Austin, Hopkins, Dunbar-Nelson, Cather, Stein. The point is that Wharton's work, historically, is rooted not only in the tradition of social and psychological realism commonly associated with Howells and James (writers she admired), but also in the realism and social criticism of women writers publishing before and contemporary with her who were concerned with many of the same issues that engaged Wharton, particularly issues centered on women's experiences and problems.
Personally, Wharton treated many of the issues of her own life in her fiction: her estrangement from and anger at her mother; her frustration with the limitations placed on women, and especially women of the upper class; her miserable marriage and the stigma against divorce, again particularly in her class but also generally; her fear of the ways in which cautiousness and selfishness can corrupt one's soul; her knowledge that female sexuality, despite society's repression of it, was a potent source of creativity.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
"The Valley of Childish Things" is a parable, but the other selections here are classic conventional modern short stories in terms of form and effect. Wharton can be used to show perfect mastery of conventional form. Her taut, elegant prose and expert command of dramatic structure beautifully manipulate the conventional Western short story pattern of exposition/conflict/complication/climax/resolution. Typically, the climax appears almost at the very end of a Wharton story, creating a very long, strong build-up of anticipation and then a swift, deft finish. You can practically teach the standard modern Western short story--at its best--from a Wharton story.
Wharton was a best-selling author at the turn of the century and into the 1920s; she was also highly acclaimed by critics. After the 1920s, she was taught less and less in schools and universities until before and following World War II she was virtually untaught. She was viewed as a disciple of James and he, but not she, was taught. In the late 1960s and then on through the 1990s, Wharton has steadily and dramatically regained both an academic audience and a general readership, clearly as a result of the most recent wave in the women's movement. In other words, her work attracts attention now for the very reasons it was generally dismissed in the middle of the twentieth century: its focus on women and women's experiences and its emphasis on social context, customs, pressures, and manners as human variables rooted in time, class, gender, nationality, and culture.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Useful contrasts could include authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe or Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who wrote fiction for explicit and avowedly political ends; Twain, who was interested in communicating an almost felt sense of a very different America, the rural Midwest and the white South; Upton Sinclair (whose politics Wharton did not like but whose right to say what he wanted she vigorously defended), who identified with the working class and the poor and wrote muckrakers; or Jack London, who celebrated much of the same white masculine power ethic that Wharton disliked. Another good contrast is Henry James; though often cited as Wharton's mentor (he was one), James is also quite different from Wharton: He is much wordier, more intrusive and self-indulgent authorially, and inclined to Victorian notions of self-sacrifice and self-immolation.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. When I use study questions for Wharton, I use standards closely keyed to the piece at hand: e.g., for "Roman Fever": Where does the hatred between the two women come from? What is its source? What is the source of the source? For "The Other Two" I might ask: Where do Wharton's sympathies lie in this story? On what do you base your opinion?
2. In addition to standard analytical/critical papers that ask students to work out an interpretative position by arguing closely from the text (which works very well for Wharton), I have found that Wharton is a good author to use for creative-writing paper assignments, which I do in "straight" English courses on the theory that one excellent way of getting inside poetry or fiction is to try to create some yourself, even if you're not very good at it. For Wharton, I might ask students to reread "The Valley of Childish Things" and then write their own gender parable for the late twentieth century of about the same length and structural strategy. For "Roman Fever," I might ask them to write a short story about the two middle-aged women from Barbara's point of view. I spin off Wharton either formally or specifically in subject matter; also I give a rather directed assignment, since one of my goals is to get students to think more about a particular piece by Wharton, how it works or what it says. I have learned that if the creative assignment is too loose, it can let them wander so far from the Wharton text that they discover no more about it than they knew before writing.
See Barbara A. White, Edith Wharton: A Study of the Short Fiction (1991). Relatively little Wharton criticism focuses on the short stories, so often it is necessary to adapt general criticism on her. Three provocative books are: Elizabeth Ammons, Edith Wharton's Argument with America (1980), Cynthia Griffin Woolf, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (1977), and Candace Waid, Edith Wharton's Letters from the Underworld (1991).
Good articles can be found in Harold Bloom, ed., Edith Wharton (1986) and a forthcoming volume, Critical Essays on Edith Wharton, to be published by G. K. Hall.