Edith Wharton: Contribution as American Novelist

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      The comments of Edith Wharton (1862-1913) on American life are from the cosmopolitan point of view and present a series of pictures of the American woman which for harshness of uncharity are difficult to parallel. As a matter of fact America is so vast and varied that there is no national type of woman. Mrs. Wharton’s women are representative of one stratum just as Christy’s pictorial girls are. They are the product of indulgence which makes them hard, capricious, and completely selfish. Lily Bart of “The House of Mirth” (1905) begins high in the social scale, compromises reluctantly with moneyed ambition, and in one instance after another defeats herself by delay and equivocation in a declining series of “affairs.” More approachable than irreproachable, she suffers from the social beclouding of her reputation and, in the end, as a consequence of her low standards but her lack of shamelessness she succumbs to the circumstances that created her and arrives at a miserable death.

Undine Spragg, in “The Custom of the Country” (1913), first married and divorced in a Western town is then brought to New York, introduced into society and “made” by her good looks and her brazen ambition. She wrecks the life of her second husband, a refined gentleman, and then as a result of much foreign residence marries a Frenchman of family.
Edith Wharton

      Edith Wharton (1862-1937), was born into a wealthy New York family. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton, a man considerably older than her. The marriage ended in divorce as she was in love with Walter Berry, an expatriate sometime. The themes of frustrated love and unhappy marriage are common in her fiction. The Decoration of Houses (1897) was her first work of non-fiction.

      Like Henry James, she grew up partly in Europe and eventually made her home there. She was descended from a wealthy, established family in New York society and saw firsthand the decline of this cultivated group and, in her view, the rise of boorish, nouveau riche business families. This social transformation is the background of many of her novels. Like James, Wharton contrasts Americans and Europeans. The core of her concern is the gulf separating social reality and the inner self. Often a sensitive character feels trapped by unfeeling characters or social forces. Edith Wharton had personally experienced such entrapment as a young writer suffering a long nervous breakdown partly due the conflict in roles between the writer and his wife.

      The Valley of Decision (1902) was her first full-length Hovel. The Wliarton’s best novels include The House of Mirth (1905), Custom of the Country (1913), Summer 1917), The Age of Innocence (1920), and the beautifully crafted novella Ethan Frome (1911). In her novels she analyses the customs with irony. They present the changing society and internecine conflict between the upper middle class and newly rich upper middle class. Lily Bart, the heroine in The House of Mirth is tom between her personal desire and social law. In her novel The Custom of the Country (1913) she returns to her fictional investigation of the habits and hypocrisies of the New York social world.

      The Age of Innocence (1920) was mainly set in New York. It tells the story of Newland Archer, a lawyer and his involvement with two women - May Welland who becomes his wife and cousin, Ellen Olenska, the wife of a Polish count. Ellen, having left her husband, appears in New York where her unpleasant behavior displeases all. On behalf of Welland family, the lawyer is called upon to dissuade Ellen from divorcing her husband but he falls in love with Ellen. May herself lets Ellen know that she is pregnant. So Ellen leaves New York and goes to live in Paris. Visiting the city 30 years later Newland decides to preserve her memories than to call on her.

      Wharton herself later became an expatriate. Living in Paris. She established a house there. She worked for tirelessly for combats and refugees. She wrote two novels - The Marne (1918) and A Son at the front (1923). She exhausted herself of her welfare activities. She completed her autobiography A Backward Glance (1934) and a book on The Writing of Fiction (1925). As a novelist, she was emotional subtleties and social nuances. Like James, she believed that the novelist should have a fine ear for shades of conversation and a fierce concern for moral issues.

      Wharton’s and James’s dissections of hidden sexual and financial motivations at work in society link them with writers who seem superficially quite different: Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair. Like the cosmopolitan novelists but much more explicitly, these naturalists used realism to relate the individual to society. Often they exposed social problems and were influenced by Darwinian thought and the related philosophical doctrine of determinism, which views individuals as the helpless pawns of economic and social forces beyond their control. Naturalism is essentially a literary expression of the Determinism. Associated with bleak, realistic depictions of lower - class life, the Determinism denies the religion as a motivating force in the world and instead, perceives the universe as a machine. The Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers had also imagined the world as a machine, but as a perfect one, invented by God and tending toward progress and human betterment. The Naturalists, on the other hand, imagined society, instead, as a blind machine, godless and out of control.

      The 19th-century American historian-writer, Henry Adams constructed an elaborate theory of history involving the idea of the dynamo, or decay of force. Instead of the progress, Adams sees inevitable decline in the human society. Stephen Crane, the son of a clergyman, put the loss of God most succinctly: “A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exit / However, replied the universe, / the fact has not created in me. A sense of obligation.” Like Romanticism, the naturalism first appeared in Europe. It is usually traced to the works of Honore de Balzac in the 1840s and seen as a French literary movement associated with Gustavo Flaubert, Dimond and Jules Goncourt, Emile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant. It daringly opened up the seamy underside of European society and such topics as divorce, sex, adultery, poverty, and crime. Naturalism flourished as the Americans became urbanized and aware of the importance of large economic and social forces. By 1890, the frontier was declared officially closed. The most of the Americans resided in towns, and business dominated not even remote farmsteads.

      Undine Spragg, in “The Custom of the Country” (1913), first married and divorced in a Western town is then brought to New York, introduced into society and “made” by her good looks and her brazen ambition. She wrecks the life of her second husband, a refined gentleman, and then as a result of much foreign residence marries a Frenchman of family. From him she runs away, finally to remarry Moffatt, who, throughout the story, has been her familiar spirit, subtly revealing his intimacy of feeling, and increasing his hold upon her as he rises in the money world. The title gives the cue to the story as a whole and to its several parts. By nature Undine is coarse-grained, showy, and selfish; by upbringing she becomes incorrigible. Her first and last husband is one of her own kind—sufficiently so that he is capable of resuming with her after her streaky, intermediate career. The second is broken on her overweening selfishness; the third, by virtue of his ancient family tradition, is able to save himself though not to mold or modify her. At the end, with Moffatt and all his immense wealth, she is still confronted by “the custom of the country.” Because of her divorces “she could never be an ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guest she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.” This is the Wharton formula: none of her women really triumphs. Lily Bart’s downfall is one with her death. She had breathed the stifling atmosphere from her city childhood; what seemed to save Undine was the initial vigor of her Western youth, but even she could not successfully defy the ways of the world.

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