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

      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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