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Analysis of Edith Wharton’s Stories

Because many of Edith Wharton’s (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) characters and themes resemble those of Henry James, her work has sometimes been regarded as derivative of his. Each of these authors wrote a number of stories regarding such themes as the fate of the individual who challenges the standards of society, the effect of commercial success on an artist, the impact of European civilization on an American mentality, and the confrontation of a public personality with his own private self. Further, both James and Wharton used ghost stories to present, in allegorical terms, internal experiences which would be difficult to dramatize in a purely realistic way. Wharton knew James and admired him as a friend and as a writer, and some of her early short stories—those in The Greater Inclination and Crucial Instances, for example—do resemble James’s work. As she matured, however, Wharton developed an artistic viewpoint and a style which were distinctly her own. Her approach to the themes which she shared with James was much more direct than his: She took a more sweeping view of the action of a story and omitted the myriad details, qualifications, and explanations which characterize James’s work.

It is not surprising that Wharton and James developed a number of parallel interests. Both writers moved in the same rather limited social circle and were exposed to the same values and to the same types of people. Not all their perceptions, however, were identical since Wharton’s viewpoint was influenced by the limitations she experienced as a woman. She was therefore especially sensitive to such subtle forms of victimization as the narrowness of a woman’s horizons in her society, which not only denied women the opportunity to develop their full potential but also burdened men with disproportionate responsibilities. This theme, which underlies some of her best novels—The House of Mirth is a good example—also appears in a number of her short stories, such as “The Rembrandt.”

The Rembrandt

The narrator of “The Rembrandt” is a museum curator whose cousin, Eleanor Copt, frequently undertakes acts of charity toward the unfortunate. These acts of charity, however, often take the form of persuading someone else to bear the brunt of the inconvenience and expense. As “The Rembrandt” opens, Eleanor persuades her cousin to accompany her to a rented room occupied by an elderly lady, the once-wealthy Mrs. Fontage. This widowed lady, who has suffered a number of financial misfortunes, has been reduced from living in palatial homes to now living in a dingy room. Even this small room soon will be too expensive for her unless she can sell the one art treasure she still possesses: an unsigned Rembrandt. The supposed Rembrandt, purchased under highly romantic circumstances during the Fontages’ honeymoon in Europe, turns out to be valueless. The curator, however, is moved by the dignity and grace with which Mrs. Fontage faces her situation, and he cannot bring himself to tell her that the painting is worthless. He values it at a thousand dollars, reasoning that he himself cannot be expected to raise that much money. When he realizes that his cousin and Mrs. Fontage expect him to purchase the painting on behalf of the museum, he temporizes.

Meanwhile, Eleanor interests an admirer of hers, Mr. Jefferson Rose, in the painting. Although he cannot really spare the money, Rose decides to buy the painting as an act of charity and as an investment. Even after the curator confesses his lie to Rose, the young man is determined to relieve Mrs. Fontage’s misery. The curator, reasoning that it is better to defraud an institution than an individual, purchases the painting for the museum. The only museum official who might question his decision is abroad, and the curator stores the painting in the museum cellar and forgets it. When the official, Crozier, returns, he asks the curator whether he really considers the painting valuable. The curator confesses what he has done and offers to buy the painting from the museum. Crozier then informs the curator that the members of the museum committee have already purchased the painting privately, and beg leave to present it to the curator in recognition of his kindness to Mrs. Fontage.

Despite its flaws in structure and its somewhat romantic view of the business world, “The Rembrandt” shows Wharton’s concern with the relationship between helpless individuals and the society which produced them. Her portrait of Mrs. Fontage is especially revealing—she is a woman of dignity and breeding, whose pride and training sustain her in very difficult circumstances. That very breeding, however, cripples Mrs. Fontage because of the narrowness which accompanies it. She is entirely ignorant of the practical side of life, and, in the absence of a husband or some other head of the family, she is seriously handicapped in dealing with business matters. Furthermore, although she is intelligent and in good health, she is absolutely incapable of contributing to her own support. In this very early story, Wharton applauds the gentlemen who live up to the responsibility of caring for such women. Later, Wharton will censure the men and the women whose unthinking conformity to social stereotypes has deprived women like Mrs. Fontage of the ability to care for themselves and has placed a double burden on the men.

Edith-Wharton-1895

The Eyes

As Wharton matured, her interest in victimization moved from the external world of society to the internal world of the individual mind. She recognized the fact that adjustment to life sometimes entails a compromise with one’s private self which constitutes a betrayal. One of her most striking portrayals of that theme is in “The Eyes.” This tale employs the framework of a ghost story to dramatize an internal experience. The story’s aging protagonist, Andrew Culwin, has never become part of life, or allowed an involvement with another human being to threaten his absolute egotism. One evening, as his friends amuse themselves by telling tales of psychic events they have witnessed, Culwin offers to tell a story of his own. He explains that as a young man he once flirted with his naïve young cousin Alice, who responded with a seriousness which alarmed him. He immediately announced a trip to Europe; but, moved by the grace with which she accepted her disappointment, Culwin proposed to her and was accepted. He went to bed that evening feeling his self-centered bachelorhood giving way to a sense of righteousness and peace. Culwin awakened in the middle of the night, however, and saw in front of him a hideous pair of eyes. The eyes, which were sunken and old, had pouches of shriveled flesh beneath them and red-lined lids above them, and one of the lids drooped more than the other. These eyes remained in the room all night, and in the morning Culwin fled, without explanation, to a friend’s house. There he slept undisturbed and made plans to return to Alice a few days later. Thereupon the eyes returned, and Culwin fled to Europe. He realized that he did not really want to marry Alice, and he devoted himself to a selfcentered enjoyment of Europe.

After two years, a handsome young man arrived in Rome with a letter of introduction to Culwin from Alice. This young man, Gilbert Noyes, had been sent abroad by his family to test himself as a writer. Culwin knew that Noyes’s writing was worthless, but he temporized in order to keep the handsome youth with him. He also pitied Noyes because of the dull clerk’s job which waited for him at home. Finally, Culwin told Noyes that his work had merit, intending to support the young man himself if necessary. That night, the eyes reappeared; and Culwin felt, along with his revulsion, a disquieting sense of identity with the eyes, as if he would some day come to understand all about them. After a month, Culwin cruelly dismissed Noyes, who went home to his clerkship; Culwin took to drink and turned up years later in Hong Kong, fat and unshaven. The eyes then disappeared and never returned.

Culwin’s listeners perceive what the reader perceives: The eyes that mock Culwin’s rare attempts to transform his self-centered existence into a life of involvement with someone else are in fact his own eyes, looking at him from the future and mocking him with what he would become. The eyes also represent Culwin’s lesser self, which would in time take over his entire personality. Even in his youth, this lesser self overshadows Culwin’s more humane impulses with second thoughts of the effect these impulses are likely to have on his comfort and security. The story ends as Culwin, surprised by his friends’ reaction to his story, catches sight of himself in a mirror, and realizes the truth.

After Holbein

Wharton’s twin themes of social and self-victimization are joined most effectively in a later story which many readers consider her best: “After Holbein.” The title refers to a series of woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger, entitled “The Dance of Death.” They show the figure of death, represented by a skeleton, insinuating himself into the lives of various unsuspecting people. One of these engravings, entitled “Noblewoman,” features a richly dressed man and woman following the figure of death.

The story begins with a description of an elderly gentleman, Anson Warley, who has been one of the most popular members of New York society for more than thirty years. In the first three pages of the story, the reader learns that Warley fought, long ago, a battle between his public image and his private self; and the private self lost. Warley gradually stopped staying at home to read or meditate and found less and less time to talk quietly with intellectual friends or scholars. He became a purely public figure, a frequenter of hot, noisy, crowded rooms. His intellect gave itself entirely to the production of drawing-room witticisms, many of them barbed with sarcasm. On the evening that the story takes place, Warley finds himself reminded of one of these sallies of his. Some years earlier, Warley, who had been dodging the persistent invitations of a pompous and rather boring society hostess, finally told his circle of friends that the next time he received a card saying “Mrs. Jasper requests the pleasure,” he would reply, “Mr. Warley declines the boredom.” The remark was appreciated at the time by the friends who heard it; but in his old age Warley finds himself hoping that Mrs. Jasper never suffered the pain of hearing about it.

At this point in the story, Wharton shifts the scene to a mansion on Fifth Avenue, where a senile old woman prepares herself for an imaginary dinner party. She wears a grotesque purple wig, and broad-toed orthopedic shoes under an ancient purple gown. She also insists on wearing her diamonds to what she believes will be another triumph of her skill as a hostess. This woman is the same Mrs. Jasper whom Warley has been avoiding for years. She is now in the care of an unsympathetic young nurse and three elderly servants. Periodically, the four employees go through the charade of preparing the house and Mrs. Jasper for the dinner parties which she imagines still take place there.

While Mrs. Jasper is being dressed for her illusory dinner party, Anson Warley is preparing to attend a real one. Despite his valet’s protests concerning his health, Warley not only refuses to stay at home but also insists on walking up Fifth Avenue in the freezing winter night. Gradually he becomes confused and forgets his destination. Then he sees before him Mrs. Jasper’s mansion, lighted for a dinner party, and in his confusion, he imagines he is to dine there. He arrives just as Mrs. Jasper’s footman is reading aloud the list of guests whom Mrs. Jasper thinks she has invited.

When dinner is announced, Warley and Mrs. Jasper walk arm in arm, at a stately processional gait, to the table. The footman has set the table with heavy blue and white servants’ dishes, and he has stuffed newspapers instead of orchids into the priceless Rose Dubarry porcelain dishes. He serves a plain meal and inexpensive wine in the empty dining room. Lost in the illusion, however, Warley and Mrs. Jasper imagine that they are consuming a gourmet meal at a luxuriously appointed table in the presence of a crowd of glittering guests. They go through a ritual of gestures and conversation which does indeed resemble the danse macabre for which the story is named. Finally, Mrs. Jasper leaves the table exhausted and makes her way upstairs to her uncomprehending and chuckling nurse. Warley, equally exhausted and equally convinced that he has attended a brilliant dinner party, steps out into the night and drops dead.

“After Holbein” is a powerful story primarily because of the contrasts it establishes. In the foreground are the wasted lives ofWarley and Mrs. Jasper, each of whom has long given up all hope of originality or self-realization for the sake of being part of a nameless, gilded mass. The unsympathetic nurse, who teases Mrs. Jasper into tears, acts not from cruelty but from her inability to comprehend, in her own hopeful youth, the tragedy of Mrs. Jasper’s situation. This nurse is contrasted with Mrs. Jasper’s elderly maid, Lavinia, who conceals her own failing health out of loyalty to her mistress, and who is moved to tears by Mrs. Jasper’s plight. Even the essential horror of the story is intensified by the contrasting formality and restraint of its language and by the tight structuring which gives the plot the same momentum of inevitability as the movements of a formal dance.

Warley and Mrs. Jasper have been betrayed from within and from without. They have traded their private selves for public masks, and have spent their lives among others who have made the same bargain. Lavinia’s recollections suggest to the reader that Mrs. Jasper subordinated her role as mother to her role as hostess; and her children, reared in that same world, have left her to the care of servants. Her friends are dead or bedridden, or they have forgotten her. She exists now, in a sense, as she has always existed: as a grotesque figure in a world of illusion.

Warley, too, has come to think of himself only in terms of his social reputation— he will not accept the reality of his age and infirmity. Thus, as he drags one leg during his icy walk along Fifth Avenue, he pictures a club smoking room in which one of his acquaintances will say, “Warley? Why, I saw him sprinting up Fifth Avenue the other night like a two-year-old; that night it was four or five below.” Warley has convinced himself that whatever is said in club smoking rooms by men in good society is real. None of the acquaintances, however, to whom he has given his life is with him when he takes that final step; and it would not have mattered if anyone had been there. Warley is almost inevitably and irrevocably alone at last.

Wharton’s eleven volumes of short stories, spanning thirty-nine years, record her growth in thought and in style. They offer the entertainment of seeing inside an exclusive social circle which was in many respects unique and which no longer exists as Wharton knew it. Some of Wharton’s stories are trivial and some are repetitive; but her best stories depict, in the inhabitants of that exclusive social world, experiences and sensations which are universal.

Major Works
Novels: The Touchstone, 1900; The Valley of Decision, 1902; Sanctuary, 1903; The House of Mirth, 1905; Madame de Treymes, 1907; The Fruit of the Tree, 1907; Ethan Frome, 1911; The Reef, 1912; The Custom of the Country, 1913; Summer, 1917; The Marne, 1918; The Age of Innocence, 1920; The Glimpses of the Moon, 1922; A Son at the Front, 1923; Old New York, 1924 (4 volumes; includes False Dawn, The Old Maid, The Spark, and New Year’s Day); The Mother’s Recompense, 1925; Twilight Sleep, 1927; The Children, 1928; Hudson River Bracketed, 1929; The Gods Arrive, 1932; The Buccaneers, 1938.
Nonfiction: The Decoration of Houses, 1897 (with Ogden Codman, Jr.); Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904; Italian Backgrounds, 1905; A Motor-Flight Through France, 1908; Fighting France from Dunkerque to Belfort, 1915; French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919; In Morocco, 1920; The Writing of Fiction, 1925; A Backward Glance, 1934; The Letters of Edith Wharton, 1988; The Uncollected Critical Writings, 1997 (Frederick Wegener, editor); Yrs. Ever Affly: The Correspondence of Edith Wharton and Louis Bromfield, 2000 (Daniel Bratton, editor).
Poetry: Verses, 1878; Artemis to Actæon, 1909; Twelve Poems, 1926.

Bibliography
Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
Banta, Martha. “The Ghostly Gothic of Wharton’s EverydayWorld.” American Literary Realism: 1870-1910 27 (Fall, 1994): 1-10.
Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1997.
Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994.
Fracasso, Evelyn E. Edith Wharton’s Prisoner of Consciousness: A Study of Theme and Technique in the Tales. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Gawthrop, Betty G. “Roman Fever.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 6. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Lane, James B. “The Other Two.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 6. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.
Young, Judy Hale. “The Repudiation of Sisterhood in Edith Wharton’s ‘Pomegranate Seed.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Winter, 1996): 1-11.

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Short Story

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