Analysis of Edith Wharton’s Madame de Treymes

Published in the August 1907 issue of Scribner’s magazine and in book form the following February, this novella exhibits Edith Wharton’s subtle realism and is one of her works depicting Americans in France. It tells of Fanny de Malrive, née Frisbee, a once-free-spirited New Yorker now married to a French marquis. Like several of Wharton’s female protagonists, Fanny is trapped in an unhappy marriage and constricted by the “sacred institutions” of the Parisian Faubourg St-Germain aristocracy (229). Estranged from her dissolute husband, she has fallen in love with John Durham, a friend from her New York youth. She hopes to marry Durham and return to America, but she fears that her Catholic husband will refuse a divorce and that he may claim custody of their son, the heir to the family title.

Durham meets the marquis’s sister, Madame de Treymes, a mysterious, keenly intelligent woman who herself is guilty of adultery, and he seeks her help in getting the family to consent to a divorce. He cannot decide whether she is well-intentioned or deceitful as her brother is, but ultimately she confesses that the Malrives are agreeing to the divorce in order to claim custody of the boy and raise him according to their values: “ ‘We abhor divorce—we go against our religion in consenting to it—and nothing short of recovering the boy could possibly justify us” (280). Therefore, Fanny essentially will be forced to choose between the man she loves and her son; the story concludes with Durham’s saddened resolution to tell Fanny of the choice she must make.

Cynthia Griffi n Wolff notes that the “mannered complexities” of the French aristocracy are “captured in the perverse and elusive nature of the lady whose name gives the story its title” (134), while R. W. B. Lewis asserts that Fanny de Malrive “enacts another, Paris-based version of Edith Wharton’s dominant theme. She has escaped New York only to be imprisoned within a disastrous marriage—an entrapment more complete than anything Wharton had contrived for the women in her American tales” (166). Shari Benstock believes that the novella “reveals the dark underside of old Faubourg life and satirizes the naïveté of Americans hoping to break through its class prejudices and papal customs” (158). In this respect, the novella uncharacteristically denounces a culture that Wharton was drawn to and usually praised.

Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribner, 1994.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Wharton, Edith. Madame de Treymes. In Wharton: Novellas and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 1990.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffi n. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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