Analysis of Edith Wharton’s New Year’s Day

One of Edith Wharton’s many stories of New York, it was published with the subtitle The ’Seventies in 1924 as the last of four volumes in a set entitled Old New York. This novella depicts with subtle realism the reactions within Old New York society to the scandalous affair of Mrs. Lizzie Hazeldean. The tale opens in the residence of the Parrett family as they watch a fire in the Fifth Avenue Hotel. The blaze forces the hotel’s occupants outside the building, and the family is shocked to see Mrs. Hazeldean exit with a well-to-do bachelor, Henry Prest. Most of the story, however, recounts Lizzie’s past and the causes leading to her affair.

The narrator, a young boy during the New Year’s Day fire and now a young man, recounts how as a young woman Lizzie had been left to depend on others after her father, a rector, was professionally ruined by rumors of illicit relations with female parishioners. Taken in by an unwilling aunt, she soon escaped by marrying a respectable lawyer, Charles Hazeldean. The narrator reflects on the limited options of the young Lizzie and others like her, a common theme in Wharton’s work: “Among the young women now growing up about me I find none with enough imagination to picture the helpless incapacity of the pretty girl of the ’seventies, the girl without money or vocation, seemingly put into the world only to please, and unlearned in any way of maintaining herself there by her own efforts” (547).

Edith Wharton/Britannica

Six years after their marriage, Charles Hazeldean fell deeply ill and had to give up his work. Unfit for any other means of earning money, Lizzie entered into the affair with Prest for purely economic reasons, investing the money he gave her to support herself and Charles. She finally reveals this fact to Prest, who is appalled to learn that she formed the liaison out of financial need and love for her husband. After Charles’s death, Prest proposes marriage to Lizzie, but she refuses in candid terms that are themselves “banned” in their world: “You thought I was a lovelorn mistress; and I was only an expensive prostitute” (532).

Ignoring New York society’s gossip about her, Lizzie continues to live alone and befriend intellectual young men, in an existence similar to Ellen Olenska’s in Paris in The Age of Innocence. The cold responses of other society women toward her are conveyed with irony. The narrator becomes temporarily infatuated with her but soon realizes his foolishness; however, he has formed an enduring respect for her: “She had done one great—or abominable—thing; rank it as you please, it had been done heroically” (546). The novella closes with the narrator’s learning of Lizzie’s death, which seems to him her reunion with her beloved dead husband. Cynthia Griffin Wolff notes that this tale “recapitulated familiar themes of Edith Wharton’s writing and interweaved versions of her family and friends,” including Wharton herself as the young narrator (367).

Rae, Catherine M. Edith Wharton’s New York Quartet. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984.
Saunders, Judith P. “A New Look at the Oldest Profession in Wharton’s New Year’s Day.” Studies in Short Fiction 17 (1980): 121–126.
Wharton, Edith. New Year’s Day (The ’Seventies). In Wharton: Novellas and Other Writings, edited by Cynthia Griffin Wolff. New York: Library of America, 1990.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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