Analysis of Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid

One of Edith Wharton’s many stories of New York, this novella was published with the subtitle The ’Fifties in 1924 as the second of four volumes in a set entitled Old New York. The story exemplifies Wharton’s use of irony and realism in depicting characters facing ethical dilemmas. Unmarried Charlotte Lovell, who seems “serious” and “prudish” (378) to her married cousin, Delia Ralston, reveals another side of her nature when she asks Delia to rear a child who she confesses is the product of a past love affair. Although this affair occurred with a young man whom Delia once loved herself but did not marry because of his lack of wealth, she agrees to rear the child, Tina, who begins to call her “Mamma.” Charlotte takes on the awkward role of spinster aunt.

Tension between the two caregivers mounts as Tina becomes a marriageable young woman herself. Tina becomes involved with a young man, Lanning Halsey, who in some ways resembles Clement Spender, her father and the suitor of Delia’s past. Delia, concerned that Tina may enter into an illicit affair as Charlotte did, realizes she must precipitate marriage between the two. In order to make Tina socially acceptable in the society of the Ralstons and Halseys, she adopts her. Charlotte at first resists this action, vowing to take away Tina and tell her the truth, but Delia criticizes Charlotte’s sacrifice of the girl to her “desire for mastery” (430), and Charlotte acquiesces.

Edith Wharton

The novella ends just before Tina’s wedding to Halsey, as the two women argue over who shall tell the girl about the “new duties and responsibilities” of intimacy that are part of marriage (437). Charlotte points out that “the question is: which of us is her mother?” (438), voicing her long misery over her diminished maternal rights, and Delia agrees to let Charlotte talk to Tina. Charlotte returns, however, her courage having failed her, and tells Delia, “You’re her real mother. Go to her” (442). In essence, this is Charlotte’s final renunciation, an acknowledgment that Tina should never know her true status.

The novella, according to Shari Benstock, deals with “themes of secrecy, jealousy, and mutual dependency in one of New York’s ruling families” (362); and R. W. B. Lewis points out that this “melancholy drama” was often regarded by reviewers as the best of the Old New York set (459). Cynthia Griffin Wolff asserts that “the tale is dominated by the passion of [Charlotte’s] despair”; she is “the parent who was never—really—a parent at all; and for her, the spectacle of youth brings not renewal and comfort, but a bitter recollection of everything that has been snatched from her” (345).

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: Scribner, 1975.
Rae, Catherine M. Edith Wharton’s New York Quartet. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984.
Wharton, Edith. The Old Maid (The ’Fifties). In Wharton: Novellas and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 1990.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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