“The Quicksand,” published in The Descent of Man (1904), portrays the self-examination of the wealthy Mrs. Quentin as she reaches out to help her son and his girlfriend. The instability of the ground upon which she has constructed her life becomes apparent when she attempts to fulfill a request by her son, Alan. He explains to her that the woman he loves, Hope Fenno, has rejected his marriage proposal because she does not respect the family newspaper. Hope had suggested that he either radically change the contents of the Radiator or give it up, but he had declined. Alan asks his mother to convince Hope that the paper need not disturb the ideals of her private life. When Alan reminds his mother that she had not forced his father to give up the paper, his mother is forced to recall her own distaste for it, review her own complicity with it, and answer Hope’s accusations. Unbeknownst to Alan, Mrs. Quentin also had disliked the tabloid but had compromised her values by using the money it generated to provide for Alan’s delicate health and for her generous philanthropy.
When the two women discuss the rejected offer of marriage, Hope rejects Mrs. Quentin’s sacrificial behavior and the idea that women must compromise their ideals for the love of a man or a child.
Six months later the two women meet at the Metropolitan Museum, the place where Mrs. Quentin seeks solace in art. Hope admits that she entered the museum because she had seen Mrs. Quentin’s carriage outside. Hope’s demeanor and her words attest to her sadness. She confesses to now wondering whether perhaps one should sacrifice one’s ideals for love. In response, Mrs. Quentin admits that she had been horrified when she learned what kind of paper the Radiator was. She had asked that her husband sell it and believed his consistent excuses for not doing so. After her husband’s death, she had believed that the paper could be sold and was dismayed to learn that Alan wanted to build on his father’s success. Choosing Hope’s idealism over her son’s happiness, Mrs. Quentin acknowledges that Alan’s overweaning pride in the paper surpasses his love for Hope. She confesses her own unhappiness in order to prevent Hope from being “walled up alive” and experiencing the pain she herself continues to endure (410).
Singley, Carol. Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Wharton, Edith. “The Quicksand.” In The Collected Stories of Edith Wharton. Vol. 1. Edited by R. W. B. Lewis. New York: Scribner, 1968. Reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1987–89.