Analysis of Edith Wharton’s The Valley of Childish Things, and Other Emblems

Published in the Century Magazine in 1896, this composite story, consisting of 10 Sketches or Parables, depicts an individual’s struggle to construct beauty and order. The individual vignettes mirror facets of responsibility, growth, and sense of self-worth in a Dantesque progression of sins: Three deal with marriage; three explore architects’ motivations; three examine sorrow, misanthropy, and depression. The opening sketch portrays the arrested development of the multitude against an example of male regression and female maturation. Both first and last treat individual aspiration and frustration.

Marriage offers surprising rewards in the third, fifth, and eighth episodes. In the third, it is suggested as the antidote for a girl’s alarming condition, intelligence. The fifth tale argues that a man might not have persevered through life if he had not been forced to support a wife who never learned to walk or swim. The eighth tale anticipates “The Other Two” and The Age of Innocence in its depiction of a man who marries a woman he finds interesting because she agrees with him on everything. After a few years, however, he finds her boring. Their subsequent arguments end in a foiled divorce when the judge decrees that the man married himself.

Episodes two, seven, and 10 juxtapose characters who construct against those who destruct. The first portrays a mercenary architect who takes advantage of an obtuse woman’s desire to have her room face the sun. The architect chooses the expensive solution; he turns her house for such a high fee that the woman must sacrifice her securities and alter her life. The second tale situates a famous architect in heaven facing an angel of judgment. Offered the opportunity to correct a dreadful mistake in his design of a temple, he chooses to let the temple and his reputation stand unchanged. In contrast, the third tale (and the concluding vignette) portrays a humble architect who weeps because his mud hut, his testimony to his god, cannot compare with the Parthenon. A passerby points out that there are two worse plights than the architect’s: to have no god and to have mistaken a mud hut for the Parthenon.

Recent interpretations suggest that this story—in the words of one critic, “the most bizarre piece that Wharton ever published” (Woolf 78)—can be understood in relation to Wharton’s life as well as her later fiction. As did Wharton, the little girl in the story grows up to learn that men have multiple options in life, while women are expected to remain in the valley of childish things: They should care not for their intelligence but for their physical appearance. In these chilling socially proscribed gender distinctions lie the seeds of many of Wharton’s future works—The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and Summer, in particular. In the story, only the woman’s mature hard work to escape the valley of childhood strikes a small note of optimism, suggesting the author’s female hero in Hudson River Bracketed and The Gods Arrive—and Edith Wharton herself.

Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
Singley, Carol J. Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Wharton, Edith. “The Valley of Childish Things, and Other Emblems.” In The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton. Vol. 1. Edited by R. W. B. Lewis. New York: Scribner, 1968.
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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