Analysis of Edith Wharton’s Xingu

Xingu is a satirical short story about a “Lunch Club” of several women, who are “indomitable huntresses of erudition” (203). They have invited the “celebrated” novelist Osric Dane to their next meeting, and in chapter 1 they prepare for the anticipated discussion with the author of her latest novel, The Wings of Death. Mrs. Roby, however, has read neither it nor the author’s previous work, the “equally remarkable” The Supreme Instant. She had meant to read the latter one day on a boating party while visiting her brother (a consul) in Brazil, but “they had all got to shying things at each other in the boat, and the book had gone overboard” (205). However, she had started reading Trollope (1815–82), who “amuses” her, but whom Mrs. Ballinger dismisses with the observation that “no one reads Trollope now” (205). Mrs. Leveret ventures that The Wings of Death is “not amusing,” but rather “meant to elevate,” only to be corrected by Miss Van Vluyck that “a book steeped in the bitterest pessimism” cannot “be said to elevate, however much it may instruct” (206). Mrs. Roby further scandalizes the ladies by inquiring whether “they get married in the end,” for “it’s a novel, isn’t it,” and “I always think that’s the one thing that matters” (206). “The beautiful part of it,” Laura Glyde finds, is “that no one can tell HOW ‘The Wings of Death’ ends,” because “Osric Dane, overcome by the dread significance of her own meaning, has mercifully veiled it” (206), thus allowing the novel, in Mrs. Ballinger’s opinion, “to be looked at from so many points of view” (207). When Mrs. Roby asks Mrs. Plinth, “And what do YOU think of ‘The Wings of Death,’ ” not realizing, as the other ladies do, that “there was nothing that Mrs. Plinth so much disliked as being asked her opinion of a book,” the meeting is closed “with an increased sense . . . of Mrs. Roby’s hopeless unfitness to be one of them” (207).

At the luncheon in chapter 2, Osric Dane does not discuss her novel but rather asks difficult counter-questions. “Paralysed by the petrifying stare of Osric Dane,” Mrs. Ballinger cannot recall what they had been “so absorbed in” the previous winter, but Mrs. Roby rescues the group by interjecting, “In Xingu?” (213), and “We’ve been so hoping that to-day you would tell us just what you think of it,” adding that “some people say that one of your last books was saturated with it” (214). Suddenly discomfited, Osric Dane asks to which of her books Mrs. Roby is referring. Without identifying Xingu, Mrs. Roby alludes to its great length and depth, its difficult passages and little known branches, and how “it’s almost impossible to get at the source” (215–216). When asked whether she had ever tried, Mrs. Roby replies: “No—but a friend of mine did; a very brilliant man; and he told me it was best for women—not to,” making the ladies all shudder, but prompting Osric Dane to ask: “Did he really? And—did you find he was right?” (216). Mrs. Ballinger tries to change the subject by asking Osric Dane to talk about her book, but Mrs. Roby rises to leave, because she has not read the novel and other-wise has an engagement to play bridge. This gives Osric Dane the opportunity also to leave, and as they walk out, the ladies hear her say: “If you’ll let me walk a little way with you, I should so like to ask you a few more questions about Xingu” (217–218).

Left behind in chapter 3, the ladies do not “consider Osric Dane’s departure a great loss” but “fancy” that she “hardly expected to take a lesson in Xingu” (218). Mrs. Ballinger wishes that she had simply said, “Xingu,” when Osric Dane had asked what they “represented,” but Mrs. Plinth cautions: “I’m not sure that would have been wise to do so” (220). Indeed, they cannot recall whether Xingu is a book, or a religion, or a language, and when they finally “look it up” in “an Encyclopedia” and read the entry on the Xingu River in Brazil, whose source was first discovered in 1884 (225), they finally realize that Mrs. Roby had given Osric Dane a lesson at their expense, but also that they are possibly both “laughing” over it now, for Mrs. Ballinger thinks she saw Mrs. Roby make “a sign” at Osric Dane as she was leaving (226). Had this incident taken place in her house, Mrs. Plinth observes, she would feel obliged to ask for Mrs. Roby’s resignation or to offer her own (227), forcing Mrs. Ballinger to write, “My dear Mrs. Roby—” (228).

“Xingu” satirizes not only the cultural pretensions of the ladies but also the literary work of the great author. Osric Dane’s The Wings of Death and The Supreme Instant are suspiciously reminiscent of her friend Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Sacred Fount (1900). James had dismissed Edith Wharton’s The Fruit of the Tree (1907) with veiled criticism in his story “The Velvet Glove” (1909), and Wharton responded with “Xingu,” which she used “to air her grievances” with James, “whose name is echoed in Osric Dane, and with his later style, as represented by The Wings of the Dove” (Funston 228). By making her novelist a woman, Wharton “may be veiling, albeit thinly, her caricature of James” (Funston 228), but Osric (the) Dane must be an ironic allusion to the foppish courtier in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601). “Xingu” may also serve as “an instruction manual on how to read” Wharton’s work, in which Osric Dane “represents the technical side of Wharton’s art” and Mrs. Roby “the funny, ironic, creative side” (Killoran 2–3). Unwilling to discuss her work, Osric Dane fails to “meet” her readers “half way” (210), but by not having really read her book, the ladies do not meet her halfway either.

Funston, Judith E. “ ‘Xingu’: Edith Wharton’s Velvet Gauntlet.” Studies in American Fiction 12, no. 2 (Autumn 1984): 227–234.
Killoran, Helen. “ ‘Xingu’: Edith Wharton Instructs Literary Critics.” Studies in American Humor N.S. 3, no. 3 (1996): 1–13.
Lingeman, Richard. “The Master and the Millionairess: Henry James and Edith Wharton.” In Double Lives: American Writers’ Friendships. New York: Random House, 2006.
Wharton, Edith. “Xingu.” Scribner’s Magazine 50 (December 1911): 684–696. Reprinted in “Xingu” and Other Stories. New York: Scribner, 1916.
———. “Xingu.” In Edith Warton: Collected Stories 1911– 1937. Vol. 2. New York: Library of America, 2001.
Wright, Sarah Bird. Edith Wharton A to Z: The Essential Guide to the Life and Works. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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