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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

[4621] Peter Powell, Edith Wharton (c. 1910), courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Edith Wharton was born into a wealthy, conservative, New York family that traced its lineage back to the colonial settlement of the city. Although growing up within the upper echelon of New York society provided her with rich material for her fiction, the experience did not encourage Wharton to become a novelist. In the rather rigid social world in which she was raised, women were expected to become wives, not writers. Nonetheless, Wharton began experimenting with writing poetry and fiction at a young age. That she became a major figure of American letters is a testament to her extraordinary talent as a social observer and literary stylist.

Wharton debuted in New York society at the age of seventeen and married Bostonian Edward Wharton a few years later. Edward was thirteen years older than his wife and did not share her taste for art, literature, or intellectual pursuits. Given that the couple had little in common besides their privileged upbringing, it is perhaps not surprising that the marriage was not an emotionally satisfying one. Wharton soon found herself feeling stifled in her role as a society wife. When she eventually began suffering from depression and nervous complaints, her doctors encouraged her to write as a therapeutic release.

Wharton began her career by publishing a few poems and co-writing a popular guide to interior decoration. Still in print today, The Decoration of Houses is considered one of the most important American books about the art of interior design. By the 1890s, after the publication of a well-received collection of short stories, Wharton began to perceive authorship as her life’s avocation. When her novel The House of Mirth became a bestseller in 1905, she found herself ranked among the most important American writers of the day. Her critical success proved inspiring: the productive years between 1905 and 1920 are traditionally understood as Wharton’s major period.

Around 1910, Wharton moved permanently to France. After she divorced her husband in 1913, she devoted herself to travel, writing, and cultivating a wide circle of friends, including such artistic luminaries as Henry James, Jean Cocteau, and Sinclair Lewis. When World War I broke out in Europe, Wharton threw herself into charitable work in support of her adopted country.

Although she lived abroad, she continued to focus her fiction mainly on Americans. Much of her most-noted work, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence(1920), is set in the New York society she had known in the late nineteenth century. Themes that recur in almost all of Wharton’s fiction include individuals’ inability to successfully transcend repressive social conventions, the entrapment of women in marriage, the differences between American and European customs, and the rivalry between “old money” and the nouveaux riches. Wharton remained very productive into her old age–in the course of her career she published nineteen novels, eleven collections of short stories, and several nonfiction studies, memoirs, poems, and reviews–though critics generally agree that the quality of her work declined after 1920. However, her final unfinished novel, The Buccaneers (published posthumously in 1938), outshines everything else she wrote at the end of her career and suggests that her literary powers had not diminished with age. Wharton was consistently ranked among the most significant American writers of her generation, and she was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale. She died of a stroke in France at the age of seventy-five.

Teaching Tips

  • When Lydia threatens to leave Gannett in “Souls Belated,” he responds by asking her, “And where would you go if you left me?” Ask your students to brainstorm about the options Lydia would have if she left Gannett. (You might refer them to the Core Context “Making Amendments: The Woman Suffrage Movement” for insight into the limits women faced and the opportunities that were beginning to open to them at the end of the nineteenth century.) Be sure to point out that in Lydia’s social class–much like Wharton’s own– many professional occupations would be perceived as inappropriate for women. The exercise should help students realize why Lydia feels so trapped in her role as a companion to Gannett.
  • To make the context of the story clearer–and the characters’ problems more compelling–you might explain to your students that divorce was neither as common nor as socially acceptable in Wharton’s time as it is in twenty-first-century America. Along the same lines, it is important for students to understand that Lydia and Gannett are not being overly cautious in pretending to be married since sexual relationships outside of marriage were considered scandalous. Ask students to pay attention to Lydia’s attitude toward the arrival of her divorce papers at the beginning of the story (she refers to them as “the thing,” and the presence of the document seems to exacerbate her anxiety and frustration with her situation). You can compare Lydia’s scruples about her divorce to Mrs. Linton/Cope’s glee when the envelope containing her divorce arrives at the hotel. What conclusions are readers supposed to draw about these characters based on their reactions to their divorce documents? Why is the arrival of the legal document so important to these women?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why is Lydia so reluctant to marry Gannett? Why does she insist that marriage would be “humiliating” and a “cheap compromise”?
  2. Comprehension: What social codes structure the lives of the inhabitants of the Hotel Bellosguardo? Who are the social leaders?
  3. Context: Like many of Wharton’s stories and novels, “Souls Belated” presents marriage as a kind of imprisonment for women. Why does Lydia see marriage in this way? How does she attempt to escape this imprisonment? Why is she successful or unsuccessful? How do the restrictions and frustrations that Lydia faces compare to the restrictions faced by the impoverished Hannah Hayyeh in Anzia Yezierska’s “The Lost ‘Beautifulness’ “?
  4. Context: Based on your reading of Wharton’s and James’s stories of Americans living and traveling in Europe, what customs and values seem to separate Americans from Europeans?
  5. Exploration: How does Lydia’s attempt to rebel against marital conventions compare to Edna Pontellier’s rebellion in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening?

Selected Archive Items

[2572] James Abbot McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret (1883),
courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wolfe Fund, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, 1919. (13.20) Photograph © 1984 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
French art critic and collector Theodore Duret is shown in full evening dress. This painting was ranked by many as the best portrait of Duret by any of the great realist artists of the period. Like novelists Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Kate Chopin, Whistler is interested in depicting the inner lives as well as the opulence of the upper classes. Ezra Pound’s poem “To Whistler, American” lauds the artist.

[3636] Edward Harrison May, Edith Jones (1870),
courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
British painter Edward Harrison May painted portraits for affluent Americans and Europeans. Edith (Jones) Wharton was born into a prominent New York City family; much of her fiction paints the upper class in an ironic light.

[3643] Edward Harrison May, Edith Jones at Age Nineteen (1891),
courtesy of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City.
Edith Jones made her debut in New York society at the age of seventeen and a few years later married the wealthy Edward Wharton of Boston. Her fiction details the confining traditions of upper-class life.

[4621] Peter Powell, Edith Wharton (c. 1910),
courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Photo of Wharton in a fur-collared coat. Wharton wrote a number of novels that depict upper-class society. She was particularly concerned about the status of women.

[4649] Anonymous, Edith Wharton with a Dog on Her Lap, Henry James, Chauffeur Charles Cook, and Teddy Wharton, Holding Two Dogs (c. 1904),
courtesy of Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. 
Wharton and James enjoyed a great friendship. Both were from prominent families, and both lived outside of the United States.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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