Edith Wharton, “The Fullness of Life”

A seemingly hoaky premise turns into a surprising and really affecting story, all hinged on the creaking of the boots of the protagonist’s husband. A woman is dying in the first page and a half, actually dying, whether from illness or suicide is not quite clear: “she had swallowed her noxious last draught of medicine.” She then finds herself in the afterlife, speaking to the Spirit of Life. The story risks being very silly at this point. But this is Wharton, who is not capable of silliness. The Spirit explains it all to her: she is to find her soul mate now, since she didn’t have one while Aline. Her husband certainly wasn’t it. She is ecstatic. She meets him. She connects. Florence, art, literature. He’s the one. He then tells her to come along so they can live in their dream home for eternity. Then it strikes her: it can’t be home, without the creaking of those boots. Can’t be home without husband. She was his soul mate, even if he wasn’t hers. Her loyalty is to him. She can’t bear to know that when his turn comes, he’d arrive and not find her there. This delicious, surprising passage: