Tag: vanity

Wharton, “The Valley of Childish Things” (1896)

edith wharton the valley of childish things

Asher Brown Durand, ‘Landscape—Scene from “Thanatopsis”‘ (1850).

Wharton’s wry humor and wryer ironies displayed in a decalogue of moralistic sketches, some of them small feminist manifestos. The first is about a little girl who leaves the valley and returns a grown woman, while the rest of her friends remained behind. She returns learned and curious. The others are still playing. One boy had done likewise, but when he returns, he’s enamored with one of the little girls and pays no heed to the educated woman but to remark on her look: “Really, my dear, you ought to have taken better care of your complexion.” The fifth tale is about a man who marries a woman who was never taught to walk. She’s an immense burden when they come to a wide, deep river. He carries her across and nearly drowns. The other side is “beyond all imagining delightful.” The burdens-are-their-own-rewards moral of the tale: “Perhaps if I hadn’t had to carry her over, I shouldn’t have kept up long enough to get here myself.” It’s followed by a wonderful sketch about an architect ion heaven who never did anything great but one temple, though he knows it’s got one flaw. An angel asks him if he’d rather have it fixed. Of course he doesn’t. But his two choices are that either someone else is sent down to fix it, making him, the architect, look like a laughing stock, or they let it be, and he must, in his heavenly life, live with the knowledge of a flaw, deceiving those below. Of course he chooses the latter: all is vanity. And so on.

The Century Magazine, July 1896

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Dr. Beeber” (1970)

isaac singer dr. beeber

Dr. Mark Beeber is a rich Bohemian philosopher who’s written one book but bears his title for pretension’s sake: he’s never written his dissertation. “His stories always came to the same conclusion: everything is vanity, all philosophers are mistaken, all ideals silly and hypocritical. Man is nothing but a sly ape. However, when one can’t pay the rent, there’s trouble.” He befriends a young writer at the Warsaw Writers’ Club whom he calls Tsutsik (which means puppy) who, seeing him deteriorate–he’d rejected his family–suggests a matchmaker. Beeber marries a rich woman who turns out to be a Martha Updike, controlling his environment so as to force him to publish another book. “She won’t let me answer the phone; she’s afraid I’ll be robbed of my time for contemplation.” All his needs are fulfilled down to a gastronomy that fattens him. But he’s bored. He feels so enslaved he starts an affair with the maid. He’s eternally dissatisfied. Then goes to a casino and wastes all of his wife’s money. She throws him out. His deterioration resumes. His philosophy has twisted, though it’s not much different than what it had been: “Rationalism is the worst disease of the human species. Reason will reverse evolution. Homo sapiens will become so clever that he won’t know how to breed, to eat, or go to the toilet. He’ll even have to learn how to die.” But even though he can’t pay the rent–he has no roof, no bed, no zlotys–what frightens him most in the end is that his wife would forgive him.

The New Yorker, March 7, 1970