The rage of conformity: Halston Merrick falls in love with a married woman but for the life of him can’t bring himself to diverge from conforming norms even as he sees his cowardice for what it is. The story is told from an unnamed first-person man long after the events of the tale, by which time “Merrick had grown conventional and dull.” The most he could do with the woman he loved was “take a night and not a life,” the closest allusion to a one-night stand you’ll see in Wharton. That line, “the rage of conformity,” occurs toward the end of the story, summing up Wharton’s indictment of her character. I’m afraid Merrick’s dullness contaminates the story.
Edith Wharton may have written this story as a way to kill her husband or soften the ground to her extrication by divorce: the man dies on a train “journey” from Colorado back to New York–his journey to oblivion, her journey to emancipation. But in a dozen pages Wharton manages to describe with forensic acuity the psychology of physical decline as witnessed by a spouse (with the disease and the decline again a metaphor for the degradation of a marriage), then to turn the story into a mini-thriller: the narrator’s husband dies many hour before reaching New York. Bad enough that she must deal with that, his cold hand. She doesn’t want to be thrown out of the train, as would be the norm. She must come up with endless subterfuges to deceive conductor and fellow-travelers, and does. In New York she must let on or “discover” that he’s dead. She appears to faint and strike her head on his berth, leaving it unclear whether she too has reached the end of the journey or has merely found a convincing way to spare herself accusations that she’d known all along he was dead.
She was too impenetrably healthy to be touched by the irrelevancies of disease. Her self-reproachful tenderness was tinged with the sense of his irrationality: she had a vague feeling that there was a purpose in his helpless tyrannies. The suddenness of the change had found her so unprepared. A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead of life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.
The lack of privacy, the presumptions of fellow-travelers, the oppressive legalities all add up to an imprisonment for the narrator that has more to do with the unbearable conventions of marriage and a woman’s proper role within it than with the dying or dead man on the train.
No periodical publication. “The Greater Inclination,” 1899
“The Muse’s Tragedy” appeared in “The Greater Inclination,” Wharton’s first collection of stories, in 1899.
Danyers is a young scholar infatuated with Mrs. Anerton. Mrs. Anerton had been the muse of poet Vincent Rendle who, like her husband, is dead. Danyers wrote about Rendle, but is now falling in love with Anerton. They spend a month together in Venice. The third part of the story is a letter Anerton writes him to explain why she would never “stoop” to marry him or any other. The story is a meditation on artistic inspiration, its imprisoning limitations, its tragic dimensions, when the muse is in the end objectified: inspiration, sex object, what’s the difference if it stunts a heart’s desires: “Alone—quite alone; for he had never really been with me. The intellectual union counted for nothing now. It had been soul to soul, but never hand in hand, and there were no little things to remember him by.”
Scribner’s, June 1899, The Greater Inclination, 1899
The hyper-sensitive Mrs. Lidcote is returning from Florence to New York to see her daughter, whom she fears is repeating her own error. We never know quite what Mrs. Lidcote’s error was. She scandalized Old New York and had to go into exile for 18 years in more tolerant Florence, probably with another man. Her daughter Leila appears to be going down the same path, but a friend of Mrs. Lidcote she meets on board ship, the seemingly good and kind Franklin Ide, tells her not to worry: New York has changed. Leila will be fine, whatever her choices. They’re in new York Harbor by now. Franklin is making subtle advances. Mrs. Lidcote doesn’t reject them.
“There’s no old New York left, it seems,” she realizes. As she does her diminishing place in the world: “Yes, yes; I’m happy. But I’m lonely, too—lonelier than ever. I didn’t take up much room in the world before; but now—where is there a corner for me?” And : “Where indeed in this crowded, topsy-turvey world, with its headlong changes and helter-skelter readjustments, its new tolerances and indifferences and accommodations, was there room for a character fashioned by slower sterner processes and a life broken under their inexorable pressure?” Franklin makes his proposal more explicit, but we don’t know if it’s a proposal of marriage or merely of an affair. But it reawakens in Mrs. Lidcote the urge, the verve and impulse that had caused her to elope in her younger years, this time seemingly at no cost to her reputation:
If the old processes were changed, her case was changed with them; she, too, was a part of the general readjustment, a tiny fragment of the new pattern worked out in bolder freer harmonies. Since her daughter had no penalty to pay, was not she herself released by the same stroke? The rich arrears of youth and joy were gone; but was there not time enough left to accumulate new stores of happiness? That, of course, was what Franklin Ide had felt and had meant her to feel. He had seen at once what the change in her daughter’s situation would make in her view of her own. It was almost—wondrously enough!—as if Leila’s folly had been the means of vindicating hers.
She had had what she wanted, but she had had to pay too much for it. She had had to pay the last bitterest price of learning that love has a price: that it is worth so much and no more. She had known the anguish of watching the man she loved discover this first, and of reading the discovery in his eyes. It was a part of her history that she had not trusted herself to think of for a long time past: she always took a big turn about that haunted corner. But now, at the sight of the young man downstairs, so openly and jovially Leila’s, she was overwhelmed at the senseless waste of her own adventure, and wrung with the irony of perceiving that the success or failure of the deepest human experiences may hang on a matter of chronology.
Her daughter is suspiciously over-solicitous, patronizing, almost dismissive of her mother, and ultimately segregating: Leila sends the insufferable Susy Suffren to keep Mrs. Lidcote company and serve her tea, but really to keep her from coming downstairs among Leila’s friends. Suffren infantilizes Mrs. Lidcote as if she were old enough for Donald Hall: “When a woman writes to the newspaper, approving of something I have done,” he wrote in Essays After Eighty, “she calls me “a nice old gentleman.” She intends to praise me, with “nice” and “gentleman.” “Old” is true enough, and she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart, but “nice” and “gentleman” put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises. At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.”
That’s pretty much how Suffren treats Mrs. Lidcote. But Wharton’s superb descriptions of the dynamic between the two women, of Lidcote’s forceful, nearly unspoken rejoinders and rejections of Suffren’s imprisonment, restore Lidcote’s dignity, to the reader’s cheers–only for Leila to resume the assault, and win, her mother feeling too indulgent toward her daughter to deny her the triumph: one of the guests after all was the fearsome Mrs. Boulger, and the purpose of the evening was to secure Leila’s husband an appointment to Rome. Lidcote’s presence would have complicated matters. “Leila was in an agony lest I should come down to dinner the first night. And it was for me she was afraid, not for herself. Leila is never afraid for herself,” her mother reasons, not entirely correctly but lovingly, which has precedence in this heart of hers (as it does not in Ide’s). She decides to return to Florence, “which held her past in every fold of its curtains and between every page of its books, seemed now to her the one spot where that past would be endurable to look upon.” And Ide? He turns out to be as much of a cad as the rest of them.
The money quote:
It’s simply that society is much too busy to revise its own judgments. Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.”
Century Magazine, July 1911 (as “Other Times, Other Manners”), “Xingu,” 1916.
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.
This is Edith Wharton’s idea of an “atrocity story,” fiction’s equivalent of the propaganda newsreel crafted to touch nerves and stir up emotions. It’s beautifully written, it’s exquisitely plotted, but it’s agenda-driven writing with two purposes: advertising German atrocities and making the point that “there is something to be said for the new way of bringing up girls.” It’s a girl who saves the estate near the front–a save that further undermines the realism of the story with melodramatic pandering to the reader: atrocities have their limits. It’s all “sentiment and cinema scenes,” those words Wharton uses derisively at the beginning of the story, returning to them as if self-consciously trying to neutralize her own doing: “I know you affect to scorn the cinema, and this was it, tremolo and all.” It is it, the front’s version of Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers,” but not as emotionally accomplished.
Jean de Rechamp, 27 or 28, wants news of his family at Rechamp, and his girlfriend Mlle Malo. He fought, was wounded and put out of action (though he can still drive), and gets to know Greer, an America supply man who refers to the Germans as “brutes” and whose “eyes see so much that they make one see even what his foggy voice obscures.” The narration is his.
Wharton gives the backstory of Rechamp and his girlfriend, a free-spirited artist who’s lived alone after being fostered by a rich man. Jean asks his parents and grandmother permission to marry Malo. They refuse. She lives alone. She travels. She’s never been married. Ergo, harlot. But she wins his heart. Malo is the New Woman, a Wharton hero.
“Soon after Mlle. Malo’s return to Paris he followed her and began to frequent the Passy studio. The life there was unlike anything he had ever seen—or conceived as possible, short of the prairies. He had sampled the usual varieties of French womankind, and explored most of the social layers; but he had missed the newest, that of the artistic-emancipated. I don’t know much about that set myself, but from his descriptions I should say they were a good deal like intelligent Americans, except that they don’t seem to keep art and life in such water-tight compartments. But his great discovery was the new girl. Apparently he had never before known any but the traditional type, which predominates in the provinces, and still persists, he tells me, in the last fastnesses of the Faubourg St. Germain. The girl who comes and goes as she pleases, reads what she likes, has opinions about what she reads, who talks, looks, behaves with the independence of a married woman—and yet has kept the Diana-freshness—think how she must have shaken up such a man’s inherited view of things! Mlle. Malo did far more than make Réchamp fall in love with her: she turned his world topsy-turvey, and prevented his ever again squeezing himself into his little old pigeon-hole of prejudices.”
Jean’s attempt to win permission is described in the same language of trench warfare. He’s up against “a heap of vague insinuations, baseless conjectures, village tattle,” all based on a maid’s sing single slander: That Mlle Malo slept with her foster father. But he disproves the slander and wins the family’s approval. During the war she improbably stays with the family.
And so back to the present, Rechamp’s quest for Rechamp, the road trip with Greer as they hear “the stories we all refused to believe at first, and that we now prefer not to think about….”
“But you know well enough,” I insisted, “that the Germans are not all alike—that it all depends on the particular officer….” Greer tells Rechamp. Thy speak of one German in particular, the murderous Scharlach.
As they approach the front all the old landmarks down to the names and distances on mile-stones have disappeared, as have village church steeples, as have villages. Rechmap thought he knew where he was. He was where he thought he was, a village neighboring his own. But the where was no longer there. “The place looked like an abandoned stoneyard. I never saw completer ruin. To the left, a fortified gate gaped on emptiness; to the right, a mill-wheel hung in the stream. Everything else was as flat as your dinner-table.” They run into an old woman whose house was spared because the Germans used it to bivouac. She tells them of various atrocities.
They drive on. But Rechamp is intact: the whole family is there. They all credit Yvonne Malo for saving them with her wiles after Scharlach shows up. Those wiles are never described in details: she wined and dined them, but the implication is that she did more than that: she screwed the German to save the village. She’s happy to see Jean but eager to see him leave on the improbable excuse that he’s not ready to know of the horrors yet, as if he hadn’t seen them–unless she means the horrors she performed. Jean and Greer leave. On the way they pick up a German wounded from a French hospital. The German dies on the way, though he wasn’t supposed to: the car runs out of gas, Greer has to walk on to get some, Jean may have killed the German during Greer’s absence. Murdered him. The German is supposedly Scharlach. Talk about schematized. The story by this point is held together by very thick nails and sledgehammers.
Delia and Laurence Corbett are a pair of do-nothing rich, part of that “richly upholstered and intellectually barren world,” as James Mac Gregor Burns described Wharton’s frequent characters. They live in Paris. It’s her second marriage. Her first died, much to her pleasure: “Her husband often reminded her of the poodle, and, not having a whip or its moral equivalent to control him with, she had long since resigned herself to seeing him smudge the whiteness of her early illusions.” Her aunt Mary Hayne in Boston is a hyperactive liberal advocate. She falls and gets water on the knee. Her niece decides to go to Boston to be with her–and also to show-off: “She was really very glad to be returning to Boston as Corbett’s wife; her occasional appearances there as Mrs. Benson had been so eminently unsatisfactory to herself and her relatives that she naturally desired to efface them by so triumphal a re-entry.” Mrs. Hayne’s over-activity is a burdensome contrast to Delia’s laziness. ” In its light her own life seemed vacuous, her husband’s aims trivial as the subtleties.” More burdensome is the question her aunt asks Delia: what did your husband do in the Civil War war? Nothing. Why? “I really don’t know,” she said, coldly. “I never asked him.” How could she possibly not? Because she was an indolent northerner who couldn’t give a shit. It would not have happened in the South, or in any northern family affected by the war (in the 99 percent):
But the matter weighs on her heavily enough that it pushes her back to Paris, where she thinks the “torment of the question,” and not knowing Corbett’s own answer, would dissipate. It does not. Corbett himself triggers the confrontation when he comes home with the framed picture of a soldier killed at Chancellorville, picked up in a little shop on Rue Bonaparte. He meant it as a present for his wife. The gesture has all the elegance of the goon who piously cheers the war wounded on display at an NFL game. His wife feigns being touched, but the gesture begs the question, which she poses directly. He answers it astoundingly: “I don;t think I know.” And: “Well — it all happened some time ago,” he answered, still smiling, “and the truth is that I’ve completely forgotten the excellent reasons that I doubtless had at the time for remaining at home.” That home strikes as the loudest Berlioz-like knell of his cowardice. She calls him a coward. The picture drops, breaks its crystal cover. She later apologizes. “Her ideal of him was shivered like the crystal above the miniature of the warrior of Chancellorsville. She had the crystal replaced by a piece of clear glass which (as the jeweller pointed out to her) cost much less and looked equally well; and for the passionate worship which she had paid her husband she substituted a tolerant affection which possessed precisely the same advantages.”
A fabulous, funny story about the pretentiousness of high society women and their book clubs. (Here’s a summary.) Xingu is a river in Brazil, but the reader doesn’t know that. Five of the six women in the club don’t know that, nor does their guest, the imperious novelist Osric Dane who’s deigned be the guest of the book club to talk about her latest novel, about which no one talks. The group is flummoxed, unable to talk about much of anything seriously, it is ridiculed by Dane, until Mrs. Roby, seemingly the least intellectual of the bunch, saves the discussion by allusively referring to Xingu. No one knows what it is but they all seize on Xingu as their life raft and get lost in it, including Dane, until Roby and Dane leave together for a bridge party. The women, after more pretending that they know what Xingu is, finally look it up, realize it’s a river in Brazil, where Roby once lived, and realize they’ve been had. They decide to kick Roby out of the group.
There’s some thought that Wharton was getting back at Henry James in the story: could there possibly have been a more pretentious man in America?
Of the head of the group, Mrs. Ballinger: “Her mind was an hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board.“ The line reminds me of an equally cruel line in Cheever:
“Alice Malloy had dark, stringy hair, and even her husband, who loved her more than he knew, was sometimes reminded by her lean face of a tenement doorway on a rainy day, for her countenance was long, vacant, and weakly lighted, a passage for the gentle transports and miseries of the poor.”
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:
Mrs. Mantsey is an aging, stuck-in-her-ways woman whose only pleasure in life seems to be the views of the city from her boardinghouse in New York. Mrs. Black plans to build an extension of the building in front of Mantsey’s view, which would be blocked. Matsey panics, offers $1,000 to Black not to build. Black had offered her a room in the extension, which would have fixed the problem. But Mantsey doesn’t want to move. Black takes Mantsey for nuts. She’s right. Mantsey next sets fire to the construction’s wares after the first day. But she catches pneumonia and dies–happy, because she was able to look at her view one last time. (Compare to Carver’s “The Idea.” Why do we assume that looking out from a greater distance is OK, but looking from a nearer distance is voyeurism, at least when one is within one’s own home?)