Poetry Of Edith Wharton Essay, Research Paper
Edith Wharton, according to Geoffrey Walton in his study of her in his 1971 essay, cited her as having written her first story at age 11, and even at this young age she has been dealing with the interactions of people in her social group. Her social circle being one primarily made up of an elite society, which as she aged slowly died off, became the focus of her stories. However, the problems that her characters experienced appeared to have been based more on their basic human natures when confined into their social obligation of being proper. Because of this need to be proper, especially in her women characters, they seemed to wear a mask, disguising their true intentions with small talk. This very specific social and moral choice of disguising one s true feelings is illustrated in both Roman Fever and in The Other Two more in their sense of irony then in their social implications.
Roman Fever, according to Lois Auchincloss in her criticism of the story as being a technical masterpiece. A masterpiece because it shows Wharton s ability to reduce a story to its bare bones, without the aid of social problems or manners or mores or even of human nature, except in its most elemental nature. This would only add to the idea that Wharton could draw in a larger audience by removing the social barriers between them and only presenting a story where all the characters involved could be anyone in that situation. It just so happened that the characters were normally from an upper crest of society, hence the settings for her stories would more likely be in a richer atmosphere and not a more quintessentially lower class setting.
When looking into the text of the story itself we see these ideas come to life. The two characters in Roman Fever are both widowed mothers of daughters. Both women are well off as their husbands were both relatively successful in their respective occupations and left a good amount to be lived off of when they passed on and both happened to be visiting Rome at the same time. They sit on the veranda and chat politely about their lives, mainly focusing their attentions to their daughters and of the fond passing of their youthful exploits in Rome. It is not until the end of their discussion, and they are leaving the veranda that the entire story comes together and their polite conversation is revealed as farce. Mrs. Ansley turns to her companion Mrs. Slade and in one swift retort throws all their secrets out by admitting to Mrs. Slade that her daughter, Barbara, is in fact a child had out of wedlock with Mr. Slade.
This story very beautifully illustrates Mrs. Auchincloss s observation that the story deals with the most elemental natures of people. The two women, as characters, are very simply trying to disguise their basic feeling of contempt for one another in a shroud of politeness. A shroud that is destroyed at the end of the story in order to fulfill Mrs. Ansley need to put Mrs. Slade in her place. Because of this need to put Mrs. Slade in her place, the women seem to switch places socially. We see in the beginning of the story, Mrs. Slade leading the two women onto the veranda, and at the end, we see Mrs. Ansley leading them off.
In a way, it is almost remarkable that once the reader has discovered the hidden meaning in the story they can go back and look at all the dialogue Mrs. Wharton has weaved for us, and discover throughout all that transgressed between the two women they were always teetering on the edge of screaming at each other, Mrs. Ansley, becoming the victor in this silent screaming match.
The bareness of the story also allows the reader to read between the lines of her text. When only reading the story from beginning to end for the first time the two women would seem like good friends from childhood. This idea of keeping the storyline to a minimum and not allowing the reader to see past the action in the story makes the ending even more astounding
This keeping the true meaning of the story from the reader until the very end adds to the stories grand sense of irony. Two women who do not like each other because of the happenings in their youth are forced to sit and share time with each other as if they were the best of friends, while their daughters go off and enjoy Rome as they very well may have in their time of blossom.
Mrs. Wharton s other story to mention, The Other Two, also uses very subtle social undertones, and seems to have a more obvious sense of irony then Roman Fever. Here we have the newly married Mr. Waythorn, his wife Lily is the divorce of two men whom Mr. Waythorn through chance and circumstance is forced to interact with because of business. Throughout the entire story Mr. Waythorn is convincing himself how perfect she is as a wife, and how she belongs to him. Yet, at times, such as when she pours him the coffee and throws a shot of brandy into it, it is obvious that maybe she is not as perfect as she can appear. It is only at the end of the story that Mrs. Waythorn, when she is serving all three men, is she really his in a sense, because at that time she belongs to all three. She is their perfect wife.
Socially speaking, Mrs. Waythorn is perfect. She is noted in the story as being able to go from one husband to the other with not so much as a scratch to her persona and can even manage a conversation with her ex-husband at a function without drawing the suspicions of Mr. Waythorn, she is held up as a miracle of good taste . She can do no wrong, and throughout the story, Mr. Waythorn accepts her excuses for talking to her ex husbands. Even when she talks to the father of her daughter after telling him she would not, and is caught, Mr. Waythorn does not push the issue. In a way, he sides with the other man by pushing the idea that he, having rights to the daughter, should have a say in the way she is brought up.
When compared the stories only emphasize these ideas of irony in certain social graces. In Roman Fever it is these social graces that keep both of these women from speaking their minds fully and to the point. They maintain this charade until the very last moment when Mrs. Ansley decided that it was either she presented Mrs. Slade with the truth or lived in her shadow from then on in. In The Other Two Mr. Waython in caused by these same social guidelines to keep his discomfort unvoiced, and in a sense is thrown into the strange, but fitting situation of Lily becoming the wife in a sense to all three.
However, the social guidelines only act as a vessel for Edith Wharton s true intention of showing the basic fundamentals of human nature and what happens when these traits are put into very strange situations. The irony of these situations is the result of her characters ignoring the truth of what is happening for so long and taking extreme measures to keep it from coming to the front line and then being thrown there regardless.