The World Of Edith Wharton The Novelists Life All literary critics and sources that give accounts of Edith Newbold Jones Whartons life seem to agree on the basic facts. Wharton was born in 1862 into a wealthy family and raised during Americas Guilded Age. She was born into the lavish world of inherited wealth, one which she benefited from greatly. This life of luxury provided Wharton with a rich source of material which she used to challenge the attitudes of Americas Guilded Age in her novels (World,p.1). She spent portions of her childhood growing up in places like Paris, Rome, and London, but received most of her education in the United States.
Wharton exhibited her talents in writing at a very early age. I cannot remember a time when I did not want to make up stories Wharton said in her autobiography (DeCecco, p.1). In 1885 Edith Wharton married the very well-to-do Edward Wharton and the couple continued to live in American high society. However, Whartons marriage proved early on to be an unhappy one, and she was to suffer a series of nervous breakdowns as a result (DeCecco, p.1). In order to ease the strains of her marriage, Wharton began to write again like she did as a child. Her first work was published in 1889; it was a book on interior decorating.
Sixteen years later Wharton would write her first best seller, House of Mirth. In the year 1911, she departed from her usual themes of jealousy, class system, and the condition of women in society to write Ethan Frome , possibly her most famous piece of writing (DeCecco, p.2). However, The World of Edith Wharton disagrees with this fact saying that Ethan Frome was written in the year 1912. Two years later Wharton got a divorce from her husband which would end their disconsolate marriage. Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize in the year 1921 for her novel, Age of Innocence. Shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize, she became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University in 1924 (World, p.2).
Whartons last novel, The Buccaneers, was written after she took up residence in France, but the book was never finished. Edith Wharton died shortly after starting it in the year 1937. Critic DeCecco stresses the unhappy childhood Wharton had growing up while The World of Edith Wharton portrays it as rather carefree and pleasant because of the familys wealth and status. Although hers was a life of privilege, Whartons life was not a happy one. Her father, though affectionate, was often absent, leaving the running of the family to Lucretia, her mother, a stern, uninvolving woman who rejected this daughter born to her in late life. In addition to the cold climate of her home, the society in which Wharton was born offered her no opportunity for emotional or intellectual development (DeCecco, p.1). Wharton was excepted to be pure, young, and innocent and to remain the passive object of mens wishes, however, she refused.
Some of her later works reveal this tension brought on by these expectations and constraints. The source, The World of Edith Wharton does not comment on her personality. The biography written by DeCecco does hint at the fact that Wharton was a little bit rebellious and independent. She wrote many novels which challenged the turn-of-the century New York society values; especially concerning women. Edith Wharton was forced to grow up somewhat independent since her father was rarely present and her mother was very distant.
She exhibited her independence after divorcing Edward Wharton and living better on her own. Wharton was a keen observer and chronicler of her personal world (DeCecco, p.2). The novel Ethan Frome was not typical of Whartons writing style and themes. In first telling and then writing stories about the grown-ups in her parents world, her early literary efforts became her way of dealing with her mothers lack of love and the crippling code of behavior imposed by the society in which she lived (DeCecco, p.1). Wharton, up until 1911, wrote of infidelity, jealousy, class system, and the condition of women in society over which they had little control. Ethan Frome was a stark tale about the ordinary lives of an isolated, rural people living in the harsh New England countryside (DeCecco, p.3). While Ethan Frome, the stark New England tragedy, is possibly her best-known work, it is the least typical of her art (Erlich, p.1). Literary Criticism Ethan Frome is widely seen as the best and most popular novel of Edith Wharton while also being the most different from her others. It is a tragic tale of two lovers, Ethan and Mattie, who never are able to spend their lives together despite their efforts.
Zeena, Ethans dictatorial and authoritarian wife, stands in their way throughout the entire novel. Mattie was the woman he wanted and Zeena was the woman he needed (Bjorkman, p.550). Critic Gore Vidal agrees with the common conception of Wharton as a stuffy, Grande dame whose work is analogous to that of Henry James. Vidal believes that she stands outside of the world that she describes in Ethan Frome, but is still able to convincingly describe a bleak, New England town and its people. He refers to the first few pages of the novel as a prime example of Whartons wonderful descriptions that produce a perfect image of Starkfield and Ethan in the readers head.
Critic Elizabeth Ammons agrees with Vidal in saying that the mood is dark and pessimistic in the town of Starkfield. At the time when Wharton wrote Ethan Frome, she was under the influence of French realists, but still pays homage to American classics. Several critics including Vidal and Ammons compare Ethan Frome to one of Nathaniel Hawthornes novels, The Blithdale Romance. The two books both take place in the same New England territory and Wharton named Zenobia after a heroine of Hawthornes novel. Most critics agree that love is the key subject and verdict of Ethan Frome.
It is both simple and harsh; complex, but not subtle (Ammons, p.495). Ammons believes that the novel dramatizes sexual repression and bitter disillusion with love. Ethans character, throughout the novel, realizes that love is not accommodating or easy. He is forced to choose between two different women which he loves, but in different ways. The love triangle going on between Zeena, Mattie and Ethan present stirring questions of morality. Is it allowable behavior for Ethan to leave Zeena the revolting nag and spend his time with the warm and affectionate Mattie (Poepsel, p.1)? When Ethan and Mattie decide to sled into a tree and kill themselves, they are trying to escape that situation which so complicates their lives and challenges their morals.
Their quest ultimately fails when they are merely hurt in the accident. After this event, the roles reverse and Zeena is forced to take care of the two while they have to live through a painful existence apart and crippled. In the beginning of Ethan Frome, Zeena appears to be totally dependent on Ethan and Mattie, but the question posed by critic Mark Poepsel is: Was Zeena really dependent on Ethan all those years? The answer is no. Zeena is a hypochondriac who finds the wrong in nearly every situation. When she doesnt have someone else to care for, she finds disease in herself (Poepsel, p.1). As Ammons said, Prince charming, properly understood, liberates his heroine into a life of permanent dependence.
I could only find one point in which the novel Ethan Frome was criticized negatively. Critics Bjorkman and Poepsel both commented that the novel lacks in suspense. From the start, the smash-up lies over the pages of the book (Bjorkman, p.550). However, I believe that this was merely foreshadowing used by Wharton and it adds to the story. As well, I found the pages preceding the smash-up to be very suspenseful because one cannot predict what the outcome might be.
I do not agree with Poepsel and Bjorkman when they say that the novel lacks suspense and has too much foreshadowing. In conclusion, most critics concur on the fact that Ethan Frome is one of Edith Whartons greatest novels and also the most deviant from her usual style. Instead of concentrating on the hardships of women in the upper class society of New York, Wharton explores the new, uncharted territory of New England. Ethan Frome is a story of two star crossed lovers, not unlike Romeo and Juliet, whose family situation will not allow them to be together. Wharton probes the questions of rectitude and morality in this novel and forces the characters as well as the reader to make a choice between loyalty and true love.
In an effort to escape this difficult choice, Ethans choice is made for him and he is forced to live on enduring pain and misery. Bibliography Bibliography DeCecco, Flora. The Life of Edith Wharton. Romance Communications January 1998: 1-2. Literary Index. Online.
AOL. 5 April 1998. Erlich, Gloria C. A Bio-bibliographical note about Edith Wharton. Edith Wharton 1992: 1-2. English Dept.
Sites. Online. AOL. 5 April 1998. Poepsei, Mark. Ethan Frome: Its Better Than You Might Think.
Literary Magazine February 1998: 1-2. H-G Reviews: Ethan Frome. Online. AOL. 5 April 1998. Riley, Carolyn, ed.
Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. 2 vol. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1983. World of Edith Wharton. Arts Feature.
Online. AOL. 5 April 1998. English Essays.