“A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” – Edith Wharton
Almost everyone I know read Ethan Frome in school, though for some reason my English class was exempt and I read it of my own free will (maybe that’s why I seemed to like it better than everyone else). It wasn’t until I had to read some of her short stories for a lit class in college that I really fell in love with Wharton’s work. Party to an unhappy marriage in the high society of the turn of the century, Wharton’s writing focuses on the roles of men and women in a society where the old definitions of marriage and the interaction between the sexes is shifting.
The Age of Innocence: Newland Archer knows exactly who he wants to marry, who he’s expected to marry, and who he plans to marry: May Welland. But when the recently divorced cousin of his intended, Countess Ellen Olenska, makes her way back into society, Newland begins questioning where he wants his relationship with May to go. Not my favorite of Wharton’s novels. I didn’t care for Newland much as a central character; his internal thought process was redundant and contrived. I didn’t understand his appeal. I did enjoy May’s character though and Wharton’s depiction of high society is, as always, critical, honest, and earnest.
Ethan Frome: Though also about a dysfunctional marriage, in Ethan Frome Wharton abandoned the privileged upper class society of New York and Newport in favor of a more rustic, rural setting with characters more at the mercy of their economic constraints. It shows how she saw the problems between men and women as a universal affliction, transcending class and education. Ethan Frome also shows the limited options available for those without money or social position. As stated before, I enjoyed this more than most people I know. There’s more sympathy for the characters’ situation than when the targets are esteemed members of society, but the points being made are still largely the same (just not as humorous in the delivery).
The House of Mirth: This was easily my favorite piece by Wharton that I’ve read so far (though a number of her short stories are pretty high on the list). Lily Bart was raised to be wealthy but after her father loses much of his money, she’s had to live off the wealth of her elderly aunt as well as that of her friends. She struggles to maintain appearances as her age begins to work against her. Her good friend Lawrence Seldon is a great comfort to her and pushes her to maintain some moral standard in a society that finds entertainment in the misfortunes of others. Lily proves ill suited to an existence dependent on her ability to manipulate others with her desire for moral superiority hanging over her head. The novel highlights the double standard applied to men and women by society. The cliche of the final scene shows the absurdity and futility of such social rules.
Roman Fever and other stories: This collection contains many of my favorite Wharton short stories including “The Other Two” about a man who is forced to interact with his wife’s first two husbands and “The Last Asset” in which a woman seeks help locating her estranged husband before her daughter’s marriage. Many of these stories showcase Wharton’s ability to capture the strange tensions that arise when dealing with exes at a time when there was very little experience to turn to for guidance and legal precedents hadn’t been set yet.