The 2020 Edith Wharton Society Undergraduate Essay Prize Winner:
Janae Staltaro, Fairfield University
#FranzenIsCancelled, #WeStanWharton: A Re-Appreciation of Edith Wharton
On February 13, 2012, The New Yorker released a piece by Jonathan Franzen which was supposed to serve as an appreciation of Edith Wharton for her 150th birthday. Oddly enough, for an article that was supposed to celebrate Wharton, Franzen’s tone is rude and his assertions about her are uninformed. In this article, titled “A Rooting Interest,” Franzen fixates on Wharton’s appearance, as if what she looked like was relevant to her legacy as an author. He draws negative conclusions about her character due to her status as a rich woman, and he assumes that she was a cold person in general. The piece overall is a gross injustice towards Wharton, who deserves to be recognized for the genuine person and talented author she was. It is quite a shame that Jonathan Franzen had the opportunity to highlight the several reasons to celebrate Edith Wharton—the author who has blessed us with enjoyable short stories, widely-read novels and novellas, wisdom on interior design, and even plays—but instead uses this piece as an excuse to criticize her. Fortunately, I am here to dispel his arguments and paint a much more accurate picture of Edith Wharton, as she deserves. To consider Wharton and her work is to confront this brilliant author exactly as she was: a dedicated woman of means who used her high societal position for good, as well as a skilled writer who had the capacity to create characters whose stories remain modern and relevant.
Even though Franzen’s piece was supposed to serve as a celebration of the author, the way in which he characterizes Wharton depicts her as spoiled, arrogant, and rude. Specifically, he decides: “To be rich like Wharton may be what all of us secretly or not so secretly want, but privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage” (Franzen). He also asserts that, due to her conservative views, she was opposed to several left-wing ideas—such as women’s suffrage—and that she was “intellectually attracted to the relentless worldview of Darwinism” (Franzen). As someone who has read several pieces by Edith Wharton, I understand that much of her writing falls under the genre of realism and naturalism, and I believe this perspective is one to admire and not condemn. Of course, I love a happy ending, and I love romantic tales—but Wharton gives her readers so much more than a sugar-coated story with a satisfying ending. Instead, many of the endings of her stories provide the reader with a perspective to ponder: perhaps life does not always have a happy ending, and maybe that is an outcome we can come to accept.
One piece in particular that ends in an unanticipated manner is Wharton’s short story “The Fulness of Life.” This story follows a woman who dies and finds herself in some sort of afterlife. When she arrives, she announces to herself: “And so death is not the end after all;” she continues,“I always knew that it couldn’t be. I believed in Darwin, of course. I do still; but then Darwin himself said that he wasn’t sure about the soul—” (Wharton 13). She then meets the “Spirit of Life” who is technically her soulmate. In their interactions, they discuss “what it is to live” (14). The woman reflects on her sub-par marriage in which she never quite felt fulfilled, and she considers the moments in her life in which she felt “scattered hints” of this “fulness of life” (15). In this afterlife, she finally has the chance to spend the rest of eternity with her supposed soulmate, but she chooses otherwise: the story ends with her waiting for her husband, listening for the “creaking of his boots” (22). The woman admits that she never felt completely fulfilled in her marriage with her husband, but she prompts the Spirit of Life with the question: “don’t you understand that I shouldn’t feel at home without him?” (21). It is clear that although she never felt that her husband ever encountered the depths of her soul, she feels almost responsible for him, as he is “so helpless” (21). Through this woman’s reaction to her presumed “kindred spirit” (21), Wharton urges the reader to question the ideas of true happiness and soulmates. The woman ultimately decides that she could not possibly enter eternity with the Spirit of Life, as her true home is with her husband who she decides would have waited for her. The incorporation of Darwin exists in this story, but the entire plot takes place in the afterlife; in spite of what Wharton might have believed about human life and death, Franzen fails to mention that she explores these existential questions within her literature from a perspective readers might not have considered. Consequently, one must appreciate her point of view and versatility as a writer; she does not reveal to the reader her views on life after death through “The Fulness of Life,” but she instead prompts readers to consider their own beliefs.
Additionally, one who has actually researched Wharton would know that Franzen is unenlightened as to the kind of person she really was, which was someone who dedicated herself to helping others. For instance, when World War I broke out and thousands of women were left without money or a job, Wharton “established a workroom able to support twenty unemployed women […] From these humble beginnings, Wharton’s charities expanded to encompass homes for refugee women and children and campaigns waged from Europe to raise American money for relief effort” (Price). Moreover, Wharton was dedicated to helping animals as well; she was “active in New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals,” and “Hermione Lee notes that Wharton also participated in the S.P.C.A.’s debates about the ethics of euthanasia for pets and that she was active in a campaign to make bowls of water publicly available for dogs” (Haytock). Clearly, Wharton was a dog-lover as well as a committed animal rights advocate throughout her life. Nevertheless, Franzen chooses to equate Wharton’s wealth with her character. Franzen evidently has a distorted understanding of morality, and more specifically, Wharton as a person. The truth is that Wharton was born into an affluent family, and she used her influence to give. She gave her readers countless incredible stories; she used her influence to help women of World War I; and she seemed to have treated her pets with the same dignity as human beings. A woman who cares so much for other living things is not someone I would deem morally disadvantaged—in fact, I would say her dedication to animals and those affected by the war demonstrates her willingness to use her privilege for good. Wharton deserves recognition for her good works, especially given Franzen’s misinformed conclusions about her.
Another point that Franzen makes in his twisted celebration of Wharton is that she was not “charming or easy to be with” and that she had “strikes against her” because her circle of friends consisted of more men than women. Franzen does not include the fact, however, that during Wharton’s time, females were not typically educated. In fact, Wharton published her first work, a novella called Fast and Loose, under the name of a man, “David Olivieri” (Penguin Random House). Critic Arielle Zibrak notes: “It seems to me that Wharton’s treatment of others had very little to do with gender at all but relied instead on whether she found her companion to be intellectually stimulating. Far fewer of her female acquaintances would have been formally educated” (5). As a result, Wharton developed more friendships with men, as they were more likely able to discuss intellectual subjects.
Franzen also compares Wharton with her self-serving character Undine Spragg. He writes, “Undine may remind you of Wharton herself, whose success and vitality finally crushed her husband,” and “Undine is nevertheless very much like her creator in being a personally isolated woman doing her best to use what she was given to make her way in the world” (Franzen). He describes her as an “isolate” and a “misfit” which made her a “born writer” whose characters served to create sympathy (Franzen). I would disagree for several reasons with his assertions. First, who is Franzen to say that Wharton’s success was the reason for her husband’s mental decline? Furthermore, Franzen often suggests that Wharton had a disdain for women and simply wrote to create sympathy—I would argue that instead her characters spark discussion for the standards placed on women during her time. For instance, literary critic Ellen Dupree argues that The Custom of the Country “is a feminist novel using Luce Irigaray’s concept of mimesis, claiming that Undine’s exaggerative behavior of what the patriarchy demands of women informs a critique of those values” (Zibrak 11). This critique of the patriarch is evident in Wharton’s novel. Undine has no interest in love or sex, but she is rather self-motivated and ambitious—qualities that might have been questionable for women to possess during Wharton’s era. Undine is one who desires, and she tells Van Degen: “I’ve got to look out for my future” (Wharton 182). Although quite unlikeable, Undine certainly calls into question exactly what men have expected of women in marriage.
Another story which challenges the standards placed on women and how women were perceived during Wharton’s era is The Age of Innocence. In this 1920 novel, May Welland serves as the perfect example of a respectable, pure woman. Through the eyes of her fiancé, Newland Archer, May was the perfect example of naivety and innocence. As the reader comes to know May, however, they are likely to begin to see an alternate side of her: one that is ruthless, cunning, and headstrong. Later in the story, May demonstrates her power by lying to her cousin Ellen Olenska that she was pregnant. In a conversation with Archer about the announcement of her pregnancy, Archer questions how she had told Ellen that she was pregnant, especially if she had just found out about the baby. In response: “her color burned deeper, but she held his gaze. ‘No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right!’ she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory” (Chapter 33). Wharton demonstrates to us how May has always been fully aware of Archer’s affection for Ellen, and we begin to see May through a new lens; of course, she is still the beautiful, classy woman she presents herself as, but she also reveals her fierce and intelligent nature.
The most problematic aspect of Franzen’s piece on Wharton is the way in which he fixates on her appearance. He writes, “Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty” (Franzen). First of all, I would ask Franzen: what does Wharton’s appearance have to do with her as a successful writer? I am not quite sure why he feels this was a necessary component to include in his piece. Franzen seemed to have conveniently left out several aspects of Wharton’s greatness—such as the fact that she was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize—and instead chose to focus on her appearance. In opposition, I seek to add all of the wonderful reasons to celebrate Wharton for him.
Another fact that Franzen left out was that Wharton was actually a successful interior designer in addition to one of the best American authors of all time. She wrote The Decoration of Houses with architect Ogden Codman Jr., which has influenced interior design as it exists today. In fact, the headline of an article titled “The Legacy of Edith Wharton’s ‘The Decoration of Houses’” on Architectural Digest reads: “All modern interior design books owe their existence to a pioneering guide that was all the rage in 1897” (Owens). In this collaborative work, Wharton stresses the importance of balance and practicality; her perspective on interior design is one that upholds proportion in any given room (Wharton & Codman). Clearly, Wharton was both a skilled writer and one of the original modern interior designers.
Franzen also could have expanded on how the stories she has written are timeless. Her work has inspired several modern-day television shows such as Gossip Girl and Downton Abbey. In the episode of Gossip Girl, “The Age of Dissonance,” the show even credits Wharton as the original Gossip Girl (Gossip Girl, Season 2, Episode 18). Likewise, Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, has cited Wharton as his inspiration for the famous television show. When he talks about how he is kind to the characters of Downton Abbey, he credits Wharton: “It is a lesson I learned directly from Edith Wharton, from her tolerance and her humor, even as she brings out the rod. I consider myself most fortunate to have made her acquaintance” (The Mount). He has also cited The Custom of the Country as his inspiration for the show (The Mount). Rather than acknowledge the contributions she has made to pop culture, however, Franzen chooses to focus more on Wharton’s looks. Sadly, Franzen decides that because he does not find her pretty, that this is a great disadvantage for her.
Specifically, Franzen explains that because beauty has the power to “override our resentment of privilege,” Wharton places a beautiful female character at the center of each of her “three finest novels,” The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country in order to appeal to the reader’s sympathy. First of all, while these three novels are certainly some of Wharton’s popular works, Wharton has written several other remarkable stories in addition to the three that he mentions. Moreover, Franzen assumes that The House of Mirth was a “sustained effort by Wharton to imagine beauty from the inside and achieve sympathy for it, or, conversely, as a sadistically slow and thorough punishment of the pretty girl she couldn’t be” (Franzen). He believes that Wharton draws on the reader’s sympathy through this novel due to Lily’s consistent downfall. Furthermore, he speaks to the “deliciousness” of watching other people make mistakes, as we see Lily continuously do in The House of Mirth—which, if you would ask me, is somewhat sadistic.
Once again, Franzen is actually the one who is mistaken: Wharton’s power in her writing is not to simply make the reader sympathize. Readers are of course bound to sympathize with tragic characters like Lily Bart and Ethan Frome, but her true power is not in her ability to evoke sympathy, but instead in her keen social awareness and ability to paint reality as is. I would argue that Edith Wharton is so adept at writing the intricacies of social interactions in her novels, that we could call her—instead of a “misfit” and “isolate”—a sociologist, whose expertise helps us understand Gilded Age New York as she saw it.
Wharton’s The Age of Innocence serves not only to challenge gender standards, but this novel also demonstrates the author’s unparalleled ability to illustrate reality. In this work, Wharton introduces us to 1870s New York elite society. As someone who grew up as one of these New York elites, Wharton provides us with an accurate inside-scoop as to the “do’s and don’ts” of New York. Through this novel, Wharton paints a picture of the privileged lifestyle of the aristocracy in New York during the Gilded Age, and she critiques the morals of this society through her storyline. The themes of this novel directly conflict with Franzen’s assertion that Wharton was at a moral disadvantage due to her societal position, as she criticizes the hieroglyphic world she and her characters lived in. The Age of Innocence follows Newland Archer, whose fatal flaw Wharton reveals from his introduction into the novel: “he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation” (Wharton, Chapter 1). Newland Archer struggles between conformity to Old New York “values”—which seem to be prominent in his fiancé May Welland—and the allure of the beautiful Ellen Olenska, whose indifference to superficial ideals appeal to Archer. By the end of this novel, Archer is alone due to his contentment with the imaginary. As Wharton warns us in the beginning of the novel, Archer preferred thought to action, and this preference leads to a quite unsatisfactory ending for him. Wharton does not give us a happy ending through The Age of Innocence; instead, she begs us to condemn Archer for his inaction, especially through the novel’s ending in which he chooses the thought of Ellen over the realization of their feelings for one another. Through her characters, Wharton draws a contrast between Ellen Olenska, the realist who actually shows emotion and says what she thinks, and the rest of society, in which nasty gossip and well-placed gestures dominate conversation. Because Wharton actually witnessed this society in her life, she is able to give us a clear understanding of this world through her novel.
Franzen suggests that Wharton appears within the character of Undine Spragg in The Custom of The Country, but we can see Wharton so much more clearly in the main characters of The Age of Innocence. Although the reader comes to understand May and Ellen through the unreliable gaze of Archer, Wharton clearly writes herself into the main characters of this novel. We might see Wharton most clearly in Ellen, for instance. Like Ellen, Wharton became disillusioned with New York and sought to live in Europe instead. More specifically, Ellen is the realist of this novel; she is Wharton’s voice. She wonders, “Does no one want to know the truth here…? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” (Wharton, Chapter 9). Ellen becomes disenchanted with everyone’s need to keep up appearances, and she feels that a life without truth is one that is lonely. Ellen also famously tells Archer that “we’ll look, not at visions, but at realities,” which is Wharton’s lesson for us all laid out in simple terms (Wharton, Chapter 29). Through Ellen, Wharton encourages readers to take life as it is, instead of focusing on visions.
Another novel through which we can appreciate Wharton’s work as a sociologist is The House of Mirth. As the reader follows the astonishingly beautiful Lily Bart, they become a witness to the unrelenting gossip and cruelty that drives the society that Lily must navigate. Lily eventually learns how society works, especially when she compares herself to Bertha Dorset, who was at the top of the social ladder: “In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her” (Wharton, Book 2 Chapter 4). As sad as this truth might be, Wharton shows the reader exactly how society is organized, and that Lily must simply abide by the norms.
Readers today are inclined to read Edith Wharton’s work because her words and storylines are still relatable and modern. In today’s social media-driven world, Generation Z and millennials might relate to Undine Spragg’s desire to “surprise every one by her dash and originality,” as they post on Instagram and TikTok (Wharton, Chapter 2). I, for one, have allowed myself a dramatic moment in times of distress to shout, “How I hate everything!” just like the fierce Charity Royall (Wharton, Chapter 1). Readers also might think of the iconic frenemies, Serena and Blair, after reading about the jealousy that Mrs. Slade harbors of her BFF Mrs. Ansley of Wharton’s “Roman Fever.” Moreover, ghost stories never go out of style, and Wharton has a whole collection of them if readers dare to indulge themselves. All in all, Wharton’s literature is versatile, and her work extends across generations.
What you get from exploring the true Edith Wharton and all of her work is not just sympathy. We walk away from Wharton’s literature with an analytical, critical lens through which we may observe the world in all of its beauty and despair. We question and condemn American societal values and read between the lines of a cough or an eyebrow raise. We challenge conformity and strict gender norms that have restricted women throughout history. We grow a deeper appreciation for beloved, modern-day television shows like Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, and Downton Abbey. We sympathize and relate with her characters; we adore and we despise them. We ultimately come to know a remarkable author whose work has dazzled millions of people for years, and for that, #WeStan.
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