Edith Warton and Ethan Frome by wanghonghx


									Edith Warton
Table of Contents:

 Part I: Biographical Sketch of Edith
 Part II: Historical Context—Victorian
 Part III: Realism & Naturalism as
 Literary Movements
Part I: Biographical Sketch of Edith
 Edith Wharton was born Edith Jones,
 into an upper-class New York City
 family in 1862.
 She was privately educated by
 governesses and tutors, both at home
 and abroad.
 At an early age she displayed a
 marked interest in writing and literature,
 a pursuit her socially ambitious mother
 attempted to discourage.
 She received a marriage proposal at a
 young age, but her prospective in-laws
 ended the engagement because they
 felt the Jones family was too snobbish.
 Then, in 1885, after another broken
 engagement, Edith married Edward
 Wharton, an older man whom the
 Jones family found to be of a suitably
 lofty social rank.
According to Claudia Roth Pierpont of The New Yorker
Magazine Wharton‟s marriage was “a disaster: intellectually,
emotionally, and above all sexually.” She writes that “after
what seems to have been one or two attempts at grappling
with their mysterious bodies, Teddy and Edith lived together
in celibacy for twenty-eight years.” They finally divorced in
1913, when divorce became more socially acceptable.
The temptations of illicit passion constitute an undeniable
focus of Wharton‟s fiction, and many have pointed to
Wharton‟s unhappy marriage as an explanation.
Wharton was advised by her doctor to take up writing fiction
more seriously in order to relieve tension and stress.
Wharton found temporary solace in her surreptitious affair
with the journalist Morton Fullerton, which coincided with the
collapse of her marriage.
It was in the wake of this affair and her ensuing divorce that
Wharton wrote many of her most successful and endearing
Wharton‟s fiction was especially
effective at piercing the veil of moral
respectability that sometimes masked
as integrity among the rich.
In her fiction, conforming to social
norms is constantly at odds with a
rejection of conformity.
She can be viewed as a critic of moral
recklessness who wanted individuals
to consider each moral decision on its
own terms.
Wharton, who in 1924 became the
first woman to receive an honorary
degree from Yale University, viewed
Victorian society with ironic
She recorded in her writing the
suffering of characters caught up in
the grip of shifting economic forces
and restrictive codes that often
encouraged selfish behavior in the
name of respectability.
From the perspective of an upper-
class initiate, she observed the shift
of power and wealth from the hands
of New York‟s established gentry to
the nouveau riche of the Industrial
Wharton considered the newly
wealthy to be cultural philistines and
drew upon their lives to create many
of her best remembered fictional
characters and situations.
Wharton‟s first true critical success came with the
publication of The House of Mirth in 1905.
This novel tells the story of Lily Bart, a society
woman whose fortunes decline. Unable to provide
for herself, unwilling to marry for money, and
unable to marry for love, she falls into poverty and
social alienation before dying, perhaps as a
Her other novels include The Custom of the
Country (1913) and The Age of Innocence (1920),
for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.
She also wrote several short stories and even a
book about decorating houses.
Ethan Frome (1911) is one of
the few pieces of Wharton‟s
fiction that does not take place
in an urban, upper-class
Interestingly, Wharton based
the narrative of the novel on
an accident that occurred in
Lenox, Massachusetts, where
she traveled extensively and
had come into contact with
one of the victims of the
Wharton found the notion of
the tragic sledding crash to be
irresistible as a potential
extended metaphor for the
wrongdoings of a secret love
According to Pierpont,
Wharton believed this novella
“marked her coming-of-age as
a craftsman.”
Settling in Paris in the early
1910s, she became one of
many American expatriates
who rejected American
society and its contradictions.
Among such artists as Ernest
Hemingway, F. Scott
Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein,
she became a close associate
of the novelist Henry James, a
fellow American of similarly
intense and indecipherable
moral sensibility.
Like her friend, whose writings
strongly influenced hers, she
was concerned with the subtle
interplay of emotions on a
society that censured the free
expression of passion.
Her understanding of
conflicting values in this
artificial milieu often gives her
work a tragic intensity.
In 1937, after
nearly half a
century of devotion
to the art of fiction,
Wharton died in
her villa near Paris
at the age of
She remains one of
America‟s most
cherished novelists.
Quotes by Edith Wharton:
 “There are two ways of reflecting light: to be the candle or
 the mirror that reflects it.”
 “True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new
 “The only way not to think about money is to have a great
 deal of it.”
 “I wonder, among all the tangles of this mortal coil, which
 one contains tighter knots to undo, and consequently
 suggests more tugging, and pain, and diversified elements of
 misery, than the marriage tie.”
 “How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be
 „American‟ before (or in contradistinction to) being cultivated,
 being enlightened, being humane, and having the same
 intellectual discipline as other civilized countries?”
Part II: Historical Context—Victorian
 In English literature, this was the period covered by the reign
 of Queen Victoria from 1837-1901.
 During these years, England experienced the apex of its
 ascendancy as a world power, having established an empire
 “on which the sun never set.”
 England became the first nation to become truly
 industrialized, which turned out to be a mixed blessing,
 creating as it did massive social problems brought about by
 urban slums and social dissension.
 Though this era originated in England, its influenced were
 felt in America, as well.
 In literature, the social upheaval proved grist for the mill of
 novelists who probed the connections between the individual
 and his or her rapidly changing society.
Distinguished thinkers of
this time included Thomas
Carlyle, John Stuart Mill,
and Charles Darwin.
With the industrialization of
America came the
development and
expansion of railroads and
isolated communities
became accessible.
Urban slums brought a rise
in prostitution to an age
that was sexually
repressed. Pornography
and erotic literature was
also burgeoning at this
time in history, yet society
was outwardly prudish. For
example, one could not say
“leg” in public!
The Industrial
Revolution also
established distinct
classes: a wealthy
aristocracy, the
nouveau riche, and a
lower class that was
largely exploited as a
result of this
Capitalistic boom.
Women and children
began to make up part
of the working class in
urban area.
Part III: Realism & Naturalism as
Literary Movements
 Realism is, in art and literature, a term covering a broad
 range of views centered on the attempt to depict life as it is
 usually experienced, without recourse to miraculous events,
 larger-than-life characters, or supernatural intervention.
 In a realistic text, the emphasis is on the way things are for
 ordinary people, whose behavior and speech mirror their
 social position and cultural attitudes.
 In this sense, realism is opposed to romance, which
 represents life as we would like it to be, or to other anti-
 realist approaches such as expressionism and
 A key feature of realist literature is its emphasis on the
 author‟s objectivity.
 Another characteristic was the notion of determinism, the
 view that individual free will is, if not completely illusory,
 radically limited by cultural, environmental, and historical
Naturalism was a late 19th century movement in
literature and art that grew out of realism.
The basic effort of naturalism lay in the attempt to
produce a scientifically accurate depiction of life
even at the cost of representing ugliness and
The foremost spokesman of the naturalist school
was Emile Zola, who believed that the artist must
bring the scientist‟s objectivity to the depiction of
his subjects.
The motives and behaviors of characters are
determined by heredity and environment.
The artist‟s task is to reveal the role of these
factors in the lives of the characters.
Examples of Literature from this
 Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
 Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth, The Age of
 Innocence, The Custom of the Country, Ethan
 Kate Chopin, The Awakening
 Willa Cather, My Antonia
 Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage,
 Maggie, A Girl of the Streets
 Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
 Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
Source Information:
 The Norton Anthology of American
 Literature. Nina Baym, Ed. New York: W.W.
 Norton & Company, 1998.
 Lathbury, Roger. Realism and Regionalism
 (1860-1910): American literature in its
 historical, cultural, and social contexts.
 New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2006.
 Quinn, Edward. A Dictionary of Literary and
 Thematic Terms. New York: Checkmark
 Books, 1999.

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