Edith Warton Table of Contents: Part I: Biographical Sketch of Edith Wharton Part II: Historical Context—Victorian Era Part III: Realism & Naturalism as Literary Movements Part I: Biographical Sketch of Edith Wharton 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 works. 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 detachment. 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 Revolution. 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 suicide. 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 setting. 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 accident. Wharton found the notion of the tragic sledding crash to be irresistible as a potential extended metaphor for the wrongdoings of a secret love affair. 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 seventy-five. 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 vision.” “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 Era 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 impressionism. 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 forces. 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 discord. 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 Period: 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 Frome 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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