I intend to investigate how upper-class societal values and gossip are presented in the short stories of Edith Wharton and how those standards demoralized and ruined women. 2. Why is this topic important in today’s society and what makes it relevant today? The separation of the classes is more prevalent today than it was even in Edith Wharton’s day. In the early 1900s of America, when Wharton was writing her most valuable stories such as 1921’s The Age of Innocence they primary class struggle was that of feminist equality.
Notably, many of Wharton’s stories thus dealt with that topic. A natural outgrowth of that was the exploration of the prejudicial notions toward the activist women, and especially so of these women by the upper classes. Gossip surrounding the lower working class became the order of the day. Today’s society operates on much the same fashion. Perhaps the post-modern era in which we live in the Western world has taken this one or two steps further. To begin with, the upper class standards and judgments have grown.
This is not to say that the upper class itself is larger, percentage wise; that is a matter for statistical analysis. Specific to the confines of this paper, and its look at classes and values, however, the perceived upper class is to be discussed. This class monitors the activities of women of lower class, or of again perceived lower classes than themselves, ready to pass judgment. Due to the internet and broadcasting of all available tidbits of personal ruin, this pastime has only grown since Wharton’s day.
Regarding the comparison of the ruination of women through this gossip to the period in which Wharton wrote, it is clearly there, too. As stories of scandal and notoriety grow, the victims of the talk grow more despondent and more desperate. Without attempting, the class as a whole brings each other down in a downcast spiral as the gossip mongering bears greater and greater burden upon them. Then the public eye is cast farther afield on this class, creating more finger pointing and the cycle begins again. Wharton foresaw that in her writing.
Souls Belated and other works from the time of her short story writing endeavors show the differences anticipated between high-society women with their rules of orthodoxy and the lower-society women who appear to be reckless law breakers. Literature informs society and society informs literature. That is the cycle of contribution. As a result, the comprehensive study and acceptance of marginalized authors can offer much to both current and future generations. This is the special relevance of Wharton to today’s audiences, both popular and academic.
When a culture experiences an upheaval in the status quo of society, and particularly within the stratification of society as is happening today, it is somewhat comforting to be able to look to a period of history for similar events. When literature is presented that expresses the views and treatments of the same issues as the -contemporary readers face, there is an expectation of positive outcome. After all, the world has moved on since the writings. This study intends to offer that position of societal relevance to this modern world.
This facet of the modernist movement will be successful in reaching today’s audiences. 3. Why is this topic of interest to me? I feel that Edith Wharton’s short stories have not been examined as thoroughly as her novels have, thus allowing great opportunity for their examination. A great deal of scholarship has focused on the success, strategies and themes of her larger works. Quick glances through the academic catalogs of popular book stores frequently return Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and The Age of Innocence; it generally takes some time to find more than one title that includes several of her shorter stories.
Examples of the apparent academic disinterest in the short stories can be found even in biographies and analyses of Wharton. As early as 1953, very near to Wharton’s career itself, a volume entitled Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction by Blake Nevius and published by University of California Press actually made no mention whatsoever of her short stories. Apparently to the author, she either did not write anything but novels, or the short stories were not part of her fiction. Either viewpoint is fraudulent. The intriguing question becomes why this view? It would be a sub focus of the study.
Particularly intriguing to me is the wide range of variations Wharton’s short stories use to express the motif of social judgments and values. Rather than the one view one understanding method that longer novels generally focus upon, the collection of shorter works can experiment from all angles. This gives the feeling of realism often lacking in other authors’ writings of the turn of the century. An extensive study of Edith Wharton’s short stories would yield information beneficial to the further examination of other authors and sources of early twentieth century writers.
If novelists surrounding Wharton such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, dos Passos and others are widely acclaimed, there are many others – especially short story writers – who are still pining in absentia. If Wharton’s fairly unstudied writing was brought out into the open it would open a new and profound area of study. Additionally my study would accomplish two other goals: bringing a new and valuable study to bear on the author; offer vital contextual information to the topical issues of the period. Regarding the former, my thesis will contribute to academia.
To say that everything important has been said already regarding this author would be naive as well as fundamentally incorrect. This study will demonstrate the gaps that exist in the critical analysis of both Edith Wharton and her catalog. Through use of research materials, the presentation will critique other research materials for their dearth of information and adequate treatment of her short stories. Regarding the latter, there simply is too generic a view of the topic issues of early twentieth century American life in fiction.
The typical criticism of the literature contemporary to Wharton is homogenous; perhaps only Fitzgerald really stands out for his somewhat extreme liberalism. Beyond that, however, there is vast room for delving even deeper into the areas of social inequality, hierarchies and prejudices, and initial feelings of freedom and independence both for women and for all of the lower-society citizens of the post industrial United States. 4. Explain how each prospective source will pertain to the topic/thesis. The primary sources used will obviously be the collection of individual short stories authored by Edith Wharton during her career.
This list, with brief application commentary includes: The Last Asset speaks to the relative disgust that the upper-society possesses for the lower class, whom they regard as servants. The obnoxious attitudes are treated as status quo – and perhaps worse is the blindness to this that the upper class characters demonstrate. Autres Temps shows the tight circle that upper-society women are bound in, and despite some acknowledgement of that and a slight longing for independence and freedom there still exists the feeling that this is the way that the world is meant to be.
Souls Belated relates the story of a couple that chooses to deny social couture and find their way together. They are cut off from society and judged harshly by the rest of the upper crust characters in the book. This story declares the destructive value of gossip and judgment. The Other Two is a short story that tells the tale of what happens when a couple tries to live among ‘normal’ society when they possess unenviable social characteristics such as divorce, step children, etc. It shows the lack of escape that they have from the critical eye of social esteem.
A thorough examination of this topic will necessarily include numerous secondary sources. Despite the lack of popular attention given to Edith Wharton’s short stories, there does exist a number of very good sources commenting both on her writings, and those of her contemporaries. These include books in print, both single topic and anthological, academic papers, and scholarly journals. A Backward Glance written by Edith Wharton herself would shed a great deal of light on her personal background and its influence on her writing.
A chapter devoted to her friend Henry James will also illuminate possibly the person with the greatest impact upon the structure and tone of her short stories. Carol J. Singley’s Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit is a quality critical analysis of Wharton’s writings, devoting unusual breadth of attention to the short stories. She maintains a focus on the topical issues of Wharton’s stories in chapters such as The Strain of Looking Up and Arrested Ascent. Each deals with the issues of strain between the upper and lower-society classes.
Edith Wharton in Context: Essays on Intertextuality by Adeline R. Tintner is a collection of analytical essays that explores Wharton’s relationships with other artists and authors of her time. The pieces include biographies, critical analysis and literary detective work to bring out the workings of her personal life and its effect on her writings. The Duke University academic journal Pedagogy represents a well researched effort into explaining the importance of Wharton’s short writings.
An article titled Critical Reception and Cultural Capital: Edith Wharton as a Short Story Writer, authored by Gary Totten begins with a brief comment on the undervaluing of Wharton by critics and proceeds to write about the crime this is. There is an extensive bibliography attached to this journal that would provide much material to my study. One example of an anthology that puts Wharton’s writing in perspective is Writing New York: A Literary Anthology edited by Phillip Lopate. This 1998 volume includes the great masters of the New York authorial world, and it is notable that Edith Wharton was included.
5. A comparison of the author to others at the time. What makes this author unique/ahead of her time? Edith Wharton raced ahead of her time in literature. Writing in the time period surrounding World War I she was one of the first authors, man or woman, to recognize the emergence of a class of people within society that was beginning to reject the upper-societal values with its judgments and denigrating opinions. With her short stories in particular, Wharton examined the potential in the literary world for a multifaceted approach to describing this social change.
The authors of 1920 would come to emulate Edith Wharton. These American authors would be called the Lost Generation because of this aspect of society that Wharton had already exposed. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the disposed generation who attempted to deal with the upper-class morals by ignoring their conventions and abandoning their restrictions. Gertrude Stein, who labeled this generation as ‘lost’ also wrote of the rejection of post-war values. John dos Passos in his famous U. S. A. Trilogy takes his personal experience with the duality of American society and challenges readers’ opinions on such.
All of these authors, however, were following in Wharton’s footsteps. She had already accomplished a running commentary on these values and social situations and circumstances through her collections of short stories. Again, this is an area of study ripe for examination due to its overshadowing by this more famous group of authors with their powerhouse novels. A study would be remiss if it did not find the connections of Edith Wharton to her more closely related contemporaries. Certainly they influenced her writing and she theirs. In particular, Henry James must be mentioned.
It is no accident that the two were close, dear friends. Their writing often covers similar themes, and especially so in Wharton’s short stories. Clearly, however, Wharton was the more accomplished of the two when it came to writing shorter works – James’ works that offer social commentaries successfully are his novels such as The Turn of the Screw and The Portrait of a Lady. His short story collection would ultimately receive even less attention that Wharton’s. A final area of relevance to the period surrounding Edith Wharton is that it was a literary moment dominated by male figures.
The authors of the day attempted to treat the ideas of social hierarchies and classes and the emergence of freedom and independence movements from the male perspective. This naturally focused on narrow portions of these topics, and especially so when dealing with feminism. There was a general lack of successful female authors at this time, and so there was not a well rounded treatment in literature. Wharton should be examined for her valuable role as a female author writing of social values and implications in the early 1900s.
6. Conclusion. To sum up, I plan to study the upper-class societal values and gossip that are presented in Edith Wharton’s short stories and how those standards demoralized and ruined women. Through diligent and careful research from a wide variety of primary and secondary sources I will craft a well rounded investigation into this subject. The result will be a contribution to the academic understanding of this important author in early twentieth century American literature. I hope that this vision will be accepted and supported.
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