Friday, October 2, 2015

"move out the old prejudices and make room for new ones" Edith Wharton in old New York

Her house, in a minor way, bore witness to the craving. One felt it to be the result of a series of eliminations: there was nothing fortuitous in its blending of line and color. The almost morbid finish of every material detail of her life suggested the possibility that a diversity of energies had, by some pressure of circumstance, been forced into the channel of a narrow dilettanteism. Mrs. Quentin's fastidiousness had, indeed, the flaw of being too one-sided. Her friends were not always worthy of the chairs they sat in, and she overlooked in her associates defects she would not have tolerated in her bric-a-brac. Her house was, in fact, never so distinguished as when it was empty; and it was at its best in the warm fire-lit silence that now received her.
Mrs Quentin is the protagonist of Edith Wharton's short story "The Quicksand." Mrs Quentin has returned home one evening to encounter her son, Alan, in a dark mood. Only moments after she has cast off her furs and begun laying out tea, Mrs Quentin is suffering "the mother's instinctive anger that the girl she has not wanted for her son should have dared to refuse him."
Aloud she murmured, "You must give her time."

"Time?"

"To move out the old prejudices and make room for new ones."

"My dear mother, those she has are brand-new; that's the trouble with them. She's tremendously up-to-date. She takes in all the moral fashion-papers, and wears the newest thing in ethics."

Her resentment lost its way in the intricacies of his metaphor. "Is she so very religious?"

"You dear archaic woman! She's hopelessly irreligious; that's the difficulty. You can make a religious woman believe almost anything: there's the habit of credulity to work on. But when a girl's faith in the Deluge has been shaken, it's very hard to inspire her with confidence. She makes you feel that, before believing in you, it's her duty as a conscientious agnostic to find out whether you're not obsolete, or whether the text isn't corrupt, or somebody hasn't proved conclusively that you never existed, anyhow."
Mrs Quentin and her Alan are shallow and wicked, contemptuous of the whole world and even--though they'd never admit it even to themselves--of each other. "Her friends were not always worthy of the chairs they sat in" is such a great line; I'm probably going to steal it and claim it as my own.

Wharton's stories are full of this sort of thing, of people blind to their own shortcomings, or mistaking their character flaws for virtue. I am reading the NYRB volume of The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. So far, they are all very much structurally of the Maupassant school of "naturalism," which means of course that they all have a quite unnatural plot twist at the end. The quality of having a moral lesson also gives Wharton's tales a sort of O. Henry feel to them. I try hard to overlook both this moral lesson and the plot twist, because otherwise they are fine stories, generally well-observed character studies with some beautiful descriptive passages. I am reading them as research, of course, of turn-of-the-century New York culture. When I'm done with the Wharton, I'll read NYRB's The New York Stories of Henry James, which contains much I've previously read but it will be good to have them all crammed together at me in one big chunk.


photo credit: Mighty Reader

5 comments:

  1. Thanks, Scott, for the timely catalyst; I will follow your example by reading turn of the century American literature in hopes of improving my understanding of all that follows. And I never thought of Wharton being compared to Mauppasant and OHenry. Hmmmm. I look forward to your future postings on the stories.

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    1. the only one of Wharton's novels I've read is Ethan Frome, which is not structured like these stories. If, instead of this collection, I'd read The Age of Innocence, I might not have thought of Maupassant at all in this connection.

      Any one of these stories is better than Ethan Frome, though.

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    2. i started ethan frome a couple of times but got drowned in it's style. put me off semi-permanently from wharton. maybe it's time to try it again...

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  2. Wharton's short fiction is hardly read anymore, judging by book blogs, despite the existence of this book, the LoA collection, and so on. I haven't read any of it either.

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    1. They're quite old-fashioned, not the sort of stories people have been writing for the last 60 or so years at least. They all have more or less the same structure, with that twist ending, but they get better as Wharton ages. The last one in the collection, Roman Fever, written when Wharton was 72, is full of life and sex and struggling for power, and its twist ending, in the last line of the story, was not telegraphed on the first page the way the others are. So pretty good, is what I'm saying. No Henry James, nor Chekhov, but I was happier reading this than I was Lydia Davis' recent collection.

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