I had never read any Edith Wharton until this year, when I took a left turn into literature and tried to ferret out the undiscovered gems that would make me a better person, or at least a better-read person. Wharton was uncharted territory, miraculously having skipped all of her body of work in my dogged pursuit of English literature. Wharton, ever the American, did not fit into my undergraduate Brit Lit agenda and I dismissed her in favor of Austen and Dickens. I admit it. I was a fool.
When I opened The House of Mirth, an unhappy tale in a supposedly gilded age, I was enchanted by her writing style. Beautiful phrases trickled from the page, bringing me deeply into the underbelly of “getting ahead in society” when “society” had a capital “S”. So beautiful was the language that I almost forgot to notice the steady, downward decline of our heroine Lily Bart. Poised on the brink of social success, meaning marrying into money, she makes a small mistake – hardly noticeable. Well, except that everyone notices. Her prospects shrink accordingly, incrementally over time, leaving her to an inevitable end. Wharton couches the unblinking skewering of societal expectations about the nature and behavior of women in the most beautiful language. As I lose myself in her simple descriptions of snowfall and tears, I almost forget that an ugly, ugly fiasco is taking place before my eyes. She encapsulates the feel of the age – gilded with gold and glitter – with stark reality – not all that glitters is gold. Lily’s gold is lost, and Lily along with it.
Entranced with Wharton, I moved on through The Age of Innocence and finally to Ethan Frome. Wharton’s voice is still clear and she finds magic in the ordinary. Unlike The House of Mirth, she begins with a tragedy that ends with a worse tragedy – it is almost unbearably bleak. This time, Wharton moves away from the society of privilege to the society of poverty – a small, snowbound town in New England. Here, where people “go funny” after a while, Ethan Frome lives out his misery. The story, told by a passing stranger who happened on the town tragedy, is one of unuttered longing and dreams deferred. The triangular relationship between Ethan, his wife Zeena, and her poverty stricken cousin Mattie pops from question to conclusion to question with the regular bounces of an old-fashioned pin ball machine. One minute, the reader thinks one thing. The next minute, the reader thinks another. Step by step, in true Wharton fashion, the characters tread the path of inevitability as surely as they tread the path to the grave. Actions and consequences are astoundingly sharp and the bite of the pain stings even a reader sitting in a comfortable recliner removed in time and place from Ethan. Wharton’s unmerciful pen has created a dark, depressing story in which there is no resolution – and therein lies the tragedy of it all.
Wharton was apparently not at all interested in a happy ending. That is probably why she is overshadowed by Austen and Dickens, who were interested in a happy ending. Her voice is clear, insightful, and rapier-sharp. Her words cut through pretense and posturing to lay bare the souls that mirror our own longings and ambitions. Holding the mirror, she shows us how we may fail and that spectacular success is only balanced by spectacular failure. No one is #Winning in Wharton. I know I will return to Wharton’s world again and again. I will return even knowing that I will walk away with paper cuts on my hands, eating lemons.
9/10 Hearts. I love a disaster.