Tuesday, May 17, 2016

the evils of desultory reading - Edith Wharton shocks me

The two most shocking stories in Edith Wharton’s 1904 collection The Descent of Man are “The Mission of Jane” and “The Other Two,” one about adoption, the other about divorce or really about remarriage.  I make Wharton sound like a social issue novelist.  Perhaps she was, a little.

In “The Mission of Jane,” a couple decides – or the wife decides and the husband surrenders – to adopt a child to save their marriage:

‘A baby?’


‘A – human baby?’

‘Of course!’ she cried, with the virtuous resentment of the woman who has never allowed dogs in the house.  (164)

Little Jane, “preternaturally good,” grows up to be an unbearable pill – “there was something automatic and formal in her goodness, as though it were a kind of moral calisthenics which she went through for the sake of showing her agility.” She develops the habit of lecturing adults, including her parents:

She proved to him by statistics that he smoked too much, and that it was injurious to the optic nerve to read in bed[!].  She took him to task for not going to church more regularly, and pointed out to him the evils of desultory reading[!!].  (180)

The parents pray for a suitor, but when one finally appears, the mother feels obligated to warn him away (her husband “thrilled at his wife’s heroism”).  The last few pages are a comedy of parental anxiety – will something go wrong – will they be stuck with Jane forever?  “But if the bride was reluctant her captor was relentless,” and she is gone.  “Jane had fulfilled her mission after all: she had drawn them together at last” (194).

The father never especially likes his daughter, while the mother eventually learns to dislike her.  The reader has no reason or obligation to like any of them.  The great Sympathy Project of 19th century fiction is dying.

In “The Other Two,” Waythorn has just married a woman who has been twice divorced.  Much of the early part of the story describes the flexibility of the ethics of Wharton-world which makes divorce a problem in the abstract but understandable, socially forgivable, in this specific case.  Waythorn, though, discovers that he is much less cool with the idea of the ex-husbands than he had expected.  The first husband is legally allowed to visit his sick daughter in Waythorn’s own house; the second is in Waythorn’s professional circle.

Sometimes Wharton seems to be writing about an arcane, archaic sub-culture, and at other times, I mean in the same story, she might be writing about people alive today.

Waythorn’s first adjustment is to regard the ex-husbands as “a lien on the property” (66).  He is horrified to realize, and for a time denies, that they are part of his wife’s history, her identity.  He is horrified to realize that she has an identity independent from his own.  But he learns, he adjusts, he is gently mashed into a new shape.

In the final scene, Waythorn accidentally encounters the vulgar first husband in his home.  Well, there is nothing to be done.  He offers a cigar.  He means to leave, but “after all the little man no longer jarred on him.”  Then the middle husband appears – business.  Never before have all three been in the same room.  Another cigar.

He held out the case he had just tendered to Haskett, and Varick helped himself with a smile.  Waythorn looked about for a match, and finding none, proffered a light from his own cigar.  Haskett, in the background, held his ground mildly, examining his cigar-tip now and then, and stepping forward at the right moment to knock its ashes into the fire.  (73)

Now enter Mrs. Waythorn. Everyone has a cup of tea.

The cigars almost shocked me; “proffered a light from his own cigar” actually shocked me.  That Collier’s magazine was publishing such smut!  But I was not shocked to see Wharton confirm that the story was about what I thought it was about.


  1. I envy you. You're reading James' great novel, Kipling's great tales, Rulfo's great ghost western, Akhmatova's great poems, Twain's very funny medieval adventures... It doesn't get much better than that.

    And, this being a family blog, it's shocking indeed to read about smut like that cigar business; I mean not one, not two, but three gentlemen cigars... and their wife joining them for tea...

  2. Ha ha ha! When I read that story earlier this year, I was looking at the husbands, not the cigars. But it's so obvious now.

    In the NYRB "New York Stories" collection, Wharton is a social issues writer. After a while, reading them one after another, it was like being trapped in an op-ed page.

  3. i don't get it... but i really like "the great sympathy project of the 19th c.". i'll be hard put to not think of the victorian age that way from now on...

  4. You're never going to here me complain that I've not been reading good books. I know how to solve that problem.

    I worry that as I move into the 20th century I'll have to change the rating of the blog from a G to PG-13, but I thought I was safe with Edith Wharton!

    Wharton's fiction must change quite a bit over time. Early on here, it's pretty fresh. Maybe overly slick. But with some good distance from her subjects, an ironist's distance.

    The Sympathy Project is an old coinage of mine from when I was reading more Dickens and Eliot and Hugo. It is a great achievement of the 19th century novel, this extension of sympathy to imaginary people unlike me. It led to some abuse, though, so it couldn't last.

    As for not getting it, I'll say that a cigar is almost always just a cigar, but not this time. After the men display their cigars, Mrs. Waythorn serves her three husbands vessels which they put to their lips.

    Waythorn's real source of anxiety is sexual, that his wife has had sex - and has publicly declared that she has - with two other men, which is acceptable as an abstraction but something else in the flesh.

  5. Shocking indeed: that 'mildly' in your final quote is apt...Interesting that later, in 1928, when she was in her sixties and childless, EW returned to the social issue of the damage caused to children by parents of the super-rich; they were serial divorces as a symptom of, as she depicts it, their fatuous pursuit of pleasure, short attention span, and easy drift into boredom. But there's also Sympathy for the children, too.

    1. "mildly" is amusing.

      It really was surprise to read this story where the parents were not prizes, but the child was close to a villain.

  6. "Little Jane, “preternaturally good,” grows up to be an unbearable pill "
    Is the description of Jane as "an unbearable pill" Wharton's or yours? If yours, is Wodehouse waiting to go on your current reading list?

  7. THat description is mine. Wharton goes on at rather greater comic length. "'very serious-minded young lady'" is Wharton, but also Jane's mother being kind.

    Wodehouse is always waiting, in the sense that I feel no impulse to read him systematically.

  8. I wonder if O. Henry had read “The Mission of Jane”; “The Ransom of Red Chief” came out in 1907.

  9. Good question - it is easy to imagine O. Henry thinking, "promising, but I can make it funnier."