‘The Fullness Of Life’ by Edith Wharton

Wharton, Edith 1893

The Fullness Of Life by Edith Wharton, 1893

The magic trick:

Using perfectly chosen details in order to breathe life into a clichéd plot

It is jarring at first to find an Edith Wharton story set in an imaginary afterworld. Her writing – ghosts and spirits aside – usually is so tied to very realistic societal situations. Anyway, the whole plot is fairly predictable. The biggest surprise is that Wharton does, in fact, stick to a conservative, the-grass-isn’t-always-greener ending.

But this is not to say that the story is a waste of your time. Not at all. The plot may be clichéd, but Wharton, as she does throughout her entire catalogue, has a penchant for the kind of precise, real-life details that elevate the story above the ranks of mere maudlin fluff.

Consider three ways our protagonist explains why she felt her marriage never encompassed the fullness of life:

  1. She complains that her husband only ever read railway novels and sporting advertisements.
  2. She uses the devastatingly limited phrase, “I was fond of him,” to characterize her affections for her husband.
  3. She draws out a neat, complex (and more-than-a-little-sexual) metaphor of a woman’s nature being like a great house full of rooms, many of which her husband never visited.

Wharton has sewn up a lifetime of dissatisfied comfort in but a few paragraphs. With details that precise it makes no difference that the story’s plot is lacking in surprises or big-picture revelations. It is the minor details that resonate in a major way long after the story’s plot is forgotten. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

“You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple. But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawingroom, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”

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