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:
- She complains that her husband only ever read railway novels and sporting advertisements.
- She uses the devastatingly limited phrase, “I was fond of him,” to characterize her affections for her husband.
- 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.
“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.”