‘The Pelican’ by Edith Wharton


The Pelican by Edith Wharton, 1898

The magic trick:

Turning a bitingly satirical joke into the story’s main theme

“The Pelican” seemed to me for much of its wordcount to be a Wharton attack on a society type. She probably went to a lecture, I thought, was annoyed by the content and decided to write a story mocking the fraudulent lecturer. The repetition of the “She’s doing it to pay for her son’s education” felt like the sarcastic bow on the satirical gift.

But I undersold the story in my initial assessment. It’s not a societal satire; it’s personal. Very personal.

The scene in the end, wherein the son in question confronts his mother in front of the narrator makes that abundantly clear. This is a story about a mother’s desperate clinging to the identity she’s built her self-worth around, even at the detriment of her own son. And that line about doing it for the son’s education? It’s not a joke at all. It’s the story’s theme.

And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

Whether Mrs. Amyot was disheartened by the lack of sympathy between herself and her hearers, or whether the sport of arousing it had become a task, she certainly imparted her platitudes with less convincing warmth than of old. Her voice had the same confidential inflections, but it was like a voice reproduced by a gramophone: the real woman seemed far away. She had grown stouter without losing her dewy freshness, and her smart gown might have been taken to show either the potentialities of a settled income, or a politic concession to the taste of her hearers. As I listened I reproached myself for ever having suspected her of self-deception in saying that she took no pleasure in her work. I was sure now that she did it only for Lancelot, and judging from the size of her audience and the price of the tickets I concluded that Lancelot must be receiving a liberal education.


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