‘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.”



‘April Showers’ by Edith Wharton

Wharton, Edith 1900

April Showers by Edith Wharton, 1900

The magic trick:

Turning a scathing little critique of the publishing industry into a sweet little story about the value of family

In many ways, this is lightweight stuff. It is an early Wharton story and one that only hints at what would soon become her standard-issue qualities: the biting sense of humor, the social criticism, the role of women powerless in a man’s society. It is a sweet story, though, and there are worse things to be in this world.

Wharton appears to be angling the tale toward the publishing business and the joys and failures of a young writer. It soon becomes clear, however, that the story really is about family. Theodora shirks her familial chores (Johnny needs his buttons mended!) in order to focus her time and energy on writing and submitting her first novel. She loses herself in ego and obsession, and when cruel reality smashes her back down to earth, it is her family – specifically her father – who helps break the fall. The closing scene, with Theodora and her father walking home, is particularly tender. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

She felt the pressure of his arm, but he didn’t speak, and she figured his mute hilarity. They moved on in silence. Presently he said:

“It hurts a bit just at first, doesn’t it?”

“O father!”

He stood still, and the gleam of his cigar showed a face of unexpected participation.

“You see I’ve been through it myself.”

“You, father? You?”


‘The Other Two’ by Edith Wharton

Wharton, Edith 1904a

The Other Two by Edith Wharton, 1904

The magic trick:

Perfectly representing the male point of view

Not an easy thing for an author to perfectly inhabit the psyche of both male and female characters. Charles Dickens, for my money, was the best at this trick. F. Scott Fitzgerald was very good at dividing his point of view – though, as we discussed a couple weeks ago, he assuredly got a lot of help from Zelda. Edith Wharton belongs on that list as well. She understands human psychology so amazingly well, and “The Other Two” is great evidence of this point.

“The Other Two” really is nothing but psychology, as very little in the way of major plot developments take place. Wharton presents a cast of four adults – a husband and wife and the wife’s two ex-husbands – in a carousel of egos. Ultimately what we see is a woman who has become expert in manipulating the carousel as best she can, and a man – Waythorn – whose definition of love and marriage errs badly toward a need for possession. It is a fascinating study in human relationships. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

In his own room, he flung himself down with a groan. He hated the womanish sensibility which made him suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life. He had known when he married that his wife’s former husbands were both living, and that amid the multiplied contacts of modern existence there were a thousand chances to one that he would run against one or the other, yet he found himself as much disturbed by his brief encounter with Haskett as though the law had not obligingly removed all difficulties in the way of their meeting.