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Red Pickle Dish

Edith Wharton Revisited

Month

December 2014

The Incarceration and Liberation of Lily Bart

“She was evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate … [yet her] attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline — as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing room; and Selden reflected that it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality.” –The House of Mirth

About a year into college, I switched majors from Real Estate to English Literature. My “plan” had been to earn a B.B.A. and pursue a career in real estate appraising, a road that two of my uncles had chosen to make a living. It wasn’t very apparent where this choice would lead, but it was a required core American Literature course (and its professor) that sparked my interest in studying literature further. The following fall semester, I had already changed majors, and registered for (what was now) another required course in introductory literary studies. Same professor. Actually, funnily enough, it was the same lecture hall. I think even the exact same classroom.

Towards and as a part of the completion of the class, we were required to choose one of three novels, and apply to it, in essay form, (I will pause to apologize in advance if my blog posts more resemble essays than blogs!), one of the ten “literary theories” we had studied and read about throughout the semester.

This was deep stuff. In the beginning, I really had no idea what the purpose of these theories were meant for. Among the required reading were philosophies and literary theories and movements of the past century, including Marxism, deconstructionism, multi-culturalism, psychoanalysis, feminism, and ideas of “modernity,” formed by legendary “thinkers” such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf, and the like. Yeah. All, as a newcomer to literary studies, completely and utterly over my head. Yet I was fascinated.

Among the choice of novels meant to be used for this assignment was Wharton’s The House of Mirth; I had never read it to this point, but chose it solely based on my initial attraction to Wharton’s storytelling in Ethan Frome, in high school, her only work I had read, and enjoyed, to date. I was pleasantly surprised. Again. I didn’t realize it right away, but Wharton’s heroine, Lily Bart — her physical beauty, her fragile, inner sense of dignity, her (literally) painful awareness of the world around her — was merely a subconsciously female counterpart of Ethan Frome. Going through the story for the first time, I also identified with how the urban setting of Edwardian Manhattan, both the physical, lavish constructs of Fifth Avenue, and the plutocracy that controlled it (“The Lords of Pittsburgh,” as Edith Wharton referred to the industrial tycoons of her day), played an integral part in the plotting of Lily’s destiny. New York City, in Lily’s time, was still a residual product of the wealthy Dutch ancestry that had purchased, founded, and established the “New Amsterdam” of the 17th Century, and was not exactly the wondrous, modern metropolis of today that leaves countless tourists awe-struck and on sensory overload. New York City was, for brooding, independent souls, like Lily Bart, an asphyxiating prison.

The proverbial light-bulb went on over my head after realizing Wharton’s implication: we are creatures of our environment. This really is no cliche, and was certainly no cliche in Wharton’s time. Even though Lily is born into white privilege and financial “advantage,” she still (again, no spoiler alerts here) ends up, just like anyone else “beneath her,” living in debilitating poverty. She makes that feared descent into failure alone, although there are some in her path, social “outliers,” like Lily’s penniless, dilettante love interest, Selden, and his “dingy” cousin, Gerty Farrish, who attempt to intervene. A literary critic of the time, Edmund Wilson, writes in his critique, “Justice to Edith Wharton,” (1937, the year of Wharton’s death), that she (Wharton) makes a point to craft her novels as “almost [invariable upshots] of a conflict between the individual and the social group.” This is Wharton’s unspoken, but obvious mantra behind her fiction and form, and the inevitable driving force of action (or inaction?) in the lives of her characters, like Ethan, and, as we see here, Lily. It is the defining feature of her tragedy, like the ornate facade and pinnacles of the Woolworth Building, only for Wharton’s characters, it is more like the banal, obtrusive face of an exceedingly unjust social prison.

My mind immediately went to a theory I had enjoyed reading about in our theory textbook: Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon, a term mentioned in his more thought-out, novel-length book “Discipline and Punish.” A panopticon is a circular French bastille (prison) that has, within its center, concentric layers of building structure that contains individual prison cells. These cells are constantly monitored by guards from a sentry tower located in the center of the structure, but cannot be seen by the inmates (hence the effectiveness of monitoring and controlling the behavior of the prisoners). This concept of surveillance immediately reminded me of the New York of Wharton’s time, played out in The House of Mirth, and how the physical buildings that line the dull, cheerless avenues of Lily’s New York are the “sentry towers,” the members of her circle the “sentries”. We see an example of this as Lily’s Aunt Julia, a loveless relative who “tries [Lily] for a year” in an act of pretentious charity after the death of Lily’s parents, constantly watches Lily’s comings and goings from the windows of the drawing room. Everything is scrutinized, and everyone knows everyone else’s business, in a society where “scandal was dreaded more than disease”; only, because of her innate, intuitive sensibilities, Lily Bart does realize this, and understands her need to both satisfy and resist it in order to survive. The only place in this brownstone menagerie that Lily feels “free,” we discover halfway through the novel, is the “other-worldliness” of the Brys’ conservatory, the Brys a new-monied family who host a lavish ball (orchestrated to facilitate their ascent into the upper-class) where Lily is an invitee; it is in this conservatory that Lily shares a kiss with Selden. Wharton implies that the wild foliage of the natural world on display in the conservatory serves as a metaphor for Lily’s natural beauty, similarly on display for, and at the disposal of, a group of people who would rather admire the conceited, materialistic grandiosity of their own achievements.

How does all this lead to Lily’s eventual condemnation from society? Lily knows her limitations, in terms of the people and occurrences dictating her fate, but she does not know her limitations in how to tolerate and deal with them, so she resorts to self-policing tendencies to preserve her fragile spirituality. It is her most rational choice, because, sadly, sound personal choices of any other kind are, for Lily, themselves limited, and few and far between; almost any other choice made available to her to escape or transcend her crises (one, the threat of poverty, the other, the grim humiliation of sacrificing her personal integrity to remain rich by marrying rich), will mean some kind of abject compromise. For Lily, as the reader navigates her gradual, turbulent fall from grace, we begin to realize that she is, proverbially, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. It is not so much the viscous, heinous, unforgiving, grudge-holding social circle that allegorically jails and incarcerates her, but it is Lily that incarcerates herself, and ironically, in so doing, preserves her sense of self-worth, however neurotic she may appear to those close to her. In her eyes, even at the close of the final chapter, staying true to herself, defying the “attrition and corrosion of the soul” that is enabled by her tangled connections with New York’s elite, is what actually frees her in the end, and Lily Bart becomes not just a literary heroine in her own right, but a transcendent testament to, and mythological martyr of, the age-old destructive forces of every American society that preceded Wharton’s time, the society that Wharton herself knew, and every American society since.

What can we learn from Lily Bart? Why was the city of her time such a dreary, confining, and spiritually intoxicating place, when the city as we know it today has become a place of change, education, and reform? Have the confinements of the “class-based” society vanished completely? It can be noted, and has been documented through the American historical record, that this time period, the Edwardian Era, was an age of “transition” between not only the American post-Civil War era, but of an intensely global imperialist ideology (Wharton actually confessed, in 1901, to being a “rabid imperialist,” despite her understanding of the cruel forces of elitism), and the ravages and consequences of the First World War. This was, in both a literary and historical context, a time of excess and arrogance of faith in man’s achievements and wealth, even if it was at the expense of not only sensitive, artistic persons in high society (like Lily), but also the quality of life and “good of the masses,” the 3rd, and even 2nd-class (now, as we call it, middle class) citizens of Wharton’s day. Spirited, adventurous visionaries of any kind, in any social stratum, were discouraged, and even though history has revealed the ignorance of this attitude, we must now go in search of the Lily Barts and Ethan Fromes of our time; that they must no longer be stifled, exiled, or ignored; we must break the molds, the deceptive, self-serving misuses of religion and politics, and find the true, pure meaning of our individual purpose in this world, and — yes, we can still dream — the world to come. The bleakness and harshness of Whartonian fate becomes merely the thing of legend, and although, as Edmund Wilson states, “[Wharton’s] grimness melts rapidly into benignity,” perhaps even obscurity, her message remains clear: that the single greatest incarcerating force, the thing that keeps us from glory and liberation, our greatest enemy, is not society and the confounding disapproval of other people, but the lies we believe about ourselves.

We can now clearly see Lily Bart in her glory. Wharton has uncuffed Lily from her suffering, and released her “Beyond!” the annals of her prose, the limitations of her own storytelling. Lily’s period of incarceration has ended, and Wharton gives her, at the end of the novel, a final, eternal rite of passage, the breath of a single word, the utterance of which, made by Selden, “makes all else clear.”

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Unearthing Ethan Frome

“He seemed a part of the mute, melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound, accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.” –Ethan Frome

I had always wondered why, during my “summer reading” for my high school junior English class, I was strangely drawn to this immensely sorrowful and pathetic novella. Most students revile it, or cannot tolerate its almost unjustifiable and insufferable pathos: why would a writer subject her characters to such extreme, abject suffering?

Though many people despise the story, most all of them could probably recall how it ends (no spoiler alerts here): Ethan, a passionate, spirited, intelligent young man, full of dreams and integrity, finds himself bound and caught in a “trap” that is walled, on one side, by his soured, hypochondriac wife Zeena, and on the other, by Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who, at an intensely pure and spiritual level, Ethan secretly adores.

But, it becomes evident that Ethan cannot have it both ways, and by the final paragraph, a chilling observation made by Ruth Hale, a partially omniscient member of the community who knows the most about the Frome’s “plight,” all the things that characterized Ethan, not the least of which is passion, dissolves almost entirely with time, and the reader begins to understand that it is because of his innate timidity, (Wharton implies that we are not to confuse this with cowardice), spiritual fragility, and inability to make decisions outside the parameters of his tiny world, that lead to the story’s nightmarish, not-so-fairy-tale ending. The Frome household, as seen from the peripheral narrator, is as cold as the snowdrifts that layer the lonely winter landscape, a blighted dwelling, the lives within becoming tenants not just of a deteriorating farmhouse, but of Wharton’s most profound cautionary tale.

One month after reading Ethan Frome, 9/11 happened. It was the first major news and national event that would cast on me a lingering, unanswered shadow of sorrow, uncertainty, and disbelief. No matter what lay in the gray areas of the political motivations surrounding and following 9/11, there is no doubt that this singular tragedy rallied the nation; except perhaps for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, or the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, never had such an event forced Americans to realize and question what really was integral to our society, with many more questions to follow. The mass rioting in response to the crisis in Ferguson, MO, is perhaps the most recent momentous example of the need to question and re-evaluate the cultural justifications of tragedies and their responses.

I return to Whartonian tragedy. In the story of Ethan Frome, everyone in the community knows what happened to the Frome household, only nobody ever really wants to talk about it; they believe that keeping silent and leaving the Fromes alone is the best and wisest decision. Yet, it is not so much pity as it is the love that stems from that pity that lies dormant beneath the quiet surface of the small Massachusetts village. All the blame and bewilderment and sadness that follows the Fromes’ personal crisis dissolves over time, much like Ethan’s personal resolve. Still, it does not cancel out the community’s love for these three imprisoned, isolated partakers of one conjoined fate. Passion actually does remain alive, but latent, much like the frozen, compacted New England soil that lies beneath the endless snowdrifts, eternally waiting for the rites of spring. Through the storytelling of the anonymous narrator, the residents of Starkfield, like Harmon Gow and Ruth Hale, and the frame structure of the narrative, Wharton gives voice to the marginalized, but far from forgotten, tough-skinned characters that are bound to a singular, haunting destiny.

How does the fictional tragedy of Ethan Frome tie into larger-scale tragedies like 9/11? One word: community. Americans, despite all of the opinions and pardoxes and conflicting values that divide us, still have a great capacity for compassion and good. Even within the smoke of questions and rumors that swirls around issues of politics and political motivations, behind even events like 9/11, there are still many people who opt to support one another, and encourage them to endure, regardless of failings and disadvantages of every kind, and even within the unspoken taboos of American culture.

But, the single greatest thing about tragedy and grief is the beauty that surrounds and emerges from it: the “glimmering” canopy of stars that domes the “gloom of the spruces” as Ethan and Mattie stroll through the uncertain darkness; the faint, gentle cascading of snow that seasons the stubborn, harsh New England earth; and, for the purposes and understanding of our own current American history, the looming towers of light that rise from a broken, modern city skyline, ushering in and encouraging the sparks of faith, hope, and love.

All About Wharton: Thoughtful Beginnings on a “Lost” Americana

So, I have finally hopped onto the blogging bandwagon.

I’ve been encouraged from a fellow friend, WordPress blogger, and Edith Wharton aficionado to create a blog dedicated to this most curious, ingenious woman of letters, whose fiction, mostly novels and novellas, and a largely under-appreciated and abundant collection of short stories, even ghost stories, have populated classroom syllabi and personal reading lists alike, for all lovers of classic fiction.

This past March, Mary and I co-hosted a lecture that addressed what makes Wharton “tic,” and her resonating, piercing observations of the (mostly) destructive influences of society on both public and private lives. Even though the superficiality of the New York social circles of her time has largely “disappeared,” one living in today’s society may be surprised with how relevant these Wharton-esque nuances are to our contemporary, celebrity-obsessed, materialistic, and digital postmodern world.

The point of this blog will be to “resurrect” Wharton’s ideas and scathing insight and commentary, however forgotten they may be, on themes such as isolation, urban life, fate vs. free will, and repressed passion. It will also be a great way to express my own thoughts in writing, and to vent all of my random musings, to anyone who cares to follow.

Happy reading!

Oh, and “Red Pickle Dish”? Kudos to you if you know where that’s from …

(Hint: It is part of the climax scene that “shatters” one of Wharton’s most well-known love triangles).

John

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