Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Life and Times of Edith Jones

I hope you were paying attention to the last Ethan Frome lecture, for obvious reasons. I don't usually have a prompt that so perfectly matches up with the reading that precedes it, so it seems particularly fortuitous that everyone was present in class on Thursday. Now I can see who actually listens and retains information.

For a fuller understanding of Wharton, check out these links:

Full text of "New Year's Day."

An article about her transformative affair by her biographer, R.W.B. Lewis.

Some of the things I was looking for in your essays:

1. Narrator not only flashes back to his childhood, but even to the era of his grandparents, a clear and obvious way to compare distant past, near past and present. Not just two, but THREE time periods are evoked in this short passage.

2. Use of detail to show old age and infirmity (mother's spectacles, Sillerton's "china set"...false teeth), sets narrator up in opposition to their weak old-fashioned values. The excessive attention paid to fabrics also draws attention to the fashions of a bygone era (the extensive footnotes indicate just how archaic this knowledge is).

3. The specificity of locations were of much more interest to the older generation: not just any hotel, but "the Fifth Avenue Hotel;" the sharp demarcation of the Thirtieth Streets as the outer limits of acceptable addresses; city v. country houses. Metaphorically, this is because place matters deeply to them...everyone and everything has its proper place, and to violate those boundaries shakes up their ordered world.

4. As New York grew and neighborhoods blurred into each other, the residents also blurred their lives together. The new generation was comfortable with this melding of classes and cultures, but their parents resisted, clinging to their harsh judgments of anyone who broke their rigid codes of acceptable conduct. (bonus points if you could relate this to the multicultural ethos we have today, or the current controversy over gay marriage).

5. Edith Wharton's own life, the judgment she endured from her own people, obviously informs her portrayal of those who are quick and eager to judge, or care too much about being fashionable. The mother's malevolent gossip, old Sillerton's affectations, make them pathetic characters. If you actually read the entire story, you will see how their judgments arise out of ignorance, and the true story behind Lizzie Hazeldean and Henry Prest's affair is far more complex than this short passage would indicate...but you might've guessed this just from what we've talked about this week, between Edith's affair with Morton Fullerton and the romance between Ethan Frome and Mattie Silver.


Mika Kennedy said...

Looking at points #1, 2, 4 and 5--

Ohhh boy. @_@ *bookmarks links* The essay on her affair looks quite interesting.

mst said...

For some reason, the American Heritage article is chock full of typos...'Ethan Frame,' 'Willa Gather"...weird. It's a reputable magazine, I don't understand why their website is so clumsy.

But yeah, it's an interesting story. Not that I think infidelity is a great way to discover your direction in life, but given the circumstances of her marriage, and what she was able to accomplish afterward, I think it's fair to say that Edith Wharton's affair turned out to be a good thing...for her at least, and maybe American lit, too.