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Heidi Plain

Mrs. Geiselmann

11-Regents English, Period 2

6 June 1997

In many of her works, including Ethan From Edith Wharton used her writing as a

means of therapy and release to deal with the feelings surrounding the incestuous

occurrences with he father in her childhood and unfulfilling relationships with men in her

later years.

What influenced her work was not so much her impression of Europe from her

early years or the numerous hours spent reading the classics in her father?s library, it was

more her vision and impression of New York City and its society. Her upbringing was

apparent in her writing. Her prose has order and tragedy with the conflicts occurring

step-by-step. Much of her energy is directed toward the propriety and culture surrounding

the time period in which she was raised (Auchincloss 7; Pritchett 545).

Wharton completely cumbersed herself in her writing. It became a type of ?safe

harbor? for her, giving her some control over her hectic life. This idea of control was

very important to her. The sense of accomplishment she received from her successes was

immeasurable and a great boost to her self-esteem. Through her work Wharton was able

to escape the solitiude of an unsatisfying marriage. As Worth stated, ? A woman?s

disillusionment with the man she loves? is recurrent in many of her literary works. Her

most popular theme is one of relationships. The characters in many of her stories are

similar to her husband, Teddy. They have no ambition, no passion, and are content in

their relationships while their partners are not (Worth 23, 55, 63; Auchincloss 13).

In the past it has been speculated that Wharton was involved in an incestuous

relationship with her father, Fredrick Jones. There are seven main symptoms of incest, all

of which Wharton possessed. They are as follows: 1) unhappiness as a child 2) poor sexual

and romantic relationships as an adult 3) frequent mental breakdowns 4) severe nausea 5)

loss of appetite 6) choking sensations and 7) breathing difficulties. Incest survivors often

have space related phobias such as Wharton?s phobia of thresholds. Cynthia Griffin Wolff,

in her biography of Wharton, makes the connection between thresholds and incest nothing,

?Wharton?s use of thresholds as a motiff in her works with an incest them.? (Worth 55;

White 43 44).

In a letter to her friend Sara Norton, Wharton states ?…for twelve years I seldom

knew what it was to be, for more than an hour or two of the twentyfour without an

intense feeling of nausea.? Her illness ? …consumed the best years of my youth, and left,

in some sort, an irreparable shade on my life.? White notes that ? She had many of the

same characteristics and life patterns that are now being discovered in survivors of

father-daughter incest, as the taboo against talking about incest is broken and an

increasing number of survivors speak out in surveys and autobiographical narratives.? As

relationship three weeks after the marriage was legal and when Wharton was forced to

share a bedroom with her husband she experienced recurrent asthma attacks. As White

notices ?Lev Raphael has written several essays on the theme of shame in Wharton?s

longer ficiotn; although he has not explained its significance to Wharton, shame is central

ot incest victims, who tend to blame themselves for the abuse.? ( White 42, 43, 48;

Pritchett 545).

The incest Wharton was subjected to is obvious in many of her works such as the

short story ?Summer.? The main character, Charity Royall, has strong feelings for and

eventually marries her foster father. Fifteen year old Judith Wheater in Wharton?s ?The

Children? is faces with a marriage proposal from her father figure. ?Dieu d? Amour? finds

the potential victime escaping from her parents who wish for her to marry her uncle. The

main character in ?Confession? kills her father for what he has done to her. This causes

her personality to split into two halves, one of which becoses happily married to a man

who forgiver her past. The Brand family in the ghost tale ?Bewitched? was founded on

incest. Two cousings marry and have two ? handsome daughters.? These offspring die

mysteriously but Wharton intedns for the reader to realize it is due to the effects of incest.

?All Souls? is the stroy of Sara Clayburn who is a victim of sexual abuse. She escapes and

although she ends with the mentality of a frightened child it is unimportant because she has

conquered her abuser. Throughout the book Sara fears that ? No one will know what has

happened here. Even I shan?t know.? She tells her cousin who then narrates the story to

the reader. It is presumed that this idea is similar to that which Wharton herself must have

experienced. Not only these buy many of her works display this same theme of incest

(White 41, 104, 105).

Wharton?s novel Ethan Frome also mirrors much of her life in its plot. ?Critics

have seen in Ethan Frome the story of Edith?s own marriage. Like Ethan she was

shackled to a long-suffering, chronically ill spouse and longed for relief in a relationship

with someone else. Even the names of the characters seem to reflect Edith?s own

experience-Ethan and Edith, Mattie and Morton Fullerton.? This passage refers to the

unhappiness of Wharton?s marriage and short-lived affair with Morton Fullerton during

the spring of 1907, at which time Wharton was stilled married to Teddy. It is believed

that her faling marriage was a result of incest and therefore resulted in her increasing

distrust of men (Worth 65).

After Wharton?s death the short story ?Beatrice Palmato? was uncovered. It was

found to be unpublishable because of its content. Beatrice is forced into having oral sex

with her father after her wedding . It is obvious that this abuse had begun in her

childhood. When her children are five years of age, Beatrice?s father dies. She forbids her

husband to kiss their daughter and after her bizarre behavior her husband realizes ?the

secret.? Beatrice can not handle the truth being known and subsequently commits suicide.

(White 40, 41).

As a novelist, Wharton was serious, professional, and unrelenting. Pritchett notes

that she was an ?unpitying moralist who will forgive but not forget, and the derisive critic

of social architecture.? Her work remained fairly unpraised. Authors of the early

twentyieth century were considered ?unconventional? and women authors were ridiculed

even more. Wharton met with disapproval and was considered a moral outcast. She like

her peers, her female counterparts were similar to the traditional mother-figure. They

were determined and critical, possessing high moral standards yet they encountered severe

disapproval (Worth 29; Pritchett 545).

Mental stress due to the war and age caused Wharton to settle down in her

ensuing years. She was sensitive to criticism and occasionally wrote to please her

audience which was predominantly male. Her later work was even, at times, considered

conservative. Although her stories became less racy, the theme of incest reappeared

repeatedly. ?In the stories of Wharton?s last decades the incest victim more frequently

survives to enjoy some living advantage.? Evidently no matter how much time passed or

what else occurred, her mind traveled back to the same awful idea of incest. It is obvious

that something about the horror of this crime drew her in and stirred within her concealed

feelings. (White 34, 104).

There is so much about Wharton that remains unseen. She passes on only her

writing as a clue to her past, leaving the reader to deduce for himself what must have

touched her soul so deeply as to effect her writing for the entirety of her career. An

acquaintance, Jean Gooder, understood the unrealized depth of Wharton?s mind. ?I think

she?s never been really unlocked, and that most of her emotions have gone into her

books.? Each new generation that explores Wharton?s work is not only left with a new

story tucked away for another day?s enjoyment but also a piece of Wharton?s past, a

portion of her being. Continued reading can merely bring to light the feelings and ideas

that were so clearly related by Wharton decades ago. By enjoying her work we are simply

passing on the legacy of a lost era to a new one.

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