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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
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;
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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