The Artist as Moralist: Edith Wharton's Revisions to the Last Chapter of the Custom of the Country

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Most knowledgeable readers of Edith Wharton's work will not be surprised by the conclusion reached in a recent book that she believed strongly in the need for important fiction to have a "moral dimension" (Singley 6). Abundant evidence to support this conclusion rests in her own novels and short stories, almost all of which exhibit a powerful interest in ethical questions. Supporting evidence is also present in several of her non-fiction discussions of general issues related to the novel. In The Writing of Fiction, for example, she asserts, "A good subject, then, must contain in itself something that sheds light on our moral experience"; if it does not, it is a "mere irrelevant happening; a meaningless fact torn out of its context" (27). She makes a similar point in the unpublished essay, "Fiction and Criticism," when, after asserting that "The novelist ceases to be an artist the moment he bends his character to the exigencies of a thesis," she emphasizes that a novelist also ceases to be an artist "should he draw the acts he describes without regard to their moral significance" (italics Wharton; qtd. in Vita-Finzi 30). Missing, however, from her commentary about morality and fiction is any detailed discussion of her own work and the problems she would have had to confront as she tried, without preaching, to make readers aware of the significance of her stories, or as she tried to "shed light" on moral issues without distorting characters in order to do so. There is no doubt that, at times, these problems would have been complex and difficult to solve, given her strong belief that "the aliveness of the characters seems the novel's one assurance of prolonged survival" (qtd. in Vita-Finzi 28).

Nonetheless, although Wharton wrote nothing analogous to James's Prefaces, and although almost none of her comments helps readers understand the process through which took place, in her own fiction, the "dramatization and working out of the moral significance" (Vita-Finzi 51), there does exist a kind of studio in which readers may observe Wharton as she tries to become a novelist who is also an artist. What I am referring to is the manuscript of the last chapter of The Custom of the Country,[1] and the evidence relevant to this issue that a comparison between the manuscript and, in particular, the completed book version (it was also serialized[2]) can provide. Wharton's focus for almost three-quarters of the chapter is on Paul Marvell, the pathetic, almost nine-year-old son of Undine Spragg, the novel's shallow, many-times divorced central character. Wharton's revisions[3] reveal her attempts to support a "thesis" about the "human cost of separation and divorce" (Benstock 159) without "bending" Paul and thus destroying his "aliveness." That these attempts were not always successful in preventing his predicament from becoming too melodramatic or sentimental was probably inevitable, given both the emotionally charged subject matter and also the painful resemblance between certain dimensions of Paul's situation and Wharton's memories of her own youthful self.

Book IV of the lengthy, complex novel ends with the suicide of Paul's father, Ralph Marvell, after he is shocked to learn he has failed to prevent his son from becoming the charge of Undine and her new husband, the French aristocrat Raymond de Chelles. The chapters in Book V preceding chapter XLVI trace the disintegration of Undine's latest marriage, and they culminate with her seeking the solace of her first husband, the crude multimillionaire Elmer Moffatt, and with his attempt to persuade her to obtain a divorce and marry him. In the Book's last chapter readers quickly learn through Paul, on holidays at Easter from private school and waiting for his mother and stepfather to return to their recently purchased Parisian hotel, that it has been two years since the divorce and re-marriage have taken place.

Two important related keys to Wharton's presentation of Paul in this chapter--which for interpretive convenience I will divide into five sections--are its length, because for the first time she invites readers to concentrate their attention on Paul, and its focalization, because, also for the first time (and only the second time in her published fiction), she allows readers to experience events from a child's perspective. …