Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Drama of Gender and Genre in Edith Wharton's Realism

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Drama of Gender and Genre in Edith Wharton's Realism

Article excerpt

Edith Wharton's depiction of the socially ambitious Undine Spragg's peregrinations through New York and French "society" suggests that The Custom oldie Country, like so many of Wharton's novels, is concerned with the boundaries separating social groups. I surround "society" with quotation marks because much of die novel's plot turns on Undine's bewilderment at the disconcerting fluidity of the word's referent. Undine knows that she wants to be in "society," but identifying exactly what "society" is and who is in it proves to be less straightforward than she had anticipated. From the isolating distance of her mid-western parlor, New York "society" seemed simply to consist of those people and places discussed in the society papers. But when she arrives in New York, she discovers "unsuspected social gradations" (19) that complicate her understanding of the term. In the opening scenes of the novel, she learns from Mrs. Heeney that Ralph Marvel, with his slight build, subtle manners, and inconspicuous behavior is more "in" than society painter Claud Walsingham Popple, whose "masterly manner" and "domineering, vet caressing address" make him "seem so much more in the key of the world she read about in the Sunday papers" (16). In a European context, the term becomes even more complicated as Ralph reveals to her on their honeymoon that: "Society, to everybody here, means the sanction of their own special groups and of the corresponding groups elsewhere" (101).

While Undine tries to locate, define, and become a member of the "society" that will satisfy her social ambitions, her author is concerned with an equally vague term crucial to her literary ambitions: namely, "realism." As fluid as Undine's "society," "realism's" referent has bewildered writers and scholars who have tried to locate a set of conventions that might stabilize the term. Wharton is one of these writers. In The Writing of Fiction, a polemic for realism, she informs us that writers of realism represent only "crucial moments," setting them apart "from the welter of existence" (14). Explaining how one identities those "crucial moments," she can only insist that "there must be something that makes them crucial"--that "something" being a "recognizable relation to a familiar social or moral standard." Such a formula begs a number of questions about those "familiar social or moral standards," but Wharton leaves her definition at that, recording her frustration in the italics that make her point and put an end to a potentially endless interrogation. Of course more recent scholars are less concerned with defining realism than in explaining how and why a piece or corpus of literature comes to bear the label of realism. While 'Wharton's criticism may appear naive in this contemporary climate, her novel, as I will show, does not. Running parallel to Wharton's interest in social groups in The Custom of the Country is an interest in literary genres that reflects a much more complex understanding of realism, one that sheds light on what critics have come to recognize as the label's gendered history.

Although Wharton was unable to satisfactorily define realism, she deliberately established herself as a writer of it. As a woman, she ran the risk of being categorized as a writer of popular, sentimental fiction--that is, a member of the "d__d mob of scribbling women" that Nathaniel Hawthorne so violently resented (qtd. in Myerson xiv). During Wharton's lifetime, sentimental fiction, which had dominated the nineteenth-century American literary marketplace, came under fierce attack from multiple fronts, including the realist, modernist, and naturalist movements. Sentimentalism became, iii Suzanne Clark's words, the "unwarranted discourse" (1), as practitioners of these other literary modes set out to distance themselves from the sentimental tradition and establish their authority as the creators of legitimate literature. (2) Just as Undine strategically marries, divorces, and remarries in an effort to position herself in the most prestigious social group, then, Wharton meticulously constructs in her letters and fiction a literary persona that Hildegard Helier aptly describes as "Wharton the realist" (x). …

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