Edith Wharton's Dream of Incest: Ethan Frome

Article excerpt

The publication of R. W. B. Lewis's biography in 1975 and the access to Edith Wharton's letters and papers have shifted scholarly attention during the last two decades away from the function of her work as social comedy or history to its revelation of her intimate life and emotions. The first level of this investigation revealed the parental restraints, the pressures of social position, and the power of conventions as they shaped her development as a person and an author. Critics have penetrated the reticence and euphemisms of her autobiographical writing to discover how the sheltered debutante and virginal bride broke out of her cage of social expectations to create a remarkable literary career in tandem with her pursuit of social prominence and respectability. Gradually we have learned to discern, behind her carefully manufactured image of the grande dame of American literature, a more complex and more humane figure balancing her social life, her literary career, and her emotional needs. Elizabeth Ammons indicates that Wharton's novels are her evaluation of romantic love, marriage, divorce and motherhood in the context of her own experiences; Wendy Gimbel considers the writer's novels as her means of search for identity and self-realization; Susan Goodman analyzes in Wharton's novels the author's relationships with her parents and other women and observes her satisfaction with her independence from her mother; Janet Goodwyn delineates Wharton's literary evolution in reference to the places that she lived and traveled in America and in Europe; David Holbrook discerns the author's being abused by her father as the reason for her fictional creation of unsatisfactory men; Candace Waid sketches Wharton's attempt to imagine the place of woman writer throughout the writer's career; Carol Wershoven argues that the "woman intruder" in Wharton's novels is the author's portrayal of her own identification with the woman outside of her society; and R. W. B. Lewis and Cynthia Griffin Wolff read Wharton's oeuvre in the context of her life.

These are extremely useful insights into the history of Wharton's development, especially of the relation between her inner drive for professional recognition and the inhibiting influences of her family traditions and social pressures. But seldom is much light shone on the inner needs and hungers that simultaneously impelled her toward self-expression and frustrated direct avowal--let alone revelation--of her impulses. One means of penetrating to this level of creativity is through the use of Freudian analysis focusing on the guilt that fueled her need for expression and drove her to explore the deepest levels of dreams and wish-fulfillment.

Edith Wharton's art was an opportunity for her to actualize her desires, which were denied satisfaction in reality by guilt feelings. From her autobiographies, one concludes that the author adored and loved her father, but feared and disliked her mother. Because she was taught, while she was growing up, to communicate only what her family thought appropriate for her to feel and voice, she was unable to express openly her true feelings to her parents. Her moral training gradually induced guilt feelings in her for harboring these inexpressible feelings.(1) In Ethan Frome, as in much of her fiction, the writer unconsciously recreated camouflaged incidents and circumstances of her life in order to express, without guilt feelings, her genuine feelings for her parents. The creation of the fictional narrative that would provide realistic circumstances for the enactment of desired relationships with her parents was a conscious act. But her feeling of guilt provided the unconscious impetus for her writing. Naturally, Wharton had no conscious access to her unconscious mind. She could not consciously know and express her unconscious in her fiction. Therefore, while she was conscious of the repression and resentment engendered by her family life, she was unaware that it was the feeling of guilt that compelled her to write. …

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