Wharton, Edith Newbold (1862-1937), American writer, known for her portraits of manners and mores at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. She is best known for her novella Ethan Frome (1911) and her novel The Age of Innocence (1920), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921.
Wharton’s works typically concern the ethical dilemmas of upper-class characters. These characters are often punished by social codes that encourage selfish and cruel behavior in the name of respectability. Like her friend Henry James, the expatriate American novelist whose writings influenced hers, Wharton was concerned with the subtle interplay of emotions in a society that censured the free expression of passion. In much of her work, a paralyzing dilemma over whether to follow the dictates of the head or the instincts of the heart is at the core of the characters’ conflicts.
Like James and many other American writers of the time, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, Wharton was somewhat uncomfortable with the formlessness of American society. Many of her stories record the suffering of characters who lose their social position in the wake of the shifting economic forces that followed the American Civil War (1861-1865). Wharton preferred instead the more rigid social structure of European culture, and many of her works offer insights on the contrasts between American society and European culture.
Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence are Wharton’s most famous works. Ethan Frome is set in the hard winter environment of the small fictional town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. It tells the story of three people: Ethan Frome; his wife, Zeena Frome; and her cousin Mattie Silver, who comes to live with the Fromes. When Zeena sees a friendship growing between Ethan and Mattie, she comes between them, with tragic results. At the end of the story, the three characters are embittered by past choices and living out their lives together in a deteriorating farmhouse. Their emotional ruin is shown in a Starkfield townswoman’s remarks: “…and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard…”
Set at the pinnacle of New York City high society, The Age of Innocence is also a tale of a man and two women: Newland Archer, a young lawyer; his fiancée, May Welland; and her cousin Ellen Olenska, with whom Archer falls in love. Although it is not as tragic as Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence also concludes unhappily. Like the best work of Henry James, The Age of Innocence offers a focused view of American upper-class society and its social contradictions.
Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones to a wealthy New York City family, and was educated by tutors in New York City and in Europe, where her family traveled extensively. In 1885 she married Edward Wharton, a Boston banker. The two separated in 1907, the same year Edith Wharton moved to France, and they eventually divorced. Wharton served as a relief volunteer in France during World War I (1914-1918) and catalogued her wartime experiences in two novels, The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923). Her other significant novels include The House of Mirth (1905), the story of Lily Bart, a society woman whose fortunes decline; and Hudson River Bracketed (1929), in which Wharton contrasts the cosmopolitan culture of New York City with the starker cultural landscape of the midwestern United States. She later wrote a sequel set in Europe, The Gods Arrive (1932). Wharton’s short-story collections include Xingu and Other Stories (1916), and her poetry collections include Artemis to Actœon (1909) and Twelve Poems (1926).
Wharton also wrote non-fiction, such as Italian Backgrounds (1905), one of several books of travel writing; The Decoration of Houses (1897), a watershed work on the field of interior decoration that she cowrote with architect Ogden Codman, Jr.; and The Writing of Fiction (1925), a piece of literary criticism. In 1923 Yale University awarded her an honorary degree; she was the first woman ever to receive that distinction. Wharton’s autobiography, A Backward Glance, was published in 1934. Almost 60 years later, in 1993, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence were made into motion pictures, reawakening interest in Wharton’s work. Edith Wharton: The Uncollected Critical Writings was published in 1996.