Heidi Plain Mrs. Geiselmann 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 later years. 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; Pritchett 545). 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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