EDITH WHARTON: ORPHANCY AND SURVIVAL
Between 1905 and 1920, Edith Wharton produced four major works of fiction: The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, Summer, and The Age of Innocence. The publication of the novels coincides with the years in which Wharton resolved a private crisis of identity, her transition from matron to artist. For Wharton, in that period, the writing of fiction was a form of self-analysis and psychotherapy.
One metaphorical construct--that of orphan and house--unifies the four novels. To be orphaned means to be without a self; to be housed means to have achieved identity. Within this fictive structure, the quest for selfhood expresses itself as an orphan's search for the right house in the right place.
In The House of Mirth, the orphancy of the heroine dramatizes itself in Lily Bart's passivity and dependence. The house of marriage, the only structure which she can imagine, will accomodate her only if she remains a child. When she attempts to establish an independent house, an identity separate from that which society dictates, she fails. Her suicide is Wharton's indictment of social structures which infantilize women. In Ethan Frome, Mattie Silver also approaches a house as an orphaned child intent upon adoption. She sees no possibility for an independent life. A near fatal accident remands her to the Frome farmhouse, now realized as a grotesque womb. Her fate suggests the consequences of regression. In Summer, orphancy is a metaphor of adolescence. Charity Royall explores houses as possibilities for selfhood. Marriage to her guardian, the return to the house of the father, is an act of self-renunciation. The seduction of regression triumphs over the lure of growth. In The Age of Innocence, Wharton's Everywoman comes of age. The orphan returns to childhood structures only to leave them again and to establish an independent house of her own. The final image of the heroine at home in the Rue de Varenne celebrates the achievement of female identity.