I’ve read this collection through summer and am awfully late at reviewing this. But I don’t feel so guilty because I remember most of them rather well. That should go to Wharton’s credit, because I can’t say as much of many books, especially for short stories.
This collection is quite hard to review (after bragging, let me find a good excuse for my delay), because it’s a hotchpotch of about 20 stories from several collections of hers: The Greater Inclination (1899), Crucial Instances (1901), The Descent of Man (1904), the Hermit and the Wild Woman (1908), Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910) and Xingu (1916).
It’s just the right collection to pick if you want to have a wide overview of what Wharton can write, before dipping into her better-known novels. Most stories here are of two kinds: social commentary or ghost stories. I’d read all the ghost stories before, but it was a real pleasure to re-read favorites like Afterward or The Lady’s Maid’s Bell (see a fascinating analysis found by Danielle about her recent re-read).
Social stories fall in two categories: comedies and tragedies. The typically “whartonian” ones to me (I’m not sure if such a word exists, or if anybody agrees with my definition) are those where the main character (a woman in most cases) is in a social vs. emotional dilemma, falls victim of social conventions, or is shunned by “proper society” under wrong assumptions of her status or morality. I’m always mistaking the period where these stories are set because I tend to find them repressively Victorian, whereas Wharton actually depicts the social mores of the late 19th or early 20th century.
“Autres Temps…” is a heart-wrenching story about the hypocrisy against divorced women. A mother returns to New York from a long, socially imposed exile in Europe due to her divorce. Her daughter herself has divorced and immediately remarried, without any apparent social slight. Yet it is tragic to witness how the best society still shuns the mother while the daughter’s apparent flippancy is accepted and seen as a modern evolution.
“Souls Belated” also speak about divorce and marriage, in an original perspective, when a divorced woman is reluctant to marry her lover with whom she lives:
Don’t you see what a cheap compromise it is? We neither of us believe in the abstract ‘sacredness’ of marriage; we both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each other; what object can we have in marrying, except for the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back gradually—oh, very gradually—into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated? And the very fact that, after a decent interval, these same people would come and dine with us—the women who talk about the indissolubility of marriage, and who would let me die in a gutter today because I am ‘leading a life of sin’—doesn’t that disgust you more than their turning their backs on us now?
She would like to exempt herself from social pressure favouring matrimony, but in the end she cares more abour her social image than she admits. So here again, a woman’s attempt to be free and withstand convention is thwarted.
The flip side of these themes are comedies of mores or social satires, like The Mission of Jane, Expiation, Xingu, etc. Divorce is not only a matter of tragedy but also of comedy, like in “The Other Two”, where the third husband has to deal with her wife’s previous husbands. Wit and qui-pro-quo are all quite funny. I was really surprised how well they still worked now.
“Xingu” is the funniest in my memory, where a bunch of snob ladies meet at a very distinguished Lunch Club. When the least fashionable of them refuses to read the book whose author has been invited and breaks havoc by speaking of Xingu instead (or is it the Xingu?), hilarious conversation ensues. This would be a perfect read for a book club that doesn’t take itself too seriously!
Interestingly enough, quite a few stories talk about authors, especially about writers’ want for recognition. That reminded me of Wharton’s own ambition as a writer, that Stefanie recently pointed out. I’d attempted a few years ago to read Wharton’s memoir: A Backward Glance, and stopped 20 pages into the book. Perhaps I should try again!