Art and artifact in selected fiction of Edith Wharton
Teichgraeber, Stephen Emile, 1940-
Isle, Walter W.
Master of Arts
The thesis is a study of Edith Wharton's functional use of the significant detail. There are three categories of details: the art of decoration or interior and exterior architecture; artifacts, predominantly such things as clothing, jewelry, china; and specific works of art, including music, literature, sculpture, and painting. These details function to reveal character and interrelationships between characters. They motivate and support the action of the novels by often foreshadowing certain events in the novel; thus they serve as structural devices. By using these details as a system of observation in the novel, it is possible to obtain insights into Mrs. Wharton's philosophy and ultimately arrive at more precise thematic definition. Finally, when such details appear as symbols, several functions are combined; and, as a result, the meaning of the novel is enriched. In satiric novels of manners such as The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, functional details serve as guideposts between the various strata of society and plot the ascent and descent of characters through these levels. They also function as a means to compare and contrast the aristocracies of Europe and America. In The Reef, a novel of situation, the setting for the psychological, moral drama provides a sensitive register for the varied temperaments and moral codes of the characters. When only one stratum of society is being discussed, Mrs. Wharton's selection of the significant detail provides for subtle differentiation between members of that stratum and reveals their individualities. Thus, in the historic novel of manners such as The Age of Innocence and The Old Maid, the rigid social structure of New York in the third quarter of the nineteenth century is found to contain its revolutionaries whose spirit of revolt is indicated by significant details of the three categories. This description is not merely used to establish the period. An interesting dramatic extension of a symbolic artifact in The Old Maid provides that novelette with compounded irony and unifies the main and subordinate actions. Observations of the symbolic-detail in Ethan Frome, Summer, Hudson River Bracketed, and The Gods Arrive leads to the emergence of two main themes in Edith Wharton's fiction: the deterministic forces of the past which prevent individuals from pursuing their wants, and the utility of the tradition of the art and society which is to be found in the past. All these works have in common the use of a pervading symbol. In her last novel, The Buccaneers, she has combined several functions, of the significant detail. By revealing character and foreshadowing action, these details forecast the future structure of the unfinished novel. Mrs. Wharton's use of detail throughout the corpus of her fiction is consistent, and many conclusions concerning her philosophy of life and art can be obtained through the observation of this artistic method.