MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 947-976
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Edith Wharton and the Fiction of Marital Unity
Laura K. Johnson
Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) and her later novel The Glimpses of the Moon (1922) bear a striking resemblance to each other, and the relationship between the two novels sheds light on Wharton's oeuvre as a whole. 1 The House of Mirth and The Glimpses of the Moon measure Wharton's evolving imaginative attempt to salvage American marriage. When juxtaposed, the two novels call out to be explored with respect to the legal moment to which they so clearly speak. Employing similar scenarios, the novels evaluate competing claims within the legal definition of marriage--claims that were increasingly set at odds during Wharton's time. Placing the novels within their legal context not only clarifies the central problem each novel addresses but also illuminates the limitations of Wharton's novels, as well as their continued cultural relevance. Wharton's vision ultimately did not move beyond the legal framework that structured her analysis of marriage, and her preoccupation with the law's terms created an unresolved tension in her fiction. This tension is itself revealing, for it prefigures a broader social inability to resolve the contradictions inherent in marriage law since its inception. Situating The House of Mirth and The Glimpses of the Moon within the legal moment that shaped them also brings us closer to grasping the paradox that seems to govern Wharton's marriage novels. For while Wharton's novels consistently critique marriage, they simultaneously insist [End Page 947] upon its importance in social life. Once we understand the juridical tradition within which Wharton deliberately places her novels, we can better appreciate the social value she ascribes to marriage and her desire to rehabilitate the institution in America.
Almost all of Wharton's novels revolve around some problem of marriage law, but The House of Mirth and The Glimpses of the Moon share a particular concern with the legal definition of marriage. These two novels take up a critical turning point in American marriage law, when the principle of marital unity becomes overwhelmed by the principle of marital contract. The House of Mirth locates the failure of American marriage in its increasingly contractual nature and presents contract as a faulty model for domestic relations. Yet, Wharton's 1905 novel offers no sustained imaginative alternative to marital contract, and it gives short shrift to the notion of unity. Wharton reprises Lily Bart's dilemma in The Glimpses of the Moon. This time her heroine, Susy Lansing, retreats from contract into the romantic "solution" of marital unity. However, despite Wharton's best intentions, marital unity fails Susy, and Wharton's novel ends by re-articulating the conditions it seeks to escape. Ironically, the strained conclusion of The Glimpses of the Moon suggests why Americans chose to pursue contractual marriage, despite its pitfalls. In addition, the limitations of marital unity, as they are unwittingly revealed in Wharton's 1922 novel, explain why it is Lily Bart's desperate quest, rather than Susy Lansing's hollow victory, that has retained such a hold on our collective imagination.
Wharton's attentiveness to the legal component of marriage may have been stimulated by the difficulties that plagued her own marriage. By the time Wharton published The House of Mirth, she had endured an often unhappy marriage for twenty years, and by the time she published The Glimpses of the Moon, she had successfully sued her husband for divorce. Scholars have attributed the Whartons' troubles to a variety of sources, including Teddy's mental instability, the financial inequity between the spouses, their divergent interests, and their sexual incompatibility. 2 Whatever the causes, it is clear that the marriage suffered strain. In a 1908 diary entry Wharton wrote of her marriage, "I heard the key turn in my prison-lock [. . .].Oh, Gods of derisions! And you've given me over twenty years of it. Je n'en peux plus ["I can't take any more of it"]" (qtd. in Wolff 51). Wharton's...