Among the many accomplishments of Lev Raphael's fine book is the reminder that Edith Wharton's increasing pre-eminence in the literary canon has not brought a great deal of critical attention to much for her work. His intention is to read these neglected texts from a new perspective and in the process at least partially rehabilitate a large body of fiction that other critics have found seriously flawed or inconsequential. He succeeds admirably in this ambitious undertaking.
Although there is some theoretical apparatus, "affect theory," it is neither obtrusive nor especially useful: the value of Raphael's approach lies in his own sensitive reading. He demonstrates repeatedly that Wharton's fictions are organized around key episodes of humiliation for the protagonists; that the vocabulary of shame is pervasive and telling throughout her work. Rather than the private emotion of guilt, Wharton's characters suffer from public abasement, both in actual scenes where they are made to feel inferior and in their own keen sense of how others regard them. The emphasis on shame seems appropriate to the social world of these texts where the opinion of others is omnipresent and determinative.
Raphael traces this emphasis to Wharton's own early life, where a sense of deficiency and lack of love or encouragement produced a lifelong susceptibility to feelings of shame. When Wharton's engagement was broken, creating a public scandal, these feelings were further reinforced. Adulthood brought little personal satisfaction: an inappropriate marriage and two men, Walter Berry and Morton Fullerton, whose lack of genuine appreciation recreated the role of Wharton's cold and critical mother. Raphael moves comfortably between Wharton's life and fiction, establishing parallel emotional experiences in both without pursuing a reductive causality. Perhaps not surprisingly, he finds that shame inevitably accompanies intimate relationships in the fiction, and "a complete healing of shame" is generally impossible.
Edith Wharton's Prisoners of Shame convincingly recuperates so many Wharton texts with such engaged attention and verve that it is difficult to single out particular readings. The initial consideration of The Touchstone as the ideal paradigmatic work is effective, but other works might have been placed here just as easily. Because most of Wharton's fictions fall under the rubric of shame, there is no obvious way to organize such a large-scale study; Raphael's chapter divisions are not always convincing. Moreover, covering so many texts with a common denominator occasionally produces a mechanical effect when the author rushes too quickly from one work to another. At the same time, this single-mindedness illuminates Wharton's neglected and celebrated texts alike. By revealing the centrality of shame in her oeuvre, Raphael exhibits its coherence and persuasively [End Page 467] establishes the value of some hitherto neglected texts. In doing so he clearly and gracefully situates his own position in relation to earlier Wharton critics.