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The Henry James Review 21.1 (2000) 56-62

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Ages of Innocence: Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne

Robert K. Martin

Papers from the James-Conrad-Ford Conference

There has long been resistance to an examination of the literary relation between Henry James and Edith Wharton. Those feminists who helped to revive interest in Wharton were wary of offering the possibility for reasserting a unidirectional influence from the strong James to the weak Wharton. As Millicent Bell argues, the critical assumption of Wharton as "a faithful follower" of the Master prevented study of "the actual degree and nature of the artistic relationship" (216). Instead of this fixed pattern of indebtedness, Bell sees in Wharton a process in which "an early desire to emulate yields to an irritated sense of the need to assert her distinctiveness" (217). To pursue Bell's argument, one needs both a more complex feminism that can allow Wharton to engage with James as an equal as well as a revised view of influence, in which a subtle concept of response and rewriting can replace the kind of one-way street of powerful writers and weak readers proposed by Harold Bloom.

This essay looks at such questions through an analysis of one particular relationship: Wharton's response in The Age of Innocence (1920) to James's The Europeans (1878). There are striking similarities between the two works, the most evident of which involve the plot and can be mentioned briefly--the return to America of a titled European, daughter of a disgraced member of a wealthy American family and now the discarded wife of a nobleman. Wharton's use of this return allows her, like James, to study the differences between European and American life and morality. Wharton's tragic figure of Ellen (Countess Olenska) replaces the more satiric figure of Eugenia (Baroness Münster). Each of them returns home, having failed to marry a wealthy American. Most notable among the alterations of plot, James's "happy ending," emphasized by the Baroness's brother, pointedly named Felix, is rejected by Wharton and replaced by a tragic [End Page 56] inability to recover the past. The closing of the shutters at the end of The Age of Innocence brings the play to an end, leaving the American protagonist, Newland Archer (two Jamesian names) "alone." James's comic ending, on the other hand, is marked by a series of four weddings that signal a return to order after the departure of the disruptive Baroness. Wharton's elimination of the Felix role permits her to focus on the women characters. Her portrait of May, for instance, deliberately transforms the concept of the innocent young woman into a figure of cunning who knows how to get her way.

In their novels, both Wharton and James undertake a re-examination of their earlier years and link that personal "innocence" to a similar national innocence. A study of Wharton's reading and rewriting of James's texts helps us to understand the role both authors played in the development of an American social fiction. For both James and Wharton an essential part of the acquisition of knowledge was a recognition of the omnipresence of evil. The Age of Innocence, more than The Europeans, employs the small gesture as an assertion of power--most striking in May's triumphal dinner. The horror it produces resides in the unspoken, or perhaps in Amerigo's (America's) chilling response in The Golden Bowl. To Maggie's "it's always terrible for women," the Prince replies, correcting her with brilliant tmesis, "Everything's terrible, cara--in the heart of men" (534).

My approach to the literary relation between Wharton and James is similar to that of Cushing Strout. Although Strout is interested in the connections between The Portrait of a Lady and The Age of Innocence, he sets up his argument to counter what he terms "an unintended premise that Jamesian comparisons are bound to be invidious" (406). It is surely time to examine Wharton's readings and rewriting of James without anxiety...


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