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CONVENTION IN THE FICTION OF EDITH WHARTON Mary Suzanne Schriber* Edith Wharton's "hieroglyphic world" of Old New York society with its "elaborate system of mystification" stands implicitly on a pervasive, powerful cultural construct: the nineteenth-century concept of "woman." The idea of woman, the complement ofthe male, as innocent, dependent, intuitive, spiritual, and nurturing by the design of God, justified and enforced the social conventions and norms governing women's lives.1 Given a woman's nature, marriage was the arena in which her God-given traits could best be expressed. Manners, such as allowing men to open carriage doors and conduct the extra-domestic business oflife, were taken to be the signs of conformity to that nature. Social conventions were the public manifestations of a woman's private but shared essence, the visible translations of the culture's assumptions about a woman's nature and her consequent role and manner in the Divine economy. Wharton's fictional treatment of convention, with its implicit connection to the culture's idea of woman, captures three particular aspects of its workings with which Wharton has not been credited. First, Wharton 's fiction demonstrates the consequences for individual women and for society of the limitation ofwomen's activities to a single fully approved arena, marriage. The investment by heroines of an enormous portion of themselves in marriage or its pursuit grants to that institution an inordinate power either to make or break their lives. Second, convention in Wharton's fiction tends to lessen human attentiveness, insidiously shrinking , replacing, or even obliterating direct perceptions of the world. Intercepting vision and encouraging the perceiver to attach indiscriminately to behavior the significance ordinarily assigned to it,2 tradition subjects Wharton's female characters to two injustices: their behavior is often misconstrued, or it is rendered invisible and therefore unappreciated if it in any way outstrips ordinary expectations of woman. Finally, the expectations that govern women's lives and articulate society's notion of a woman's nature are subject to manipulation by both sexes for either life-denying or life-enhancing purposes. When convention is used to close rather than to open life's possibilities in Wharton's fiction, heroines are usually its prey. *Mary Suzanne Schriber is an Associate Professor of English at Northern Illinois University. This essay won honorable mention in the 1980 Florence Howe Feminist Criticism Essay Competition. 190Mary Suzanne Schriber Beginning to record the profound and far-reaching reverberations of the culture's predilection to assign marriage to woman as the single approved source of her identity and the sole outlet for her energies, Wharton establishes the tie between marriage and identity in an early short story. She then creates heroines variously situated who respond in one of three ways to the culture's expectation that they will marry and be fulfilled. Some heroines refuse the culture's directive, others seize it with a vengeance, and still others fulfill it literally to a fault. Whatever their response to the institution of marriage, heroines inevitably must come to terms with their culture's bias in its favor. The relationship between marriage and identity for a woman appears in Wharton's second published work of fiction, "The Fullness of Life" (1893). The heroine of this allegorical tale chooses to spend eternity with an irritating husband rather than a "soul mate" for reasons that express her conformity to the culture's idea of a woman: she must "look after him, he is so helpless '; as a wife, she is charged with her husband's happiness.3 Further, the heroine, drawing attention to the difficulties of caring for her husband, fulfills the characteristic pattern of nineteenthcentury women who, isolated from the hurly-burly ofthe masculine world and looking to create some sense of their own value and indispensability, "sought domestic importance as compensation for societal neglect" and increased their sense of worth by emphasizing the difficulties of their duties.4 The self and the self-esteem of the heroine of "The Fullness of Life" require a traditional marriage. The pervasiveness and power of cultural assumptions about woman and marriage and identity are perhaps most tellingly revealed in the lives of Wharton heroines who are not...


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pp. 189-201
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