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EDITH WHARTON'S IRONIC REALISM Carol J. Single/ Despite her achievements, Edith Whartons place in literary history is far from secure.1 Early critics considered her a minor writer, using labels such as "grande dame/' "disciple of Henry James/' and "novelist ofmanners"to describe her.2 They neglected her roots in the nineteenth-century tradition of female domestic fiction, compared her negativelywith male practitioners o. realism, and virtually ignored modernist aspects of her writing, which put her in the company of a dynamic, experimental, and largely male group ofwriters. Critics still have difficulty placing Wharton in a single literary tradition or movement, and they often disagree on the stature and significanceof her work. Since the 19705, however, her reputation has risen, especially in critical studies that examine her work from feminist and increasinglydiverse critical perspectives .3 The recent Wharton revival— marked by reprintingsof her lesser-known novels, editions of her letters and nonfiction, film adaptations of Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, and numerous book-length critical studies—all suggest that Wharton is now receiving her proper due. Yetshe still is not, as Linda Wagner-Martin writes, "a truly canonized writer" in the sense that Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway are; her stories and novels are taught less frequently than those by other realists such as Twain or James; and the range of Wharton scholarship remains relatively limited.4 One way we might better understand Whartons work is to view it in relation to sentimentalism, realism, and naturalism—modes of writing current in her time —and to examine this work through the lens of irony, a technique she employed frequentlyand artfully. Wharton created a distinctive body of fiction with a quality that I will call "ironic realism/' Like the sentimental writerswho preceded her, she often focuses on domestic subjects and on women in particular . Like other realists, she describes individualsin relation to society and details everyday experience—whether of the New York aristocracyor the New England poor. And like the naturalists, she infuses her fiction with Darwinian principles, demonstrating the power of biology and environment in shaping character and events. And yet she is neither a romantic nor an objective observer. Rather, EDITH WHARTON'S IRONIC REALISM : 227 Wharton is a subtle but forceful social and moral critic of the world she depicts. Irony is the means by which she both exposes her characters' foibles and deals debilitating blows to their value systems.Wharton demonstrates a full range of ironic techniques in her fiction, from the wry ("Genius is of small use to the woman who does not know how to do her hair"5 ) to the dramatic (in The House of Mirth, Lawrence Selden arriveswith avowals of love after Lily Bart is dead),6 to the brutally comic (in The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer spends a lifetime defending values he barely believes in, only to find them obsolete).7 In his study of irony, Wayne Booth describes the process by which a reader decides that a given piece of literature is ironic. Such an identification, he maintains, is a "communal achievement" requiring shared values between reader and writer;both must have "confidence that they are moving together in identical patterns/'8 Whartons readers are privileged to know intimate details of her aristocratic world, but we also stand outside this group, just as Wharton herself did. We become the "select few" —as she called the circle of intellectuals , artists, and philosophers who were her closest friends —enjoyingher texts all the more because of a shared sense of irony.Wharton, however, never allows this sense of inclusion to lapse into complacency. Her irony extends beyond social convention to larger issues of moral and universal significance. She wrestles with timeless questions of right and wrong as well as questions of religious and spiritual meaning that occupied writersofher period. Whartons commitment to scientificmethod and logical positivismfollowedfrom her extensive reading in science, philosophy, and intellectual history. She upheld the need for absolute values, but unlike the previous generations of writers who had not yet assimilated the effects of Darwinian science, she was skeptical of Christian pieties and doctrines of salvation. This moral idealism stems as much from classical sources as from Christian ones, as much from her readings in Greek philosophy and religion as from the Scriptures. Whartons characters often suffer the bitter disappointment of shattered dreams —losses resulting not so much from Gods disfavor as from seemingly random acts of fate or chance. Indeed, many of her stories unfold with a...


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