Edith Wharton was born Edith Jones into an upper-class New York City family in 1862. Typical for members of her class at that time, Edith had a distant relationship with her parents. She received a marriage proposal at a young age, but the wedding was ultimately thwarted by her prospective in-laws’ perception of the well-established Jones family’s unsurpassed snobbery. In 1885, at the age of twenty-three, Edith married Edward Wharton, an older man whom the Jones family found to be of suitably lofty social rank. At an early stage the marriage turned somewhat sour, but Wharton remained with her husband for well over twenty years. She divorced him in 1913, although she never renounced his family name.
The temptations of illicit passion constitute an undeniable focus of Wharton’s fiction, and many have pointed to Wharton’s unhappy marriage as an explanation. Indeed, Wharton’s very success as a writer, so unusual for a woman of her era, may be credited to the fact that her unhappy marriage forced her to devote her energies elsewhere. In fact, Wharton was advised by her doctor to take up the writing of fiction more seriously in order to relieve tension and stress. Eventually, Wharton turned to more tangible sources of relief as well, finding temporary solace in her surreptitious affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton, which coincided with the disintegration of her marriage. It was in the wake of this affair and her ensuing divorce that Wharton wrote many of her most successful and enduring works.
Criticized as an immoral radical in her early years and as a moralizing conservative in her later years, Wharton has been difficult to pin down in her shadowy, shifting beliefs. She was undoubtedly concerned with the moral universe, but, in her fiction, conforming to social norms is constantly at odds with a rejection of conformity. She can perhaps best be described as a critic of moral recklessness, whether this recklessness causes one to lean toward conformity or toward rejection of conformity. Wharton wanted individuals to consider each moral decision on its own terms.
After producing a great quantity of little-read short stories and novels, Wharton enjoyed her first true critical and popular success with the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905. In the early 1910s, she settled in Paris, where she remained for the rest of her days. One of her close associates there was the novelist Henry James, a fellow American expatriate of similarly intense and indecipherable moral sensibility.
Ethan Frome, a curious and slender volume first published in 1911, is one of the few pieces of Wharton’s fiction that does not take place in an urban, upper-class setting. The novel is all the more remarkable for its austere and penetrating impressions of rural working-class New England, especially given that its author was a woman of leisure, living in the comfort of her Paris salon. Wharton based the narrative of Ethan Frome on an accident that had occurred in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she had traveled extensively and had come into contact with one of the victims of the accident. Wharton found the notion of the tragic sledding crash to be irresistible as a potential extended metaphor for the wrongdoings of a secret love affair.
In 1921, Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for her highly esteemed novel The Age of Innocence. She continued to write novels throughout the 1920s, and, in 1934, she wrote her autobiography, A Backward Glance. In 1937, after nearly half a century of devotion to the art of fiction, Edith Wharton died in her villa near Paris at the age of seventy-five.