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Edith Wharton was born Edith
Jones into an upper-class New York City family in 1862.
As was 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 finally
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ethan Frome!