‘A Construction in the Void’, Formal Architecture in the Novels of Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton has been persistently framed as an author detached from the ‘modern’ twentieth century literary world she inhabited. Intellectually compromised by critical conceptions of her as the “last Victorian”, and Henry James’s “heiress”, Wharton’s attentiveness to modernism’s fractured worldview and her original employment of literary form to redress this perspective have been largely overlooked. This thesis seeks to re-evaluate Wharton’s ‘old-fashioned’ authorial persona. Instead of reading her commitment to a past perspective as evidence of her literary obsolescence, this thesis argues that her adherence to a bygone worldview serves as a means of managing the disorientation and disorder of the modern, incomprehensible present. Following Wharton’s evolving conception of stylised aesthetic form across pre-war and post-war worlds, I suggest that Wharton’s literature evidences a tension between two opposing literary aspirations. On the one hand, her texts reveal a desire to abandon aesthetic enclosures and realise an unbounded, authentic interior reality. Yet on the other hand, Wharton’s works underscore the poignant sense of fulfillment acquired within a life bound by such aesthetic architecture. Chapter One outlines Wharton’s critical stance in relation to both realism and modernism. It discusses the way in which the outbreak of the Great War motivated Wharton’s implementation of a critical ‘interior architecture’, in which a modernist interiority is held in play alongside an encompassing realist reality. Chapter Two assesses the stunted nature of stylised aesthetic forms in the pre-war world as evinced in The House of Mirth (1905). There, Wharton demonstrates how a lack of grounding in reality renders such aesthetics devoid of an internal anchorage that clarifies their purposeful relation to the world around them. Vacant of real-world relation, such forms abstract, disintegrating into formlessness. In Chapter Three, I reveal how Wharton moves from scorning to celebrating the artificial nature of aesthetic form in the wake of the Great War. In The Age of Innocence (1920), aesthetic forms deemed arbitrary and artificial in The House of Mirth are reevaluated and revealed as possessing an invisible, intrinsic real-world purpose. From denying realism, stylised aesthetics are redeemed in their attempt to frame individuals in relation to a formless world. Though such forms are inherently fictitious, Wharton asserts that their provision of an illusion of structure aids in the preservation of interpersonal and intergenerational connection. These forms thus cultivate an interior architecture within which society can shelter against an intrinsically unstable reality.