Sunday, May 5, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 12: Edith Wharton, A Journey (#45)

Edith Wharton, A Journey (1899) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910:
I haven't read enough Wharton, but everything I've read of hers--or about her--I've liked. I feel like she often gets lumped in with her contemporary Henry James as beautiful prose-writers who are deeply interested in psychology, sometimes to the exclusion of event. (As a friend once memorably put the experience of reading a James book: "What's going to happen, what's going to happen? Oh my god, it happened! Wait, what happened?")

But I think we could also put Wharton with Poe as a writer of terrifying tales. (Just wait till we get to "Kerfol" if you don't believe me.) For instance, this story has a few pages about a young wife's mixed feelings over her invalid husband that are devastatingly concise about that mix of feelings:

Doubtless the fault was hers. She was too impenetrably healthy to be touched by the irrelevancies of disease. Her self-reproachful tenderness was tinged with the sense of his irrationality: she had a vague feeling that there was a purpose in his helpless tyrannies.

"Doubtless" is like "of course" later--a bit of indirect discourse from the wife's POV saying one thing and meaning quite the other. Sure, she's screwing up... except her husband isn't just sick, but maliciously sick towards her with those "helpless tyrannies." Like a Poe narrator, this wife will tell you how much she loves her husband and also that he's a terrible person. Here's my favorite sentence that undoes itself as it goes on:

She still loved him, of course; but he was gradually, undefinably ceasing to be himself.

So this story could just be a psychological without a plot and it would be fascinating because we see the psychology move. But then after a few pages of set-up, we get the plot: he dies on the train and she doesn't want to tell anyone because she's afraid they'll get thrown off the train before they arrive home at New York from their unsuccessful rest cure in Colorado. Then we get the second element of Poe-ishness, when visions of her dead husband haunt her. There's a Gothicism to her domestic situation; it's like early Hitchcock, bringing murder into the home--where it belongs.

Rather than Hitchcock, this reminds me of many of the old time radio thrillers from the 30s-50s: someone does someone else wrong and keeps seeing the face until, at the end, they faint or die, usually in a way that confesses or unveils their crime. Which is exactly what happens here, when she hides her husband's death; is haunted by his face; and faints, hitting her head on his train berth.

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