THE SHORT STORIES OF EDITH WHARTON
1). What is a modern heroine?
My conception of a modern heroine is a woman who has integrity, puts her ideas into action, can verbally and sometimes physically spar with a man, is aware of her own emotions, and has compassion for others. She is empowered and independent, not afraid to travel, experience different cultures and even alien civilizations, can pilot a plane or spacecraft, and has the intelligence to build one. She is also very loyal to her trusted friends and those family members she deems worthy of her time and energy. 2). Aside from the obvious physical differences, I think that Edith Wharton’s protagonists do have many of the characteristics of my modern heroine. Most of her female protagonists have the characteristics of integrity, adaptability, loyalty to family, and ability to forbear the vicissitudes of life. They are not empowered in the way that we perceive twenty-first century women to be, or our ‘super-heroines’ like Xena, Warrior Princess or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or even those women who go into combat overseas. They are not overtly sexually liberated either, but for the post-Victorian time period in which she wrote, each character does display, respectively, the great desire for independence, individual happiness, and sensitivity to her own emotions.
It is not surprising that Wharton wrote from a male narrator’s point of view in her early stories, yet focusing always on the female protagonist. The earliest story, “The Pelican”, written in 1898, concerns a Mrs. Amyot, who came from an ancestry of female intellectuals, and although she didn’t possess their high intelligence, still pursued a career as a lecturer, at first with some trepidation, but later with great confidence and success. The male narrator followed her through the years, observing that she experienced great success abroad and in America. She had been left a widow with a small child, and always told people that she lectured to pay her husband’s debts and care for the baby. She was physically very attractive, and this helped her reputation, but it was mostly because people had great compassion for her reason “…that she was ‘doing it for the baby’, and this fact, together with the shortness of her upper lip and the bewildering co-operation of her dimple, disposed me to listen leniently to her dissertation.” (Wharton, p. 1) Later, he noted that the reason for her success was that she actually flirted with the audience. This went on for years until times changed and she lost favor with her audiences; yet she still made money lecturing on different topics, and since her son had become a budding poet at Harvard, still claimed to do it for his sake. It isn’t until the end of the story that it is revealed that her son had been on his own for over 10 years, and that her excuse was fraudulent in his eyes; yet, she still gave the money to his children and his wife. Why is this woman a modern heroine? She had her strong ideals, she kept her integrity, she adapted to the vicissitudes of life; even though at times she felt unable to compete, and that she might fail, she persevered, for whatever reason, and also she remained extremely loyal to her family. In spite of the fact that she deceived people in the end, her reasons for doing so were noble; she gave the money to her family, when she could have spent it selfishly. She also was not afraid to travel, which was impressive for a female of her era; she went through her entire adult life as a single mother, very independent and obviously worked hard at raising her son, showering him with gifts and encouraging his poetic talent.
In “The Line of Least Resistance”, written in 1900, the narrator is again male, but the protagonist is his wife, Millicent, with whom he is unhappily wed. She is obviously the stronger character; the husband continually complains about her tardiness, her lack of appreciation, her bad temper, and her...
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