An interesting study of Edith Wharton and her works published before WWI reveals Wharton’s difficult transition from the older literary traditions prevalent in New York, where she lived when she was young, to the changing novelistic style in France, where she settled in 1907. Modernism was taking over and Wharton was only partly moving with it. The new kind of writing reflected sympathy and commitment to the theories of naturalism, symbolism, and impressionism. Wharton did not change even though works like Ethan Frome and The Reef (1911 and 1912 respectively) reflect an interest in such a change; she remained loyal to the pre-modernist style that shaped her as a young woman. Wharton developed a complex attitude toward Modernism - an attitude informed by a developed aesthetic recognition that all art, including literature, has evolved and must evolve if it is to be vital and serious.
Modernism sought to accurately portray the world not as it is but as humans actually experience it. Modernist literature, then, relied especially heavily on advances in narrative technique, for narration (a voice speaking) is the essential building block of all literature. Interestingly, the narrative techniques in modernist poetry and modernist fiction illustrate the same ideas about experience, but they do so in very different ways.
Modernist fiction tends to rely on the streamof- consciousness or “interior monologue” techniques. This kind of narration purports to record the thoughts as they pass through a narrator’s head. The unpredictable connections that people make between ideas demonstrates something about them, as do the things they try to avoid thinking about. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom attempts not to dwell on his knowledge that his wife will cheat on him as he wanders the city, so thoughts of his wife, of Blazes Boylan (her lover), or of sex make him veer quickly in another mental direction. Also, a number of small ideas and images recur throughout the book: an advertisement for Plumtree’s Potted Meat, for instance, and the Greek word metempsychosis. These ideas crop up without any apparent pattern and get stuck in Bloom’s head, just as a song or a phrase might resonate through people’s minds for hours and then just disappear. This narrative technique attempts to record how scattered and jumbled the experience of the world really is, and at the same time how deeper patterns in thoughts can be discerned by those (such as readers) with some distance from them. That humans are alienated from true knowledge of themselves is the implicit contention of the stream-of-consciousness form of narration.
While sharing the novelists' preoccupation with themes of alienation and ambivalence, Modernist poetry is chiefly known for its dependence on concrete imagery and its rejection of traditional prosody. Considered a transitional figure in the development of modern poetry, W. B. Yeats rejected the rhetorical poetry that had gained prominence at the height of the Victorian era, favoring a personal aesthetic, natural rhythms, and spare style. American expatriate Ezra Pound, who with Richard Aldington and Hilda Dolittle founded the Imagist movement in poetry in 1910, favored concise language and free rhythms, and became a champion of avant-garde experimentalists of the era. The thematic preoccupations and technical innovations of Modernist poetry are seen to culminate in The Waste Land, Eliot's complex, erudite expression of modern malaise and disillusionment.
The decade of the 1910s in which Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome was characterized by economic prosperity in the United States and increasing political influence in the world, especially as it endured and triumphed in the First World War. It was a time in which the country's freedom became a principal feature of America's identity, but also a time in which these values were questioned by the unfinished business of women's suffrage. Competing values of...
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