Edith Wharton

Did you know Edith Wharton (1862-1937) became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921 for her sensational novel, The Age of InnocenceWharton grew up in a world surrounded by riches and luxury, allowing her to observe, almost anthropologically, the behaviors of upper-class societies. This allowed Wharton to write two novels set in that world: The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Her witty writing style and her influence on literature have cemented her as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. 

Edith Wharton Edith Wharton

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Table of contents

    Biography of Edith Wharton

    On 24 January 1862, Edith Wharton was born to an upper-class New York family in New York City. Her father descended from a prominent family in real estate and from rich Dutch landowners and merchants. Between 1866 and 1872, Wharton and her family traveled Europe as the American economy was suffering after the Civil War. During this formative time, Wharton was educated in Romance languages and German and was exposed to European art and culture.

    Edith Wharton, New York City, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Wharton grew up in New York City in an upper-class family.

    Wharton was a natural-born writer and was eager to read as much as she could. She was forbidden to read novels until her marriage, but she was still allowed to write. She wrote and published her first poem, a translation of "Was die Steine Erzahlen" by Heinrich Karl Burgsch, when she was only 15 years old. It was published under her friend's father's name as it was not societally acceptable for an upper-class woman to publish poetry. Wharton continued to write many more poems around this time, including her first poetry collection, the 1878 Verses.

    Wharton made her societal debut in 1879 and began a relationship with Henry Leyden Stevens, who her family did not approve of. After Wharton's father died of a stroke in 1882, Wharton became engaged. They ended their engagement, however. Instead, Wharton married Edward Robbins Wharton in 1885 and settled in Newport. The pair frequently traveled until Edward's mental health deteriorated. By 1908, Wharton had begun an affair with Morton Fullerton and divorced her husband in 1913.

    Edith Wharton, Books, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Wharton wrote many works of literature.

    All the while, Wharton wrote novels, nearly 85 short stories, 9 novellas, plays, and 3 books of poetry. In 1920, Wharton wrote her Pulitzer Prize (1921) winning novel, The Age of Innocence (1920), which reached critical acclaim. Before The Age of Innocence, Wharton had written a novel titled The House of Mirth (1905), which also reached critical acclaim. In 1934, Wharton wrote an autobiography called A Backward Glance (1934).

    In 1937, Wharton lived in her French country house, where she was editing her didactic book on home decor titled The Decoration of Houses (1897). On June 1st of that year, she collapsed due to a heart attack, and on August 11, she died of a stroke.

    Novels by Edith Wharton

    Wharton wrote 15 novels in her lifetime, but she is primarily known for two: The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920).

    The House of Mirth (1905)

    The House of Mirth centers around Lily Bart, who was born into an upper-class family. She is depicted as a beautiful, well-educated woman with one flaw. She is nearly 29 years old and unmarried, which in the late 19th century was seen as past the marital age. Lily has also found herself in economic trouble after her father's death left her penniless. Her inability to secure an economically beneficial marriage and her worsening reputation see her descent into poverty and despair. She lives her life as a societal outcast and eventually dies alone. The novel explores themes such as societal expectations in conflict with personal decisions as well as the absurdity of upper-class societies in New York City during the end of the 19th century.

    The Age of Innocence (1920)

    The Age of Innocence centers around upper-class families in the Gilded Age New York City and keenly observes the ridiculousness and absurdity of the set societal rules and expectations.

    Edith Wharton, fancy house, StudySmarter

    The Age of Innocence

    The novel follows Newland Archer, an aristocrat who has just become engaged to May Welland. May's cousin Ellen arrives in New York City from Europe after her scandalous separation from her Polish husband, who is a count. Ellen's reputation and image are tarnished, but Archer begins to have strong feelings toward her. Newland must decide if he will marry May and do his duty as an aristocrat or leave that world behind to be with the one he truly loves. The Age of Innocence won Wharton a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 for its candid portrayal of society.

    A Writing Analysis of Edith Wharton

    Edith Wharton wrote many poems, short stories, and novels throughout her life. Her novels are written in a particular writing style that is worth analyzing. Edith Wharton wrote in a genre of literature known as Social Realism.

    Edith Wharton, Stone statues, StudySmarter

    Social Realism is a subgenre of realism that became popular in the late 19th century that focused on depicting real sociopolitical problems and conditions in society as well as the structures of powers that lead to such sociopolitical problems.

    Wharton incorporates Social Realism into her writing by displaying the absurdities of upper-class societies, such as rules centered around what people wear, how they act in public, and suitable marriages. To emphasize the absurdity of these societal rules and expectations, Wharton often used dramatic irony, wit, and vivid imagery in her writing.

    Dramatic irony is when the full extent and meaning of a character's words or actions are known to the reader/audience but are not clear or known by the character in the text.

    All this was in the natural order of things, and the orchid basking in its artificially created atmosphere could round the delicate curves of its petals undisturbed by the ice on the panes," (The House of Mirth, Chapter 14).

    In this quote taken from Wharton's The House of Mirth, Wharton's use of dramatic irony is evident. Here, Lily is compared to an orchid which, under artificial circumstances, can thrive. However, Lily is slowly dying under artificial circumstances, which is the upper-class society she is desperately trying to be accepted into rather than thriving. Lily attempts to marry into a beneficial marriage with Gryce, but the dramatic irony is that marrying him makes her situation direr. The text also includes vivid imagery that highlights the sharpness and harshness of Lily's circumstances with imagery such as "ice on the panes."

    The Influence of Edith Wharton

    Edith Wharton was a highly influential author known for her witty and sarcastic novels that pointed out the flaws in the seemingly perfect world of the upper classes. She influenced writers such as Lewis Sinclair (1885-1951), who wrote many satirical novels such as Main Street (1920), influenced by Wharton's sarcastic tone in her texts. Outside of her literary influence, Wharton used her influence to establish jobs for unemployed seamstresses, open schools for refugee children, and provide places for refugees to live who fled Belgium during World War I.

    Quotes by Edith Wharton

    Reading the works of Edith Wharton, it is clear to see why she is so influential. Here are a few quotes by Edith Wharton.

    She had not known again till today that lightness, that glow of freedom; but now it was something more than a blind groping of the blood," (The House of Mirth, Chapter 6).

    In this quote from The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, her use of vivid imagery is on display. There is a play on the concept of lightness, revealing Wharton's ability to find the nuance of a particular word and expand its meaning. On one hand, lightness is freedom and a feeling of liberation. However, when that lightness is extended too far, it becomes a blinding force.

    What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a “decent” fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?" (The Age of Innocence, Chapter 6).

    In this quote from The Age of Innocence, Wharton points out the absurdity of upper-class societal rules and expectations. Newland Archer is reflecting on these expectations. On one hand, as a man, he must conceal any promiscuous actions he may have engaged in, in the past. However, the irony is that a woman like Ellen must not have a past to conceal. This, of course, is not true as she is a married woman who has left her husband and has repeatedly been accused of adultery.

    Archer scanned the smooth plump elderly faces between their diamond necklaces and towering ostrich feathers, they struck him as curiously immature compared with hers," (The Age of Innocence, Chapter 8).

    Here, Wharton is once more analyzing, almost anthropologically, the absurdities of upper-class societies. A woman's physical appearance was incredibly important for the wealthy during the Gilded Age. Archer recognizes Ellen's natural beauty in comparison to the aged faces of women hidden behind gaudy decorations such as diamonds and ostrich feathers. It is almost as if they are expected to hide their true age behind beautiful, expensive items.

    Edith Wharton - Key takeaways

    • Edith Wharton was born in 1862 into a wealthy New York City family.
    • Wharton is known for her many poems, novels, and short stories, particularly The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920).
    • Wharton wrote novels in the genre of Social Realism and used literary devices such as dramatic irony, wit, and vivid imagery.
    • Wharton was incredibly influential as a writer and philanthropist.
    • Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Edith Wharton

    Who is Edith Wharton? 

    Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was an American author known for her many novels, poems, and plays that are keen observations of society. 

    What books did Edith Wharton write?

    Edith Wharton wrote novels such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. 

    What is Edith Wharton best known for? 

    Edith Wharton is best known for her novel, The Age of Innocence. 

    What is Edith Wharton's writing style? 

    Edith Wharton frequently wrote in the genre of Social Realism and her writing style is characterized by use of dramatic irony, wit, and vivid imagery. 

    Is Edith Wharton a realist writer? 

    Yes, Edith Wharton was a social realist writer. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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