By D. Chambers
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Additional resources for Feminist Readings of Edith Wharton: From Silence to Speech
Her “resolution” of this divided self, finally, seems to depend on her acceptance of paradox and conflict. Any study of this fascinating woman quickly reveals the contradictions inherent in her identity as woman and writer. Wharton’s autobiography, letters, and nonfiction as well as comments from her friends, editors, and fellow intellectuals and writers reveal both her determination to succeed as an author and her painful awareness of the social isolation she would experience with family and friends in her social class if she became an author.
Julia Kristeva’s concept of the “speaking subject” provides a useful starting point for exploring the ways in which these changing cultural forces shaped Wharton as a woman and author. Kristeva’s theory asserts that “a theory of meaning . . must necessarily be a theory of the speaking subject” (27). 2 Edith Wharton’s personal history and the larger social and cultural background of her era make her a particularly rich subject for an examination of gender and authorship. She was born in 1862 into a venerable old New York family and, by her own account, raised within a “provincial society” where “authorship was still regarded as something between a black art and a form of manual labor” (Backward 69).
The struggle was always a losing one. I had to obey the furious Muse” (35). Wharton’s very language defines the act of writing as fated and sacred. Later, after Wharton learns to read, she experiences the “secret ecstasy of communion” when she enters a “secret retreat” of books “haunted” by “words and cadences . . like song-birds in a magic world” (69, 70). Her elaborate metaphor again lends a mythic quality to a time when the authorto-be first encountered the secret realm of storytelling. Yet when Wharton actually takes on the role of writer as an adult, publishing three poems and a short story and being invited to produce a collection of tales for Scribner’s, she suffers years of illness— nausea, fatigue, and depression.
Feminist Readings of Edith Wharton: From Silence to Speech by D. Chambers