Prisoners of consciousness: Theme and technique in the tales of Edith Wharton

Evelyn Esposito Fracasso, Fordham University


The metaphor of life as prison obsessed Edith Wharton, and, consequently, the theme of imprisonment appears in most of her eighty-six short stories. In the last several decades, critical studies of Wharton's fiction have focused on this theme of imprisonment, of the "trapped sensibility," but invariably it is related to biographical considerations. This study, however, is not concerned with such insights and influences; rather it concentrates on Wharton's skill as a craftsman, in consciously and carefully fitting her narrative techniques to the imprisonment theme. A number of representative tales from Wharton's early period (1891-1904), her major phase (1905-1919), and her later years (1926-1937) have been examined and divided into four categories: individuals trapped by love and marriage, men and women imprisoned by the dictates of society, humanity victimized by the demands of art and morality, and persons paralyzed by fear of the supernatural. Through close textual analysis, tales from Wharton's early period in each category have been compared to those from her later period that contain similar story lines and themes to point out her technical development. In The Writing of Fiction and A Backward Glance, Wharton discusses the techniques that provide the basis for this study. Technique, she points out, should be "the short-story writer's first concern, once he has mastered his subject" (WF 51). Consequently, in her early tales, Wharton experimented with tantalizing beginnings, surprise endings, irony and satire (at which she became a master), dialogue, symbolic settings, first-person and omniscient narrators to convey her imprisonment theme. In her later tales, Wharton continued to employ these same techniques, albeit more prominently than before. She also introduced more explicit images of imprisonment and techniques--particularly the interior monologue and the flashback-- to reveal the inner consciousness of her protagonists and provide thematic definition. This analysis shows, therefore, that Wharton integrated her narrative techniques with the theme of imprisonment and that she developed and refined her technical artistry during her forty-six years of writing short fiction.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Fracasso, Evelyn Esposito, "Prisoners of consciousness: Theme and technique in the tales of Edith Wharton" (1988). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8818460.