Sunday, November 10, 2013


I'd read a handful of Edith Wharton's short fiction (the most memorable of which "Xingu" especially prepared me for the title story of this book) before taking up The Descent of Man and Other Stories, so I was pretty sure about what to expect from this collection. Wharton is always a graceful and insightful writer, but in her shorter fiction, she's a bit wicked, in the best possible way.

Take, for example, the title story, "The Descent of Man", which concerns an eminent scientist who has decided to have a bit of a joke on the general public by publishing a perfect parody of the kind of pseudo-scientific nonsense that never goes out of fashion, always needs debunked or at least critically examined, and is often just a little bit too believable to make disproving it an easy task. His book a resounding success and the public clamoring for more, the professor faces a dilemma: let everybody down by exposing his satire, thus earning eternal enmity and likely ostracism, or give in to the public demand for more of the same. The title of the story should give some idea of how this goes. Like I said, a bit wicked, in the best possible way, is Ms. Wharton.

Wharton also explores upper-crust divorces and their exquisite discomforts in "The Other Two" as a man who is happily married to a twice-divorced woman keeps running into her prior husbands as he goes about his business, realizing he sort of has them to thank for her skill at making men happy even as he comes to like one of them and learns to tolerate the other, who is, after all, the father of her child. As this story was originally published in 1904, it also shows us that all of these entanglements are nothing new -- and they've rarely been treated so incisively and with such dispassionate amusement as Wharton, herself to later become a divorced though not remarried woman, gives them here.

Another amusing reflection on "modern" family life, "The Mission of Jane" almost reads like a long and drawn-out joke as a couple, disappointed in their marriage, adopts a child in the hopes of improving matters. Their resulting parenthood winds up being an even bigger disappointment as Jane turns out to be an insufferable know-it-all, but does eventually fulfill her purpose after a fashion. One can almost hear Wharton chuckling, genteelly, to herself as the story moves briskly along.

Other entries are almost farcically romantic, like "The Letter", which concerns a last letter penned by an Italian patriot executed by the Austrian regime, a letter which was never delivered to his grieving wife and sister. The tale is told from the point of view of an English adventurer in love with the sister, who in finding the titular letter finds an advantage he can use to discredit the rival for the sister's affections! One can hear the violins all but screeching in the background; sometimes in the foreground threatening to overpower the narrator's voice! Pass zee smelling salts and steer me towards the fainting couch! This together with the ghostly gothic silliness of "The Lady's Maid's Bell" seem more like pages from Vita Sackville-West's juvenalia than the work of the author of The House of Mirth. But hey, she wanted to stretch herself. I respect that.

Even those stories, though, aren't what one could call bad. Indeed, they might be taken as very delicate and subtle satire, which seems more Wharton's style. I'm just not sure.

What I am sure of, though, is that this collection is still a must-read for Wharton fans or those who are curious about her, if at least for its inclusion of the searingly amazing "Quicksand", in which a woman finds herself struggling to dissuade her prospective daughter-in-law from marrying, not because the girl is not good enough for the woman's son, but because the woman sees herself in the girl and also sees that her son would make it too easy for the girl to lose herself and all the qualities the woman admires, repeating the woman's own experience of marriage. It's exquisitely done, painful and challenging stuff, the story most like an Edith Wharton novel in this collection.

So, The Descent of Man and Other Stories is a bit of a mixed bag, but it shows off Wharton's versatility, talent and, perhaps most importantly, that she refused to take herself too seriously. She would have been fun to know socially, I'm pretty sure.

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