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Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism$

Meredith Goldsmith and Emily J. Orlando

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813062815

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813062815.001.0001

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The Glimpses of the Moon and the Transatlantic Debate over Marital Reform

The Glimpses of the Moon and the Transatlantic Debate over Marital Reform

Chapter:
(p.19) 1 The Glimpses of the Moon and the Transatlantic Debate over Marital Reform
Source:
Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism
Author(s):
Clare Virginia Eby
Publisher:
University Press of Florida
DOI:10.5744/florida/9780813062815.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter contextualizes Wharton’s distinctive relation to modernity as instantiating a new model of marriage promulgated by Progressive era reformers. While the protagonists of Glimpses of the Moon enter marriage for crass reasons, they ultimately affirm their union as based on affection, not economics, and as a private and voluntary rather than social or legal agreement, the authenticity of which is confirmed by the availability of divorce. Wharton’s much-criticized conclusion, in which the couple celebrates motherhood and assume essentialized gender roles, is itself consistent with the Progressive reformers’ vision of modern marriage.

Keywords:   Marriage, reformers, Progressive era, divorce, gender, essentialism, modernity, motherhood

“Oh, if only I were free—free—free!” Edith Wharton wrote to her lover in 1911. “Isn’t it awful to have a chain snaffled around one’s neck for all time?” (Lee 389). Wharton was nearing fifty and having an affair with Morton Fullerton, a charming, younger, and bisexual journalist. Fullerton proved something of a cad; right before launching the affair with Wharton, he became engaged to his first cousin, who was also his stepsister. But he also provided Wharton with a spiritual, intellectual, and sexual intimacy all the more welcome because of the “chain” she refers to in her letter: her husband, Teddy, to whom Wharton had been yoked for over two decades when she met Fullerton.1

Money and sex, as we so often hear, pose the two biggest problems in many marriages, and the Whartons were no exception. To the manner born, Teddy lived on an allowance from his wealthy family—until he began living on his wife’s inheritance and royalties. In 1909 he made the astounding confession that he had speculated with $50,000 of Wharton’s money (over $1,000,000 in today’s dollars), losing much of it and using the rest to set up a mistress in a Boston apartment. In addition, from the start, according to biographer R.W.B. Lewis, the Whartons’ sex life had been “a disaster” (50). (p.20) Teddy suffered, moreover, from severe mental problems—an “affection of the brain,” according to his doctor, though today he would probably be diagnosed as bipolar (Lee 370). As Wharton’s friend (and coauthor of her first book, The Decoration of Houses) Ogden Codman characterized her marital nightmare, she was “tied to a crazy person, who is only just sane enough not to be locked up, but too crazy to be out” (Lee 386). To another close friend, Henry James, the marriage seemed “utterly inconceivable” (Benstock 55). No wonder that, in the words of biographer Hermione Lee, “marital bondage” would become one of Wharton’s key literary themes (363).2

While Wharton’s fiction does indeed provide a horror gallery of marriages, she believed in the institution and was interested in what could make marriage work. The Glimpses of the Moon (1922) provides an important answer, one that also sheds light on its author’s complex reaction to modernity. Better-known novels such as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Custom of the Country (1913) critique traditional marriages predicated on the economic dependence of women, and in this volume Sharon Kim examines the two-way objectification that characterizes Ralph Marvell and Undine’s marriage in the latter novel. Marvell is nothing if not a traditionalist, but Glimpses examines a self-consciously modern marriage. As one of its characters puts it, explicitly linking marriage and modernity, “Everything’s changed nowadays; why shouldn’t marriage … too?”3

A best-seller in its day made into a popular film with dialogue written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Glimpses has not done well with critics. For one thing, commentators have found it odd that so deliberately modern a book fails to register the impact of World War I—and indeed that the era should be so vaguely delineated, especially given Wharton’s generally precise historical sense. In addition, critics have described Glimpses as a feeble reworking of the themes and characters of The House of Mirth. Third and most important to my interests, many cringe at the conclusion of Glimpses, which celebrates an essentialized and even reactionary notion of motherhood. Cynthia Griffin Wolff criticizes the “pat, sentimental denouement” that brings the estranged couple back together, while Melanie V. Dawson even more sharply condemns the “retrograde social roles” and “incongruous” ending of Glimpses, which she finds makes for a “markedly unsatisfying” conclusion (347, 96).4

In this essay I offer a heretofore unremarked historical context for Wharton’s portrayal of Nick and Susy Lansing’s marriage—one that clarifies (p.21) what is indeed modern about it while also providing a new way of thinking about the novel’s conclusion. Hildegard Hoeller, one of the few critics to see Glimpses comparing favorably with Wharton’s earlier work, describes the ending as “cynical” and “ironic” and contends the Lansings remain “in search of values that have no reference point, within or beyond the novel.” As persuasive as I find Hoeller’s general argument that an ongoing “dialogue” between realism and sentimentalism structures Wharton’s corpus, I see no irony modifying the sentimental ending of Glimpses (126, 135). Moreover, as this essay will demonstrate, there are very definite historical and cultural reference points for the values that Nick and Susy embrace by novel’s end. And since Wharton’s own marriage and divorce are such important markers in her biography, I hope this new historical context will chart a path for fresh readings of marriage throughout Wharton’s novels.

Glimpses was published in 1922, five years before the appearance of Companionate Marriage by Judge Ben Lindsey. That best-seller urges that marriage should be an emotional rather than economic relationship, egalitarian rather than patriarchal, and that this reorientation necessitates couples having free access to birth control and divorce. Family historians define the companionate marriage movement as a watershed that they attribute to Lindsey’s text in particular and the 1920s shift in sexual mores more generally. In the words of one recent historian, the marital ideal shifted “from a patriarchal, procreative institution into a relationship premised on equal sexual desires and mutual emotional fulfillment” (Davis 1137).5 Dale M. Bauer and other literary critics have linked Glimpses and other Wharton novels, particularly The Gods Arrive (1932), to the 1920s companionate marriage movement.

However, as I argue in Until Choice Do Us Part: Marriage Reform in the Progressive Era, such ideas were popularized more than a decade earlier. Writers like sexologist Havelock Ellis, along with his wife, Edith, mystic socialist Edward Carpenter, sociologist and anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons, and feminists Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Olive Schreiner, and Ellen Key mounted a hugely influential attack on marital norms. In doing so, they also put forward an alternative that I call progressive marital reform—but let me stress that I use the word progressive as a historical descriptor, not as an evaluation or an endorsement. The marital reformers offer a consistently cosmopolitan perspective such as this volume defines as central to Wharton. As Meredith L. Goldsmith and Emily J. Orlando outline in (p.22) the introduction, there are two models of cosmopolitanism operative in Wharton’s corpus: a “liberal” version that tolerates difference and a more thoroughgoing “immersive” cosmopolitanism that fosters the remaking of identity on both national and individual levels. The progressive marriage reformers manifest a variant of immersive cosmopolitanism predicated on their belief that remaking identity on the level of the marital couple was the key to individual happiness as well as social progress. Havelock Ellis captures the logic of this idea when he describes marriage as “the figure in miniature” of social life (Eonism 523). The marriage reformers originated from various countries—the Ellises and Carpenter were British, Parsons and Gilman were American, Schreiner was from South Africa, and Key was from Sweden—and like Wharton, they all traveled internationally. More important, the reformers read (and often cited and otherwise endorsed) each other’s works, and so despite differences of opinion, they collectively established an intertextual and cosmopolitan rationale for marital reform. Most important, all had substantial readerships in Europe and also in the United States, and so readers learned the new ideas about marriage were not confined to national borders.

Progressive marital reform boils down to a few basic premises. First, the reformers believed the economic arrangement of wage-earning husband and dependent wife deforms marriage. (That idea resonates, of course, for even the most casual reader of Wharton.) Second—and a notion that will prove especially important to my analysis of Glimpses—they maintained that true marriage is not created by external authorities such as law or religion or by social sanction. To the contrary, only individual partners could determine the authenticity of a union redefined as fundamentally private and sanctioned by emotion. Third, reformers sought to replace what they saw as compulsory monogamy with voluntary monogamy. Fourth, they championed what would ultimately be achieved only with “no fault” divorce (which swept the states, beginning with California in the 1970s), believing that spouses should be able to separate for their own reasons rather than needing to fulfill a state’s statutory ground. That these views now seem commonsensical is an indicator of how influential the progressive reformers’ ideas have proven to be. A fifth premise, however, has not worn as well with time. As much as the reformers championed unions of what Gilman termed “class equals,” they backed off from their egalitarianism as well as their endorsement of privacy and voluntarism when children entered the (p.23) picture (220). At that point, the reformers believed, social considerations trumped individual concerns.

As I will show, the logic of the Lansing marriage, particularly its trajectory, tracks very closely with the progressive reformers’ ideals. I offer this argument with the proviso that Wharton herself casts a very critical eye on some of the same concepts in other works, including “The Reckoning” (1902). In that early story, a couple marries with the express agreement to structure their relationship based on “the New Ethics,” which the narrator characterizes as meaning that spouses need to “keep faith [only] with themselves, and not … live together for a moment after complete accord had ceased to exist.” Predicated on the idea that either spouse can divorce the other at will, such a voluntary marriage need never turn into an “imprisonment.” While that word anticipates the “chain” that Wharton would use to describe, nine years later, her own marriage, in “The Reckoning” she satirizes marriage predicated on open-door ideals. The story pivots on the husband’s falling in love with another woman and expecting his wife to release him immediately, in deference to “the ideas on which our marriage was founded.” The problem is that the wife loves her husband profoundly, but because of their premarital pact, she lacks any moral ground from which to attempt to keep him. She finds herself therefore “victim of the theories she renounced.” To my knowledge, Wharton rarely refers to any of the progressive marital reformers by name, but “The Reckoning” makes clear that she understood their theories.6

Glimpses begins with the Lansings’ honeymoon, and Wharton immediately establishes that they married under similarly negotiated terms. They pledge that either shall be free to terminate the arrangement. In an interesting reversal of customary gender roles, Susy proposes to Nick, which the narrator renders in indirect discourse: “Why shouldn’t they marry; belong to each other openly and honourably, … and with the definite understanding that whenever either … got the chance to do better he or she should be immediately released?” (18–19). This arrangement theoretically precludes any need for “hypocrisy” or “alibis” because, as Susy explains to a friend, they have “agree[d] that each will give the other a hand up when either of us wants a change. We’ve not married to spy and lie, and nag each other” (41–42). Moreover, the couple agrees in advance on a frankly mercenary union—only instead of marriage as a “career” or “vocation” for the wife, as Undine Spragg embraces in The Custom of the Country (8) and Lily Bart (p.24) rejects in The House of Mirth, the Lansings both plan to live off of wedding gifts and the largesse of wealthy friends delighted to host the stylish newlyweds. In other words, the Lansings “frankly entered into a business contract for their mutual advantage” (259). They consider their rather cynical innovation on tradition an “experiment.” Self-consciously modern, Susy proffers that “I don’t suppose it’s ever been tried before” (18).

In fact—and as “The Reckoning” confirms—Wharton was quite aware that ideas about negotiated marriage had been circulating for two decades. Sociologist Elsie Clews Parsons, for one, in her controversial 1906 textbook, The Family, advocated a precursor to companionate marriage that she called “trial marriage.” The idea sounds pretty tame today: couples should experiment with living together and be free to part without “public condemnation” (349). Ironically, Parsons herself was publicly condemned for advocating trial marriage. The New York Herald, for one, called The Family the most “radical” work on marriage ever published and denounced its “morality of the barnyard” and “diabolical” tendencies (Deacon 68–69). Parsons’s own husband, an attorney and congressman, did not read the book when it appeared, assuming The Family would be too extreme for his taste (90). Popular lecturer Edith Ellis likewise encouraged young lovers to consider themselves “novitiates for marriage.” She believed that romantic partners should enter a clearly demarcated probationary period, just like novitiate nuns before taking vows. Living together on an experimental basis, Ellis believed, “would … minimize the gambling element in modern unions, and pave the way to a true monogamy” (13). This notion of “true monogamy” is critical to Glimpses, and I will return to it shortly.

The Lansings’ agreement on the necessity of building an exit plan into their marriage reflects also the acceptance of divorce within their globe-trotting set. Susy grew up surrounded by “denationalized” people—an apparent Russian turns out to be American, a seeming New Yorker actually hails from Rome (40). In its treatment of the linked themes of cosmopolitanism and divorce, Glimpses marks a sharp break from The Age of Innocence (1920), published only two years earlier but set in the 1870s. In that novel, the captivating American-born Ellen Olenska leaves her abusive Polish husband and returns to New York, thereby scandalizing an earlier generation that does not believe in divorce, particularly when initiated by a woman. In Glimpses, however, Wharton identifies the entire cast of characters as more or less transnational and links that quality with their enthusiasm for (p.25) divorce. “These cosmopolitan people,” the narrator generalizes, “in countries not their own, lived in houses as big as hotels, or in hotels where the guests were as international as the waiters, had inter-married, inter-loved and inter-divorced each other over the whole face of Europe” (40). Despite Wharton’s use of the term cosmopolitan, the spoiled and reckless characters of Glimpses do not engage in refashioning their identities in national or individual terms. Certainly not “immersive” cosmopolitans, even the acceptance of difference that Goldsmith and Orlando define as “liberal” cosmopolitanism eludes them. Divorce is so routine that, as one character remarks, “People didn’t wait nowadays to announce their ‘engagements’ till the tiresome divorce proceedings were over” (201). Even children assume the jaded view that marriage inevitably breeds unhappiness as well as divorce. Thus a socialite’s eight-year-old daughter—neglected, like poor Paul Marvell in The Custom of the Country, by a mother busy committing adultery—assumes that Susy must be getting ready to divorce when she appears “so awfully happy” (37).

Given the almost monotonous prevalence of divorce in Glimpses, it’s understandable why Susy jokes early on about her husband’s already having his second wife lined up, the hefty heiress Coral Hicks. At a dinner party Susy announces, with “practiced flippancy,” that Nick is “going to marry Coral next” (94). This jest indicates the lack of seriousness with which the Lansings married; both consider their union a game that either spouse can set aside should a better playmate arrive. Indeed, Susy’s flippant remark is prompted by annoyance that Nick seems to have adopted a “new set of rules … to the old game” (94).

Susy’s joke, however, ends up becoming the novel’s serious business. Most of the dramatic interest arises after Nick discovers that their luxuriating rent-free in the Venetian palazzo of a wealthy friend has extracted a moral rather than financial cost. Their benefactor (and an accomplished adulteress) Ellie Vanderlyn behaves as if the reason for getting married is to have affairs. Ellie assumes that the Lansings, in exchange for staying in her palazzo, will screen her adultery, and she tells the new bride, “I knew you’d understand me—especially now” that Susy is herself married (64). Leaving a stack of letters written to her husband who is off traveling in Austria, Ellie instructs Susy to mail them at specified dates. With the Venetian postmarks establishing Ellie’s presumptive residence at home, Susy’s services allow Ellie to cavort with her lover in St. Moritz while appearing the dutiful wife (p.26) to her husband. Susy pulls off the epistolary ruse so well, in fact, that Ellie presents her with a sapphire bangle in gratitude. But once Nick apprehends the deception enabling their Venetian holiday, he concludes that Susy has taken their own marital “bargain” too far. Despite Susy’s reminder, “Well—doesn’t our being together depend on—on what we can get out of people?” Nick mounts his moral high horse and leaves (89). His reaction seems both extreme and hypocritical given their express agreement to live off of wealthy friends, and Judith P. Saunders argues convincingly that it reveals Nick’s unconscious fear that a woman who abets another’s adultery will cheat on him as well (111–14). Whatever Nick’s conscious or unconscious motives for abandoning his wife, for almost three-quarters of the novel the newlyweds are estranged, leaving readers wondering whether the bride’s joke about her husband’s next marriage will indeed prove predictive.

During this protracted separation, Wharton deliberately emphasizes the suitability of alternative spouses and shapes the plot to make it seem probable that both Lansings will remarry. Coral Hicks is not as pretty as Susy, but she is intelligent, “surprisingly noble,” aesthetically sensitive, genuinely caring toward Nick, and the only child of very rich parents (195). Susy’s clever friend Charlie Strefford suddenly becomes marriage material once he inherits not simply a fortune but also a title. As the Earl of Altringham, Streff can offer “five footmen” along with his proposal—shorthand that Susy easily converts mentally into “freedom, power, and dignity” (134, 136). Indeed, were marriage solely the economic arrangement that many of Wharton’s characters believe it to be (and not only in Glimpses of the Moon), then Coral and Streff would not just be acceptable matches for Nick and Susy. They would be spectacular catches, each toting plenty of bling.

While critics have stressed the moral issues causing the Lansings’ estrangement, my focus is on a different sort of problem, one that ends up providing a solution. While everything Nick and Susy have ever seen teaches them that marriage is a temporary arrangement made for economic gain (and perhaps also to enhance the piquancy of sleeping with someone else), their emotions counsel otherwise. Many passages establish a very different sense of connection, startling to them both, based on a depth of feeling incomprehensible to their shallow friends. This powerful bond starts to materialize in the first chapter, when Susy, whose conscious intent in marriage had not extended beyond “immediate pleasure,” finds herself surprised by the “deeper harmony” connecting her to Nick (7). He realizes, likewise, that (p.27) his playmate is not just fun and easy on the eyes but also provides “the one complete companionship he had ever known” (15). In fact, while still on honeymoon, Nick realizes “the fact that [Susy] was his wife gave purpose and continuity to his scattered impulses, and a mysterious glow of consecration to his task” (54). Consecration: this is no joke or game, nor something to translate into currency.

Similar religious-inflected language deployed for secular ends characterizes the progressive reformers’ portrayal of what they cast as authentic—as opposed to merely social—forms of marriage. Havelock Ellis, for instance, maintains that “love brings its own sanctity” (Sex in Relation 129).7 By this logic, emotion, not dogma or statute, authenticates marriage. Particularly because the reformers believed their new model of marriage had the potential to regenerate society, there are parallels to be drawn with the role of sympathy in motivating social concern and ultimately social justice, as discussed in this volume’s chapter 3 by William Blazek.

Recent studies of emotion make a point similar to that of the marriage reformers about how a couple generates their own internal ethical system, although in different terms. According to psychologist Keith Oatley, one of many researchers to argue for the instrumentality and even rationality of emotions, marriage constitutes one of humanity’s greatest ethical challenges. “Consider the problem,” Oatley writes. “How can a man or woman, unable to foresee the future, choose a mate and make a commitment that enables a sustaining relationship?” Marriage is one of the “most momentous mutual plans” that many people undertake. In Oatley’s account, emotions arise precisely upon the fulfillment or frustration of a person’s “plan.” Each individual has numerous plans, not all of them consistent—which makes maintaining a joint-authored “plan” over years of marriage a particularly complex ethical challenge. For the marriage to last, both partners must continually renegotiate and modify their joint plan as it runs up against obstacles internal and external. When a couple succeeds and the marriage endures, “emotion become[s] … one of our highest accomplishments,” writes Oatley (374–75).

In Glimpses, Nick’s realization that marrying Susy consecrates his life is all the more striking when we consider the context in which it occurs. He had been thinking along very different lines—specifically, about the proprietary social function of marriage and how that breeds sexual hypocrisy. Susy “was his,” Nick reflects; “she had taken her place in the long line of (p.28) Lansing women who had been loved, honoured, and probably deceived, by bygone Lansing men” (54). The distance between Nick’s surprised comments about consecration and purpose on one hand and the expected social function of marriage on the other is dramatic. Likewise, once Suzy believes she has lost him, she realizes, “What had been new to her was just that sort of interval with Nick—a life unreal indeed in its setting, but so real in its essentials: the one reality she had ever known” (159). The language disentangles unreal social setting from real, indeed essential, emotional reality. After Nick angrily leaves his wife over her providing Ellie Vanderlyn’s alibi for adultery, Susy feels that his “indignation had shut her out from their Paradise. … Nick had not opened her eyes to new truths, but had waked in her again something that had lain unconscious under years of accumulated indifference” (216). A profound truth, in other words, lies buried beneath the accumulation of distorted social practice. Marrying Nick grants Susy access to that buried treasure, which she belatedly understands as a paradise lost.

Susy’s and Nick’s startled revelations about an authentic emotional bond joining them despite their lighthearted experiment would not surprise readers of the progressive marital reformers. In book after book, the reformers argued that centuries of meddling by the church and law, as well as maladaptive social conditions, had rendered marriage, once a healthy and private relationship, artificial and perverse. Hand in glove with that critique ran their utopian promise that the time had come to reform marriage, recovering its intrinsic value. In Gilman’s words, modern humans needed to “grow natural again” to recover better forms of marriage (306). Likewise, in the words of Ellis, “loosening the artificial restraints” would allow “natural” behaviors to resume (Sex in Relation 481). This premise of a restored “natural” relationship is precisely the sort of logic difficult to swallow today, but it appeared both consistent and indeed liberatory to the progressive marriage reformers.

Step one toward restoring the “natural” form of ideal union was realizing that true marriage was more fundamental than any social, legal, or moral code. As Havelock Ellis puts it, using language that echoes Wharton’s talk of consecration and paradise, “It is not the legal or religious formality which sanctifies marriage, it is the reality of the marriage which sanctifies the form” (Sex in Relation 427). Edward Carpenter likewise declared all “outer laws” “dead and lifeless” and urged lovers to follow “inner laws.” And love, he (p.29) maintains, constitutes a “law unto itself, probably the deepest and most intimate law of human life” (123, 124, 125).

This allusion to a deep intimate law reflects the marriage reformers’ advocacy of an ideal that I call voluntary monogamy. Drawing from the evolutionary ethnography of Finnish sociologist Edward Westermarck, the reformers maintained that monogamy was the oldest and most natural, yet also the highest form of human mating (chapters 4–6). Thus Edward Carpenter calls monogamy “a natural fact, independent of any laws, just as one might believe in the natural bias of two atoms of certain different chemical substances to form a permanent compound atom or molecule” (97). But the reformers distinguished this natural, voluntary sort of monogamy from the official, compulsory—and routinely violated—monogamy commonly practiced. Consequently we find Swedish feminist Ellen Key excoriating those who hold “monogamy … [as] indeed the law but polygamy [as] the custom”—a critique that illuminates the routine adultery practiced in many a Wharton novel (7, 13). Havelock Ellis explains the view of voluntary monogamy as a higher, purer practice: “Since marriage is not a mere contract but … a sacred fact, the free participation of both parties is needed to maintain it” (Sex in Relation, 480). Gilman makes the point in terms especially apt for Glimpses of the Moon: “We shame our own ideals, our deepest instincts, our highest knowledge, by this gross assumption that the noblest race on earth will not mate … monogamously, unless brought and bribed through the common animal necessities of food and shelter, and chained by law and custom” (300). Gilman had no doubt that humanity could do better.

In novel after novel, Wharton criticizes what Gilman identifies as the “gross assumption” that “law and custom” render marriage a matter of base exchange. Glimpses begins on that note, with Nick and Susy approaching marriage as just such a matter of buying and bribing. But then the novel moves on to trace a connection based on the sort of “deepest instinct” and “highest knowledge” that Gilman predicts marriage, once reformed, could become. Simply put, Susy and Nick’s marriage leads them to less shallow and more principled ways of understanding themselves and each other. Socialized to be trivial, superficial, and materialistic, their emotions for each other chart a path for becoming more than social beings. Susy has the epiphany first. Before Nick leaves her, she reflects on the “superior quality of the sympathy that held them together”: “She now viewed all the rest of (p.30) life as no more than a show,” one that she could leave behind—“provided that they left it together” (67). As to Nick, it is only when he is on the brink of marrying Coral Hicks that he recognizes he had always lived for “immediate satisfaction” and indulged transient desires. Recalling a very different orientation during his time with Susy, Nick retrospectively grasps how their marriage, despite its frivolous and mercenary beginning, provided his first apprehension of more than fleeting pleasures. “It was not till he had linked his life with Susy’s,” Nick recalls, “that he had begun to feel it reaching forward into a future he longed to make sure of” (198). With this realization, marrying Coral for convenience or comfort becomes preposterous—a travesty of Nick’s better self.8

Notably, Wharton maneuvers the plot so as to have the Lansings recognize their true connection to each other independently while they remain not only physically separated but also presumably moving toward divorce. That is, each one privately grasps a profound connection with the other even while assuming the feeling is not reciprocated. Acting as separate agents but unknowingly in concert, Nick and Susy feel so completely drawn to the other that each terminates an alternative marriage proposal that had appeared quite tempting. This is all to say that the Lansings come to understand themselves as vitally connected in a way that cannot be contained by the marital practices of their social set. They independently apprehend a marital bond not simply stronger than but qualitatively different from their mercenary intentions when they married in the eyes of the law. Unlike their associates, Nick and Susy never remarry, nor do they have affairs—not because they lack opportunities but because they prefer each other.

Each character’s realization of a conceptual or theoretical form of voluntary monogamy—a longing for the other so intense as to preclude consideration of alternative mates—causes Nick and Susy to regain a sense of equilibrium and identity before they regain each other. Thus after concluding she cannot marry Streff because she still loves her husband, Susy feels she becomes “herself again, Nick’s Susy, and no one else’s” (220). She then rejects “the artificiality and unreality of her life,” and well before reuniting with Nick, she gives up her predatory social existence in favor of earning a living by caring for another couple’s children (221). Nick similarly realizes the folly of remarrying when “the half-forgotten part of himself that was Susy” reemerges. At that point he realizes “there were moments when, to his memory, their actual embraces seemed perfunctory … compared with this (p.31) deep deliberate imprint of her soul on his” (255). In this way the Lansings grow, in separate but parallel directions, into a much different conception of marriage than the monotonous “unmating and re-mating” practiced by their friends (213). This emotional experience of voluntary monogamy will enable their reunion on a far deeper basis.

Wharton’s portrayal of voluntary monogamy brings us to an essential point about progressive marital reform. Despite the insistence on free divorce as a precondition for making marriage truly voluntary, the reformers’ ultimate ideal remained monogamy. Consider, for instance, Olive Schreiner’s explanation, in her internationally renowned Woman and Labour, that she does not advocate “greater sexual laxity nor promiscuity” but rather “a closer, more permanent union, more emotionally and intellectually complete and intimate” (8, 9). Key celebrates “the soul’s desire for one single person, among an unlimited selection” (34). Parsons believes “truly monogamous relations seem to be those most conducive to emotional or intellectual development and to health” (Family 348–49). And Carpenter sees marriage evolving toward a higher ideal of the “durable and distinct relationship” with one’s “permanent mate and equal” (117, 95). Havelock Ellis sums up the ideal: the “modern tendency as regards marriage is towards its recognition as a voluntary union entered into by two free, equal, and morally responsible persons.” Such a marriage becomes “an ethical sacrament [rather] than … contract, … a physical and spiritual bond … outside the sphere of the State’s action” (Eonism 486).

That ideal separates the progressive agenda from that of bohemians, free lovers, and other, more radical crusaders; it also consolidates their relevance to the Lansing marriage in Glimpses. When Susy, after a long engagement to Strefford, concludes she can’t marry him “because I can’t yet feel unmarried enough” (266), she expresses her realization that, despite the frivolous and mercenary spirit in which she married Nick, despite their explicit agreement that either could exit the marriage at will, and despite the blasé attitude toward divorce in their social set, she really is married to Nick after all. Trying to understand a union that has nothing to do with money or social expectation, Susy reaches out for organic language, thinking of the “mysterious interweaving of their lives which had enclosed them one in the other like the flower in its sheath!” (208). When they reunite, Nick explicitly formulates the changed terms of their relationship when asking about the word married: “Doesn’t it mean something to you, something—inexorable? … (p.32) I didn’t dream it would. … But all I can say is that I suppose the people who don’t feel it aren’t really married—and they’d better separate” (284). Susy agrees. “It’s not the things, you see, it’s the togetherness,” she says (285). The last chapter of the novel comes full circle, with the Lansings on their second honeymoon. More accurately, it is their first real honeymoon, and strangers rightly see them as “a newly-married couple” (291).

The aspect of this happy reunion that understandably distresses modern readers is how Wharton frames it as the couple’s acceptance of starkly essentialized gender roles. The turning point for Nick occurs when he sees Susy holding one of the children she has been looking after and thinks she looks “transfigured.” So, too, is Nick: “the eternal image of the woman and the child” solidifies his sense that he must reunite with his wife. “But she’s mine!” he cries, asserting proprietorship (261). For Susy, the turning point had come much earlier, when she first realized her subterranean connection to Nick. As Wharton significantly words that revelatory moment, “It was almost, [Susy] suddenly felt, as if he had left her with a child” (217). Despite several last-minute misunderstandings that delay the Lansings’ final reunion, the implication is clear: this couple who first came together with no intent to assume any “family cares” (5) and at the end take off for their second honeymoon with five children in tow will soon have babies of their own. Susy will no longer be a “temporary mother” to other women’s children but a permanent mother to her own (242).

In addition to this heavy-handed affirmation of motherhood, the narrator peeks into Nick’s mind to reveal another sort of gender typecasting: he thinks of Coral “with tenderness,” feels confident Susy has forgotten Streff, and concludes that “it was the old contrast between the two ways of loving, the man’s way and the woman’s” (296). Modern critics see the conclusion as confining Susy to a biological role that precludes either social freedom or personal development. I share those concerns, but we need to be careful about imposing alien mores on works from an earlier era. Wharton wrote at a time before current distinctions between sex and gender, and biology and culture, became axiomatic. And if the history of sexuality has taught us anything, it is surely that beliefs and practices which seem absurd to one generation appeared enlightened to another. Moreover, the existence of conservative strains within a generally liberal program was characteristic of the era; for other examples in this volume, see Ferdâ Asya’s elucidation of the conservative, individualistic strands within anarchism, and Goldsmith (p.33) and Orlando’s discussion of how cosmopolitanism itself allowed readers of Wharton to transcend political divisions between liberalism and progressivism.

Understanding the tenets of progressive marriage allows us to place the ending of Glimpses of the Moon within its historical context. Once again, Wharton follows the progressive marital reform agenda. Reformers believed that while spouses should be equal, gender difference remained innate. They alleged that (in Havelock Ellis’s words) not just “quantitative” but also “qualitative differences” separate men and women, and their works celebrate motherhood in terms that can now seem embarrassing (preface vii). For most readers today, this proposition of essential difference seems to undermine the egalitarian message. Moreover, when the reformers turn from the couple, whose privacy and autonomy they staunchly advocate, to consider the birth of children, they conclude that reproduction—unlike marriage—is something in which society does hold a legitimate interest. As Ellis puts it, “Not what goes into the womb but what comes out of it concerns society.” Only after children are born does the community have any right to “interest itself in the sexual acts of its members” (Sex in Relation 417). Even Parsons, who was probably the furthest to the left politically of all the reformers, believed the state belonged in the parenting business as much as it didn’t belong in the marriage business. She recommended a “parent’s certificate” as more useful than a marriage certificate, and advised a “parent’s registry and a parent’s court” to replace the “marriage registry and divorce court” (“Marriage” 514–15). As sexual privacy gives way to public interest, the reformers who campaigned to keep the state out of marriage now cordially invite it to sit at the table with the baby.

Glimpses of the Moon does not go so far as to suggest that the Lansings’ own impending family means their marriage should be reconstituted again as a social arrangement. But Wharton does suggest that reproduction constitutes a “natural” part of a healthy marriage in a way that seems problematic today. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that she simultaneously presents the Lansing marriage as ascending to a higher plane. Surrounded by serial adulterers who proclaim their marriage vows again—and again and again—Nick and Susy reaffirm their voluntary monogamy. Simply put, the trajectory of the novel begins with the Lansings’ legal marriage—which not coincidentally is also a social and economic coup—to conclude with their actual marriage. In tracking this change, Wharton draws upon ideas (p.34) of progressive marital reform, showing greater sympathy to the new ideas than in other works such as “The Reckoning” or The Gods Arrive. Reading Glimpses as I have does not dissolve the unpleasant essentialism at its ending, but it does give us another way of understanding it. The changing terms of the Lansing marriage suggest Wharton’s sense that there was such a thing as honest, loving, true marriage after all—at least in fiction.

Notes

(1.) I have derived biographical information from Lee, Price and McBride, Lewis, Wolff, Erlich, and Benstock.

(2.) Bauer analyzes Wharton’s reaction to changing ideas about marriage in her late fiction. Other important studies of the marriage theme can be found in Johnson and MacComb.

(3.) Wharton’s relationship to modernity is a running theme in the critical and biographical commentary. Among those who illuminate the subject are Bauer, Kaplan (especially chapter 3), Haytock, Bentley, Dawson, and Saunders. While Preston’s reading of the novel differs significantly from mine, she also sees “matrimony standing for modern … morals” in Glimpses (159).

(4.) Likewise for Johnson, the “strained conclusion” of Glimpses of the Moon ends up “re-articulating the conditions it seeks to escape” (948). Such condemnations of Glimpses follow Elizabeth Ammons’s influential view of the trajectory of Wharton’s career as beginning with a “highly sophisticated critique” of America, particularly its normative gender roles, but then “revers[ing] much of itself and grow[ing] conservative in the 1920s” (ix).

For examples of the other two standing criticisms, Preston charges that Glimpses “exists in a moral and historical vacuum” with characters who “seem to have forgotten (or never notice) that [World War I] happened,” while according to Wolff, in Glimpses Wharton “has begun … to borrow from her own earlier work,” particularly House of Mirth (159, 346).

Lee plausibly explains that Glimpse’s historical moment is ambiguous because Wharton began the novel in 1916 but did not complete it until 1921. She sees the novel reading as a prewar work—but then it was marketed as a contemporary “novel of society to-day,” resulting in “a disconcerting gap, as though all these blithe characters had agreed not to mention the war” (631; Benstock discusses the dust jacket, 369). On the basis of an allusion to a Tiepolo fresco destroyed by an Austrian bomb in 1915, Tintner is perhaps the only critic who decisively places the scene when Nick and Coral look at the fresco “before 1914 and the outbreak of the war” (23).

(p.35) (5.) See also Simmons, Making Marriage Modern, especially chapters 3 and 4, and Shumway. While the phrase companionate marriage is most often used to describe this 1920s shift, historians also use it to describe a much broader phenomenon. For instance, Riley (55, 57) and Grossberg see the Victorians as promulgating companionate marriage. But not everyone applauds the trend. Simmons finds the companionate ideal perpetuating fears of homosexuality (“Companionate Marriage and the Lesbian Threat”), while Cott argues that the new ideal made marriage even more obligatory for women, thus contributing to a tendency to pathologize those who did not marry (156f, 194). See also Spurlock.

(6.) The Gods Arrive dismissively describes Havelock Ellis as one of several writers favored by Vance Weston’s friend Alders, whose “random reading” and “imperfect understanding of art and history” shape a “mind … like the inside of one of the humble curiosity-shops on the way up to the Alhambra, where nothing was worth more than a few pesetas.” Bauer provides a fine account of Wharton’s critical treatment of companionate marriage in The Gods Arrive (chapter 4).

(7.) Although she does not address the religious language per se, Tintner constructs a persuasive reading of the trajectory of Glimpses by focusing on Wharton’s allusion to a Tiepolo fresco of the Virgin Mary’s house being moved by angels. According to Tintner, the ending of the novel, with Nick “transfigured by the new attitude in which he beheld [Susy] … the eternal image of the woman and the child” (Glimpses 261), “reprodu[ces] the iconography” of the painting (26).

(8.) In many ways my argument runs parallel to Bauer’s claim that Wharton, in her late fiction, prizes the inner life as a bulwark against “the outer life … of standardized and commodified beauty, taste, and culture” (6). For Bauer, the negative forces center in the new mass culture; for me, they center in traditional notions of marriage.

Works Cited

Bibliography references:

Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980. Print.

Bauer, Dale M. Edith Wharton’s Brave New Politics. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994. Print.

Benstock, Shari. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribner, 1994. Print.

Bentley, Nancy. “Wharton, Travel, and Modernity.” Historical Guide to Edith Wharton. Ed. Carol J. Singley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. 149–79. Print.

Carpenter, Edward. Love’s Coming of Age. Chicago: Stockham, 1902. Print.

Cott, Nancy F. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Print.

(p.36) Davis, Rebecca L. “‘Not Marriage at All, but Simple Harlotry’: The Companionate Marriage Controversy.” Journal of American History 94.4 (2008): 1137–63. Print.

Dawson, Melanie V. “‘Too Young for the Part’: Narrative Closure and Feminine Evolution in Wharton’s ’20s Fiction.” Arizona Quarterly 57.4 (2001): 89–119. Print.

Deacon, Desley. Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997. Print.

Eby, Clare Virginia. Until Choice Do Us Part: Marriage Reform in the Progressive Era. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2014. Print.

Ellis, Mrs. Havelock [Edith Mary Oldham (Lees) Ellis]. “A Novitiate for Marriage.” Rpt. in The New Horizon in Love and Life. London: A. C. Black, 1921. Print.

Ellis, Havelock. Eonism and Other Supplementary Studies. Vol. 2, part 2 of Studies in the Psychology of Sex. New York: Random House, 1936. Print.

———. Preface to First Edition. Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Vol. 1, part 2. New York: Random House, 1936. Print.

———. Sex in Relation to Society. Vol. 2, part 3 of Studies in the Psychology of Sex. New York: Random House, 1936. Print.

Erlich, Gloria C. The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics: A Study of the Relation between Women and Men. New York: Prometheus Books, 1994. Print.

Grossberg, Michael. Governing the Hearth: Law and Family in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1985.

Haytock, Jennifer. Edith Wharton and the Conversations of Literary Modernism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Hoeller, Hildegard. Edith Wharton’s Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2000. Print.

Johnson, Laura K. “Edith Wharton and the Fiction of Marital Unity.” Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001): 947–76. Print.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print.

Key, Ellen. Love and Marriage. Trans. Arthur G. Chater. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911. Print.

Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.

Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. Print.

Lindsey, Ben. The Companionate Marriage. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927. Print.

MacComb, Debra Ann. “New Wives for Old: Divorce and the Leisure-Class Marriage (p.37) Market in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.” American Literature 68.4 (1996): 765–97. Print.

Oatley, Keith. Best Laid Schemes: The Psychology of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Print.

Parsons, Elsie Clews. The Family. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906. Print.

———. “Marriage and Parenthood—A Distinction.” International Journal of Ethics 25 (1915): 514–17.

Preston, Claire. Edith Wharton’s Social Register. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.

Price, Kenneth M., and Phyllis McBride. “‘The Life Apart’: Text and Contexts of Edith Wharton’s Love Diary.” American Literature 66.4 (1994): 663–88. Print.

Riley, Glenda. Divorce: An American Tradition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.

Saunders, Judith P. Reading Edith Wharton through a Darwinian Lens. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. Print.

Schreiner, Olive. Woman and Labour. Project Gutenberg ed. Web. 3 June 2009. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1440/pg1440.txt.

Shumway, David R. “Something Old, Something New: Romance and Marital Advice in the 1920s.” An Emotional History of the United States. Ed. Peter N. Stearns and Jan Lewis. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 305–18. Print.

Simmons, Christina. “Companionate Marriage and the Lesbian Threat.” Frontiers 4.3 (1973): 54–59. Print.

———. Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Spurlock, John C. “The Problem of Modern Married Love for Middle-Class Women.” An Emotional History of the United States. Ed. Peter N. Stearns and Jan Lewis. New York: New York UP, 1998. 319–32. Print.

Tintner, Adeline R. “Glimpses of the Moon and Tiepolo’s Fresco: The Transportation of the Holy House.” Edith Wharton Review 14.1 (1997): 22–27. Print.

Westermarck, Edward. A History of Human Marriage. London: Macmillan, 1891. Print.

Wharton, Edith. The Glimpses of the Moon. New York: Scribner, 1996. Print.

———. The Gods Arrive. Project Gutenberg ed. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks04/0400781h.html.

———. “The Reckoning.” Kindle ed.

———. The House of Mirth. New York: Signet Classic, 1964. Print.

———. The Custom of the Country. New York: Bantam, 2008. Print.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.

Notes:

(1.) I have derived biographical information from Lee, Price and McBride, Lewis, Wolff, Erlich, and Benstock.

(2.) Bauer analyzes Wharton’s reaction to changing ideas about marriage in her late fiction. Other important studies of the marriage theme can be found in Johnson and MacComb.

(3.) Wharton’s relationship to modernity is a running theme in the critical and biographical commentary. Among those who illuminate the subject are Bauer, Kaplan (especially chapter 3), Haytock, Bentley, Dawson, and Saunders. While Preston’s reading of the novel differs significantly from mine, she also sees “matrimony standing for modern … morals” in Glimpses (159).

(4.) Likewise for Johnson, the “strained conclusion” of Glimpses of the Moon ends up “re-articulating the conditions it seeks to escape” (948). Such condemnations of Glimpses follow Elizabeth Ammons’s influential view of the trajectory of Wharton’s career as beginning with a “highly sophisticated critique” of America, particularly its normative gender roles, but then “revers[ing] much of itself and grow[ing] conservative in the 1920s” (ix).

For examples of the other two standing criticisms, Preston charges that Glimpses “exists in a moral and historical vacuum” with characters who “seem to have forgotten (or never notice) that [World War I] happened,” while according to Wolff, in Glimpses Wharton “has begun … to borrow from her own earlier work,” particularly House of Mirth (159, 346).

Lee plausibly explains that Glimpse’s historical moment is ambiguous because Wharton began the novel in 1916 but did not complete it until 1921. She sees the novel reading as a prewar work—but then it was marketed as a contemporary “novel of society to-day,” resulting in “a disconcerting gap, as though all these blithe characters had agreed not to mention the war” (631; Benstock discusses the dust jacket, 369). On the basis of an allusion to a Tiepolo fresco destroyed by an Austrian bomb in 1915, Tintner is perhaps the only critic who decisively places the scene when Nick and Coral look at the fresco “before 1914 and the outbreak of the war” (23).

(p.35) (5.) See also Simmons, Making Marriage Modern, especially chapters 3 and 4, and Shumway. While the phrase companionate marriage is most often used to describe this 1920s shift, historians also use it to describe a much broader phenomenon. For instance, Riley (55, 57) and Grossberg see the Victorians as promulgating companionate marriage. But not everyone applauds the trend. Simmons finds the companionate ideal perpetuating fears of homosexuality (“Companionate Marriage and the Lesbian Threat”), while Cott argues that the new ideal made marriage even more obligatory for women, thus contributing to a tendency to pathologize those who did not marry (156f, 194). See also Spurlock.

(6.) The Gods Arrive dismissively describes Havelock Ellis as one of several writers favored by Vance Weston’s friend Alders, whose “random reading” and “imperfect understanding of art and history” shape a “mind … like the inside of one of the humble curiosity-shops on the way up to the Alhambra, where nothing was worth more than a few pesetas.” Bauer provides a fine account of Wharton’s critical treatment of companionate marriage in The Gods Arrive (chapter 4).

(7.) Although she does not address the religious language per se, Tintner constructs a persuasive reading of the trajectory of Glimpses by focusing on Wharton’s allusion to a Tiepolo fresco of the Virgin Mary’s house being moved by angels. According to Tintner, the ending of the novel, with Nick “transfigured by the new attitude in which he beheld [Susy] … the eternal image of the woman and the child” (Glimpses 261), “reprodu[ces] the iconography” of the painting (26).

(8.) In many ways my argument runs parallel to Bauer’s claim that Wharton, in her late fiction, prizes the inner life as a bulwark against “the outer life … of standardized and commodified beauty, taste, and culture” (6). For Bauer, the negative forces center in the new mass culture; for me, they center in traditional notions of marriage.