Wharton, Lewis, and Marquand on Marriage


          Although it has developed a discernible consensus of interest and opinion, the American middle-class novel of social concern has never been a clearly defined, highly integrated genre (1). The tremendous diversity of American society has undoubtedly contributed to this lack of solidarity within the form; there is a degree of unity, however, in certain satirical studies of society, often referred to as the American “novel of manners.” Richard Chase has defined the novel of manners as one that generally “focuses on a particular social class or group of classes above the lower economic levels” (2). Chase contends that, except for Henry James, America has produced only second or third rank novelists of manner. Among these novelists, he lists Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, and John P. Marquand (3).

          Regardless of their position on the literary ladder, Wharton, Lewis, and Marquand have contributed immeasurably to our concept of early 20th-century American society. Regarding this period, Henry Steele Commager remarks, “Probably the most profound change in popular morals was in the realm of family and sex relationships. Marriage came to seem more tentative, virtue more relative, and parental control less authoritative than had been assumed even a generation earlier” (4). The period following 1900 was one of changing moral values and gradually relaxing mores. About the period, Donald Heiney states, “A married man may keep a mistress and provoke only light clubroom banter, a married woman may, with discretion, encourage a younger admirer, but appearances must be maintained. . . .A wife is ostracized for openly abandoning a husband with whom life has become intolerable” (5).

          In his book, The Big Change, Frederick Lewis Allen notes that “after 1900, divorce was still held in ‘black disfavor’ in the average American community. . . .A marriage might be a nightmare to both partners, but it must go on and on: that was the decree of public opinion” (6). H.L. Mencken, also commenting on the period, states, “No man, examining his marriage intelligently, can fail to observe that it is compounded, at least in part, of slavery, and that he is the slave” (7). Although he couches it in slightly different terms, Allen reinforces Mencken’s sentiment by saying that marriage was often regarded as “a bourgeois expedient for enforcing a conventional monogamy upon free spirits” (8). An analysis of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Lewis’ Babbitt, and Marquand’s The Late George Apley not only adds credence to these statement, but also reveals some startlingly similar attitudes toward marriage and family life as it was observed in the early 1900s.

          In The Age of Innocence (1920), which has often been called Wharton’s masterpiece, Newland Archer is “faced with the dilemma of escaping his unhappy situation by unethical means or of remaining in his situation to avoid deceit and causing unhappiness for others” (9). His dilemma is largely a result of the rigid marriage customs of his upper-class New York society in which marriage is viewed as something one is “entitled to”—a virtual “haven of a blameless domesticity.” Before his marriage to May Welland, however, Archer has severe doubts about the matter, thinking that “marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but an uncharted voyage on seas.” As Archer views his friends’ marriages, he realizes that they are merely “a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.”

          Marriage, in Archer’s circle, seems to suffer from a lack of communication in a world where it is not considered good taste to admit one’s feelings to others, not even to one’s spouse. Newland and May say the expected things, act the expected way, and can predict what others will do and say at any given moment. As his wedding day approaches, Archer at first feels that he has been cunningly trapped like a wild animal; however, he very soon resigns himself to his lot. “His fate was sealed: for the rest of his life he would go up every evening between the cast-iron railings of that greenish-yellow doorstep, and pass through a Pompeian vestibule into a hall with a wainscoting of varnished yellow wood.” The social conventions of old New York are admittedly “stupid and narrow and unjust,” but, in the words of the marchioness Manson, “Marriage is marriage.” The idea of divorce is “distasteful” to Archer’s society. As he explains to Madam Olenska, “Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favours divorce—our social customs don’t.”

          On Archer’s wedding day, a “black abyss yawned before him, and he felt himself sinking into it, deeper and deeper.” May was a “nice” girl and the perfect match socially for Newland, yet “May’s pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.” He had consented to marry her perhaps because she had “represented peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense of an unescapable duty.” This beautiful young woman, however, loved the society as much, if not more, than the man did. She had been forced “to grow up in a state resembling sleep-walking. Marriage was something that was ordained. Once accomplished it remained fixed.” Archer, however, being drawn to art, thought, and independent judgment, wants more than a woman’s body and social technique (10). As in Wharton’s own society, nothing in Archer’s ambience elevates an intellectual spirit; even its pleasures have become ritualistic. It offers no possibilities of growth. One lived “soundlessly and in impeccable taste, the years filtering through a thousand ceremonial dinners, whispering conspiracies, and mandarin gossip” (11). Externally, Newland appears to be a marriageable society bachelor, yet his discontentment with the forms of aristocratic life disqualifies him for the role-playing that is expected of him (12). Although he appears to be “a good husband and a good father, he nevertheless feels that he has missed the life of full experience as he had once envisioned it” (13). Like John Marcher in Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” Archer sees himself as “the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.” 

          Thus, Archer is torn between the safety of social convention and the risk of stepping into the unknown. When he contemplates leaving May at one point, he is relieved to find that he cannot do so conveniently. Marriage teaches Archer “it did not matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty.” When his son, Dallas, breaks with the family tradition to marry “one of Beaufort’s bastards,” Archer exclaims, “Young people take it for granted that they’re going to get whatever they want, . . . we almost always took it for granted that we shouldn’t.” Thus, even when he is faced with the possibility of renewing his relationship with Ellen Olenska, Archer chooses to remain in familiar territory. He chooses to be “old-fashioned.”

          Maxwell Geismar suggests that Wharton’s satires of society so influenced Sinclair Lewis that his best novel, Babbitt (1922), was dedicated to her (14). In his loosely woven tale of American business and conformity, Lewis projects another “old-fashioned” marriage. George Babbitt detests his real-estate business, his family, and sometimes even himself. Unless it is absolutely necessary, he avoids looking at Myra, his wife, who “had become so dully habituated to married life that in her full matronliness she was as sexless as an anemic nun. She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one. . .was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.” One of Myra Babbitt’s virtues was that she took good care of the house and did not bother her husband by thinking. “There was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: It was not a home.”

          Like Newland Archer, George feels that he has somehow been trapped into marriage by the expectations of society. “He could not hurt her, could not abuse her trust. He mumbled something about waiting, and escaped. He walked for an hour, trying to find a way of telling her that it was a mistake. Often, in the month after, he got near to telling her, but it was pleasant to have a girl in his arms, and less and less could he insult her by blurting that he didn’t love her. He himself had no doubt. The evening before his marriage was an agony, and the morning wild with a desire to flee.” His marriage continues dully, their closer relations drooping into bored routine. As with Archer, life is seen by Babbitt to be, at best, mechanical. “Mechanical business—a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion—a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. . .mechanical friendships—backslapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.”

          George attempts several times to break the bonds that repress his spirit by retreating to a camp in the Maine woods. His tranquility is short-lived, however, as Myra appears on the scene to destroy his hope of freedom. Another effort to find meaning in his sterile emotional life, his affair with Tanis Judique, fails to satisfy George’s sense of propriety as a Floral Heights husband and successful Zenith businessman. Although he dreads his “wasteland” marriage, Babbitt finds that he is inextricably bound in it. He fears that his faithful wife will learn of his affair. One of his club members reminds him, “I tell you, George, you got a position in the community, and the community expects you to live up to it.” Divorce for the Babbitts is out of the question, even after their relationship turns into one of bitter quarreling. The most daring thing George can suggest is some kind of “adjustment” in their way of life. Though he dares not speak aloud, he thinks to himself, “Wouldn’t it maybe be a good thing if—Not a divorce and all that, o’ course, but kind of a little more independence.” Babbitt consider it a “darn, rotten shame” that two married people could drift apart after all those years, but as Lewis suggests, “In matrimonial geography the distance between the first mute recognition of a break and the admission thereof is as great as the distance between the first naïve faith and the first doubting.”

          Although Babbitt is temporarily shaken by the news of his wife’s serious illness, his attitude is unchanged. He sees Myra on the operating table as “a swathed thing, just a lifeless chin and a mound of white in the midst of which was a square of sallow flesh with a gash a little bloody at the edges, protruding from the gash a cluster of forceps like clinging parasites.” Babbitt knows that he is hooked for life. “He felt that he had been trapped into the very net from which he had with such fury escaped and, supremest jest of all, been made to rejoice in the trapping.” Much like Newland Archer’s speech to his son Dallas, Babbitt admits to his son Ted, who has married very unconventionally, “Now, for heaven’s sake, don’t repeat this to your mother, or she’d remove what little hair I’ve got left, but practically, I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life!” Just as Newland Archer walks alone back to his hotel room, George Babbitt walks back into his living room.
          According to Leo Gurko in The Angry Decade, “Like the Forsytes of Galsworthy’s England, and the Newland Archers of Edith Wharton’s nineteenth-century New York, the Marquand characters looked upon passionate love as a dangerously antisocial state of mind and fell back in every emotional crisis upon the undisturbing women of their own sphere” (15). Much like the protagonists of Wharton and Lewis, Marquand’s “heroes have an unhappy (though not unvarying), way of marrying the wrong woman and of being dominated by her, and then finding themselves, in middle life, oppressed by the uneasy feeling that their whole lives have been a futility, yet of going on in the old groove, if for no other reason because they believe themselves to have passed the point of no return” (16). One such Marquand creation is the title character of The Late George Apley (1936).

          Young George first meets Catherine Bosworth at Papanti’s Dancing School—a place that is “suitable for the meeting of young people, as the list of those attendant was under careful scrutiny and represented the best of our group.” A motto of Boston society is “A man is known by the company he keeps.” Thus, young George is urged to marry among “his own kind of people.” His one attempt at open rebellion, his attraction to an Irish laborer’s daughter, is nipped in the bud by well-meaning family members. To George, Mary Monahan represents the “sense of freedom” that he longs for, but that is never his to enjoy.

          Apley and his tradition-bound society have some definite ideas about marriage. “The emotions and upsets of courtship, so characteristic of certain undisciplined elements in other section of the country, are, fortunately, no part of our best tradition. Here, marriage has always been taken in the stride of life, as a sacrament to be entered into soberly, cheerfully and irrevocably.” However, George experiences serious doubts on his wedding day, as did Archer and Babbitt. Just before the ceremony, Apley is heard to utter, “Has it ever occurred to you that marriage is an accident? . . .Well, this is the end.” 

          Very soon after his marriage to Catherine, George begins to feel its full effect. In the months following his marriage, he is stricken with attacks of indigestion that become chronic and more acute. He begins to take an interest in sports to a degree unknown in his bachelor days. Like George Babbitt, he retreats (or tries to) into the Maine wilderness. And like Myra Babbitt, Catherine Apley invades his haven. Like both Archer and Babbitt, Apley eventually resigns himself to his fate. He writes to his son John, “You must remember that no one can be happy all the time. I believe that a large part of life consists of learning how to be unhappy without worrying too much about it.” Apley’s life is indeed one of “quiet desperation.”

          Catherine Apley’s dominant will allows George very little independence of thought or action. At Catherine’s urging, he completes reading “Jonas Good and Cow Corner.” She is also responsible for his attendance at formal dinner after formal dinner, though he admits, “Catherine enjoys all these very much, but sometimes I don’t know that I am entirely up to them.” The Bosworth side of the family selects the names for the Apley children. When George wishes to move to the home he loves, Hillcrest, Catherine’s reluctance keeps them at Mulberry Beach “for many years.” When they finally do move to Hillcrest, Catherine “took complete charge, not only of the household indoors but of much of the grounds and gardens.” At her request, Apley has also left the raising of the children primarily to his wife.

          As he grows older, Apley wrestles with an awkward ambivalence toward his life. He wishes his son to be happier than he has been, though he feels he has ostensibly had every reason to be happy. In a philosophical moment, he writes to John, “It sometimes seemed to me that the type of girl with whom I was brought up was somewhat dull, largely because I had known her and her kind always. . . .Your mother is a perfect example of this. You know how much I depend on her. I depend on her more and more each year.” As for Catherine’s domination, he admits, “I find it just as well to do what Catherine wants. It saves such a great deal of trouble.”

          George Apley shares with Newland Archer and George Babbitt the feeling that he has “missed something” along the way. He often voices the fear that he is “getting nowhere,” yet he seems either unwilling or unable to change his life in any way. He concedes, “We cannot escape from it [Boston] entirely, nor do we really wish to.” Like Dallas Archer and Ted Babbitt, John Apley also receives fatherly advice. Shortly before his death, George writes, “Perhaps it would be better if people realized that happiness comes only by indirection, that it can never exist by any conscious effort of the will.”

          Perhaps Wharton, Lewis, and Marquand, in providing us these glimpses of segments of American life, are revealing genuine insights into the human condition. The three writers are surprisingly similar in their depiction of marriage, showing it to be often gloomy, repressive, and at best, merely boring. If these three views of the early 1900s are indeed an indication of a loss of faith in the institution of marriage, it remains to be seen how contemporary American society will compensate for these lost values. The final verdict is pending.


1  Robert E. Spiller, et al, eds. Literary History of the United States: History. New York: The            

            MacMillan Company, 1963, 992.

2  Richard Chase. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday &  

            Company, Inc., 1957, 157-158.

3  Ibid., 158.

4  Henry Steele Commager. The American Mind. New York: Bantam Books, 1970, 439.

5  Donald Heiney. Recent American Literature. Woodbury, NY: Barron’s Educational Series,            

            Inc., 1958, 79-80.

6  Frederick Allen. The Big Change. New York: Bantam Books, 1952, 12.

7  Henry L. Mencken. “Prejudices: Fourth Series (1924).” A Mencken Chrestomathy. New York:   

            Alfred A. Knopf, 1956, 48.

8  Allen, 176.

9  H. Wayne Morgan. Writers in Transition. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963, 32.

10  Margaret Lawrence. The School of Femininity. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, Inc.,    

            1936, 257-258.

11  Alfred Kazin. On Native Grounds. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1942,


12  Richard M. Eastman. A Guide to the Novel. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company,       

            1965, 18.

13  Heiney, 79.

14  Maxwell Geismar, “Society and the Novel,” A Time of Harvest. Ed Robert E. Spiller. New            

            York: Hill and Wang, 1062, 34.

15  Leo Gurko. The Angry Decade. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1947, 210.

16  Edward Wagenknecht. Cavalcade of the American Novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart and            

            Winston, 1952, 440.


Works Cited

Allen, Frederick Lewis. The Big Change. New York: Bantam Books, 1952.

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday &     

            Company, Inc., 1957.

Commager, Henry Steele. The American Mind. New York: Bantam Books, 1970.

Eastman, Richard M. A Guide to the Novel. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company,            


Geismar, Maxwell. “Society and the Novel.” A Time of Harvest. Ed. Robert E. Spiller.

            New York:       Hill and Wang, 1962.

Gurko, Leo. The Angry Decade. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1947.

Heiney, Donald. Recent American Literature. Woodbury, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.,    


Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1942.

Lawrence, Margaret. The School of Femininity. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, Inc.,            


Lewis, Sinclair. Babbitt. New York: The New American Library, 1961.

Marquand, John P. The Late George Apley. New York: Washington Square Press, 1944.

Mencken, Henry L. “Prejudices: Fourth Series (1924).” A Mencken Chrestomathy. New York:            

            Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

Morgan, H. Wayne. Writers in Transition. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.

Spiller, Robert E., et al, eds. Literary History of the United States: History. New York: The

            MacMillan Company, 1963.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Cavalcade of the American Novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart and  

            Winston, 1952.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. New York: The New American Library, 1962.