Wharton, Lewis, and Marquand on Marriage
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,
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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.”
attempts several times to break the bonds that repress his spirit by retreating
to a camp in the
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).
George first meets Catherine Bosworth at Papanti’s
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.”
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
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
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.”
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 [
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.
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.
5 Donald Heiney. Recent American Literature.
Inc., 1958, 79-80.
6 Frederick Allen. The Big Change.
7 Henry L. Mencken. “Prejudices: Fourth Series
(1924).” A Mencken Chrestomathy.
Alfred A. Knopf, 1956, 48.
8 Allen, 176.
9 H. Wayne Morgan. Writers in Transition.
10 Margaret Lawrence. The
11 Alfred Kazin. On Native Grounds. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1942,
12 Richard M. Eastman. A Guide to the Novel.
13 Heiney, 79.
14 Maxwell Geismar, “Society and the Novel,” A Time of Harvest. Ed Robert E. Spiller. New
15 Leo Gurko. The Angry Decade.
16 Edward Wagenknecht. Cavalcade of the American Novel.
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