Realism in Wharton and Howells

Realism is a snapshot that usually includes upper class characters and specific language to represent truths during the time period in between wars. It was popular between the civil war and the beginning of World War I and was important because it held truth in characters and represented real life problems that every human had to deal with. Realism contained an escape for the lower and middle class including women to look at the upper class and their difficulties. Edith Wharton’s The Other Two and William Dean Howells’s Editha displays similarities and differences including the way women live in their marriages which is shown through the use of realism through the power of language, upper class characters, and truthfulness. Both of the women in each story do not follow the social norm or what they are supposed to do but still suffer the consequences for their choices.

In Editha wording is used to depict exactly how characters felt and their intentions. Editha uses powerful words when sharing her views on war and the impact on this allows George to cave into her nationalist beliefs on the war. Mrs. Gearson, George’s mother boldy stammers, “You just expect him to kill someone else, some of those foreigners, that weren’t there because they had any say about, but because they had to be there… you thought it would be right for my George, your George, to kill sons of those miserable mothers and the husbands of those girls that you would never see the faces of” (Howells 362). The bold language that George’s mother uses shows the potency of Editha’s decision when she asked her husband to go to war for her.

Editha does not use her power in a smart way because she lets others influence her like newspapers and media rather than thinking for herself. Howell played with irony by giving Editha enough power to change her husbands mind into enlisting in the war but gives her no respect because of the outcome of her decision and the details about why believed what she believed. The wording of Editha’s character allowed her to become this character that felt so strong about something she thinks she knows a lot about.

In The Other Two, Wharton uses specific language which is very powerful in the way that he puts women in a lower place than men. Wharton says, “as easy as an old shoe- a shoe that too many feet had worn. Her elasticity was the result of tension in too many different directions. Alice Haskett- Alice Varick- Alice Waythorn- she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides” (869). This quote puts the reader in the house of Mr. and Mrs. Waythorns and shows how society and Mr. Waythorn felt about the remarriages- uneasy. This subjectivity is created through the power of language. It defines how Mr. Waythorn honestly feels and allows readers, which at the time were middle class Americans. They were able to connect to how he was feeling about his wife and her exs.

Socially, sending one’s husband out into the war is the romantic thing to do during these times, especially if it is the upper class and everyone is doing it. Howells states, “But now, it flashed upon her, if he could do something worthy to have won her- be a hero, her hero- it would be even better then if he had done it before asking her; it would be grander. Besides, she had believed in the war from the beginning” (353-354). This quote is after Editha and George figure out about the Spanish- American war. The way that Howells states he could be her hero has a lot of meaning to it because it represents how society viewed war during that time period.

Even knowing George’s father lost a limb in the war he fought, Editha still thought sending her husband off to war was the right thing to do. She thought that losing a limb coming back a hero is true dedication and everyone is supposed to think in that way (Placenino 429). This represents all of the media influence manipulation during this time period and plays a role in how women are available to let it take over their options. War was something that was commercialized and thought of as a good thing and Howells points it out to all of the middle and upper class during this time period. In Editha’s life, she wanted to be able to share that her husband enlisted in the war and fought as an American. She wanted to represent her social standings and maintain her status.

In the Wharton’s story, Mrs. Waythorn has two ex-husbands and is married to a third, which is not socially popular especially it being in the upper class. This story was written in 1904 and divorce was not popular or common at the time, especially being a women having multiple ones and remarrying. Realism is prominent in this story because of who Mrs. Waythorn married to, she went from well off to rich to wealthy.

However, Wharton creates problems for this wealthy family. Mr. and Mrs. Waythorn have everything they need to live a comfortable lifestyle but one thing gets in the way- her ex’s. Rich or poor, ex’s can cause awkward situations and that is exactly what happen in The Other Two. Wharton writes, “As his door closed behind him he reflected that before he opened it again it would have admitted another man who had as much right to enter it as himself, and the thought filled him with a physical repugnance” (861). This is represents how disgusted Mr. Waythorn felt knowing another man would enter his house to see the child that his wife had with another man.

Even though Mr. Waythorn is very successful financially, he still has to face the realities of life. This story contains realism because of the display of social expectations the upper class has about divorce. Mrs. Waythorn defies it and stands up but consequences appear later on in the relationship. Wharton displays the consequences to signify the obscene truths that the upper class deals with. Mrs. Waythorn does not cry when her daughter is diagnosed with typhoid, she cries when she deals with her ex husband entering her house. This provides more evidence how much Mrs. Waythorn cares about her daughter versus her situation with her ex husband (Sweeney).

Editha comes to terms with the hard cold truth after experiencing sending her husband to war. George’s mother is livid when she says, “When you sent him you didn’t expect he would get killed… No, girls don’t, women don’t, when they give their men up to their country. They think they’ll come marching back, somehow, just as gay as they went… it’s all the more glory, and they’re so much the prouder of them, poor things” (Howells 361). George’s mother is so honest about her son’s death and it makes Editha think twice about her actions.

Death is something that affects everyone and realism is used in this story when Howells creates something so concrete – a death of a husband/son. This allows for the permanence of George’s death to set in to Editha. It also shows how Howells presented his true feelings against war. George’s death is Howells way of giving the realities of war instead of the romanticized one where men are supposed to come back a hero.

In Wharton’s story, Mr. Waythorn is faced with the truth knowing Haskett was in his house with his wife. When the time came of Haskett and Waythorn’s first encounter, it was tense and uncomfortable. Realism allows the characters to face the truths of reality relating to how situations can cause jealousy, angry and insecurities relating to exs. Wharton simply states, “He had known when he married that his wife’s former husbands were both living… It was Haskett’s presence in his own house that made the situation so intolerable” (page 865).

Every person no matter who they are would have feelings about their significant other’s ex joining them in their house and interacting with their spouse. Mr. Waythorn chose to marry a woman with ex husbands which is also permanent; he cannot change his wife’s past. These are issues that are unavoidable to anyone. The realism in this story contains a snapshot of what Mr. and Mrs. Waythorn are going through in their relationship and how Mr. Waythorn does not accept Mrs. Waythorn’s ex husbands at first.

Editha and The Other Two are stories that contain realism through specific uses of language, the use of upper class characters, and truthfulness. They both have specific language that helps emphasize specific points like how the women are objects and cannot think for themselves but play a twist on it because the women do hold some sort of power in each story. They are also in the upper class but still have disagreements or issues with their everyday lives that cannot be avoided because they are humans with feelings- the same as people in the middle and lower classes. In Editha, George dies and everyone in his life knows it could have been avoided if Editha had not urged him to enlist for the war and in The Other Two Waythorn has difficulties accepting Mrs. Waythorn’s past and is put to the test when both ex husbands inch their way back into Mr. and Mrs. Waythorn’s lives. She went through with her divorce knowing other people would look down upon it and did it anyway.

Mrs. Waythorn divorced and married someone of a higher social and economical class each time. She was brave in one sense but still cared about status.There are parallels in the way the women manipulate the situation and their husbands into doing what they want. Both stories also contain the truthful realities of life that everyone would have to deal with even from the readers of the lower and middle classes looking up towards the upper class. Both stories are realism and the truth cannot be avoided so the characters in both stories are forced to deal with their hardships.

Citations

  1. Piacentino, Edward J.Piacentino, Ed. “Arms in Love and War in Howells’ ‘Editha.’” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 24, no. 4, 1987, pp. 425–432. EBSCOhost, login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mlf&AN=1987097146&site=ehost-live.
  2. Sweeney, Gerard M. ‘Wharton’s the Other Two.’ The Explicator, vol. 59, no. 2, 2001, pp. 88-91. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/216776644?accountid=15152.
  3. William, Dean Howells. “Editha.” American Literature 1865-1914, 9th ed., C, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 353–362. The Norton Anthology.
  4. Wharton, Edith. “The Other Two.” American Literature 1865-1914, 9th ed., C, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 859-872. The Norton Anthology.