The Novels of Mrs. Wharton

From The Atlantic Monthly: (This review was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1906)

Edith When Mrs. Wharton’s stories first appeared, in that early period which, as we have now learned, was merely a period of apprenticeship, everybody said, “How clever!” “How wonderfully clever!” and the criticism — to adopt a generic term for indiscriminate adjectives — was apt, for the most conspicuous trait in the stories was cleverness. They were astonishingly clever; and their cleverness, as an ostensible quality will, caught and held the attention. And yet, though undoubtedly correct, the term owes its correctness, in part at least, to its ready-to-wear quality, to its negative merit of vague amplitude, behind which the most diverse gifts and capacities may lie concealed. No readers of Mrs. Wharton, after the first shock of bewildered admiration, rest content with it, but grope about to lift the cloaking surtout of cleverness and to see as best they may how and by what methods her preternaturally nimble wits are playing their game, — for it is a game that Mrs. Wharton plays, pitting herself against a situation to see how much she can score.

To most people the point she plays most brilliantly is the episode, which in the novel is merely one of the links in the concatenation of the plot, but in the short story is the form and substance, the very thing itself; and so to be mistress of the art of the episode almost seems to leave any other species of mastery irrelevant and superfluous. In Mrs. Wharton this aptitude is not single, but a combination. It includes the sense of proportion, and markedly that elementary proportion of allotting the proper space for the introduction of the story, — so much to bring the dramatis personae into the ring, so much for the preliminary bouts, so much for the climax, and, finally, the proper length for the recessional. It includes the subordination of one character to another, of one picture to another, the arrangement of details in proper hierarchy to produce the desired effect.

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