``The sight of the child'': Issues of motherhood in Edith Wharton's fiction

Date of Completion

January 1995


Biography|Women's Studies|Literature, American




The focus of my dissertation is Edith Wharton's preoccupation with motherhood in her fiction. Motherhood is a prevailing issue for Wharton throughout all of her major fiction. Much of it presents images of motherhood, from Lily Bart's dying embrace of an imaginary baby in House of Mirth (1905) to Halo Spear's triumphant pregnancy at the end of The Gods Arrive (1932).^ Readers who argue that Wharton's interest in motherhood developed in her later years cite her age, her failing health, her unresolved relationship with her own mother, and her own childlessness as reasons. These readings of the later works suggest that Wharton's view of motherhood is disturbingly conservative. Arguments like these disregard the fact that the theme of motherhood is central to most of Wharton's fiction, early and late. Claiming that Edith Wharton was lonely or feeling the passage of time, as some critics have argued, denies the evidence of the early fiction. What many readers see as a preoccupation of Wharton's late fiction is, instead, an abiding and powerful preoccupation of all her fiction. It is a topic to which she turns, as well, with great sincerity in much of her non-fiction writing.^ Ultimately, in reading Wharton's fiction we are left with two questions: Why was Wharton preoccupied with motherhood? And what force did this preoccupation play in her novels? Those are the questions determining the development of this study. As a central theme in Wharton's fiction, motherhood offers one of many keys to the meaning of her fictional worlds. What I attempt to show is that Wharton's preoccupation with motherhood presents many different views of motherhood: a metaphor for the imaginative force, an index of social values, a touchstone in a chaotic world, and an emblem of the darkness of human nature. Wharton has no one sense of the way motherhood functions for women, nor was her interest in motherhood generated solely from any personal stake she may have had in this issue; instead, Wharton saw motherhood as a complex role in a complex world. ^