Austen vs. Wharton: A Literary Throwdown

May 16, 2014 at 12:29 am 1 comment

The-Age-of-Innocence-933525Can I share an unpopular opinion with you?

I think Edith Wharton is far superior to Jane Austen. Okay, maybe it’s not exactly fair to compare them, as they wrote almost 100 years apart on two different continents. But they both wrote novels that were preoccupied with society, with retaining one’s place in society and with finding a husband, who may or may not have a title. It seems fair to compare them in this regard.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Jane Austen. I have read and re-read Sense and Sensibility time and time again, and I’ve made my way through a number of her other works as well. I know Austen was responding to the popular romances of her day and striking out against them in works like Northanger Abbey, and of course they include social criticism. I’m not saying she’s not great.

But sometimes, I have a really hard time with Austen because she stops with the wedding. Elizabeth and Darcy really barely know each other when they are married at the end of Pride and Prejudice. What happens when Darcy’s pride (or is it prejudice) is unthinkingly directed at the Bennett family again, or when Lizzie fails to meet Darcy’s standards in some way? Yeah, I know, they’re in love. But love does not mean that everything is always awesome all the time.

Wharton realizes this. In The Age of Innocence and The Buccaneers, she follows her protagonists as they head toward marriage, then beyond, as they realize that marriage isn’t the correct goal — marriage to the right person is, and it’s sometimes hard to tell who that person is.

For example, The Age of Innocence begins with Newland Archer madly in love with May Welland. He gets all squishy inside when she walks in a room and manfully thinks about the ways in which he will fill her pretty little head with intelligent ideas. Naturally, though, Newland falls in love with Ellen Olenska, a beautiful countess and May’s cousin. Then he marries May, pretty much cheats on her with Ellen, and then slinks back to his marriage, never realizing that May is a lot smarter than he thinks.

If this were a Jane Austen novel, I feel pretty strongly that Ellen would run off with someone else, cruelly break Newland’s heart and make him realize how wonderful May was all along. May would never know, and everyone would live happily ever after. But Wharton masterfully makes her protagonist struggle within his feelings post-wedding, and makes it intensely clear that Newland must choose of his own accord what to do — ruin his marriage and run off with his wife’s cousin, or stay in a marriage that is, for the moment, devoid of passion but which could develop into a solid, companionable relationship.

Newland chooses the later. Not as romantic, but realistic. The Buccaneers has a number of similar problems — it’s more romantic, certainly, but it definitely explores the problems involved in marrying the wrong person, which to me is more interesting than the somewhat standard “marriage plot” Austen so often chooses.

But that’s just me! What do you all think about the Wharton/Austen debate?



Entry filed under: Classics. Tags: , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  May 21, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    I know marriage is a big deal for both authors, but I’m not sure that I buy that it’s the end game (either as just marrying any old person or marrying the right person). Obviously, in terms of social norms, yes, women in either period would have had to marry in most cases, so it was literally imperative, but I think both authors do a tremendous job of making the stories about more than just that.

    Namely, I’ve always really enjoyed the evolutions of the characters in both Austen and Wharton. In Austen’s case, the marriages often are the end of the arc in terms of her characters knowing themselves best (e.g. Anne Elliot only marries after she realizes her own opinions’ worth instead of bowing to others’ views or Marianne Dashwood only marries after she painfully learns and understands the failings of living a life with passion as your guidestar), but in both Wharton and Austen’s work, the evolution and journey of each character seems so much more important than the resulting ending.

    In other words, I don’t think Austen is necessarily stopping at the wedding. She’s stopping at the end of (possibly only one in many during their fictional lifetime) arch in this or that character’s development. As you note, Wharton proves that there are many other arcs to be told, particularly after the wedding perhaps (no doubt Darcy and Elizabeth were a disaster), but in the end I think both Wharton and Austen are doing something very similar, just at different moments, if that makes sense. And perhaps Wharton was able to follow through on the other arcs because Austen came along first to make the standard marriage plot so standard in the first place. :)

    (Sorry this got really long!)


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