Reading Edith Wharton Through a Darwinian Lens: Evolutionary Biological Issues in Her Fiction

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Amazon Restaurants Food delivery from local restaurants. Write a product review. Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon. Judith Saunders' book on Wharton is on the front line of a strongly emerging, and long-awaited, new movement in literary criticism affirming that literature has meaning and is a part of life. Saunders provides a rich and thorough treatment of seven works of fiction. She delves deeply into each one, exploring and discussing the characters' behavior and motives, society's demands and priorities, the age's constraints and exigencies, drawing all these out through the wide and exciting lens of biosocial literary theory.

Plot contexts and character portraits are detailed enough to allow readers who have not picked up a piece of Wharton's fiction in years, or ever, to get right into the discussion. Initially I knew virtually nothing about Darwinian theory except for the more common principles of evolution and adaptation, but I certainly didn't need to know any more than that to read Saunders' book. In fact, my rudimentary knowledge was enhanced through the persistent illustration of Adaptationist concepts in the actions and self-examination undertaken by Wharton's characters. The weaving of Darwinian terminology into discussion makes absorption of the material effortless.

Something else I found particularly appealing is that the chapters in Saunders' book can be read independently: Thus one can read the book through from beginning to end, which is what I did, or selectively view a single work of fiction through the Darwinian lens. Whatever approach the reader takes, here's what I know --I can never read Wharton, or any other author for that matter, the same way again after understanding, through Saunders' work of exquisite scholarship, the principles of evolutionary biology pervasive in literature and in our lives.

Judith P. Saunders | Penguin Random House

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This star-crossed love story centers on a love triangle. Rebelling against a long-time, smothering tradition, a young, idealistic man, Newland Archer, marries his loving and sweet-natured-but, boring and traditional- wife, May, under pressure from friends and family. To the disapproval and shock of her family and New York society she has deserted her husband, a rich, albeit unsavory French Count. However, her integrity, compassion, and joie de vivre make her a sympathetic and irresistible character to all who know her, especially the men, who fall under the spell of her charms and are depicted as being in a much better positon to flout the chains of society in contrast to the women of the time.

Archer loves the Countess Olenska because she possesses the attributes he most wants himself, and she is a metaphor for freedom of choice in that she defies the expectations of her sex and the confines of society in exchange for being true to her own ideas of integrity and proper behavior. A heart-wrenching story of unrequited love, it depicts the forces that band together to bring the protagonists to heel and keep them chained to separate destinies.

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Their personal desires are squelched by family and friends in the name of dutiful honor and expectations amidst the rigid judgment and hypocrisy of their unyielding, self-righteous social class. Edith Wharton was a master at evoking the social mores and confines of the society she grew up in, and is often a society that she seems to condemn for its snobbery and hypocrisy.

This story is so beautifully written and is evocative of human nature which demands that men and women put duty, honor, and pride above all else regardless of individual liberty and personal happiness. In the concluding pages, the reader has an epiphany that one comes to terms with the sweet fragileness of our memories by consciously choosing to reject choices that may expose and destroy perceived perfection in order to maintain the dream of what might have been.

So, it is with Archer.

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He, at last, accepts that he gave up something dear to him for the greater good. And, as he moves into mid-life, fate helps him to accept that it may have been the right decision, after all.

The Age of Innocence is a story that will resonate with anyone who suffers and pines over the one that got away in the blush of youthful love. It remains a story for the ages and serves as reminder that we cannot always direct the course of love, because love takes many forms, and often wounds us. It was a glittering, sumptuous time when hypocrisy was expected, discreet infidelity tolerated, and unconventionality ostracized.

That is the Gilded Age, and nobody knew its hypocrises better than Edith Wharton But as he tries to get their wedding date moved up, he becomes acquainted with May's exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned home after dumping her cheating husband.


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At first, the two are just friends, but Newland becomes more and more entranced by the Countess' easy, free-spirited European charm. After Newland marries May, the attraction to the mysterious Countess and her free, unconventional life becomes even stronger.

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Will he become an outcast and go away with the beautiful countess, or will he stick with May and the safe, dull life that he has condemned in others? There's nothing too scandalous about "Age of Innocence" in a time when starlets acquire and discard boyfriends and husbands like old pantyhose -- it probably wasn't in the s when it was first published. But then, this isn't a book about sexiness and steam -- it's part bittersweet romance, part social satire, and a look at what happens when human beings lose all spontaneity and passion. Part of this is due to Wharton's portrayal of New York in the s -- opulent, cultured, pleasant, yet so tied up in tradition that few people in it are able to really open up and live.

It's a haze of ballrooms, gardens, engagements, and careful social rituals that absolutely MUST be followed, even if they have no meaning. It's a place "where the real thing was never said or done or even thought. Her writing opens as slowly and beautifully as a rosebud, letting subtle subplots and powerful, hidden emotions drive the story. So don't be discouraged by the endless conversations about flowers, ballrooms, gloves and old family scandals that don't really matter anymore. In the middle of all this, Newland is a rather dull, intelligent young man who thinks he's unconventional.

But he becomes more interesting as he struggles between his conscience and his longing for the Countess. And as "Age of Innocence" winds on, you gradually see that he doesn't truly love the Countess, but what she represents -- freedom from society and convention. The other two angles of this love triangle are May and Ellen. May is suitably pallid and rather dull, though she shows some different sides in the last few chapters.

Reading Edith Wharton Through a Darwinian Lens

And Ellen is a magnificent character -- alluring, mysterious, but also bewildered by New York's hostility to her ways. And she's even more interesting when you realize that she isn't trying to rebel, but simply being herself. Exquisite in its details, painful in its beauty. See all reviews. See all customer images. Most recent customer reviews. Published 2 days ago.