Volume V, Number 2, Fall 2009 · Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2008 HAAS Conference


"Edith Wharton’s Model of Culture in French Ways and Their Meaning" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Email:

In the conclusion of her French Ways, Wharton differentiates between two kinds of Hell, a Latin and an Anglo-Saxon version. To be more precise, she distinguishes between two different concepts of Hell: one version is symbolized by Paolo and Francesca’s story, the other by The Scarlet Letter narrative. Wharton argues that the position the adulterous lovers take in their respective Hells reflects the values their respective cultures attribute to morals in general. In the Latin version the lovers are placed in the temperate zone of Hell because their sin against the third person is not considered a serious one. In this framework, real sinners are traitors of business, state, religion, and friendship instead. Conversely, in the Anglo-Saxon version the lovers are punished most severely because their sin against the third person is considered more serious, whereas in this framework business or state affiliations matter less. The basis of the difference lies in how the two cultures think about the relationship between individual and community. Wharton claims that the Latin model places values and rules of the community higher than individual ones, while the Anglo-Saxon version reflects a belief that individual values and rights are worth more than those of the community. Wharton claims that Americans could use the French concept more than they think. To me this scenario is challenging as it also characterizes Wharton’s perspective and method. Focusing on the theme of man-woman relationship, she jumps to generalizations about morals and nations as a whole, and even makes comparisons between cultures, all with educational intent.

In this paper, I propose to look at Wharton’s model of French culture from the perspective of her work on social patterns of behavior. My hypothesis is that her account of French culture reflects her concern that WWI has ruined those social patterns she considers superior and also her effort for any reconstruction. I am going to argue for this reading in two steps. Firstly, I am going to describe the reception of Wharton’s general concern with social patterns of behavior from the perspective of gender and cultural studies. Secondly, I am to explicate her presuppositions about a general model of culture including male-female roles and relations she relies on when she differentiates French and US cultures in French Ways and Their Meaning.

I. The problem: the social self in Wharton’s texts

During the 1980s Edith Wharton’s oeuvre was recanonized. The work was performed by scholars who foregrounded the female subversive potential in her fiction. As Millicent Bell puts it: “[T]hough she was no conscious feminist, it was felt that she had expressed her own struggles in fiction that showed her clear understanding of what it had meant to her to be a woman.” (Bell 1995b, 13) As a result, a multitude of books and articles have been published on the subject: biographies, monographs, comparative studies. The interest promoted biographical studies showing her life in terms of feminist psychopatology, as well as monographs investigating the commodification in the formation of the female artist’s character (Bell 1995b, 13-14). In 1984, for instance, Amy Kaplan in The Social Construction of American Realism articulated the commodfication of the figure of the female artist in terms of the division between the private and the public sphere. She claimed that Wharton’s writing is situated at a complex intersection of class and gender. Wharton attempted to construct a separate personality in the mind of the public and to write herself out of the private domestic sphere, inscribing a public identity in the marketplace, unlike contemporary lady novelists of the domestic sphere like H. B. Stowe (Kaplan 1988, 70 and Wright 1997, 5). Wharton’s achievement in constructing a public identity for herself as a female author was considered to be a significant alteration of the public roles designated for female novelists of her time.

As Bell goes on, today scholars are more interested in Wharton as the writer of culture than in Wharton as the woman writer (Bell 1995b, 15 and Ammons 1995, Kassanoff 2004). Yet, it seems that the body of travel writings that clearly fit into the ‘writing of culture’ slot and interest indicated by Bell (Pratt 1993) can be included in the description of the construction of Wharton’s public identity as author, as well. By writing American travel books, Wharton took upon herself a position formerly filled by American men of letters, a position forbidden for lady novelists. It was exactly through the modification of the public roles of the female novelist that she was able to write travel books. However, there was one specific problem with her newly forged public identity. Interestingly, Wharton, the woman of letters, seems arch conservative in questions of gender and class. In other words, she writes nonfiction not to subvert but rather to preserve the existing cultural and social status quo. So much so that Frederick Wegener, the editor of a Wharton’s uncollected critical writing states that her criticism does little to “locate a genuinely feminine sensibility in Wharton’s work.” (Wegener 1996, 44) Also, Michael Nowlin argues along similar lines: “Wharton boldly set out to claim cultural authority on grounds long exclusively occupied by men … in the public arena …[but] showed no eagerness to challenge the bifurcation of culture along gendered (as well as class) lines.” (Nowlin 1998, 446) It seems the female subversive potential in Wharton cannot be readily reconciled with her public identity – and what is the use of a new kind of female author who only copies male examples?

On the basis of this opposition one is tempted to ask whether Wharton was modern or conservative, feminist or not. Yet these questions cut us off from the achievements of her work. Looking at the work from the perspective of ‘writing culture,’ it is more useful to look at her output in terms of what it does. In this sense, we can look at Wharton’s work as a method of channeling social conflicts of her time (Bentley 1995, 50). For instance, one can look at how Wharton represents women’s changing social roles in changing contexts or the fashioning of the female position. So in French Ways, the task is not to point out the incompatibility of the feminist sensibility and the public identity either. Rather, the task is to explicate how the text represents the sphere of culture and how it articulates the shock of WWI for the US, and how this relates to the social roles of women according to Wharton.

II. A Model of Culture in French Ways

Wharton’s work is a collection of articles permeated with the intent of warming the feelings of the American reading public and American soldiers towards their war ally, France (Green 2002, 431). At first glance, the book’s seven chapters simply consist of a series of positive conservative traits the French, as a people, are supposed to possess (Olin-Ammentorp 2004, 86). As a result, an idealized image of the French – in general – appears from the introduction. At the same time, a model of culture as such can be constructed on the basis of Wharton’s scattered remarks. If one looks at what Wharton considers real culture, real education and real life (her terms), one can understand the basis of her criticism of the US and the objectives of her text better (Schrieber 1987, 264-5).

II. 1. Features

Practically, the idealized image of the French confutes the negative stereotype Americans tend to have about the French. Each positive feature Wharton enlists has its negative counterpart it aims at turning over. It is revealing to see how the idealized image reforms a former, sinister stereotype. For instance, the new positive trait of continuity stands against the old American belief that the French are old fashioned or traditional. Another long standing grudge is erased when Wharton argues that knowing how to live a real life describes what otherwise is known as the French being sensual and immoral. Another example could be about the French being cautious with money; this can be mistakenly called being frugal with money. In other words, instead of saying ‘No, the French are not immoral, sensual, frugal, traditional, etc., as we tend to believe they are’, Wharton’s rhetoric focuses on the positive cultural framework these individually unpopular features fit into.

Yet the main purpose of the new list of features lies in catalyzing the self-reflection of Americans. Wharton points out a new frame of reference for Americans to think about the French as artistically minded and well-educated. Simultaneously, she points out the mistakes of the American perspective that misreads the French as a people. Although the French can be regarded to be sensuous, immoral, frugal, impolite, conservative, bad businessmen (to name a few traits), this becomes possible only if one loses sight of cultural continuity in which all these individual features fit into. In turn, the framework Americans tend not to see behind French ways remains an example for the rest of Europe and America alike.

The central reason why peoples misunderstand each other can be found in how they think about the relation of the individual to the community. In France, the community regulates the individual, overwrites individual rules. In contrast, in America a belief in individual rights ensures that individual aims and incentives are regarded more important than communal regulations. Wharton comments that Americans should reconsider their former stereotypes about the French and reflect on their own beliefs and values instead. “Before calling a certain trait a weakness, and our own opposite trait a superiority, we must be sure, as critics say, that we ‘know the context’; we must be sure that what appears a defect in the character of another race will not prove to be a strength when better understood.” (Wharton 1919, 18), says Wharton.

However, against her own advice, Wharton does not remain a neutral observer of the two sets of cultural values. It is her contention that average Americans stand at a lower level of social organization and knowledge than the average French (Green 2002, 436). She holds up the French example to follow because she maintains a belief in the existence of real culture, real knowledge, real life yet to be obtained by the average American. After the turmoil of WWI, Americans should take the opportunity to understand the French and to learn from them. She puts in her introduction a somewhat biased form: the labels American and Latin are convenient, simply a loose way of drawing a line between the peoples, who drink spirits and those who drink wine, between those whose social polity dates from the Forum, and those who still feel and legislate in terms of the medieval forest (Wharton 1919, viii). She places the two cultures at opposite ends of the scale as far as social organization is concerned. In the book, Wharton’s primary objective is to give a warning: to show the medieval social conditions she thinks Americans live by and also to pinpoint the way out of this situation.

II. 2. Culture

Wharton’s comments on the French in particular provide a chance for reconstructing her model of culture in general and this system explains her lowly view of US social patterns.

Her model can be introduced through her three terms: real civilization, real education, and real life. Firstly, Wharton claims that real civilization is a way of life: it forms speech, manners, taste, ideals, judgment, all at the same time. So real civilization is a process, it is a long-term education that extends to the whole of life. Instead of the word culture she often uses the term education, partly because she maintains that in the US the term culture is looked upon with contempt, but also because the two concepts overshadow each other in her vocabulary. Secondly, for her, real education takes time and effort, as knowledge and manners cannot be obtained in college during a two-year or three-year course, as is often supposed in the US. Finally, real life comes into being as the result of good education and an ability to see events and human actions as parts of a historical continuity (e. g. the French). So Wharton’s concept of culture covers historical patterns of social habit, or, to put it bluntly, it maps the historicity of man’s social self.

The cultural contrast between the US and France, or Anglo-Saxon and Latin spheres can be described in terms of two basically different patterns of social habit. Interestingly, Wharton suggests that we take their two different concepts of love as a primary example of the different patterns of social convention. To understand the different concepts of love one must first understand the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon conceptions of marriage. In the Anglo-Saxon world, marriage is supposed to be determined solely by reciprocal inclination, and to bind the parties not only to a social but also to a physical lifelong loyalty. In this system of love, that one who has never accepted and never will accept such bonds (as Wharton claims), immediately becomes a pariah and sinner. Conversely, in the Latin world, marriage is founded for the family and not for the husband and wife. Marriage secures them as associates in the foundation of a home and the production of a family. It is a kind of superior business association based on the community of class, of political and religious opinion, and an exchange of advantages. Love is not expected in the association neither as an emotion nor in the form of physical loyalty. In other words, Wharton defies the old stereotype of the immoral and sensuous Frenchman and woman by placing the phenomenon of illicit sex into a social context quite incomprehensible or invisible for the average American.

For Wharton the French businesslike association of man and woman is, interestingly, a sign of superior interpersonal relations. For her, the relation of the French man and wife prove more valuable than the relation between married man and woman in the Anglo-Saxon world. The reason is that in France the idea of equality extends to the relation of man and woman, she claims. Here the married woman becomes a full social partner of men; she is also socially free to take part in the intellectual life of the salons. In many cases she rules French life through the important relations she can establish with the men in her circle. Wharton calls these relations “frank social relations” (112) and contrasts them to the relations an American woman has with both her husband and to men in general. In the US, a girl is free to romp around in society until she becomes married; then she is cut off from men’s society in all but the most formal ways. An American woman is listened to by women, because women are restricted to the domestic sphere where they are engaged by questions of art and ideas. In America, the clear division of roles between domestic and public spheres relies on an odd Anglo-Saxon view that a love of beauty and an interest in ideas imply effeminacy.

II. 3. Female Cultural Roles

Wharton’s primary example of French ways of culture can be found in her account of the new Frenchwoman. Wharton claims the role of the Frenchwoman is so telling about French ways she devotes a whole chapter to discussing it. Her position, when taken out of context, is often recalled as groundbreaking and modern, yet read as part of her story to educate Americans through the French example, it appears quite traditional indeed (Nowlin 2004, 90), as Elizabeth Ammons puts it, in the volume ”the American Dream of personal liberty does not apply to women” (Ammons 1980, 127). Let us take a look at the chapter and feminine roles in detail now in order to specify the values the Frenchwoman exemplifies for Wharton.

Wharton claims that the new Frenchwoman is really not new but America has never taken the trouble to look at her and understand her (99). On the surface, the difference between American and French women is that the Frenchwoman dresses better, knows more about cooking, is more feminine, more excitable, more emotional, more immoral (100). Still, the basis of the difference lies in the fact that the Frenchwoman is a real grown up person while the American remains unrestricted by traditional discipline – Cf. in The Age of Innocence, Ellen Olenska would represent a mix of the two positions (Viglietta 2005, 5) -. American women have little part of real living because they lack the old and rich social experience needed for it. The reason for this lack can be found in the fact that American women are mostly each others’ audience; in other words, they live their social life in an isolated realm of women (102), whereas the Frenchwoman acts as the business partner of her husband and a peer of other men in social intercourse. This social sense of being grown up is not diminished by the fact that the French wife has less legal independence than the American.

In this social sense of growing up, invisible for money-focused Americans, the Frenchwoman actually rules French life: “she rules it under a triple crown, as a business woman, as a mother, and above all, as an artist” (111). Wharton links this social sense to the Frenchwoman’s sense of beauty in particular and importance of life as art for the French in general (112). The behavior of the Frenchwoman represents exactly that sense of social maturity and knowing how to live (savoire vivre) beyond concerns with money the French as a whole seem to possess. Interestingly, it is the married woman whose social position permits the full exercise of her social powers, as girls are most severely isolated from socializing. Americans, as we have seen, are familiar with the reverse of this scenario, since in the US girls are allowed to ‘romp’ with male associates while married women are not. This is the reason why American married women cannot perform as social centers outside their households.

Wharton values the social roles filled in by French women by clinging to one presupposition. She takes for granted that the ‘knowing how to live,’ the aesthetic sense of beauty, as she often recalls, is more valuable than the money-oriented materialist vision Americans as a whole represent.

*

So how are French ways presented in Wharton’s account? According to the new stereotype, the French are learned, and live according to historically formed social patterns of behavior, and devote much attention to maintaining this heritage through education. In Wharton’s view, Americans are supposed to improve as a people by following the French example of learning, and in their relation to past, to education, to man-woman relations and towards marriage. Wharton’s representation of French ways is apparently biased. She takes Latin and Anglo-Saxon people as unities; she pretends to talk about and for the whole social spectrum of the US although she talks about the leisure class only. She argues for an unbiased comparative study of other cultures when she does has a clear preference for French ways and with a clear dislike of American ways. The French middle and upper classes represent a top of the range model of culture for her.

I have looked into how Wharton’s French Ways represents changing social patterns of behavior after the turmoil of WWI. Although the text is primarily concerned with social losses, it also celebrates traditional cultural values. At the same time, it gives a warning for America to revert back to the old standards, as exemplified by the French. Also, the text proves to be ambivalent, because when it brings female patterns of behavior into focus, it represents a social self in a network of culture (education) that forms a clear contrast with the biting educational intent of the volume. One can even find the tone of the text prescriptive and didactic because of the expressed Francophone bias. Therefore, Wharton’s model of culture in French Ways proves to be more challenging than the actual lesson on manners the book was intended to teach.

Works Cited

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  • ——. 1995. “Edith Wharton and the Issue of Race” Millicent Bell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Cambridge, CUP. 68-86.
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  • Wegener, Frederick, ed. 1996. Edith Wharton: The Uncollected Critical Writings. Princeton: PUP.
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  • ——. (1977) “The Fulness of Life” Available: http://www.classicreader.com/book/1977/1/ Access: Feb. 5, 2009
  • Wright, Sarah Bird. 1997. Edith Wharton’s Travel Writing: The Making of a Connoisseur. New York: St. Martin’s Press.