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Wharton the 'renovator': Twilight Sleep as Gothic satire.


The essay focuses on Edith Wharton's critically neglected novel Twilight Sleep as demonstrating the complexity of the social vision that is articulated in the mature fiction of the late 1gzos and early 1930s. In this hybrid text the generic boundaries between satire and the Gothic are dissolved as Wharton provides a cultural critique of social and aesthetic modernity that draws on contemporary thinking but also demonstrates her proficiency as a literary renovator. The novel is placed in both its European and American cultural contexts; its transatlantic Gothic antecedents are discussed, as are its affinities with the work of modernist writers.


Reviewing Edith Wharton's 1927 novel Twilight Sleep, the critic Edmund Wilson invoked the received hierarchy of genre to position the novel in relation to her earlier works: 'The House of Mirth was a tragedy; The Custom of the Country a ferocious satire. Twilight Sleep [...] remains a comedy'. Despite this rather disparaging remark, Wilson acknowledged that there was a freshness in the text: 'It is a striking proof of Mrs. Wharton's insight that Twilight Sleep should be something other than [...] a mere paler repetition of the author's earlier characters and situations. She has really, to a surprising extent, renewed herself with the new age'. (1) This phase of renewal, which began with The Mother's Recompense (1925), has been substantially misjudged and, consequently, neglected by critics of Wharton's work. It is our contention that Wharton, in her later works of fiction, deliberately experiments with blurring genre boundaries, producing a new hybrid mode through which to critique the modern age. It is apposite, therefore, to examine her work using recent scholarship that makes the connection between satire and the Gothic, (2) a connection that Wharton herself was making in her work in the 1920s.

We intend here to approach Wharton's engagement with the modern world in her fiction by examining Twilight Sleep as a hybrid text in which she combines the effects of realism with elements of the Gothic mode in order to make distinct her satiric vision. We shall suggest that, far from evidencing a decline from the three most valorized of her novels--The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), The Age of Innocence (1920)--Twilight Sleep shows Wharton deliberately dissolving generic boundaries in order to produce a new form of writing. The palimpsestic Gothic plot in this comic novel offers, we wish to claim, a profound critique of modern life, whilst its surface uses satire and parody in order to entertain. (3) And whilst the novel's satiric portraits amuse, divert, and perhaps educate, the Gothic elements within the text subtly evoke feelings of unease and emotional anxiety. The result is a complex and layered novel, the narrative drive conjuring the frenetic whirl of New York in the 1920s, and the Gothic palimpsest raising broad and disturbing questions about the nature of modernity. We shall thus argue that Twilight Sleep is not a mere comedy of manners manque, but a sophisticated example of Gothic satire that presents us with a sharp and sometimes melancholy assessment of modern American society as seen through the wry eyes of a mature woman writer.

Whereas the Gothic element of Twilight Sleep has been neglected, its humorous element seems to have divided readers. Even those critics who have written perceptively and at length on Twilight Sleep tend resolutely to ignore its comic dimension. Phillip Barrish, for example, in an illuminating essay on the novel, treats it almost as if it were a tragedy. (4) However, Naomi Royde-Smith, reviewing the novel in the New Statesman (2 July 1927), applauded its satiric elements and foregrounded their international relevance:

For Mrs. Manford, inexhaustibly rich, indiscriminately charitable, visiting her divorced husband once a week and completely failing to understand how horrid a mess she is making of her second marriage, is a thoroughly American type. And Mrs. Wharton has exposed her with a thoroughness that only just stops short of caricature [...] The book, it will be seen, is full of good, acid reading. And its satire will not be lost on London or Paris, where Mrs. Manford and her Inspirational Healers and Initiates have their counterparts. Mrs. Wharton is not telling that uncomfortable thing the Truth exclusively about American millionaires. (5)

The sharp and sometimes bitter humour in Wharton's late work is never just a consoling retreat into the whimsical or simply amusing. Throughout her writing career her humour always derives from the same source--satire; however, the focus of her later work is often the fraudulent language of cults and causes and the new languages of leisure and entertainment. Pauline Manford's quest is to join any organization that will recognize her prominence and fill her day with activity that distracts her from a potential hiatus. She sees, after all, no contradiction in subscribing enthusiastically to the Mothers' Day as well as the Birth Control lobbies; her high profile in both organizations is supposed to fulfil the injunction of the Mahatma--one of Pauline's gurus--to strive for a pitch where 'all discords were resolved into a higher harmony'. (6) However, her near-catastrophic error beginning her Birth Control Speech at the Mothers' Day meeting does at least bring a moment's pause to her blithe assumption that she is able to reconcile all such contradictions. Wharton wants to remind us of the comedic potential of the episode as she tells us that Pauline 'did not need her daughter's derisive chuckle to give her the measure of her inconsequence' (p. 115). We see here an intense and driven woman, fending off the knowledge of an empty and meaningless life by the application of high seriousness to often spurious moral, intellectual, or spiritual causes. The comedy--bitter though it is--derives from the expense of spirit in the pursuit of aims and ideals that could be attained so much more simply; as Dexter says, Pauline 'never walked upstairs, and then had to do gymnastics, and have osteopathy, and call in Hindu sages, to prevent her muscles getting atrophied' (p. 79). But the atrophy experienced by these New Yorkers, which is moral as well as physical, is expressed by a twist to Wharton's comic strategy in the later work.

As we have argued elsewhere, Wharton's ghost stories use humour, irony, and pathos rather than fear and anxiety to unsettle the reader, in a skilful appropriation of the Gothic mode. (7) Similarly, in Twilight Sleep, satire jostles with hints of the uncanny--a word used several times in the novel--in order to challenge the reader's complacency about the nature of progress and the place of women in the modern world. Humour and the Gothic are offered to the reader as the scalpel and forceps with which to dissect the nature of modernity, as represented by American metropolitan society in the 1920s. Family life is anatomized in the novel, especially the substitutions and displacements of authentic relationships in favour of the ephemeral pursuit of cults, causes, and celebrity.

The novel opens with a bleakly comic description of Pauline Manford's daily regime:

"7.30 Mental Uplift. 7.45 Breakfast. 8. Psychoanalysis. 8.15 See Cook. 8.30 Silent Meditation. 8.45 Facial massage. 9. Man with Persian miniatures. 9.15 Correspondence. 9.30 Manicure. 9.45 Eurythmic exercises. 10. Hair waved. 10.15 Sit for bust. 10.30 Receive Mothers' Day deputation. 11. Dancing lesson. 11.30 Birth Control committee at Mrs.--." (pp. 3-4)

The comedy here has several sources, the most obvious being the nature of Pauline Manford's packed day, in which a crowded schedule of meditation, massage, manicure, and a Mothers' Day deputation leaves no room for a conversation with her own daughter, Nona. There is a clear irony in the fact that Pauline's 'psychoanalysis' session, which will no doubt deal in a fashionably Freudian manner with the dynamics of family life, is tightly scheduled for 8 until 8.15, whereas Nona is given no time, no space at all by her mother. Indeed, Nona's renaming of her mother's boudoir as 'the office' signals her awareness of her mother as a public rather than a private presence. There is no dividing line between the domestic and the professional, a situation that Wharton exploits for all its comic worth, as her picture, elsewhere in the novel, of Pauline's idea of an intimate evening makes plain:

In confidential moments she preferred the homelier themes, and would have enjoyed best of all being tender and gay about the coal cellar, or reticent and brave about the leak in the boiler; but she was ready to deal with anything as long as it was a fact. (pp.199-200)

Nona, however, having feelings rather than facts to discuss, has difficulty making direct contact with her mother; instead, she has to liaise with her through her private secretary, Maisie Bruss, whose voice has become 'thinned and sharpened by continuous telephoning' (p. 3). It is worth noting here that the telephone itself plays a distinctive role in the buzzing New York world of this novel; but rather than enable communication, telephone conversations seem more often to result in what John Mepham describes as 'distressed listening', (8) a state of emotional dislocation induced by bad news, unsatisfactory interchange, or just plain insensitivity in one or other of the communicants. Of the dozen or so telephone calls reported in the narrative, only one--that between Jim and Nona prior to his telling her that Lita wants a divorce--has a satisfactory, albeit short-lived, resolution. All the others either bring bad news, delivered in 'remote and utterly indifferent' voices (p. 187), or convey an impatient and agitated desire to be heard; what telephone dialogue actually signifies in this novel is failure of communication.

Wharton is using irony and satire to warn us that although modernity and late capitalism--at least in America--have resulted in a very sophisticated life style, there is a cost to pay in human terms. More, in some contexts, might just mean less. The highly materialistic and complex social life of the Manford family is shadowed by a dysfunctionalism that is also evident in society at large. This dysfunctionalism expresses itself in rampant materialism, a fear of ageing, and, in Dexter's case, workaholism. The fear of ageing combines with a cult of the body that, for older women such as Pauline, results in a neurotic desire to stay young, and for young women such as Lita, produces eating disorders: '[Lita] either nibbled languidly at new health foods, or made ravenous inroads into the most indigestible dish presented to her' (p. 36). The self in such a society is something constructed through surface activity in which even spirituality--'silent meditation'--can be bought as a commodity and timetabled. Wharton's vein of satiric social observation here owes much to authors such as Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and George Meredith, (9) and has its contemporary English parallel in the scathing society novels of Evelyn Waugh, in particular his comic Gothic A Handful of Dust, published in 1934. For whereas Wharton's earlier The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country remain resolutely within the realms of American naturalism and realism, Twilight Sleep, like Waugh's novel, plays with the boundaries between naturalism and the Gothic. It does so not by introducing any supernatural presence, but by continually reminding us of Gothic plots, tropes, and conventions. This makes Wharton--to use the words she chose to describe Proust--a 'renovator' rather than an 'unintelligible innovator'. (10) She sees the French author as great not only because he was stylistically experimental, but also because he 'was himself that far more substantial thing in the world of art, a renovator', that is, he was part of and owed much to 'the great line of classic tradition'. (11)

Indeed, the novel's first chapter obliquely reminds us how many classic Gothic novels open with a young heroine who has recently been orphaned: for example, Ann Radcliffe's Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho and Ellena in The Italian; Charlotte Bronte's eponymous governess in Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe in Villette. For although Nona is not literally an orphan, unlike the more deadly Lita, her parents' embrace of New York values has emotionally orphaned her. It is not only her mother who is unavailable, 'her own father, Dexter Manford, who was so clever, capable and kind, [was] almost always too busy at the office, or too firmly requisitioned by Mrs. Manford, when he was at home, to be able to spare much time for his daughter' (p. 9). It is significant, of course, that Jim--Pauline Manford's son by her first marriage--who invariably has time for Nona, is one of the few characters not caught up in the materialist values of modern New York. Jim is the only person with whom Nona can feel authentic. It also appears that a relationship with the older Stan Heuston, a 'disillusioned idler' (p. 211), who is even more detached and alienated from New York society than Nona, might offer an intimacy that would give meaning to her life. However, Stan's marriage to the intractable Aggie stands in the way for Nona, who is apparently the only woman in her set with moral scruples. She is, indeed, the moral touchstone of the novel; as Dexter says, she is 'firm as a rock: a man's heart could build on her' (p. 126). Whereas in early Gothic works the great threat is material poverty from the loss of both parents, in later Gothic texts what becomes important is the sense of the heroine's emotional and intellectual isolation. We suggest that Wharton's novel can be seen as part of this developing tradition: Nona, like many Gothic heroines, feels alone despite being surrounded by people, and becomes an acute observer of a society and family from which she feels increasingly detached.

In Twilight Sleep Lita and Jim's state-of-the-art drawing room is described as being 'more like the waiting room of a glorified railway station', suggesting the transience of modern-day marriage, which for Lita, if not for Jim, is merely a stage in life to be passed through. The 'early kakemono' and white Sung vase are fashionable aesthetic indicators of a wisdom and peace never present in the New York rush of life; Lita's black boudoir 'with its welter of ebony black cushions' (pp. 30-31) and its Cubist statue is not only pretentious, but is a room in which the anguish of art has been reduced to ephemeral decoration. (12) One suspects that for Lita, if not Jim, their six-month-old son is not much more than the final designer touch--an accessory--in a carefully composed menage. And, once again, there are Gothic shadows here: as Phillip Barrish notes, Wharton makes a great deal of 'darkness' in this novel, mainly to suggest the 'unheimlich' within the well-lit middle-class home. (13) What is hidden here, although Nona intuits it and so does the reader, is incestuous desire. In such a context, even light itself becomes dysfunctional: Lita's insistence that, for the sake of decor, the aquarium is kept illuminated night and day, results in a form of piscine torture that soon turns the sleep-deprived fish into scaly corpses.

The sinister atmosphere of the traditional gloomy Gothic building is thus rendered in comic vein, as are the many other potentially Gothic elements in Twilight Sleep. For example, the weight of the past and the importance of ancestral lineage in the traditional Gothic novel, which are often signalled through the family portrait, (14) are here reduced to comic self-delusion: 'Mrs. Manford would glance with pardonable pride at the glorious Gainsborough over the dining-room mantelpiece (which she sometimes almost mistook for an ancestral portrait)' (p. 11). Even the darkest Gothic element of the plot, the near-incestuous relationship between Dexter Manford and his stepson's wife Lita, is presented, finally, in somewhat farcical vein. The older man's pursuit of a younger woman--often his niece or his step-daughter or his daughter-in-law--is a common plot element of many classic Gothic novels, and one that probably derives from Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel in English, published in 1764. After the death of his young son, the novel's villain, Manfred, Count of Otranto, pursues his son's fiancee, Isabella, abandoning his wife in the process. Assuming Isabella is secretly meeting a handsome young peasant named Theodore, he tracks her down and stabs her--or so he thinks. In fact, in the dark and the gloom he has mistakenly stabbed his own daughter, Matilda. The scene is written in a somewhat operatic style, combining horror with melodrama:

Manfred, whose spirits were inflamed, and whom Isabella had driven from her on his urging his passion with too little reserve, did not doubt but the inquietude she had expressed had been occasioned by her impatience to meet Theodore. Provoked by this conjecture [...] he hastened secretly to the great church. Gliding softly between the aisles, and guided by an imperfect gleam of moonshine that shone faintly through the illuminated windows, he stole towards the tomb of Alfonso, to which he was directed by the indistinct whispers of the persons he sought. The first sounds he could distinguish were--Does it, alas, depend on me? Manfred will never permit our union.--No, this shall prevent it! Cried the tyrant, drawing his dagger, and plunging it over her shoulder into the bosom of the person that spoke--Ah me, I am slain! cried Matilda sinking: Good heaven, receive my soul!--Savage, inhuman monster! What hast thou done? cried Theodore, rushing on him and wrenching his dagger from him.--Stop, stop thy impious hand, cried Matilda; it is my father! (15)

In Wharton's Notebook: 'Notes and Subjects' 1928, (16) Pauline and Dexter are given the surname 'Manfred'. Throughout her notes, as the novel is plotted, 'Manford' and 'Manfred' alternate; although in the final published version she opts for the former, it is clear that The Castle of Otranto is in her mind as she works out the detail of Twilight Sleep. With certain changes--for example, the character of Manfred being split between two father figures, Arthur Wyant and Dexter Manford--the end of Wharton's novel distinctly echoes elements of this scene from Walpole's novel, including its combination of horror and farce:

Pauline went in.

All the lights were on--the room was a glare. Another man stood shivering and staring in a corner, but Pauline hardly noticed him, for before her on the floor lay Lita's long body, in a loose spangled robe, flung sobbing over another body.

'Nona--Nona!' the mother screamed, rushing forward to where they lay.

She swept past her husband, dragged Lita back, was on her knees on the floor, her child pressed to her, Nona's fallen head against her breast, Nona's blood spattering the silvery folds of the rest-gown, destroying it forever as a symbol of safety and repose.

'Nona--child! What's happened? Are you hurt? Dexter--for pity's sake! Nona, look at me! It's mother, darling, mother--'

Nona's eyes opened with a flutter. Her face was ashen-white, and empty as a baby's. Slowly she met her mother's agonised stare. 'All right ... only winged me.' Her gaze wavered about the disordered room, lifting and dropping in a butterfly's bewildered flight. Lita lay huddled on the couch in her spangles, twisted and emptied, like a festal garment flung off by its wearer. Manford stood between, his face a ruin. In the corner stood that other man, shrinking, motionless. Pauline's eyes, following her child's travelled on to him.

'Arthur!' she gasped out and felt Nona's feeble pressure on her arm.

'Don't ... don't ... It was an accident. Father--an accident! Father!' (pp. 354-55).

The attempted murder, the sobbing, the screaming, and the blood-bespattered garments evoke the mood and tenor of opera, the Gothic, and melodrama, suggesting that Twilight Sleep can be read as a comic appropriation of the Gothic. (17) For the scene is comic and farcical as well as deeply disturbing. Tragedy is averted; Nona does not die but survives to regard the world from an even further distance of ironic detachment. Reputations are not shattered but preserved, because Powder, the comedically tactful butler, is astute enough to invent a burglar as the perpetrator of the dastardly crime. The sense of awe ushered in by the Gothic sublime is here replaced by what is described as 'an unnatural clamour, immense, mysterious and menacing'; no Gothic force of retribution this, but 'the Cedarledge fire-brigade, arriving double quick in answer to their benefactress's summons' (p. 356). This is the very fire brigade whose uniforms, shiny helmets, and drills inspire Dexter's observation that Pauline, whom her husband sees as a 'Goddess of Velocity [...] enjoys [their display] as much as other women do love-making' (p. 297). So, it is not surprising that at this point 'Pauline, bending over her daughter's face, fancied she caught a wan smile on it' (p. 356). Wharton's use of irony, bathos, anticlimax, and parody demands engagement with something other than the realist mode if we are to make sense of the novel, and Nona's 'wan smile' alerts us to this.

In Twilight Sleep Wharton is, of course, drawing on a tradition not only of English but also American Gothic. Melville frequently used the Gothic mode, as Allan Lloyd-Smith notes, 'to articulate his more coded understanding of the darker underside of the new nation's surfaces'. (18) Other American writers have used it to examine that 'darker underside' specifically within the family: for example, Brockden Brown in Wieland, and Poe in The House of Usher explore incestuous feelings between brother and sister. Indeed, in an essay entitled 'Incest in Alcott's "A Marble Woman"', Mary Chapman claims that 'incest, both sibling and paternal, has been a stock theme of American Gothic literature from the fiction of the early republic to contemporary fiction'. (19) Why, though, are Gothic texts so centrally concerned with this particular form of illicit desire? Arguably, the Gothic novel gives us a counter-narrative to the Enlightenment notion that modernity, built on the tenets of reason and science, is always indicative of progress. (20) Fundamental to the optimistic narrative of Enlightenment philosophy is the idea that both the State and the family are benign and protective institutions. The Gothic text gives us an alternative reading that presents the State as oppressive and the family as a unit of entrapment, particularly for women, (21) in which power struggles and perverted values can lead to emotional dysfunctionalism. Indeed, Mary Chapman suggests that the rise of a new egalitarian family structure in eighteenth-century America (founded on a parental ideal promoted by John Locke and on the ideology of separate spheres) resulted in the replacement of one domestic tyranny (that of the father over the son) by another (that of the father over the daughter):

Evidence of paternal abuse of daughters in the Gothic novel suggests that the paternal authority repressed by newly egalitarian relationships between fathers and sons (and imperial nations and their former colonies) returns in the subordination of daughters, who even as adults are metaphorically and literally treated as children. The Gothic form exposes the shortcomings of this new egalitarian family structure. Similarly, the Gothic exposes the shortcomings of the ideology of separate spheres [...] The fiction that [this] ideology promotes--that the home is safe and overseen by benign maternal figures--in turn veils the operation of the paternal law [...] within the private sphere [...] By designating the home the site of affect, separate spheres ideology also risks turning eroticism in on itself, making incest (psychological if not physical) the inevitable result. (22)

The alarming idea that the role of the State is merely domestic tyranny writ large is, however, usually distanced in the traditional Gothic novel by the projection of such evil onto a foreign 'Other'--the Spanish Inquisition, for example, or the Catholic Church. In novels such as Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796), Ann Radcliffe's The Italian (1797), and Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland (1798), the State and the Church are represented unambiguously as agents of malevolent control. Thus the Gothic novel warns us that the surface civility of modernity is still haunted by fear, ambition, narcissism, and a desire for power. Wharton plays with this convention: she has Pauline congratulate herself on her tolerance in courting the attentions of the Cardinal and her generous support to the Catholic Amalasuntha, but this facade of open-mindedness does not need to be scratched very deeply before 'the old Puritan terror of gliding priests and incense and idolatry rise to the surface' (p. 373). Like most Gothic novels, Twilight Sleep refuses, ultimately, to represent progress as inevitably benign, portraying modernity as haunted by labyrinthine and oppressive discourses embodied in metanarratives such as religion and the law. Indeed, it disrupts the American dream by revealing the emotional and spiritual vacuum at its core, thereby anticipating Freud's Civilization and its Discontents (1930). Written in the 1920s, Wharton's cynical yet melancholy appraisal of modernity thus resonates with Freudian thought, which conceptualizes the 'bourgeois drama' being played out 'on the conscious stage of the psyche' as always inflected by 'a Greek tragedy [...] going on somewhere else'. (23) It is not surprising, then, that our heroine, Nona Manford, is described not only as 'the cleverest girl in New York' (p. 72), but also as a 'bewildered little Iphigenia' (p. 48). In a society in which the middle-aged 'ignore sorrow and evil', dismissing them as 'survivals of some obsolete European superstition unworthy of enlightened Americans' (p. 47), it is the young whose innocence is sacrificed, for they are left to bear 'the load' resulting from seeing, clear-eyed, 'the powers of darkness' (p. 48).

The Gothic novel frequently depicts the home as--to use Chapman's words again--'a frightening realm where desire is [...] both repressed and determined by the law'. (24) Not only is the idea of the home transmogrified from safe to sinister in Gothic writing, but the law itself becomes an oppressive rather than a protective force. (25) Thus, notwithstanding the comic patina of Twilight Sleep, it is significant that Dexter Manford is a lawyer; as such, he represents not only a successful, self-made American, but also that aspect of modernity concerned with public justice, transparency, accountability, and control. However, in this role he represents the Law of the Father, in that both through his profession and what Barrish describes as his 'privileged sociocultural status as ruling-class white man', (26) he shores up the patriarchal values of America in the 1920s. The fact that Dexter specializes in divorce law adds to the novel's piquant focus on failed relationships; he has made a very profitable career out of what Wharton's narrator describes as 'the matrimonial quicksands of New York' (p. 12), one that allows his wife to indulge her taste for expensive houses and decor. Through Dexter Manford and his commitment to work--'he had been brought up to think there was a virtue in work per se, even if it served no more useful purpose than the revolving of a squirrel in a wheel' (p. 6)--America is presented as fast becoming a workaholic and litigious nation. Furthermore, in encouraging the quantification of personal pain by way of financial reparation, the legal system allows yet another dimension of human life to become commodified. This is a rich, efficient, and busy society. However, it is one that hides a great deal of turmoil and discontent, signified by Dexter's disturbed emotional state, which only his daughters--actual and putative--seem able to read. Dexter's is not the only discontent in the novel, of course: the emptiness of other characters' lives drives them to seek fulfilment in the bizarre, the superficial, and the merely charlatan--the 'Spiritual Vacuum Cleaning' (p. 139) of Alvah Loft, the 'eternal rejuvenation' (p. 319) offered by Sacha Gobine, or the Mahatma's 'wonderful mystical teachings about Self-Annihilation, Anterior Existence and Astral Affinities ... all so incomprehensible and so pure ...' (pp. 20-21).

The Mahatma, who runs the 'School of Oriental Thought' (p. 46) at Dawnside, where he encourages his female disciples to wear loose and rather transparent Eastern dress (p. 111), is undoubtedly based on George I. Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff set up 'the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man' at Fontainebleau, near Paris, in 1922, establishing a centre 'for the study of consciousness', where activities such as 'Sacred Gymnastics' took place in pursuit of spiritual wholeness. Although Gurdjieff was based in France, his influence was not limited to Europe, and his tour of New York and Chicago in 1924 consolidated his 'considerable American following'. (27) In Pauline's tribute to the powers of the Mahatma, Wharton burlesques Gurdjieff 's emphasis on the body: 'it was certainly those eurythmic exercises of the Mahatma's ("holy ecstasy," he called them) which had reduced her hips after everything else had failed' (p. 20). The pseudo-spiritual discourse of the Mahatma and the other substitutes for organized religion we see in the novel have their foundation in the practices and linguistic style of Gurdjieff and his disciples. The satiric portrayal of such cultish figures is an important part of Wharton's examination of the modern world; just as Eliot invokes Madame Sosostris in The Waste Land to highlight the loss of authentic faith, so Wharton employs the Mahatma and others. Every aspect of the spiritual life in Twilight Sleep is portrayed as fraudulent, and this makes Wharton's appropriation of the Gothic particularly apt, since the Gothic itself is intrinsically concerned with fraudulence and fakery. Indeed, Jerrold E. Hogle has suggested that the popularity of Gothic writing since the mid-eighteenth century owes much to the way in which the dialectic between 'authenticity' and 'fakery' in Gothic texts gives expression to the fragmentation of the modern self: 'The gothic refaking of fakery becomes a major repository of the newest contradictions and anxieties in western life that most need to be abjected by those who face them so that middle-class westerners can keep constructing a distinct sense of identity'. (28) Wharton's Twilight Sleep offers the reader a parodic representation of the Gothic's focus on fakery, appropriating Gothic conventions in order to offer a satiric view of modern society.

The fraudulent and frenetic world of New York is counterpointed in Wharton's novel by the equally fake relics of 'old Europe' who find their way to the New World. Again, a tension between the old and the new is something we find frequently in classic Gothic fiction, where the values of an older, aristocratic society, validating itself through a chivalric code, are often in conflict with those of a more 'modern' world in which romantic love and the ethics of sensibility are endorsed above ties of blood, property, or 'honour'. There is also often a profound tension in such texts between the relatively new faith of Protestantism and the ancient Catholic faith. These tensions inform Twilight Sleep. There is clear conflict in the novel between Arthur Wyant, whose 'old New York blood' (p. 11) manifests itself in a quaint chivalric code, and Pauline Manford, whose values are entirely 'modern' in that her spirituality is 'New Age', alternative, and bought for hard cash. This tension is exemplified again by the contrast between the casual frequency with which divorce takes place in New York and Amalasuntha's (admittedly Machiavellian) Catholic and Italian refusal to contemplate divorce at all. Indeed, the novel's flirtation with Italy, woven in through Amalasuntha's marriage to the Marchese Venturino de San Fedele, 'of one of the great Neapolitan families' (p. 16), echoes very strongly the Gothic tale's fascination with the foreign 'Other'; for example, both Ann Radcliffe's The Italian and Hawthorne's 'Rappaccini's Daughter' are set in Italy. In the classic Gothic novel Italy is usually associated with decadence (represented invariably by the Catholic Church's misuse of power), superstition, intrigue, and mortal danger. Wharton, however, often presents 'old Europe' through the eyes of Pauline Manford, whose cultural ignorance comically reduces it to a mixture of the glamorous and the primitive:

"It's so dreadful--the wicked lives those great Roman families lead. After all, poor Amalasuntha has good American blood in her [...] but what is [she] to do, in a country where there's no divorce, and a woman just has to put up with everything? The Pope has been most kind; he sides entirely with Amalasuntha. But Venturino's people are very powerful too--a great Neapolitan family (pp. 18-19)

The threat of the Italian stiletto or the Spanish Inquisition is thus reduced at the level of plot to a means by which Amalasuntha can sponge off her quondam cousin. For twenty-seven years Pauline Manford has been prepared to finance her ex-husband's relative's expensive tastes for the sake of being connected to the 'exotic lustre' (p. 17) of old Europe, since Amalasuntha is, by her own admission, still 'a useful social card' (p. 18). Against the glamour of this old Europe there is the lure of the new America as represented not only by New Age cults and the emphasis on the body, but also by Mr Klawhammer and his Hollywood opportunities.

As the novel draws to its close, echoes of Gothic become even more resonant; indeed, we suggest that it is probably impossible to make much sense of its last few pages without reference to the conventions and tropes of the classic Gothic novel. In such a text the orphaned heroine invariably escapes from a convent or a castle, where she has been immured by a predatory older male, and, after many meanderings and adventures, she marries the virtuous young hero. The last chapter of Radcliffe's The Italian, for example, celebrates in an almost hysterically joyful manner the marriage between Ellena Rosalba (formerly incarcerated against her will in a convent) and Vincentio di Vivaldi. The effect of such closure should be compared and contrasted with the last words of Wharton's novel, where the Gothic plot is inverted. Rather than marry, Nona wishes to enter a convent, but a convent 'where nobody believes in anything' (p. 373). If marriage as closure represents a positive re-engagement with society--and that is what the comic mode usually indicates--then Nona's rejection of marriage and her flippantly announced wish to become a nun in such a convent represent a state of intense alienation. Conversely, Pauline's attitude to life is seen as correlated with a modernity ushered in by a Puritanism that, for complex historical and social reasons, has hardened into a peculiar narrowness and intolerance, which is made manifest in Anglo-Saxon Gothic plotting. Such intolerance refuses, of course, to accept that the irrational or the questionable resides within oneself; instead--just as in the Protestant English Gothic novel--it is projected on to Italy, or old Europe, or the past. The locus of evil and folly is always somewhere else for Pauline Manford, not least in the 'wicked lives' led by people who reside abroad. What Wharton's novel shows us, however, is that folly and dysfunctionalism also lie within the heart of Western modernity and its crucible, the family. This insight is characteristic of the Gothic vision: as Elizabeth MacAndrew observes of The Castle of Otranto 'the problem of evil is [...] presented as a psychological problem created in the ambience of the family'. (29)

Hence, of course, the novel's ambivalent representation of family life. And hence its title. 'Twilight Sleep' is, as Phillip Barrish has noted, not only the name of the rest home where Lita had her baby, but also a reference to 'a compound popular among upper-class women of the 1920s for anaesthetizing the pain of childbirth'. (30) Thus Lita was able to drift 'into motherhood as lightly and un-perceivingly as if the wax doll which suddenly appeared in the cradle at her bedside had been brought there in one of the big bunches of hot-house roses that she found every morning on her pillow' (p. 14). This is a world in which babies are 'turned out in series like Fords' (p. 15); in which people are frequently regarded as objects; and in which the opportunity to grow spiritually and emotionally through adversity is denied. But this is not all: Wharton reintroduces the idea of twilight in the novel's last chapter. Before he leaves with his wife for their grand tour of far places, Nona's father comes to say goodbye at dusk: 'She wound her fingers into his, and they sat silent again. She liked to have him near her in this way, but she was glad, for his sake and her own, that the twilight made his face indistinct' (p. 369). The fragmented and incomplete conversation that follows articulates little but tells us volumes about what these characters cannot say. It speaks of evasion, compromise, and sorrow. In a novel where appropriate intimacy is largely absent, this scene comes as a shock. It is ironic that such affection can be demonstrated only after Dexter has committed the hideous act of betrayal that led him to Lita's bed.

Of course, the most memorable intimacy between father and daughter in Edith Wharton's writing is that between Beatrice Palmato and her father in the fragment that bears her name. (31) Their encounter brings the secret of transgressive desire out of darkness and into the light, out of silence and into words. On one level, the highly erotic episode between Beatrice and her father, featuring oral and penetrative sex, cannot be compared to the parting scene between Dexter and Nona. (32) However, the physical haunts the emotional congress between father and daughter even here. Nona calls him 'Old Dad', attempting to retrieve a previous, more innocent version of her father, but also seeking to negate her knowledge of her father's sexual relationship with his alternative daughter, Lita. We have already learnt that, since the shooting, Nona can no longer sleep properly at night and that it is only by day that she can drift off. She is, quite literally, in a 'twilight sleep' when her father arrives to say goodbye. The phrase thus moves from signifying relief from physical pain at the beginning of the novel to connoting a moment's respite from the pain of real knowledge at its end. Nona, as the witness to, the victim of, and the scapegoat in this shallow and superficial world, is recompensed for her suffering by an understanding of 'the powers of darkness' (p. 48) that increasingly alienate her from it. The boundaries between the acceptable and the taboo that had been threatened by the affair between Dexter and Lita have apparently been reinstated through the novel's closure--at least at the level of plot. However, the Gothic makes us alert to the fact that such boundaries are always temporary and unstable. Nona now understands this: but there is no place in this society for her integrity and her understanding--hence her desire for retreat from it, if only to a convent 'where nobody believes in anything'. The novel's uncertain and ambiguous ending is a far cry from the death of a beautiful woman as presented in The House of Mirth. Just as Villette is a more knowing and cynical reworking of Jane Eyre, so Twilight Sleep is a more sophisticated and cynical treatment of modernity than that offered by The House of Mirth.

Does this mean that Wharton, in her rejection of modernity and all that was represented by the whirl of New York, was herself a victim of nostalgia and conservatism? An author who longed for an older and more authentic world? We suggest not, for the novel offers us no viable point of reference for authenticity; even 'old Europe' in Twilight Sleep is given to us only as a fantasy of the glamorous or the abject, a fantasy that is itself dependent on fictional and cultural narratives. It has no real presence as a preferable or superior space. Wharton has ceased, at this stage of her career, to seek such validity elsewhere. The satire of The Custom of the Country, which always seems to place America in comparison with France to the former's disadvantage, has become, to a large extent, sans frontieres in Twilight Sleep. No one is safe from her irony here, although it is clear that Nona's sad and cynical detachment from her society will result in a new sort of female consciousness. However, whereas Waugh's innovative use of comic Gothic resulted in A Handful of Dust being canonized as a brilliant work of satire, Wharton's novel has been misunderstood and unjustly neglected precisely because her change of style and substance--focusing on the incest theme, for example--made her work less palatable to an American audience.

Through her skilful blending of generic opposites--the comic and the tragic, the satiric and the Gothic--Wharton is doing more than offering an analysis of post-war society; in this late novel she is critiquing the very nature of modernity. Disturbed by the psychopathology of everyday life, Wharton brings opposites together in this palimpsestic novel, mixing melancholy and pessimism with the acid humour of satire and the black humour of comic Gothic. We should, then, perhaps conclude by reminding ourselves that the word 'twilight' conjures up the notion of an uncertain boundary between opposites. That is what we have in Wharton's novel: Enlightenment systems versus the irrational excess that threatens those systems. Wharton's Twilight Sleep is essentially a hybrid text best described as Gothic satire. For, whilst horror Gothic is marked by an obsession with darkness, presenting death and 'evil' as supernatural forces, satiric Gothic frequently recuperates the 'supernatural' Other into the realm of the material. Whereas, in such a text, the plot may contain uncanny forces, the narrative resolutely accommodates them within a vision of the natural world. In this case Gothic effects are reduced finally to a spurious, commodified representation of the spiritual that is made manifest only in the reduction of Pauline's hips or the delivery of a messianic prophecy 'in tabloid form' (p. 140). However, as we have seen, although Gothic satire is often perceived as merely entertaining for these very reasons, in fact it frequently deals with profound questions of belief and identity while allowing its readers a measure of detachment afforded by the comic mode. This detachment, essentially intellectual in its nature, is signified by Nona's retreat from the world, and is a mark of Wharton's 'new vision' and of her own maturity as a writer.

(1) Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. by James W. Tuttleton, Kristen O. Lauer, and Margaret P. Murray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 434.

(2) For work on the comic and the Gothic see, for example, Sybil Korff Vincent, 'The Mirror and the Cameo: Margaret Atwood's Comic/Gothic Novel, Lady Oracle', in The Female Gothic, ed. by Juliann E. Fleenor (Montreal: Eden, 1983), pp. 153-63; Paul Lewis, Comic Effects: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humor in Literature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), esp. ch. 3, 'Humor and Fear in the Gothic', pp. 111-53; Victor Sage, 'Gothic Laughter: Farce and Horror in Five Texts', in Gothick Origins and Innovations, ed. by Allan Lloyd-Smith and Victor Sage (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), pp. 190-203; Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

(3) For observations on Wharton's use of palimpsest in other works see Janet Beer Goodwyn, Edith Wharton: Traveller in the Land of Letters (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), pp. 5, 105, 115, 121-22, 129.

(4) Philip Barrish, American Literary Realism: Critical Theory and Intellectual Prestige, 1880-1995 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); see ch. 4, 'What Nona Knows'.

(5) Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews, p. 441.

(6) Edith Wharton, Twilight Sleep (New York and London: Appleton, 1927), p. 115. All further references are to this edition and will be given in the text.

(7) See Janet Beer and Avril Horner, '"This isn't exactly a ghost story ...": Edith Wharton and Parodic Gothic',

(8) John Mepham, unpublished paper: 'Strange Intimacies: The Telephone in Fiction, 1920-1950'.

(9) In his Edith Wharton: A Biography (London: Constable, 1975), R.W. B. Lewis notes that in The Writing of Fiction (published in 1925) Wharton 'returns time and time again to the same cluster of names: Balzac and Stendhal; Jane Austen, Trollope, Thackeray, George Eliot and Meredith; Tolstoy, and though less often, Dostoyevsky' (p. 521).

(10) The Writing of Fiction (1925; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), p. 109.

(11) The Writing of Fiction, p. 153.

(12) This description of Lita's black boudoir clearly reflects contemporary taste in American interior decor. In the May 1927 issue of Pictorial Review, in an article featuring famous women's houses, Mrs Fairbank's guest room in her Chicago home is described as having a colour scheme of 'rose, taupe and black', with curtains 'made of modern French linen in a cubist design [...] The carpet is black velvet. The bedspreads are of silver tissue [...] The fauteuil is cushioned in black velvet' (p. 63).

(13) Barrish, pp. 120-21.

(14) As, for example, in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Carmilla' (1872).

(15) Three Gothic Novels, ed. by Peter Fairclough (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp. 141-42.

(16) n the Beinecke Library, Yale University. Avril Horner is grateful to the British Academy whose financial support enabled a visit to the Beinecke Library in autumn 2004.

(17) See Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, for a discussion of comic appropriations of the Gothic between 1764 and 1990.

(18) Allan Lloyd Smith, 'American Gothic', in The Handbook to the Gothic, ed. by Marie Mulvey-Roberts (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), p. 2.

(19) Mary Chapman, 'Incest in Alcott's "A Marble Woman"', in American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, ed. by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998), p. 184. In a footnote to this sentence Chapman lists twenty-four American works that deal with 'incest or the threat of it'.

(20) See Fred Botting, Gothic (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) for a fuller discussion of Gothic writing in this respect.

(21) See Kate Ferguson Ellis, The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989) for a fuller discussion of Gothic writing in this respect.

(22) Chapman, pp. 190-91.

(23) Introduction to extracts from Freud's work in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch and others (New York and London: Norton), p. 916.

(24) Chapman, p. 198.

(25) See Leslie J. Moran, 'Law and the Gothic Imagination', in The Gothic, ed. by Fred Botting (Cambridge: Brewer, 2001) for a fuller discussion of Gothic writing in this respect.

(26) Barrish, p. 113.

(27) George Baker and Walter Driscoll, 'Gurdjieff in America: An Overview' We are indebted to Dr Michael Tyldesley for helping us to make this connection.

(28) Jerrold E. Hogle, 'The Gothic Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Progress of Abjection', in A Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 297.

(29) Cited in Chapman, p. 189.

(30) Barrish, p. 107. See also Dale M. Bauer, Edith Wharton's Brave New Politics (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), pp. 92-98.

(31) The 'Beatrice Palmato' fragment is reprinted as Appendix C in R.W. B. Lewis, Edith Wharton, pp. 546-48.

(32) For a persuasive and interesting reading of the 'Beatrice Palmato' fragment, which sees it as 'quintessentially Whartonian Gothic', see Kathy A. Fedorko, Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1995), pp. 82-85.


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Title Annotation:Edith Wharton
Author:Beer, Janet; Horner, Avril
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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