The Reckoning


“The marriage law of the new dispensation will be: Thou shalt not be unfaithful – to thyself.”

So begins Edith Wharton’s The Reckoning, a story which goes on to gleefully disabuse ‘the new dispensation’ which, I suppose, is largely how marriage is viewed now. In 1902, however, the idea that you might leave your wife or – God forbid! – your husband because you were tired of them is likely to have been little short of free love. (In fact when I began this story my initial impression was that the Westalls, Clement and Julia, did have an open marriage, when their radicalism only consists of allowing for divorce).

Julia is the initial proposer of this ideology having left her previous husband:

“Her husband’s personality seemed to be closing gradually in on her, obscuring the sky and cutting off the air, till she felt herself shut up among the decaying bodies of her starved hopes. A sense of having been decoyed by some world-old conspiracy into the bondage of body and soul filled her with despair.”

She finds Clement sympathetic to her ideas and they marry, each promising the other to offer no obstacle should separation be proposed. As the story opens, however, Julia seems to be having second thoughts about her doctrine seeing a young girl, Una Van Sideren (not that young – twenty-six), listen to her husband’s talk on the topic:

“It was ‘horrid’ – Mrs Westall found herself slipping back into the old feminine vocabulary – simply ‘horrid’ to think of a young girl’s being allowed to listen to such talk.”

When she asks her husband to stop giving such talks, something she has very much encouraged previously, she is unable to explain why. It becomes apparent that her distress at Una’s exposure to Clement’s oration has more to do with Una’s fascination with her husband than her youth. Matters are not helped when Clement declares, “She interests me.”

As the title suggests, this story is the very definition of ‘hoist by your own petard’. The ideology that once liberated Julia now threatens her. Wharton might not have much sympathy for Julia’s situation but that doesn’t stop her expressing her feelings with some brilliance, for example her unease that the physical world remains unchanged even as she feels her own world falling into chaos:

“This visual continuity was intolerable. Within, a gaping chasm; without, the same untroubled and familiar surface.”

It is Wharton’s skilful dissection of emotions throughout that gives the story depth. The same is true of the other story here, ‘Mrs Manstey’s View’, a slighter piece (apparently her first published story) but still able to convince in its portrayal of the last days of an elderly widow.

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6 Responses to “The Reckoning”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I’ve always loved her novel Ethan Frome. Have you read that one. It’s a very read and really good.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    While I haven’t read this story, I completely agree with your comments on Wharton’s skill in the dissection of emotions. She is such an acute observation of social situations and human behaviour. In addition to Ethan Frome, I would also recommend her society novels – The House of Mirth is just brilliant, probably one of my all-time faves.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting. Freedoms generally are double edged I suppose.

    I’ve read Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which I consider a masterpiece and recommend as highly as I can. I should read House of Mirth which I’m sure I’d like as much. There’s a review of Ethan Frome at mine which is very good but very different. It’s a good time of year to read it – it’s an icy novel in every sense.

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