This is the best of the four Edith Wharton novellas I read this weekend. It’s the most clearly realized, the least clever (as its main appeal) and the most that has something important to say about the social politics of America, not a requirement to be good, but one thing lacking from the previous novellas.
This story starts off with Mrs. Hazledean rushing away from a fire in the 5th avenue hotel, a tremendous events that surely everyone will talk about. The problem for her is that she is meeting her lover there and the gloriously entertaining fire will likely draw attention to her affair. Had this simply been a fling decades down the line that would be one thing, but the story will later draw out the further complications of the event.
This novella is narrated by a young man of 21 who is recalling this earlier event from his childhood while he is revisiting his mother and her ilk years later. He is also about to meet up with the aforementioned Mrs. Hazeldean.
The heart of this story is rooted in social judgment, need, and agency. Edith Wharton sort of asks the question, who is right to judge someone for their survival when all the tools of agency have been withheld from them. It’s a question men especially don’t like to discuss because the patriarchy is the one doing the withholding, and of course, a man will really not like the implications of this question within the confines of this story.