“Mrs Manstey’s View”
“The view from Mrs. Manstey’s window was not a striking one, but to her at least, it was full of interest and beauty”
In this first story, we meet Mrs. Manstey, an elderly woman living in New York in a boarding house. She has a room with a tremendous view, and because she doesn’t really want much else in life except to look out of her window, occasionally read or knit, and contemplate life, things are fairly good. She spends a good amount of time early in the story thinking about what other yards and other views are like in the city, and the special quality of her view gives her an additional prideful pleasure. However, one day her maid tells her that the owner of the house will soon be adding an extension onto the house which clearly indicates that that view will be disturbed and possibly completely ruined. This revelation sends her into a fit of despair, but also into a fit of action.
The story, which is a very American story, plays upon the sense of ownership and pride that one has over the little parts of life that one’s conquered, including the petty feeling of triumph if you enjoy something someone else doesn’t. But only change is a constant in life, and a too rigid and too tied up sense of one’s life will often lead to disaster, whether of your making or another’s.
“The Fulness of Life”
For hourse she had lain in a kind of gentle torpor, not unlike the sweet lassitude which masters one in the hush of the midsummer noon, when the heat seems to have silenced the very birds and insects, and, lying sunk in the tasselled maple-leaves at the vast, shadowless, and unsuggestive blue.”
In the story a sits looking at nature and becomes aware that she seems to have died. She’s taken to the afterlife where she is told that she has in fact died and now she has a choice. She can be offered her soulmate, a kindred spirit, with whom she will move onto eternity being with, or she can wait for her husband. She asks of course will her husband be offered the same choice and she is told yes, and she states, well, he would wait for me, so I will wait for him. The spirit at the gate warns her that all the annoying and petty things about life will still be true in the afterlife as well, including among other things his creaky shoes, and the implication of course that he might not choose the same way as her, and she decides to go ahead and wait anyway.
The little ironies that pepper this story about the state of marriage and what is expected of women in them are wonderful. Even the idea of choosing the same thing that life offered in eternity instead of a chance at new (real?) happiness. The character calls it love, but it’s less clear the story believes her when she says as much.
The Letters – This long story by Edith Wharton involves a woman who finds herself working in a house and falling in love with the man of the house. We find out that she often or sometimes would find herself kissed by an employer, a professor or teacher, or someone else (all depressing!) but that this is the first time she kissed back. And as happens in a lot of Wharton’s writing, what often would have been a kind of tragedy, is presented in the transitional times of the late 1800s and early 1900s becomes a moment of possibility. There’s divorce after all! But we’re getting a divorce here. Instead, we find out that his wife has become ill and dies. But rather that present an opportunity for the burgeoning couple, this ends things. They go their own ways with our young woman writing a seemingly endless supply of letters which are never answered. A few years later our protagonist finds herself in a better position, on the verge of a marriage again, when a ship arrives and her former love with it. He asks her to meet, which she does, and he tells her that her letters, even though her never answered them we’re very dear to her, and against better judgment she decides to get back with him, marry him, and they have a child. Years on from this! Their young child is playing with an old bag in his study and uncovers, to the horror of the woman, all those dear letters, unopened.
Like a lot of Wharton stories a minor discovery leads to not necessarily enormous consequences, but a shattering moment of personal discovery.
Afterward – One of Wharton’s most famous stories, this begins with a young couple buying a gothic estate and asking in an almost giddy way whether or not the house is haunted. They are told yes, but that they won’t know it until long afterward. This cryptic comment excites them, but fades into the background of their life. And of course, a strange figure starts appearing in the house, a mysterious figure of a man who doesn’t talk or seem recognizable. It’s not clear who exactly this is or what they want. In the meantime, the husband gets sued by a business partner. He doesn’t seem to care very much and certainly doesn’t seem worried by it all. Instead, he’s laughs it off. Slowly as the wife uncovers the details of the business affair, the details of the figure start to emerge, along with the cryptic warning.
The story is a gothic/ghost story, and like most ghost stories is about something not so supernatural haunting the characters. Here we have the unknown realms of the husband’s life and what he’s more than capable and almost happy to do in order to keep his fortune. Other people’s minds and secrets are of course the thing that is most hidden from us, just like our own mind is hidden from others.