Marital Normativity and Social Reinforcement in the Short Fiction of Edith Wharton

Open Access
Rogalewicz, Kelsey Margaret
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Benjamin Jared Schreier, Thesis Supervisor
  • Lisa Ruth Sternlieb, Honors Advisor
  • Edith Wharton
  • short stories
  • social reinforcement
  • marriage
  • norms
  • entrapment
Nearly all of Edith Wharton’s characters are deeply entrenched within their social surroundings. While social roles are instrumental in forming identities, sometimes these roles impose oppressive restrictions on the characters, limiting their abilities to find happiness. In this thesis, I explore the different ways in which marital normativity serves as an agent of such restrictions, preventing characters from finding identities and happiness beyond their prescribed roles or from regaining acceptance after they have already committed social transgressions. I discuss five of Wharton’s short stories that exemplify this paradigm: “The Line of Least Resistance,” “Atrophy,” “The Reckoning,” “Autres Temps,” and “The Long Run.” The social reinforcement that occurs in these stories eventually traps characters within unhappy situations, creating disappointing endings from the perspective of the reader. By analyzing how Wharton shapes characters’ desires, makes them sympathetic in spite of breaking social boundaries, and ultimately reinforces social regulations upon them, we can see how she characterizes social order as a powerful entity of its own. While readers may find disappointment with these stories’ endings, they can arrive at a more in-depth critical approach to the portrayed social limitations.