An active reader of this type is courted in Wharton’s 1899 story, “The Pelican.” The narrative concerns a widowed Mrs.
Amyot who lectures on various “cultured” subjects, from Shakespeare to Greek art, to support her young son, Lancelot.
(Tuttleton Wharton’s interest in imperfect, incomplete vision is evident not only in her poetics but also the content of her stories. Manstey’s View” (1891), “The Lamp of Psyche” (1895), “A Glimpse” (1932) and “The Eyes” (1910) demonstrate the importance she gives to the onlooker.
Many of her narratives rest upon a misreading of a situation or even object, including a misread picture in “The House of the Dead Hand” (1904), a misread book in “The Descent of Man” (1904) and a misread diagnosis in her 1930 story of the same name.
Thus, whilst I refer to Wharton’s critical writing in the following discussion of four of her stories, this article will follow Lawrence’s advice to foremost ‘trust the tale’ rather than the artist (31). Indeed, James’s narrators often present a further viewpoint in addition to that of a focalizer’s experience or vision, endowing his impressionistic accounts with an element of nineteenth-century omniscient narrative traditions.
Whilst not completely reliable themselves, James’s narrators often signal the potential unreliability of a focalizer’s perspective and nudge the reader towards considering the wider view of the events narrated.
The implicit link between the pelican of the title and Mrs.
Amyot suggests that the “actual suffering” (79) she claims she must go through by speaking in public for the sake of the baby, is a fallacy rather like medieval notions of the bird’s self-sacrifice.
Mais c’est surtout par le rôle qu’elle attribue au lecteur de ses nouvelles que Wharton s’apparente à ses contemporains modernistes : le lecteur doit être actif, capable d’identifier ses reprises des récits traditionnels, de comprendre l’ironie et de combler les vides laissés dans ces textes souvent fragmentaires.
Critical dissonance over Edith Wharton’s modernist practices has intensified over the last decade, and although few view her nowadays as the “literary aristocrat” Parrington had firmly ensconced in the nineteenth century (153), Wharton’s relationship with modernism and modernist writing continues to be an increasingly fertile area of scholarship.