In Praise of Wharton’s Prose

I envy wine connoisseurs, their ability to sample vino and, after swishing it around with a concentrated air, to find the perfect adjective when describing hints of taste, like cloves, fig, chocolate, butter, cardamom, and other delicious words that make me repent of my career choice. What is true of wine connoisseurs is even trebly true of literary critics who have a highly discerning palette when it comes to the aromatics of prose. Except that my envy actually borders on something like hatred, a nameless venom-spitting mood. Not even the Germans have a word for it.    

Through a glass, clearly

I’m reluctant to say that Wharton’s prose is strong and ambitious. That her syntax is neat, orderly yet “intriguingly complex,” swish swish. Or that her voice resonates with a realism tinged with comedy and cynicism. I’m reluctant to say all these things, not because I don’t think they’re true, but because they don’t make me sound sufficiently snooty. And today I want to be worthy of an uptight dilettante in a cashmere argyle sweater. Yes, I do. Call me Rutherford. (Eat your heart out, Melville.)

Have you noticed that a good Whartonian sentence feels whole in the mouth? It tastes clean and smooth and whole like round polished sea glass. Armed with her sea glass, Wharton has a unique ability to zero out, as it were, and from a very high vista capture the scale and scope of large, rising social currents — which affect marriage, property, and social relations in general — and then just as easily zero back in very precisely to an unforgettable setting in a villa in Siena, Italy where an aspiring poet is trying his damnedest to keep faith with his literary vision “in the quiet place with the green water-fall….”

Wharton’s sea glass magically combines the sweeping power of a panoramist (this word, having just now been coined, exists for your use, too) with the obsessive precision of a miniaturist. To wit: Ralph “was met by a small abashed figure clad in a kaleidoscopic tartan and a green velvet cap with a silver thistle.” Or: “The old lacquer screen behind Clare’s head looked like a lustreless black pool with gold leaves floating on it; and … a little table at her elbow, had the brown bloom and the pear-like curves of an old violin.” That’s just stunning.

Mot juste

In addition to her sweeping powers of description, Wharton has an amazing knack for saying things just so, for capturing or relaying subtle shades of difference in expressions, feelings, and values, like “Ralph’s indignation had already flickered down to disgust,” where one feeling imperceptibly gives way to another. She also has a special talent for hinting at stark differences in values and frames of reference. Early in their marriage, for instance, Ralph wants to broach the issue of money and Undine’s excessive love of spending it. But he’s fearful of displeasing his wife: “he had too keen a memory of the way her lips could narrow, and her eyes turn from him as if he were a stranger.”

Wharton could simply tell us that Undine doesn’t like talking about finance. But there’s something so much more subtle and gratifying about the lips that narrow and the eyes that turn away in anger. Not to mention Wharton’s touch in conveying something of Ralph’s resentment and the creeping distance that has entered their marriage, by relying, not on bald description, but on a memory that prevents him from having an honest reckoning with Undine about a fraught topic.

So next time you want to sample wholeness and the taste of round polished sea glass, you could do a lot worse than reading The
Custom of the Country


6 Responses to In Praise of Wharton’s Prose

  1. having just now been coined

    Not exactly now, but you’re in good company.

    Your wine analogy hits spot on the nightmare of this kind of writing – the kind we’re doing. I can detect the figs and blueberries and saddle leather, and write those words as if everyone knows what I’m talking about. But who am I kidding!

    (And that’s all metaphor. With actual wine, my range of identification goes from “very grapey” to “not like grapes at all”).

  2. Twain, there he goes, ruining a perfectly good innovation.

    Nightmare, indeed. When I think of Wharton’s prose, the adjectives that are likely to suggest themselves are visual, not aromatic.

    Hard. Clear. Brilliant. Polished.

    But under the influence of all of the wine I have drunk lately on Interpolations, these words are instantaneously converted into the taste of round polished sea glass.

    Which incidentally has a very unique flavor.

    Try it.


  3. tuulenhaiven says:

    Too, too true. I feel utterly ridiculous sometimes when I’m trying to come up with a way to describe how exactly a writers prose struck me…it’s a hair-tearing task. You did well here though – I am feeling the astonishing lack of Wharton in my life most powerfully. Must trot off to find something by her…

  4. Lovely post Kevin. I flagged it to read later and finally I did. Love your wine metaphor – most apt. And as you know I do like to tease out what makes good writing good. You chose some great examples here to prove your point. It would have been hard to settle on those I reckon because they abound don’t they?

    • Hi Sue, and thank you. Yes, too many examples in Wharton to choose from. As a subset to your “what makes good writing good,” lately I’ve been pondering something similar: what makes good writing good even when I don’t like it, which was my prevailing experience in reading The Mezzanine. It’s a strange thing to acknowledge a good piece of writing and then not love it. Thanks again for returning!

  5. nicole says:

    I always felt like these prose-describing adjectives were something I missed out on by never studying literature in English at the tertiary level, a way of trying to assuage some of that hatred and write it off to something less insurmountable than a native lack of diction. But man, is writing about books the hardest kind of writing or what? Why are we doing this to ourselves?

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