The Scarlet Letters
Updated: Apr 12, 2022
in a nutshell Glennard is poor, in love and verging on embittered. Why does fortune favour brainless heirs instead of brilliant young men? How can one bear the agony of mutual love when lack of means makes it impossible to marry? Glennard finds a solution to the riddle, but one that comes at such a high cost that it threatens to destroy not only his love but his very self.
why? Early Wharton already displaying superbly crafted sentences and turning a merciless gaze on human weaknesses.
flavour extract Glennard ... had always taken pride in a certain robustness of fibre that enabled him to harden himself against the inevitable, to convert his failures into the building materials of success. Though it did not even now occur to him that what he called the inevitable had hitherto been the alternative he happened to prefer, he was yet obscurely aware that his present difficulty was one not to be conjured by any affectation of indifference. Some griefs build the soul a spacious house—but in this misery of Glennard’s he could not stand upright. It pressed against him at every turn. He told himself that this was because there was no escape from the visible evidences of his act.
I'll begin by getting straight to the end, and say that I loved this novella - savoured every word with sublime relish - up until the very last chapter, which I found not only dissatisfactory but in open contradiction to the critical stance found in the rest of the story.
In order not to speak in riddles, I will explain the plot more in detail. After some painful deliberation, Glennard decides to try his fortune by anonymously selling the letters that famous writer Margaret Aubyn, now deceased, sent him during the greatest part of her life. The letters are turned into a book that becomes a literary sensation, thus making Glennard rich. Nobody knows that he was the addressee of the letters, not even his wife Alexa. The success of the collection is due to the intelligence but also the intimacy they exude, a result of the failed romance between Margaret and Glennard. The growing fame of the letters makes Glennard feel increasingly debased, up to the point when he can no longer bear the solitude of his guilt and with an equally dishonourable subterfuge he lets his wife into the secret, though they never talk about it.
As I was reading the novella, I thought Wharton was putting forth an incredibly powerful critique of gender stereotypes and relations. One brilliant case in point is the nature of the relationship between Margaret and Glennard, specifically the reasons behind its failure. Margaret Aubyn is presented as no ingénue virgin, but as "the spokeswoman of outraged wifehood", a woman who not only had the courage to leave behind an abusive husband but who also managed to make her unconventional position accepted by conventional society. Glennard cannot but bask in her brightness, until he doesn't. The narrator explicitly states that the nature of the failure is bodily - "it missed being love by just such a hair-breadth deflection from the line of beauty as had determined the curve of Mrs. Aubyn’s lips". Indeed, Margaret fails to awaken Glennard's sexual desire (she can't master "any hold upon the pulses") and, secondly, Glennard gradually comes to realise that "brains, in a woman, should be merely the obverse of beauty." I mean, at the end of the day "[g]enius is of small use to a woman who does not know how to do her hair." I think contemporary mainstream society would agree, judging from the vicious attacks that writers like Mary Beard or Hilary Mantel have suffered. Reading passages like these felt electrifying to me. So relevant, so on point even today.
The dynamic between Glennard and Margaret is fascinating, dissected as it is to its last shameful impulse. Glennard initially sought her company as "a pledge of his own superiority", as any man suffering from insecurity would do - Wharton terms it "self-distrust". Yet, all the looking up Margaret's company forces Glennard to do puts a severe strain on the young man's self-respect, and things take a turn for the worse. Here, again, Wharton's description is memorable: "the physical reluctance had, inexplicably, so overborne the intellectual attraction, that the last years had been, to both of them, an agony of conflicting impulses." Margaret ultimately decides to move to London and, though she continues to write her beautiful letters, they never see each other again. It is no surprise that the woman Glennard falls in love with is entirely different from Margaret - serious, quiet, almost mysterious, and incredibly beautiful Alexa Trent. Later on we discover - such a powerful touch - that Glennard, on first meeting Alexa and falling for her, had used his connection to none other than Margaret to make an impression, seeing she was reading one of Margaret's novels.
Fast forward to the point when Glennard suffers an awakening and realises he has acted in a dishonourable way. The agony Glennard undergoes runs along parallel tracks, as on the one hand he feels he acted in the wrong way, but on the other hand - and this is perhaps the greater torture - he realises he has married a mystery. The passage is too masterful not to quote it in full:
His very soul was parched for sympathy; he thirsted for a voice of pity and comprehension. But would his wife pity? Would she understand? Again he found himself brought up abruptly against his incredible ignorance of her nature. The fact that he knew well enough how she would behave in the ordinary emergencies of life, that he could count, in such contingencies, on the kind of high courage and directness he had always divined in her, made him the more hopeless of her entering into the torturous psychology of an act that he himself could no longer explain or understand. It would have been easier had she been more complex, more feminine—if he could have counted on her imaginative sympathy or her moral obtuseness—but he was sure of neither. He was sure of nothing but that, for a time, he must avoid her.
Although taxing his wife for lack of complexity, it seems to me evident that she is indeed too complex for Glennard's understanding, since she refuses to either pity or blindly defend her husband. More shockingly for Glennard, he comes to realise that "the surface which, a year ago, he had taken for a sheet of clear glass, might, after all, be a mirror reflecting merely his own conception of what lay behind it". A woman as a mirror, a screen for men's desires and expectations. Again, how can this not be a feminist manifesto?
Well, my self-doubting stems from the fact that not only does the ending condone Glennard's conduct (which to me is not so wholly despicable) but does so in a way that destroys all its earlier critique of patriarchal stereotypes of femininity. Margaret Aubyn was thus far an unlucky yet formidable heroine, dead and disdained by her lover, but true to herself. Alexa appeared as an enigmatic but promising character, on the verge of upturning stale values and maybe leaving her weak husband behind, at least not giving in to his mental torturing of her (at one point Glennard even fancies himself as finally in love with Margaret, but the narrator is quick to dismiss the fake infatuation for guilt and self-pity in disguise). And yet what happens at the very end? It happens that Alexa, full of sympathising pity for Margaret, nonetheless finds a way to appease Glennard's guilt by making him realise that, after all, Glennard made Margaret happy (albeit in the afterlife). Why? Because he gave her the chance to turn him into the man of her dreams. I quote, "now, so wonderfully, she's made you [Glennard] into the man she loved. That's worth suffering for, worth dying for, to a woman" - thankfully there is no capital 'w' or I would have felt my womanliness at stake, as I happen not to feel this way.
Going back to the story, Alexa goes further and exhorts her husband to stop feeling excessively guilty because in the end, by keeping Margaret on the fence, by passively and resentfully allowing her to adore him until her death, by betraying her privacy and making a fortune out of it in total anonymity, Glennard gave Margaret, and again I quote, "the happiness of giving". Incidentally, Margaret is also the means of revealing husband's and wife's true nature to each other, thus sealing their conjugal happiness forever. A woman dying to let a man be finally, truly happy - with another, more beautiful woman. How original.
I believe I have a right to my disappointment, given the premises. Where is the crudity, the cruelty almost, of the rest of the novella's merciless digging at the basest impulses of human nature? Before reading the last few pages I would have gone as far as calling The Touchstone an early feminist manifesto denouncing all that is wrong in the way the sexes traditionally relate within upper-class, patriarchal society. Perhaps this goes to prove that to an extent we as readers do read what we want to read. Or perhaps it could be read as self-censorship on the part of Wharton, or even as an extreme form of realism that is meant to have us readers in disgust at the self-complacency of both Alexa and Glennard, dismissing them as truly right for each other and revolting for everyone else. Nevertheless, I will conclude by saying, reader, that my disappointment went a long way, but not so far as to make me regret picking up this little gem. Therefore, a fairer way to conclude might simply be a heartfelt recommendation to read the novella for yourself and find out what you make of it - and let me know when you do!