Edith Wharton Presentation

Edith Wharton Presentation

In this presentation I will be discussing a number of ideas in relation to Edith Wharton’s ‘A Son At the Front’. Firstly, I would like to give a brief overview of who Edith Wharton was. Edith Wharton was born in 1862 into one of the most important families in New York. It is perhaps interesting to note that Edith Wharton did not fit into the aristocratical society she was born into. This was because Wharton did not live up to society’s expectations of what it meant to be a woman. Wharton has been described as being an ‘awkward redhaired bookworm and dreamer’ ( John Updike), which contrasts heavily to the view that women of the time were suppose to be ‘intellectually idle’ ( John Updike). Edith Wharton, therefore cannot be descried as being ‘intellectually idle’ due the works she has written such as ‘A Son at the Front’. A son at the Front, first published in 1923, was inspired by a man that Wharton met whilst undertaking her war relief work. It is worth noting that like a lot of the other texts we have studied in this course in the sense that Wharton too draws upon her own experiences.

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Edith Wharton Presentation

I would like to give a brief summary of ‘A son at the Front’ to begin my discussion of the novel in a wider context. A son at Front follows painter John Campton and his son, George who is called to fight for the French Army during the First World War.John struggles with his son going off to war because he can no longer control George when he is off fighting. The text draws upon modernist ideas of art and focuses a lot of attention onto the idea of possession.This novel differs from a lot of war novels out there as it focuses on the effects going to war can have on the parents of soldiers, rather than the effects war can have on the wives who are left behind during war.

When conducting research for this presentation I thought it may be interesting to try to find secondary resources on the effects that children going off to war can have on parents, and then attempt to make comparisons within the text.  There were a number of articles that I found giving details about the effects on children when their parents are sent off to war but as time went on it became increasingly difficult to find sources on the effects that going to war can have on the parents of the soldiers deployed. This made me think that Edith Wharton’s text explores war in such a different and unique way, as she addresses themes and ideas that are still overlooked in the modern era.

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Edith Wharton Presentation

This also got me thinking about other texts that I have read to do with war and one of the only text that springs to mind when thinking about parents and war is ‘Soldiers Home’ by Ernest Hemmingway. The relationship between the two texts differ a great deal as Krebs’ Mother is pushing and pushing for Krebs to go out and get a job as she can never truly understand the terror and horror that he witnessed in the war. Whereas from the beginning of ‘A son at the Front’ we are presented with a lie. We are told of this ‘closeness’ between John and George, but this ‘closeness’ is based upon power, control and ownership over George.  Campton at the start of the text, although he is ‘tired, disenchanted, and nearing sixty, found himself looking forward to the adventure with an eagerness’ he had had not had for a very long time. From the beginning of the text, therefore we are presented with an image of a man who loves his son and very much wants to spend as much time with his son as he can.  However, this ‘closeness’ is presented to us through the lense of an unreliable source, who tries to depict this perfect relationship that just doesn’t exist. Although there is a distance between George and John throughout the text, like with Krebs and his mother in Soldiers Home, we can see through passages like this one that John acts and behaves as though this distance doesn’t exist. I will explore in greater detail, later on in the presentation what the true nature of this relationship is. 

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Edith Wharton Presentation

I would like now to address the issue of war within the novel as I think this is the thing in which complicates our views on what it is that Campton is saying when describing the relationship that he has with his son.When hearing of the war Campton’s responds by saying ‘“There can’t be war: I’m going to Sicily and Africa with George the day after to-morrow,”. Initially, at the beginning of the story I thought that his main concern is to maintain the relationship between George and himself that has developed over the last three years. I didn’t however see the ways in which Campton was unreliable as a source of information, as he is very good at not revealing to us the truth about the relationship between him and his son. Campton doesn’t view his son as an equal, he sees him as an object to maintain ownership and power over. Later on in the passage we get descriptions of ‘the son he had never seen enough of, never till lately seen at all as most fathers see their sons; and the boy was to be packed off to New York that winter’. Campton’s main concern here isn’t his son like he would want us to believe, his motivations are a lot different than that. Campton wants to see his son so he can continue to control him and Campton here almost views war as the antagonistic villain that would prevent him having ownership over his son. It seems in the mind of Campton that war would become the thing that controls his son. I would think that Campton’s overarching worry would that he would never see his son again but passages such as this one demonstrates that this is not the case.

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Edith Wharton Presentation

Judith Sensibar has argued that ‘George is the most important of the many people that Campton attempts to manage and control by transforming into an aesthetic object or comparison’ (191).  By referring to George as an ‘aesthetic object’, Sensibar is suggesting that Campton sees his son as an artwork rather than an actual person who can think for themselves and decide what they want to do within their own life. As a painter himself and as George’s father, it seems as though Campton views George as an artwork he has created, which is true on a certain level because as a father he has played an important part in bringing George into the world, however George is not a painting. In Campton’s mind if his son was like a piece of art that he maintained control over, he has the power of deciding where the art work would go and who could come into contact with it. The war starting complicates this idea, as it is the war who is then to decide where George goes and who he comes into contact with. There are other examples within the text of Campton attempting to exert control over his son. Campton describes wanting to ‘secure his sons discharge’, because it’s what ‘he’ wants, he does not in this passage consider his son at all. Campton here comes across as being very selfish, as although he may worry and care about his son, his main priority is himself and making sure that he can maintain control. 

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Edith Wharton Presentation

With the war comes a new world, a world in which we see Campton increasingly unable to fit in within passages like this one, as here he is demonstrating just how much he is unable change according to the world at war. Campton can only see the world through a painters eyes, something in which he himself can paint with a brush, therefore manipulate and control in any way he sees fit. One of the main reasons I think that Campton is so unable to adapt to the world at war is because of his hatred towards the war. We see this towards the end of the text with references to ‘and yet if war hadn’t come I should have got him back- I almost had’. Campton is so unwilling to change according to the world at war because he hates it for taking his son away from him.I would like to briefly touch upon the paratextual elements off the text before the end of the presentation, as I think sometimes in our analysis of texts we are too quick to overlook them and forget about them. Before the text has begun, Wharton chooses to reference Walt Whitman and I thought it might be interesting to explore some ideas why she chose to do this. Wharton quotes – ‘Something veil’d and abstracted is often a part of the manners of these beings. —WALT WHITMAN’. This quotation, if I’m not mistaken comes from Whitman’s Spiritual Characters Amongst Soldiers.  When looking at this quote in isolation to the main body of its texts suggests that maybe the thing that is veil’d and abstracted is war and these beings could in this text refer to Campton himself as he can never truly understand the war because he refuses to engage with the concept of war and refuses at times to change in accordance to the war.

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Edith Wharton Presentation

To conclude, I have suggested that what Wharton does with her work is completely unique and different because it is rare that we find authors approach war in the way that she has done. I have also suggested that Campton sees his son like a painting he has created and therefore doesn’t view him as having any authority or control over his own life. Campton believes that he should have full control over his sons life. I have also suggested that Campton cannot adapt and change like the world did during and after the war because he can never fully accept that the war took his son away from him. I have also suggested that this is the reason why Wharton chose to use the quote that she did from Walt Whitman at the beginning of the text.

Thank you for listening and I hope that you enjoyed this presentation.

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