Edith Wharton who is most famous for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence (1920) was a born storyteller whose ironic style often portrays victims in her stories stuck in cruel social regulations, bad relationships, and internal struggle with women finding their “self” and voices. Her short story A Journey pictures a young woman trapped in her unhappy marriage with her husband who is terminally ill. Her once happy marriage begins to turn into resentment and with life having a grudge on her, “she was never allowed to spread her wings.” (Wharton, 276)
“She still loved him, of course; but he was gradually, undefinably ceasing to be himself. The man she had married had been strong, active, gently masterful: the male whose pleasure it is to clear a way through the material obstructions of life; but now it was she who was the protector, he who must be shielded from importunities and given his drops or his beef-juice though the skies were falling. ” “Sometimes he frightened her: his sunken expressionless face seemed that of a stranger; his voice was weak and hoarse; his thin-lipped smile a mere muscular contraction.”(Wharton, 276)
The young woman is ordered by her husband’s doctor to travel back home. This of course made it obvious that her husband was going to die and instead of mourning, she could not help but to “slip into an eager allusion to next year’s plans.” While traveling by train, the illness becomes too much and her husband dies. What is a woman to do when she is alone? “Good God! If it were known that he was dead they would be put off the train at the next station–” (Wharton, 278) Because the woman decides to hide her husband’s death in order to stay on the train, she is fighting for her independence and her chance to once again spread her wings and be free without the pressures of being a wife and this life long care taker. A widowed life was not what she wanted either. “It seemed to be life itself that was sweeping her on with headlong inexorable force–sweeping her into darkness and terror, and the awe of unknown days.” (Wharton, 282) She may as well be dead herself as long as she would be living the widowed life which is really no life at all for a woman of this century.
A widow in the 18th century would be forced to live in mourning for the rest of her existence. This custom came about after longest reigning Queen Victoria lost her dearest husband Albert and the newly widowed woman declared that the period of public mourning should be “the longest term in modern times.” (St. Martin’s Press) Compared to modern attitudes, death was an obsession to 18th century people and was treated as a necessary set of rituals to honor the dead. When Queen Victoria went into her deep mourning period, british subjects followed her lead and participated in this depression. All black attire was required until Victoria was finished with her ritual which eventually took 10 years until the queen eventually died. Woman played a bigger role than men when it came to loosing their spouses. They were required to change their whole entire wardrobe and forget ever finding another husband!
Queen Victoria Edith Wharton
In conclusion: Edith Wharton uses her short story A Journey to challenge traditional social expectations of femininity and individual freedoms. What will people think when her husband is dead? What will her future life consist of without her husband? A life of captivity and mourning. The 18th century brought nothing but distress and morbid rituals for subjects to carry out. There is no freedom and moving on for these women. “She looked at the hat and tried to speak; but suddenly the car grew dark. She flung her arms, struggling to catch at something, and fell face downward, striking her head against the dead man’s berth.” (Wharton, 282) Whether this act from the young woman was a deliberate suicide or a fluke accident, it symbolizes her life remaining dark and just as dead as her husbands. Without a man, what is a woman?