I started out being puzzled by the obsessive concern for the expectations of others within high society social circles that is expressed by the main character of this book. But then it occurred to me that Edith Wharton was accentuating the foibles of an earlier time, perhaps even exaggerating. The main character marries the woman that he is expected to marry instead of the woman for whom he is clearly infatuated.
It is implied that things have changed by the end of the book, and social restrictions have loosened. This book may be addressing the changes from the late 19th Century into the beginning of the 20th Century. But I think the observations of human behavior described in this book can be appropriately applied to other times, places and social environments.
On one level this book can be read as a romantic novel with a heavy dose of unrequited love. The unrequited aspect is so thorough one can read the novel with no fear of encountering the word, “sex.” I even noticed that word “pregnant” is not used in the book whereas things would have been more clear if it had.
The book can also be viewed as an American response to the novel, Middlemarch, which is both a story of changing times and a story of marrying the wrong person. I mention George Eliot’s novel because it is specifically mentioned in this story as being purchased from a book seller in England. I don’t think Edith Wharton would have mentioned the book by name if she didn’t intend to say that it influenced her writing.
This book won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s. The end of the book skips into the early 20th Century. So Edith Wharton was writing about a time that was about forty-five years earlier than when she was writing. The era was probably remembered as being the good old days by some at the time.
I can’t let my wife read this book because if she does she’ll want to know why I don’t send flowers with the frequency described in this book. If all men sent flowers as frequently as the men in this book, the floral business would exceed that of wheat and corn.