Summary:

"This book is essentially a desultory book, the result of intermittent observation, and often, no doubt, of rash assumption. Having been written in Paris, at odd moments, during the last two years of the war, it could hardly be more than a series of disjointed notes; and the excuse for its publication lies in the fact that the very conditions which made more consecutive work impossible also gave unprecedented opportunities for quick notation."

Thus begins Wharton’s "Preface" to French Ways and Their Meaning, which is not so much a single coherent book as a collection of essays she wrote for serial publication from spring 1917 until summer 1919. The book does provide some insight into French culture; it was adopted by the Navy for use in ships’ libraries (see Edith Wharton: A to Z, 89), and yet most people who read this book today do so not so much for its insights into French culture as for what it tells us about Edith Wharton. As Shari Benstock has written, "Whatever truths about French, German, and American societies emerge in these essays (and there are many), their insights reflect most clearly Edith Wharton’s personal values" (No Gifts from Chance 348).

French Ways is primarily an explication of manners and mores to Americans; it frequently compares American and French ways, almost always favoring the latter. As the book was begun in wartime, it also contains some unremittingly negative remarks about Germans, German culture, and even German immigrants in the United States, particularly in the first chapter. Wharton wanted to be sure that American sympathies would be with France, even though American soldiers might initially find the French strange and remember fondly the German immigrants from home. At points Wharton pits German values against French and American values, writing, for instance, "The difference is this: The German does not care to be free as long as he is well fed, well amused and making money. The Frenchman, like the American, wants to be free first of all, and free anyhow–free even when he might be better off, materially, if he lived under a benevolent autocracy" (14-15). Such a strident tone, while hard to reconcile with the author of such subtle texts as The House of Mirth, was one Wharton felt she needed to adopt in wartime: she lived in France during the war (as she had for some years before it, and would until her death), and felt, as many others did, that France was the suffering and innocent victim, Germany the uncivilized perpetrator, in the war. She was relieved, even ecstatic, when the U.S. finally declared war on Germany in April 1917.

After the initial chapter, however, Wharton focuses on French culture, not only explaining it but also frequently suggesting how the United States could benefit from French examples. Chapters II-V focus on characteristics Wharton saw as essential to French civilization and French character: Reverence (Ch. II), Taste (Ch. III), Intellectual Honesty (Ch. IV), and Continuity (Ch. V). Each of these chapters is vivid and readable, analyzing concrete examples for the reader’s edification. Again, readers today may feel they are learning more about Wharton than about French culture. At times she emerges as finicky, for instance when she objects to "American who ought to know better speak[ing] of a woods’" (83). Yet important principles emerge from her discussion. Perhaps more than any other work she wrote, French Ways suggests why Edith Wharton settled in France; she found French culture, with its emphasis on lasting architecture, a certain degree of social formality, careful and probing analytical thought, and intellectualism a welcome change from New York society. She praises the French for being "passionate and pleasure-loving" as well as "ascetic and laborious," admiring their "union of these supposedly contradictory qualities" (135). Even when Wharton criticizes the French–for instance, remarking that "The French are not generous, and they are not trustful" (145)–she always manages to trace the roots of such behavior to a laudable principle, or to excuse it on the basis of some other virtue (in this case she pardons these faults because "deep in their very bones is something that [is] called ‘the point of honor’ . . . [145]).

Chapter VI, "The New Frenchwoman," is the chapter which has been most discussed by literary critics. Wharton deliberately mistitles her chapter; its first sentence is "There is no new Frenchwoman; but the real Frenchwoman is new to America" (98). What follows is a detailed and still-interesting comparison of French and American treatment of adult women with, Wharton claims, French women being treated far more as men’s equals than American women–despite their fewer legal rights. In an oft-quoted passage Wharton writes that "Compared with the women of France the average American woman is still in the kindergarten" (100-101). In a final chapter, Wharton concludes that "the best answer to every criticism of French weakness or French shortcomings is the conclusive one: Look at the results! Read her history, study her art, follow up the current of her ideas; then look about you, and you will see that the whole world is full of her spilt glory" (149).

Discussion Questions:

1. Does French Ways contradict itself in any way? Does it seem, as Wharton mentions in the preface, a book of "rash assumption"–at least at some points?

2. Do any of Wharton’s criticisms of American society ring true today?

3. Does Wharton’s preference for France seem snobbish? Does she convince you that France–at least as she portrays it–is a good model for
the United States to follow?

4. If you have traveled in France, do Wharton’s comments on French culture seem accurate? In what ways has France changed since she completed writing this work in 1919?

Suggestions for Study:

French Ways and Their Meaning is useful background reading for a number of Wharton novels, including . . .

1. The Custom of the Country. Examine Undine’s French marriage (and sale of the de Chelles tapestries) in light of what Wharton as to say about marriage and the French concept of family in French Ways.

2. The Reef, a novel about American expatriates, set in a French country estate

3. Summer, a novel Wharton published in 1917, the same year in which she began publishing the articles which would become French Ways. How does (or doesn’t) Charity’s marriage conform to what Wharton has to say about marriage in French Ways?

4. The Marne and A Son at the Front, Wharton’s novels about World War I. (The Marne is out of print and far from a great novel; A Son at the Front is flawed, but quite interesting–and available in paperback.)

5. The Age of Innocence, written after the war. Compare the social mores of 1870's New York with the French society Wharton portrays in French Ways.

Recommended Reading:

Benstock, Shari. "Landscapes of Desire: Edith Wharton and Europe." In Wretched Exotic: Essays on     Edith Wharton in Europe. Ed. Katherine Joslin and Alan Price. New York: Peter Lang, 1993; pp.     19-42. An interesting discussion of why Wharton chose to live in France.

__________.  No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribner’s, 1994. An     excellent recent biography.

Price, Alan. The End of the Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton and the First World War. New York: St.     Martin’s, 1996. A detailed account of Wharton in the war years.

Wright, Sarah Bird. Edith Wharton: A to Z. New York: Facts on File, 1998.

--Contributed by Julie Olin-Ammentorp, Le Moyne College