Summary:

Old New York, published in 1924, includes four novellas which Wharton planned as a collection. The collection appeared as a boxed set of four slim hardcover volumes. Each novella can stand alone; but the subtitles of each, which denote a decade of the nineteenth century, suggest that the collection is linked together thematically.

False Dawn (The 'Forties) draws heavily on Wharton's early memories (the description of the elaborate supper table) as well as family lore (her father's escapades during courtship). This novella features Lewis Raycie, son of Halston Raycie, a "monumental man" who controls a vast fortune and whose ambition in life is "to found a Family" modelled on English landed
gentry. Raycie's hopes are focused on his only son Lewis, who is painfully aware "that upon his own shrinking and inadequate head was centred all the passion contained in the vast expanse of Mr. Raycie's breast."

Raycie is especially proud of his son's artistic tastes, and sends Lewis to Europe on the Grand Tour so that his son may safely sow his wild oats and return to America with a "few noble specimens of the Italian genius"--the conventional paintings of Dolci, Rosa, Albano, and Maratta--to form the nucleus of the Raycie gallery.

In Europe, Lewis meets John Ruskin and several of the pre-Raphaelite circle, who open Lewis's eyes to the glories of Italian Primitives. Instead of purchasing paintings of "whirling prophets" and "languishing Madonnas," Lewis acquires works by Giotto, Mantegna, and Piero della Franscesca. His father, expecting a Raphael and Sassoferratos, suffers a severe shock, and cuts Lewis from his will.

Lewis is reduced to opening a "Gallery of Christian Art" to support himself and his wife but viewers are few, and he dies in poverty. At the close of the novella, years later, the paintings, now considered priceless, are ultimately inherited by a cousin described as "a prize fool," who sells off the collection to the great museums of Europe for pearls and a Rolls Royce.

The Old Maid (The 'Fifties) describes the fates of two cousins, Delia Ralston, and Charlotte Lovell. Delia has married conventionally, sacrificing her passion for the unreliable artist Clement Spender. She discovers, however, that Charlotte has had a child by Spender--Tina--thus making her unfit for marriage to Delia's brother-in-law. By way of compensation, Delia makes it possible for Charlotte to care for Tina, as long as Charlotte does not reveal herself to be Tina's biological mother.

Years later, widowed, Delia takes Charlotte and Tina into her home, and as she watches Tina grow into young womanhood, she realizes that Tina embodies all the desires and aspirations that she sacrificed for a safe marriage. Tina quickly considers Delia to be her mother, and Charlotte a silly, spinsterish old aunt. When Charlotte sees Tina tempted by a dashing young
man, she decides to take Tina away rather than risk her daughter making the same mistake of passion as she did years earlier. But Delia, horror-stricken at losing Tina, legally adopts her, once again denying Charlotte's claim to her daughter.

The adoption brings Tina respectability and a dowry, enabling her to marry Lanning Halsey, and gives Delia the opportunity to experience vicariously all the passion she has always denied herself and to reconcile her to "the memory of what she had missed." On the evening before Tina's wedding, Delia and Charlotte battle over who is to give Tina the "mother's counsel"
that a girl must have; as Charlotte tartly notes, "'which of us is her mother?'"

In the end, once again, Charlotte relinquishes her claim to her daughter. Delia spends this final evening with Tina, making her promise to give her "aunt Chatty" her very last kiss.

The Spark (The 'Sixties), notes the novella's narrator, "is not a story, or anything in the semblance of a story, but merely an attempt to depict for you--and in so doing, perhaps make clearer to myself--the aspect and character of a man whom I loved, perplexedly but faithfully, for many years." Hayley Delane, though physically impressive, is regarded by most people, as a rather pathetic figure married to a wife who is young, silly, and stylish.

The narrator gives brief vignettes of Delane--he thrashes a man for abusing his polo pony for losing the match, thus "making a scene" which is reprehensible in fine society--to develop the character of Delane. Even worse, Delane is willing to take in his father-in-law, "suave" though completely disreputable; New York society judges Delane as "queer."

The narrator, though he regards Delane as somewhat of a father-figure, recognizes his limitations. While Delane can recall scraps of poetry, his limited stock of allusions forces the narrator to decide that Delane's "mind had been receptive up to a certain age, and had then snapped shut on what it possessed, like a replete crustacean never reached by another high
tide."

Delane occasionally tells the narrator stories of his days in the Civil War, but his most vivid memory is not of fellow soldiers but of "a sort of big backswoodsman who was awfully good to me what I was in hospital. . . after Bull Run. . . " At the novella's end, the narrator discovers that this "big backwoodsman" was Walt Whitman, a "great chap," who unfortunately wrote "all that rubbish."

New Year's Day (The 'Seventies) is also narrated by a young man, an admirer of Lizzie Hazeldean, the central figure of the novella. Lizzie, married to a compassionate lawyer who is invalided by a heart condition, acquires a bad reputation in the high social circles of Old New York because she has shamelessly taken up with Henry Prest, a man of the world who "wasn't made for the domestic yoke."

The novella opens with the twelve-year-old narrator witnessing Lizzie's scandalous behavior--on a New Year's Day she has to flee the hotel where she and Prest regularly meet. Many years later, the narrator learns the "true" story from Lizzie herself. Deeply in love with her ailing husband Charles, Lizzie prostitutes herself so that she can provide the means to make Charles's final days comfortable. Once Charles dies, Henry Prest gallantly offers to make an honest woman of her, but Lizzie coldly refuses.

Ostracized by the women of her society, Lizzie becomes a sort of mother and mentor to society's young men; the narrator is a member of this admiring circle. After many years, he hears that Lizzie is very ill; visiting her, he discovers she has converted to Catholicism, which gives her a way to expiate her sin and to commune with Charles. In the end, she dies, confident of reunion with Charles in the next world.

Discussion Questions:

1. What do the titles suggest about each novella?

2. How does Wharton use time as both structure and symbol throughout Old New York?

3. What common threads tie the four novellas together in form, theme, and content?

4. How does Wharton use similar methods of narration to "pair" novellas within the collection?

5. How does Wharton use the concept of gender to pair the novellas?

6. How does Wharton use art (painting and poetry) to critique the society of Old New York?

7. Does Wharton see any worth in that society?

8. How does Wharton balance situational ethics with the need to maintain a moral society?

9. How do the characters reconcile their natural impulses with the constraints of their society?


--Contributed by Judith E. Funston, State University of New York, College at Potsdam