Summary:

Twilight Sleep portrays the self-absorption of the upper class Pauline Manford and her extended family in 1920's New York. Pauline fills every moment of her day with "mental uplift [. . .] Psycho-analysis [. . .] Silent Meditation [. . .] and Facial massage." She delivers a speech to the "Birth Control League" one week and the "National Mothers' Day Association" the next, seeing no hypocrisy in doing so. In her search for fulfillment, she turns to the panaceas offered by a guru called "the Mahatma" as well as the services of a quack psychoanalyst. A number of incidents (which this summary won't divulge) result from the suggestion that immoral activities may be taking place at "Dawnside," the Mahatma's retreat. This places Pauline, who has become an advocate of the Mahatma, in a delicate position because her husband (the wealthy lawyer Dexter Manford) is investigating the charges of impropriety. Pauline, however, manipulates the situation so that it is in the best interests of the family for Dexter to drop his investigation.

The title of the novel refers to the drugged state induced in women to avoid pain during childbirth, but also stands as a metaphor for the empty lives of characters who spend their time engaged in frivolous activities for which they are "rested and doctored to make up for exertions that led to nothing." The novel addresses subjects such as the social ramifications of easy divorce, and the incursion of mass culture in all its forms on private life. These themes give the novel a contemporary flavor. Twilight Sleep occasionally veers into melodrama as it jumps between subplots that depict characters fumbling after romantic fulfillment. The story depicts individuals in unhappy marriages who attend innumerable parties, distract themselves with travel, and take time off at country estates where they rough it in splendor.

The novel has received a mixed response from critics of Wharton's work. Two preeminent Wharton biographers have commented sharply on the novel's flaws. R.W.B. Lewis believes the novel to be "seriously [. . .] marred," while Cynthia Griffin Wolff states that it is "chaotically plotted." Other critics argue that the novel succeeds in its social criticism. Despite the shortcomings of Twilight Sleep, the desperate grasping at everything new undertaken by Pauline (and other characters) affords Wharton numerous opportunities to exercise her mastery of satire and social commentary.

Note: Twilight Sleep is back in print under their Scribner Paperback Fiction imprint, which reissued the novel in 1997.

Discussion Questions:

1. Is there a clear sense in Twilight Sleep of Wharton's own position on the social issues (such as divorce) addressed in the novel? If so, use evidence from the novel to argue for or against the claim that Wharton was politically conservative.

2. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, wrote Wharton an admiring letter in which he compared his novel to Wharton's by stating that she had "put the case already in Twilight Sleep."  If you have read Brave New World, compare it with Wharton's portrait of a society obsessed with amusing itself. How are the novels similar? What is each society suppressing (e.g.,  acknowledgement of social inequality) through its fascination with everything new.

3. Compare Pauline Manford and her family to the Welland family in The Age of Innocence. How do Pauline Manford and May Welland use social convention to get what they want?

4. In Chapter Nine, Wharton writes that Pauline "never had to face an absolutely featureless expanse of time." There are other hints in this chapter that Pauline keeps busy in order to avoid facing some fundamental truth about her life. Are there any signs in the novel that hint at what Pauline is avoiding?

5. How is the society Wharton depicts in Twilight Sleep similar to our own?

--Contributed by Paul Ohler, University of British Columbia