Summary:

The Marne is named after the critical French battles along the Marne River during the First World War. Troy Belknap, is a wealthy American whose family is enjoying their annual summer visit to France when the Germans invade. Troy's tutor and close friend M. Grantier leaves for his hometown when news spreads of the German invasion. Troy's father, Mr. Belknap, secures space on a ship to the United States, but they are unable to make the voyage when Mrs. Belknap becomes sick with pneumonia. Mr. Belknap leaves Mrs. Belknap and Troy behind with the plans that they will depart in another a month.  Incensed that his beloved France is being destroyed, Troy is agitated by the fleeing American travelers and their aristocratic sense that the war is merely background noise: a topic to discuss at dinner and send monetary support. He wishes to join the foreign legion but is too young.

The first battle of the Marne (September 6-9, 1914), forces the Germans to retreat from advancing towards Paris: a significant victory as the Germans were only a few miles away from the taking the capital city. Troy's mother begins light charity work and he accompanies his mother carrying supplies to the war-ravished portions of the country; he sees the desolation left by the failed German advance. Troy finds the battlefield of The Marne and contemplates the anguish of war as well as the glory of a soldier who could proclaim "`I was in the Battle of the Marne.'" In a nearby town, Troy finds the grave of M. Gantier, who was killed in the Battle of the Marne.

Troy and his mother finally gain passage to America where he spends the next three years fixated on the battle of the Marne and victory in France. When he turns eighteen, Troy returns to France and takes a position driving an ambulance at the front.

During late July of 1918 the Germans again begin their march towards Paris and a second battle along the Marne begins. Troy's ambulance breaks down and while he is waiting for assistance a truckload of troops drives by beckoning him to join them and fight for France; he quickly jumps on their truck without much thought about the consequences.  At the front, Troy attempts to help a fallen soldier and is wounded with a "tap." Troy awakes in a hospital and remembers a hazy vision of his friend M. Gantier on the battlefield comforting him with the words "Mon petit mon pauvre petit gars" (My small one, my poor small guy). He asks how he came to be in the hospital and everyone tells him that an unknown soldier carried him to safety and then quickly disappeared. All attempts to identify the soldier have been in vain.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Is Troy's obsession with the first battle of the Marne realistic or too excessive to believe? Why?

2.  What seems to drive Mrs. Belknap's charity? What does this say about her and her social strata?

3.  Troy is frustrated at the lackadaisical response of his mother and her friends to the war (that it occurs "elsewhere"). Do you think their response is typical for people aware of but not engulfed in crisis? Where else can you see this response in society and with what types of events? Is there any justification for this response?

4.  In light of the portrayal of the Belknaps' wealthy friends, who provide financial support but do not offer more substantive support to the war effort, does Edith Wharton appear to be criticizing or appeasing American aristocracy (a social sphere of which she was a member)?

5.  R.W.B. Lewis in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography on Wharton has stated that "The Marne" has "little staying power." Many critics dismiss the work as sentimental, insignificant, and unbecoming of Wharton's ability. Do you agree with these critics? Why or why not?

6.  In light of the critical interpretations above, what elements of this novella seem to be consistent with Wharton's other works? Inconsistent?


Recommended Reading

Galagher, Jean. "The Great War and the Female Gaze: Edith Wharton and the Iconography of War Propoganda." Literature. 7.1 (1996): 27-49.
Olin-Ammentorp, Julie. "`Not Precisely War Stories': Edith Wharton's Short Fiction from the Great War." Studies in American Fiction. 23.2 (1995): 153-72.
Price, Alan. The End of the Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton and the First World War. New York: St. Martins, 1996.
Sensibar, Judith L. "Edith Wharton as Propagandist and Novelist: Competing Visions of `The Great War.'" A Forward Glance: New Essays on Edith Wharton. New York: U Delaware P, 1999.
Tylee, Claire M. "Imagining  Women at War: Feminist Strategies in Edith Wharton's War Writing." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. 16.2 (1997): 327-43.

Contributed by: Jonathan Wood, Boise State University