Summary:

Edith Wharton composed The Glimpses of the Moon after the end of World War I. She describes the postwar era in A Backward Glance, her autobiography, as a time when she faced "the growing sense of the waste and loss wrought by [the war's] irreparable years" (364). The emotional landscape was one of bereavement: "Death and mourning darkened the houses of all my friends, and I mourned with them, and mingled my private grief with the general sorrow" (364). For Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon offered a "flight from the last grim years, though its setting and situation were ultra-modern" (369). She began work on it within a year after receiving the Pulitzer Prize in May 1921 for The Age of Innocence. The novel was published in August 1922, and the following spring she made her last trip to America where she was awarded by Yale University a Doctor of Letters degree, the first such given to a woman by a major university in the United States.

    Despite the novel's popular success and some critical acclaim, this work became identified as evidence of Wharton's outmoded sensibilities and style. Glimpses appeared in the same year as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses, two pillars of Modernism. Younger writers, including Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, were emerging as voices of their generation. Several scholars have recognized her influence on the younger writers. Helen Killoran, for example, argues that The Glimpses of the Moon influenced Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1923). In fact, he wrote dialogue titles for a film version of Glimpses, though his script was not the version used when the silent movie was released in April 1923. Most scholars today do not consider Glimpses among her most impressive  accomplishments.

    This novel, like much of her work, focuses on the theme of marriage and the social pressures that undermine marital stability and its promise of happiness. Set in an undefined "modern" era, Glimpses portrays the marriage of Susy Branch and Nick Lansing, who are of socially prominent  but no longer wealthy New York families. Nick dabbles with unprofitable literary pursuits, and Susy lives on the generosity of women friends for whom she provides companionship. The novel opens with the couple enjoying a moonlit evening during their honeymoon. We soon learn that they share a love of the advantages of high society and are enjoying a happy honeymoon through the beneficence of friends who provide homes and money for a time. In keeping with their monetary desires, the couple agreed before their marriage that either one is free to divorce if he or she gets a "better chance," i.e. marriage with a wealthy suitor. Their conditional marriage begins to falter as Susy grows jealous of her husband's attentions to a wealthy young woman and Nick becomes increasingly disgruntled by the moral compromises arising from his wife's social negotiations. The novel continues, but this summary will end here to avoid giving away the novel's denouement.  

Discussion Questions:

1.  Wharton explores the question of what to do with the life one is given.  What is essential, especially in the postwar era, for a good life?  What brings a momentary thrill? What brings lasting satisfaction?  How does one gain financial stability and still satisfy one's desire for love and art?  How does one's life choices and social milieu effect an individual's "inner life"?

2.  Wharton claims that this novel was an escape from the grief of the postwar years.  In what respects does the novel provide an escape?  In what respects does the novel address issues that arose after World War I?

3.  Define narcissism and discuss its influence in the lives of characters in this novel.  

4.  Nick and Susy's dilemma provides a venue to contrast the world of cosmopolitan expatriates with the less glamorous sphere of those families who focus their time and interests on raising the next generation. Wharton would return to this theme in The Children, Twilight Sleep, and The Mother's Recompense. How do Nick's and Susy's attitudes toward family evolve over the course of the novel?  Compare this novel's portrait of the role children play in society with another of the novels mentioned above.

5.  The title, The Glimpses of the Moon, presents an intriguing metaphor.

    a.    In both the opening and the concluding sentences of the novel, Wharton uses "moon." The final scene offers particular insight into the meaning of this metaphor within the context of this work. Carefully examine the final pages and analyze its revelations concerning the title's metaphor.  

b.      The title is a phrase drawn from William Shakespeare's Hamlet (act I, scene 4). Discuss its significance in Wharton's novel.

6.  The Glimpses of the Moon can been considered a "romance" novel.  What are the characteristics of this genre?  How does this novel express these characteristics?

7.  Susy Branch and Nick Lansing are often compared to Lily Bart and Lawrence Seldon (characters in The House of Mirth). One obvious distinction between these couples is that Bart and Seldon never marry.  Both couples, however, face similar social pressures that shape their marital choices.  What are these social pressures?  How does each couple respond to them? How do the pressures influence their lives and the outcomes of the novels?

8.  Wharton's novels often satirize the directionless, self-involved habits of particular wealthy Americans. Identify and discuss two or three key scenes that exhibit this theme and its relevance to the protagonists.  Does Wharton employ humor in these passages?  If so, how does this enrich the text?

9.  Compare Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon. Identify and discuss similarities and differences between Wharton's and Fitzgerald's novels.   


Works Cited and Recommended Reading

Bauer, Dale M. Edith Wharton's Brave New Politics. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994.

Killoran, Helen. "An Unnoticed Source for The Great Gatsby: The Influence of Edith Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon." Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue Canadienne d'Etudes Americaines 21.2 (1990): 223-24.

Killoran, Helen. Edith Wharton: Art and Allusion. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1996.

Tintner, Adeline R. "The Glimpses of the Moon and Tiepolo's Fresco, The Transportation of the Holy House." Edith Wharton Review 14.1 (1997): 22-27.

Wershoven, Carol. "Edith Wharton's Discriminations: Eurotrash and European Treasures." Wretched Exotic: Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe. Eds. Katherine Joslin and Alan Price. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. 111-126.

Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Scribner's, 1933.

--Contributed by Mary Carney, University of Georgia