I reread Edith Wharton’s short story ‘The Triumph of Night’ again yesterday, as I remembered finding it frustrating as it was both enjoyable and unsatisfying. Certain aspects of the story had fascinated me, whilst others seemed rather contrived. I remember finding the resolution rushed as if Wharton had wanted the story to be over and done with and had sacrificed the unsettling pieces of the story to a studiedly, artificially ‘uneasy’ ending. The story resonates throughout with something unsettling yet doesn’t quite fulfill its disquiet. I wondered why, particularly when Wharton is often superb at disquiet as her brilliant story ‘Afterward’ reveals. The idea of the ‘night’s triumph lingers on though…
In in artistic sense, I was reminded of Katherine Mansfield’s criticism of her own short story, Mr and Mrs Dove when she said:’ It’s a little bit made up. It’s not inevitable.’ So I read the Wharton story again and tried to evaluate why I felt ambivalent about it, why it didn’t feel quite as ‘inevitable’ as i felt it should!
It’s always worth annotating the ‘strange’ in a text as these moments give away all sorts of fertile ideas about the writing. when you read and come across the ‘strange’ stay with those moments and explore them further.
I have copied below several places where the text seems strange and ‘leaks’ interest and tried to work out why I found the story so ambivalent. I have underlined ‘strange’ moments!Here’s the first example:
“Weymore?–No, these are not the Weymore sleighs.”
The voice was that of the youth who had jumped to the platform–a voice so agreeable that, in spite of the words, it fell consolingly on Faxon’s ears. At the same moment the wandering station-lantern, casting a transient light on the speaker, showed his features to be in the pleasantest harmony with his voice. He was very fair and very young–hardly in the twenties, Faxon thought–but his face, though full of a morning freshness, was a trifle too thin and fine-drawn, as though a vivid spirit contended in him with a strain of physical weakness. Faxon was perhaps the quicker to notice such delicacies of balance because his own temperament hung on lightly quivering nerves, which yet, as he believed, would never quite swing him beyond a normal sensibility.
“You expected a sleigh from Weymore?” the newcomer continued, standing beside Faxon like a slender column of fur.
When the protagonist Faxon meets the ill fated Rainer for the first time, Rainer rescues Faxon from the wintry night and takes him home to his Uncle’s grand house. The agreeable warmth and fairness of Rainer are in stark contrast to the snowy chill of the night and subtly set up an opposition between heat and cold in the narrative. However the reader also recognizes the irony that the consumptive nature of Rainer gives him rather too much warmth which dooms him. He is too trusting of his Uncle’s feigned ‘warmth’ so once again ‘warmth’ becomes double edged in the story.
The ‘night’ in the story’s title, refers to both the landscape itself and is also a metaphor for the dark conspiracy at the heart of the story, where murderous neglect masquerades as benevolent care. Who is really cold despite their affectation of warmth? Why might this be? Could ‘night’ also refer to something else, latently present yet unspoken?
In the extract above, Faxon is immediately sympathetic to Rainer, as he is himself more sensitive and delicate than other men. Faxon describes him in an engaging and even tender manner when he refers to Rainer being ‘like a slender column of fur.’ This simile stayed in my mind. It seemed affectionate and would not be out of place at the opera. The vulnerability and wealth of Rainer are suggested by the simile. He is even feminized by this choice of language yet ironically Rainer is also rescuing the forgotten- about economically challenged Faxon. Their affection is immediately reciprocal but ill fated.
This encounter is then explored again at the end of the story when Faxon ‘rescued’ again by Rainer finds he must attempt to rescue Rainer in turn and fails as Rainer dies (almost) in his arms. Thus the ‘transient light’ that illuminates Rainer above, proves a doom laden foreshadowing of Rainer’s impending mortality. It also suggests that he is a ‘transient light’ in the moral darkness of his villainous Uncle’s web-like conspiracy.
Faxon therefore intuitively recognizes more above than he rationally knows above, and it is his reluctance to ‘know’ what is going on in any explicit manner, that creates the strange spectral doppelganger figure at the house, which reveals the secret evil of the Uncle, yet from which Faxon flees, leaving Rainer to his Uncle’s malignant final design.
I did wonder if Wharton, however obliquely, is playing with a latent homo-eroticism in the story and this constitutes at least part of Faxon’s fearfulness and need to run away. He suggests above that his sensitivity will never transport him ‘beyond a normal sensibility’, unlike he infers, Rainer with his fair hair and frailty. I did wonder at this phrasing and at its innate awkwardness as Faxon tried to balance or measure ‘normality’.
Faxon is musing, yet is repressing his feelings, even whilst being introspective. Where after all are the women in the story? And do look at the investment in the euphemistic ‘sensitivity’ of both Faxon and Rainer in the tale. The latter’s sensitivity is ‘explained’ by tuberculosis, Faxon’s remains more obscure. He is once again ‘rescued’ again during the story’s final moments by yet another male . and transported away to another country presumably to get over Rainer and his own impotency when it came to protecting his vulnerable friend. .
(Even the evil Uncle scents his handkerchief and fills his home with arranged flowers! )
I will continue with the following extracts soon.
They saluted their host’s nephew with friendly familiarity, and Mr. Grisben, who seemed the spokesman of the two, ended his greeting with a genial–“and many many more of them, dear boy!” which suggested to Faxon that their arrival coincided with an anniversary. But he could not press the enquiry, for the seat allotted him was at the coachman’s side, while Frank Rainer joined his uncle’s guests inside the sleigh.
A swift flight (behind such horses as one could be sure of John Lavington’s having) brought them to tall gateposts, an illuminated lodge, and an avenue on which the snow had been levelled to the smoothness of marble. At the end of the avenue the long house loomed up, its principal bulk dark, but one wing sending out a ray of welcome; and the next moment Faxon was receiving a violent impression of warmth and light, of hot-house plants, hurrying servants, a vast spectacular oak hall like a stage-setting, and, in its unreal middle distance, a small figure, correctly dressed, conventionally featured, and utterly unlike his rather florid conception of the great John Lavington.
The surprise of the contrast remained with him through his hurried dressing in the large luxurious bedroom to which he had been shown. “I don’t see where he comes in,” was the only way he could put it, so difficult was it to fit the exuberance of Lavington’s public personality into his host’s contracted frame and manner. Mr. Laving ton, to whom Faxon’s case had been rapidly explained by young Rainer, had welcomed him with a sort of dry and stilted cordiality that exactly matched his narrow face, his stiff hand, and the whiff of scent on his evening handkerchief. “Make yourself at home–at home!” he had repeated, in a tone that suggested, on his own part, a complete inability to perform the feat he urged on his visitor. “Any friend of Frank’s… delighted… make yourself thoroughly at home!”
With this thought in his mind, Faxon raised his eyes to look at Mr. Lavington. The great man’s gaze rested on Frank Rainer with an expression of untroubled benevolence; and at the same instant Faxon’s attention was attracted by the presence in the room of another person, who must have joined the group while he was upstairs searching for the seal. The new-comer was a man of about Mr. Lavington’s age and figure, who stood just behind his chair, and who, at the moment when Faxon first saw him, was gazing at young Rainer with an equal intensity of attention. The likeness between the two men–perhaps increased by the fact that the hooded lamps on the table left the figure behind the chair in shadow–struck Faxon the more because of the contrast in their expression. John Lavington, during his nephew’s clumsy attempt to drop the wax and apply the seal, continued to fasten on him a look of half-amused affection; while the man behind the chair, so oddly reduplicating the lines of his features and figure, turned on the boy a face of pale hostility.
“It was cold out there.” he sighed; and then, abruptly, as if invisible shears at a single stroke had cut every muscle in his body, he swerved, drooped on Faxon’s arm, and seemed to sink into nothing at his feet.
The lodge-keeper and Faxon bent over him, and somehow, between them, lifted him into the kitchen and laid him on a sofa by the stove.
The lodge-keeper, stammering: “I’ll ring up the house,” dashed out of the room. But Faxon heard the words without heeding them: omens mattered nothing now, beside this woe fulfilled. He knelt down to undo the fur collar about Rainer’s throat, and as he did so he felt a warm moisture on his hands. He held them up, and they were red….
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