A Journey by Edith Wharton
In A Journey by Edith Wharton we have the theme of change, acceptance, gender roles, loyalty, independence, conflict and social opinion. Taken from her The New York Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Wharton may be exploring the theme of change. The female protagonist though she loves her husband does not necessarily wish to remain with him. Due to his illness he is not the same man that she married. Things have changed in the relationship. However it is noticeable that despite how the protagonist feels she remains by her husband’s side throughout the story. This may be important as Wharton may be placing a spotlight on the accepted societal norms of the time when it came to the role of a woman in a marriage. Though the protagonist has thoughts of leaving her husband due to the pressures imposed on her. She remains by his side. Rather than being a wife she has become a nurse to her husband. Though some critics might suggest that it would be selfish of the protagonist to leave her husband Wharton might be suggesting that should the roles be reversed the protagonist’s husband may not necessarily show the same loyalty. If anything society at the time would have viewed women to have a responsibility to their husbands. Once married a woman lost any sense of independence.
It is also interesting that the protagonist is afraid to tell anybody on the train that her husband is dead. She knows that should she tell people she and her husband will be removed from the train. This could be important as it suggests that there may be a negative attitude towards death within society. Death is something to be seen from a distance rather than close proximity. With social opinion dictating that it may be inappropriate for the protagonist and her husband to continue their journey. How imposing social opinion actually is in the story is noticeable by the sense of panic that the protagonist feels on discovery that her husband is dead. She does not grieve his death rather she is concerned about hiding the fact that he is dead. If anything the protagonist is being practical under very difficult circumstances. She is also accepting of the conditions she finds herself in. Knowing that she will be judged by others due to the fact that her husband has died on the train. If anything Wharton may be suggesting that at times society can lack empathy.
The fact that the protagonist is in conflict with herself may also be significant as it suggests that she is torn between staying with her husband and leaving him. If anything Wharton manages to give the reader an insight into the emotions that the protagonist is feeling. She had aspirations for the future but due to her husband’s illness her own life has been put on hold. Taking on the responsibility as a caregiver or nurse to her husband. It is also possible that Wharton is highlighting how quickly an individual’s life can change from a life of happiness to one of misery without the individual having any control over how things turn out. Which is very much the case when it comes to the protagonist. Her life has been interrupted without her permission. She has no say in what will happen to her due to the accepted societal norms of the time. If she were to leave her husband she would become an outcast within society.
The end of the story is also interesting as the reader is left aware of the fact that there is still so much for the protagonist to do. She still has to tell somebody that her husband is dead. Something which already leaves the protagonist conflicted. In reality there is no real resolution for the protagonist. Her work has really only begun. However the fact that the train has arrived back in New York may be of some benefit to the protagonist as New York is not only her home but her family will also be at the station waiting for her. Having spent six weeks in an unfamiliar environment at least that protagonist is back in an environment that is known to her. It is as though she has the reassurance of familiarity. The protagonist also has the opportunity in time to reclaim her life and to live it as she sees fit. She has done everything that is expected of her by society. Considering the pressure that the protagonist was under throughout the train journey she has done remarkably well. She has stayed by her husband’s side and handled the circumstances she found herself in to the best of her ability. The reader aware that there is not much else that the protagonist can do for her husband.