The Moving Finger by Edith Wharton
In The Moving Finger by Edith Wharton we have the theme of control, loneliness, conflict, obsession, isolation, connection, dependency and letting go. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Wharton may be exploring the theme of control. There is a sense that Ralph was controlled by his first wife and that his life was unhappy. Also despite the second Mrs Grancy being dead. Ralph still wants to control her. Something that is evident by the fact that he asks Claydon to repaint the portrait of Mrs Grancy so that she may look older. Just as Ralph has gotten older. Though Ralph has tried to do everything to move on with his life. Even going as far as taking a job in Europe. He has not being able to escape from his past. He is forever drawn to Mrs Grancy. Which may leave some readers to suggest that Ralph is unable to move on with his life. He has never remarried and since Mrs Grancy’s death there is a sense that Ralph has lived a lonely life. Something that Wharton may be highlighting by way of the setting of the story. Ralph when he returns from Europe does not leave his home or a least there is no mention by the narrator of Ralph ever leaving his home.
Though it is not directly implied by the narrator there is also a sense that Mrs Grancy and Claydon may have had an affair. Just as Ralph loved Mrs Grancy so too did Claydon. It is perhaps for this reason that Claydon restored the portrait to what it originally was. Just as Ralph is unable to let go of Mrs Grancy so too is Claydon. By restoring the picture to what it originally was Claydon wishes to remember Mrs Grancy as she was when he fell in love with her. If anything both Ralph and Claydon are obsessed with Mrs Grancy. With the possibility that Claydon may actually have been jealous of Ralph’s relationship with his wife. It is as though there is the undercurrent of a conflict between Ralph and Claydon. Though Ralph would possibly be unaware of this. It is also possible that Wharton is exploring the theme of isolation. Ralph felt not only trapped but isolated in his first marriage. While it is possible that Mrs Grancy too felt trapped and subsequently isolated when it came to her love for both Ralph and Claydon.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. Not only does the portrait of Mrs Grancy symbolize love for both Ralph and Claydon but it also symbolizes man’s obsession with women and how men like to control women (even in death). The fact that Ralph has married twice may also have some symbolic significance as Wharton could be using the fact that Ralph married twice to highlight Ralph’s need to feel connected to another person. Though his marriage to his first wife was unhappy. Ralph never divorced or left his wife. Similarly with the second Mrs Grancy there is a sense that Ralph needed her to bring joy to his life. If anything Ralph needed to feel connected with the second Mrs Grancy. Something that is also evident in her death. Which may leave some critics to suggest that Ralph is dependent on both his wives. Similarly there is a sense that Claydon too is dependent on Mrs Grancy in order to be happy. Which is ironic considering that women were viewed upon as being dependent on men at the time the story was written.
The end of the story is also interesting as the reader gets a sense into just how deeply in love with Mrs Grancy Claydon is. Though some critics might suggest that Claydon is self-absorbed. Thinking only of himself and not of others (like Ralph and Mrs Grancy). However one thing is certain and that is that Claydon is viewing Mrs Grancy as an object. Which may be the point that Wharton is making. She may be suggesting that at the time the story was written men objectified women rather than treating them as equals. For Claydon he has an image (or portrait) of Mrs Grancy which is not real. If anything Claydon has created a fantasy for himself. Though for him the fantasy is very real. He has what he wants. Complete control and possession over Mrs Grancy. Just as men in general had control and possession over women at the time the story was written. Claydon might also think that he has won his rivalry with Ralph however the reality might be very different. All that Claydon is left with is a portrait of Mrs Grancy and a memory of a time they spent together. He has not really won anything. Though his fantasy may be real to him. It still is only a fantasy.