Over at Interpolations, Kevin Neilson suggests that Edith Wharton “shares a family resemblance with Freud.” Granted, my impressions of Freud have been colored by Joseph Skibell’s darkly playful Curable Romantic, which sketches the great psychoanalyst as some combination of Sherlock Holmes—nothing that happens in his presence is lost on him—and a bully who delights in publicly enforcing The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Even so, I am skeptical about the resemblance.
Neilson focuses upon the “language of secret signs” in Wharton, qualifying his argument by saying that “this language emerges in a social context instead of a dreaming state.” Because Wharton’s characters “block their true thoughts and feelings,” Neilson says, their “repressed” desires are manifested as “innuendoes” (“flashing eyes, a subdued tone, a fugitive glance, a clandestine touch, an upturned lip, or a cluster of yellow roses anonymously sent”). Neilson theorizes that these actions and gestures are “[l]ike dreams according to Freudian categories. . . .”
I think Neilson is mistaken, but I want to pick up the knife at the sharp end. How does Wharton represent dreams in her fiction? For Freud, according to Neilson, “Dreams are disguised wish fulfillments.” But is this how Wharton understands the unconscious life?
In The House of Mirth, published six years after The Interpretation of Dreams—the exact difference in the writers’ ages—the word dream can refer either to ambitions for success or to the images and sensations experienced during sleep. There are probably nine occurrences of the latter:
(1.) After watching the tableux vivants in Chapter 12 of Book I, in which Lily Bart had stood as Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd, Lawrence Selden seeks her out. Selden, of course, is already in love with Lily, who is in a daze of pleasure from the effect of her performance. She takes his arm. And then: “Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations.” Selden acknowledges his love for her; they briefly kiss; Lily begs him to love her but not to tell her so, and flees. The encounter is explicitly compared to the “unreality” of a dream, but it is the talk of love and the stolen kiss—not the unspoken and unconsciously denied—that are “dream-like” here. Lily does not repress her feelings for Selden; she knowingly runs away from them.
(2.) The next chapter opens with Lily waking from “happy dreams.”
(3.) She finds a note from Selden awaiting her when she wakes. He must go to Albany for the day, and asks when he might see her the day after. She muses upon his note:
(4.) That same morning, in a different house, Selden’s cousin Gerty Farish “woke from dreams as happy as Lily’s.” If they were “less vivid” than Lily’s they were “better suited to her mental vision.” For her emotional life is not as extravagant as Lily’s, and Gerty is not as pretty.
(5.) That evening Selden dines with Gerty. She is unexpectedly saddened when she realizes that her cousin had “come to talk to her of Lily—that was all!” Learning from her that Lily will be attending a musical evening at Mrs Fisher’s house, Selden places a “cousinly kiss upon her cheek,” and goes. Left alone with her cousin’s kiss, Gerty finds her jealousy for Lily flaming up. But what right had Gerty to “dream the dreams of loveliness”? She was plain; Lily was beautiful. And she knew perfectly well that a “dull face invited a dull fate.” For such as her, “dreams of loveliness” must be willfully put away, like childhood toys.
(6.) The doorbell rings, and Lily stands at the door. She confesses that she does not want to be alone; she asks to stay for the night. She tries to explain:
The words, flashing back on Gerty’s last hours, struck from her a faint derisive murmur; but Lily, in the blaze of her own misery, was blinded to everything outside it. . . .
“Lily, look at me! Something has happened—an accident? You have been frightened—what has frightened you? Tell me if you can—a word or two—so that I can help you.”
Lily shook her head.
“I am not frightened: that’s not the word. Can you imagine looking into your glass some morning and seeing a disfigurement—some hideous change that has come to you while you slept? Well, I seem to myself like that—I can’t bear to see myself in my own thoughts—I hate ugliness, you know—I’ve always turned from it—but I can’t explain to you—you wouldn’t understand. . . .”
Gerty knelt beside her, waiting, with the patience born of experience, till this gust of misery should loosen fresh speech. She had first imagined some physical shock, some peril of the crowded streets, since Lily was presumably on her way home from [Mrs] Fisher’s; but she now saw that other nerve-centres were smitten, and her mind trembled back from conjecture. . . .
“Lily! you mustn't speak so—you’re dreaming.”
Wharton’s dreams are not “disguised wish fulfillments,” then. They are the socially unacceptable options that her characters have deliberately rejected, but that delight them upon occasion like fairies or dismay them upon occasion like furies.
Her men and women live, as Wharton herself put it in The Age of Innocence, in a “hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought. . . .” But what Neilson calls the “secret language of signs” is the despotic social code they live by. Their dreams represent not what they have repressed, but what they have rejected—at no small cost to themselves. If Wharton has a family resemblance to anyone it is to her two-years-older contemporary J. M. Barrie, whose Peter Pan, staged the year before The House of Mirth was published, literalizes the dream-realm in which Wharton’s characters might have lived, but decided not to.