Although it may be wide of the target, Kevin Neilson’s suggestion that there is some “family resemblance” between Edith Wharton and Sigmund Freud—he goes so far as to call them Edith Freud and Sigmund Wharton—is a welcome reminder that the two great writers were contemporaries. As such they were faced by the same historical crisis, and their writings can be read as immediate reactions to that crisis. In fact, the two are far more interesting when their reactions are seen as strikingly different from each other’s, even strongly opposed.
Six years older, Freud was born into the rapidly modernizing and secularizing Jewish middle class in Central Europe. The Jews of the Habsburg Empire were only granted full legal emancipation in 1867, eleven years after Freud’s birth. By then his family had settled in Vienna after his father’s business failure. And Freud had already been enrolled for two years in a competitive and highly respected Realgymnasium, where he established himself as a brilliant student. Although he later said that he “never felt within [his] depth” in Vienna, claiming to yearn for “the marvelous forests of [his] childhood,” the truth is that he had left the past of his Galician Jewish parents far behind.
Freud was thoroughly at home in Vienna, because he was a champion of modernism in a capital of modernism. For him, the crumbling of traditional communal structures, as symbolized by the gluttonous expansion of Vienna in the late nineteenth century, was a happy development. Psychoanalysis was intended to be a great engine of social readjustment for modern man, who found himself cut off and isolated. As Philip Rieff puts it:
The difference is that Freud’s reaction was therapeutic. However the psychoanalytic goal is phrased, the fact remains that Freud sought the reintegration of the neurotic into society. Wharton did not believe any such reintegration was possible. Human society was, as she wrote in The Reef (1912), an island of captivity surrounded by “the wide bright sea of life.” Her sensitive maladjusted characters itch to get off the island “into a life that’s big and ugly and struggling,” as Owen Leath tells George Darrow. But the choice is not so simple. At the end of the novel, after Anna has learned the truth about her husband’s affair with her stepson’s fiancée, she reflects:
Wharton’s reaction, in other words, is tragic. No emancipation of man’s “I” from the communal “we” is possible, and thus no therapeutic adjustment, but no life outside the community is possible either. Man does not live upon a wide bright sea. At best he accepts his imprisonment, for the beings he loves if not for himself. To escape captivity would be to abandon them, and to dwell in darkness alone.
 Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Garden City: Anchor, 1961), pp. 361–62. Originally published in 1959.