The Representation and Function of Paris in Edith Wharton’s Madame de Treymes
Edith Wharton’s novella Madame de Treymes (1907) is set in Paris and revolves around the three protagonists John Durham, Fanny de Malrive and her sister-in-law Madame de Treymes. On a visit to Paris the New Yorker John Durham meets his former college-friend Fanny again, who has married into the Parisian upper-class, but lives separated from her unfaithful aristocratic husband. John and Fanny want to marry, but divorce is impossible in Catholic France and especially in a titled family. Therefore John seeks Madame de Treymes’ help in getting the family to consent to a divorce and is confronted with the sinister strength of the French social order. Edith Wharton presents Paris as a corrupt place filed with intrigue and betrayal, a place hostile towards foreigners. Paris is represented through the representation of its aristocracy society, which is shown as a tight, arrogant, intriguer, narrow community feeling superior towards outsiders. Moreover the representation of the French society demonstrates the contrast between the moral Americans and the immoral French.
Fanny describes her husband’s family as “not wantonly wicked” (Wharton 175), but in possession of power and a “mysterious solidarity” (ibid.) among people of their stand, which would even enable them to influence the court system in their favor. John encounters this closed community for the first time, when he is invited for tea by Madame de Treymes and gets a “first glimpse of the social force of which Fanny […] had spoken” (188) and he becomes aware of the “occult danger to his friend” (ibid.). He instantly realizes “that he had never before known what “society” meant; nor understood that, in an organized and inherited system, it exists full-fledged where two or three of its members are assembled” (188). The hostile attitude towards foreigners is illustrated when John’s cousin Mrs. Boykin and her husband are introduced. Although they have been living in Paris for twenty-five years they are still isolated from the French and live in “a society chronically unaware of them” (182). The French aristocratic women are described by Mrs. Boykin as hypocritical and greedy ordinarily ignoring the American women and only remembering them, when they want them to spend money at one of their charity bazaars. Mrs. Boykin calls this practice “the brazen way in which [the French] combine religion and immorality” (186) complaining about “the way they treat the Americans over here” (ibid.). And even Madame de Treymes admits to John that they “do exploit [his] compatriots” (192) at those bazaars. Some American women follow those invitations in the hope of finally being accepted into the French society, which is usually rather ignorant towards them, only to find them being tricked into spending more money (184). The superiority and ignorance towards foreigners is also expressed when Madame de Treymes observes Fanny’s American visitors with “the unblinking attention of a civilized spectator observing an encampment of aborigines” (180) and gives them “a last puzzled penetrating look” (181) before leaving them. These incidents allude to the motif of Americans living in or visiting Paris and their experiences with the French hostility towards foreigners. It has been observed by Gopnik that the French society “is open at the surface, but closed at its core” (xvii) and that “the friendship of the French is singular, and their obsessions and group identity remain home-bound” (ibid.) making it “almost impossible for an American to put down in Paris” (ibid.).
Fanny who has lived quite a while in Paris does not perceive it as “a big innocent pleasure ground and shop for Americans” (168) like American tourists perceive it, but as a corrupt place and a cage, because she is trapped in Paris for her son’s sake. Worried about the immoral influence her husband’s family might have on her son she is convinced, that “the moment he passes out of [her] influence, he passes under that other - the influence [she has] been fighting against every hour since he was born” (171). She explains to John that the French aristocracy is a “far-reaching family organization, which is itself a part of the larger system, and which encloses a young man of [her] son’s position in a network of accepted prejudices and opinions” (172), which has prepared “his political and religious convictions, his judgment of people, his sense of honour, his ideas of women, his whole view of life” (ibid.) in advance for him. According to Fanny he will be “taught to see vileness and corruption in everyone not of his own way of thinking, and in every idea that does not directly serve the religious and political purposes of his class” (ibid.) and she is determined to prevent this at all cost. In French society the unity of the family is more important than the individual. Durham is confronted with this belief, when Fanny talks about the divorce and considers “the interests of the whole clan, rather than her husband’s individual claim” (174). Her expression shocks Durham’s “free individualism like a glimpse of some feudal survival” (175). Later in the novella at his final encounter with Madame de Treymes she reveals the intrigue planned by her family to get Fanny’s son back to them in order “to give him back to his race, his religion, his true place in the order of things” (218). She explains the difference between Americans and French by them considering the individual, whereas the French think only of the family (217) and could not accept the break-up of family traditions (218).