tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links
The Long Run first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly number 109 for February 1912. It was included in Xingu and Other Stories published in New York by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1916. It is one of the many stories Edith Wharton wrote on the subject of passion across the boundaries of marriage and the long term consequences of social choices.
The Long Run – critical commentary
This is a very successful study in bad faith, self-deception, and lost opportunities. Merrick’s account of falling in love with Paulina Trant is both dramatically convincing and thematically persuasive. He has within himself the potential to expand beyond the confines of polite New York society, and perceives a similar potential within her. Even his first person account of the episode is expressed in charged and lyrically expressive terms:
Love is deeper than friendship, but friendship is a good deal wider. The beauty of our relation was that it included both dimensions. Our thoughts met as naturally as our eyes; it was almost as if we loved each other because we liked each other The quality of a love may be tested by the amount of friendship it contains, and in our case there was no dividing line between loving and liking, no disproportion between them, no barrier against which desire beat in vain or from which thought fell back unsatisfied. Ours was a robust passion that could give an open-eyed account of itself, and not a beautiful madness shrinking away from the proof.
But when he is put to the test by her offer to throw her lot in with his, he retreats into a cowardly and self-justifying moral panic. He claims that he is protecting her honour by not agreeing to a socially rash act, and he retreats into a deeply conservative attitude by pretending that their future will be compromised if they defy social conventions.
She offers a radical and open-hearted alternative which might even release him to develop his full intellectual and spiritual potential – but he persuades himself that he is acting in her best interests by declining the offer. In other words he is a moral coward who hides behind a screen of conventionality – a fundamental weakness which is doubly underscored when he thinks that the sudden death of her husband leaves the coast clear for their marriage.
This bad faith and failure in ambition is highlighted by the structure of the narrative. Merrick’s account of events is largely a first-person monologue, but it is preceded by the narrator’s framing of the story by his enthusiastic account of Merrick’s positive qualities in earlier life. But then the narrator is returning to New York after an absence of twelve years, and is shocked to find that Merrick, whilst the same in outward appearance, has changed for the worse.
There was something more fundamental the matter with Merrick, something dreadful, unforeseen, unaccountable; Merrick had grown conventional and dull.
Not only is Merrick changed, so is Paulina – so much so that the narrator does not recognise her. In the final brief episode of the story Merrick sums up what has become of them both – he is a dull and conventional bachelor, she is equally dull and unfulfilled wife. This framing of the essential story intensifies the sense of pathetic loss it enshrines.
The Long Run – study resources
The New York Stories – New York Review Books – Amazon UK
The New York Stories – New York Review Books – Amazon US
Edith Wharton Collected Stories – Norton Critical – Amazon UK
Edith Wharton Collected Stories – Norton Critical – Amazon US
The Descent of Man and Other Stories – Project Gutenberg
A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton – Amazon UK
The Cambridge Introduction to Edith Wharton – Amazon UK
The Long Run – plot summary
Part I. An un-named narrator returns to New York after twelve years absence and meets his old friend Halston Merrick. He is surprised to find that the previously talented and adventurous Merrick has become rather conventional and dull, having inherited his father’s iron foundry. The narrator is also attracted to Mrs Reardon, a woman of middle years who appears to have been ‘worn down’ by experience.
Part II. Next weekend the narrator visits Merrick at his country house. The host gives him a volume of volume of writing to examine, but the narrator finds little of merit in his friend’s writing. He thinks Merrick ought to have married, but Merrick explains that he passed up the chance.
Part III. Merrick gives an extended account of his recent past. He wanted to sell the iron foundry, but didn’t; then he fell passionately in love with Paulina Trant. She has married for convenience, but has retained her brilliance despite her husband’s dullness and conventionality. She and Merrick share a profound friendship and understanding, and a mutual passion. But just at the point he thinks their relationship might be consummated, Mr Trant decides to travel abroad for his health.
Part IV. Shortly before she is due to leave, Paulina visits Merrick in his house in the country where he has been waiting impatiently for news of her. When she explains that she has come to stay he takes fright and explains that he wishes to protect her virtuous reputation. She is prepared to give up everything: she even explains the advantages of going against social norms in his own case – selling his business, travelling, and being more creative. He argues that it is his duty to protect her against such recklessness, and he urges her to consider what their future would be. She claims that they can invent their own destiny. But he insists that it is his duty not to make such an important decision impulsively, and she realises that he is too weak to take a chance – so she leaves.
Part V. From this point onwards Merrick plunges into conformity. He doesn’t sell the business, and he has a brief affair with a married woman. Then he convinces himself that Paulina made the reckless offer of herself quite deliberately, so that he could refuse it.
The Trants stay away for two years, and a year later Philip Trant is killed in a railway accident. Merrick thinks he has saved Paulina’s honour and can now claim his reward by marrying her. But when he sets out to make his proposal, he realises the shallowness of his attitude and the bad faith of such a proposal.
Part VI. Paulina goes on to marry Reardon, and Merrick meets her and her husband as friends – and can measure what has happened in the long term, because he is unhappily single whilst she has settled for a conventional and dull marriage.
|I||an un-named narrator in his 50s|
|Halston Merrick||his old university friend who inherits an iron foundry|
|Paulina Reardon||formerly Mrs Trant|
|Philip Trant||her first husband|
Edith Wharton’s 42-room house – The Mount
Louis Auchincloss, Edith Wharton: A Woman of her Time, New York: Viking, 1971,
Elizabeth Ammons, Edith Wharton’s Argument with America, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1982, pp.222. ISBN: 0820305138
Janet Beer, Edith Wharton (Writers & Their Work), New York: Northcote House, 2001, pp.99, ISBN: 0746308981
Millicent Bell (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp.232, ISBN: 0521485134
Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit (eds), Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays, New York: Garland, 1992, pp.329, ISBN: 0824078489
Eleanor Dwight, Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994, ISBN: 0810927950
Gloria C. Erlich, The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton, California: University of California Press, 1992, pp.223, ISBN: 0520075838
Susan Goodman, Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends and Rivals, UPNE, 1990, pp.220, ISBN: 0874515246
Irving Howe, (ed), Edith Wharton: A collection of Critical Essays, London: University of North Carolina Press, 1986,
Jennie A. Kassanoff, Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp.240, ISBN: 0521830893
Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton, London: Vintage, new edition 2008, pp.864, ISBN: 0099763516
R.W.B. Lewis, Edith Wharton: A Biography, New York: Harper and Rowe, 1975, pp.592, ISBN: 0880640200
James W. Tuttleton (ed), Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp.586, ISBN: 0521383196
Candace Waid, Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld, London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991,
Sarah Bird Wright, Edith Wharton A to Z: The Essential Reference to Her Life and Work, Fact on File, 1998, pp.352, ISBN: 0816034818
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, New York: Perseus Books, second edition 1994, pp.512, ISBN: 0201409186
Other works by Edith Wharton
The Custom of the Country (1913) is Edith Wharton’s satiric anatomy of American society in the first decade of the twentieth century. It follows the career of Undine Spragg, recently arrived in New York from the midwest and determined to conquer high society. Glamorous, selfish, mercenary and manipulative, her principal assets are her striking beauty, her tenacity, and her father’s money. With her sights set on an advantageous marriage, Undine pursues her schemes in a world of shifting values, where triumph is swiftly followed by disillusion. This is a study of modern ambition and materialism written a hundred years before its time.
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The House of Mirth (1905) is the story of Lily Bart, who is beautiful, poor, and still unmarried at twenty-nine. In her search for a husband with money and position she betrays her own heart and sows the seeds of the tragedy that finally overwhelms her. The book is a disturbing analysis of the stifling limitations imposed upon women of Wharton’s generation. In telling the story of Lily Bart, who must marry to survive, Wharton recasts the age-old themes of family, marriage, and money in ways that transform the traditional novel of manners into an arresting modern document of cultural anthropology.
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Edith Wharton – web links
Edith Wharton at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides to the major novels, tutorials on the shorter fiction, bibliographies, critiques of the shorter fiction, and web links.
The Short Stories of Edith Wharton
This is an old-fashioned but excellently detailed site listing the publication details of all Edith Wharton’s eighty-six short stories – with links to digital versions available free on line.
Edith Wharton at Gutenberg
Free eTexts of the major novels and collections of stories in a variety of digital formats – also includes travel writing and interior design.
Edith Wharton at Wikipedia
Full details of novels, stories, and travel writing, adaptations for television and the cinema, plus web links to related sites.
The Edith Wharton Society
Old but comprehensive collection of free eTexts of the major novels, stories, and travel writing, linking archives at University of Virginia and Washington State University.
The Mount: Edith Wharton’s Home
Aggressively commercial site devoted to exploiting The Mount – the house and estate designed by Edith Wharton. Plan your wedding reception here.
Edith Wharton at Fantastic Fiction
A compilation which purports to be a complete bibliography, arranged as novels, collections, non-fiction, anthologies, short stories, letters, and commentaries – but is largely links to book-selling sites, which however contain some hidden gems.
Edith Wharton’s manuscripts
Archive of Wharton holdings at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
© Roy Johnson 2014
Edith Wharton – short stories
More on Edith Wharton
More on short stories