Worldly Wise

Is it possible that women are wiser than men? I ask in all seriousness. Two of the wisest people I have ever encountered (through their writings) are George Eliot and Edith Wharton, both women, needless to say. I ask this while noting that I have read all the philosophers, the “lovers of wisdom,” from Thales to the most recent lover of hair-splitting. Most of the philosophers I have read are brilliant and well worth the effort of pondering the depths they ask us to explore with them. I have learned a great deal and have grown along the way. But with thinkers like Eliot and Wharton I feel as though I have entered another world.

Bear in mind that George Eliot was recognized in her day as a brilliant writer and also a very wise woman. People wrote to her with their problems and expected her to be able to suggest possible solutions. Her novels are full of psychological insight and penetrating observations about the human condition. She was indeed a wise woman. The same can be said for Edith Wharton, though she is seldom mentioned in the same breath as Eliot, despite the fact that she was the first woman to win a Pulitzer for her remarkable novel Age of Innocence. Her novels are rich with insight and spot-on observations — not to mention just plain common sense (which so many men seem to lack).

I am re-reading Wharton’s The Fruit of the Tree, an overlooked novel that has within it all the worldly wisdom one could hope to uncover — along with philosophical problems to tax the deepest mind. She has a way with words, no doubt, and her descriptions are second to none — and were said to inspire such writers as Wallace Stegner. In addition to novels she wrote travelogues at a time when the camera was in its infancy and those who wanted to convey the beauty of what they saw had to use words — a talent that has been too long lost and was rare to begin with.

In The Fruit of the Tree Wharton tells us of a man who marries a wealthy woman in order to join with her to revolutionize the industry where he had once worked as an Assistant Manager — and which she had inherited when her first husband died. They were very much in love, so they thought, and both saw the terrible conditions the workers had to endure in order to scrape together a living while their bosses thought only of the ways they could increase profits. In its day this was heresy as America was going through its Horatio Alger phase and many thought only of how they could get rich. Few worried about the exploited souls who made their wealth possible. And while the novel centers around the struggle of the couple to make the employees’ working conditions, not to say living conditions, more humane, their fragile marriage begins to tear apart. This brings Wharton to such issues as euthanasia and infidelity. The novel has it all!

A few of the insightful comments Wharton makes along the way are worth quoting.

“The disappearance of the old familiar contact between master and man seemed to him one of the great wrongs of the new industrial situation. That the breach must be farther widened by the ultimate substitution of the stock-company for the individual employer — a fact obvious to any student of economic tendencies — presented to [the hero’s] mind one of the most painful problems in the scheme of social readjustment.”

“He had forgotten, too, that the swift apprehension of suffering in others is as much the result of training as the immediate perception of beauty. Both perceptions may be inborn, but if they are not they can only be developed through the discipline of experience.”

“But his demands, moderate as they were, assumed in his hearers the consciousness of a moral claim superior to the obligation of making one’s business ‘pay’ . . . .”

“But it seemed to her that they missed the poetry of their situation, transacting their pleasures with the dreary method and shortness of the view of a race tethered to the ledger.”

“She could not conceive of shutting herself into a little citadel of personal well-being while the great tides of existence rolled unheeded outside. . . .as human nature is constituted it has to find it’s real self — the self to be interested in — outside of what we conventionally call ‘self.'”

As I ponder those comments and recall why it is we read well-written novels it does occur to me that there are a few men who have also written profound words and have shown brilliance and penetrating insight, even worldly wisdom. I hasten to mention Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad as two of my favorites. Perhaps it’s not that Wharton and Elliot were women but that they were novelists. Perhaps. But I still wonder if the women don’t have a corner on worldly wisdom and common sense.