In her short story, “The Fullness of Life,” Edith Wharton wrote about a woman who dies. In heaven, she is met by the Spirit of Life, who rewards her with the chance to live for eternity with her soulmate, something she did not get to experience during her time on Earth.
Seems like an easy decision, right? But here’s the catch: the woman still feels a dutiful attachment to her former husband, who has yet to die. In a classic bit of Whartian tragedy, he’s always considered her his soulmate, and will surely want to spend eternity with her once he, too, passes on.
Thus, her dilemma: does she selfishly take the Spirit’s offer and spend eternity with her true soulmate, or does she stay loyal to the man she married?
It’s a terrific story, one that’s readily available online (and readable in less than 30 minutes). It’s the third work by Wharton I’ve read, but just the first short story (at the suggestion of Juliana, so thanks goes to her). After reading it, I instantly regret that I didn’t even consider her (somehow) when I tweeted my three favourite authors earlier this week.
However, all this is beside the point.
What I want to talk about today is a specific moment in “The Fullness of Life,” in which the woman contemplates the parts of herself that she has never had the courage to explore. The byproduct of a loveless marriage, the woman suffered from an isolation-induced emotional paralysis.
I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.
— Edith Wharton, “The Fullness of Life”
Here, Wharton is talking about the parts of the woman that have never been fully realized (or even realized at all). The parts that weren’t given time to grow, the boundaries that weren’t pushed, maybe even the taboos that weren’t explored. The questions that weren’t asked. The answers that were never found.
As a result, she feels like she doesn’t know herself. She lived an unfulfilling life. Parts of her were cut off on her behalf, other parts she cut off herself.
Isolation affects people in two ways: they either retreat into themselves and use that time to reflect and develop, or they find that they don’t like what they see and they avoid themselves.
Me, I’m the first type of person. Solitude isn’t just a luxury in my life, it’s an absolute necessity. It gives me the time I need to recharge, sure, but it also gives me the time to push on those boundaries a little bit, to ask myself tough questions and allow whatever answers come out. Sometimes I come across things I really don’t like about myself, but I’ve already learned this year that those bits and pieces are so important. Sometimes they’re the most important.
If you know what I’m talking about, just ask yourself: do you hate those parts of you because of your own sense of right and wrong, or do you hate them because you think you’re supposed to?
As Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said, “Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with [themselves], because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”
Wharton, herself, came to know this, too. Years after she wrote “The Fullness of Life,” Wharton wrote to her friend Mary Berenson about making time for solitude and reflection (in Berenson’s case, in the face of depression). This letter can be found in the definitive Wharton biography, Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee. In it, she considers solitude–what some may refer to as loneliness–as a necessary, centering device.
(Note the house imagery here, which aligns closely with the earlier quotation about rooms in a house from “Fullness.”)
I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity — to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.
— Edith Wharton
Solitude is considered a faux pas to most people. In my own experience, people find it strange that I spend so much of my (free) time reading and writing. People laugh when I talk about going to movies by myself. Just last week I received a complaint at work because I like to spend my lunch hours alone, away from my co-workers. For whatever reason, solitude is threatening.
But then I read something like Pablo Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet” and it feels nothing but empowering.
If we were not so single-minded, as Neruda says, “about keeping our lives moving … perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves.”
by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.