Care Less, Love More: Edith Wharton’s Disconnected Perspective in “The Mission of Jane”

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Wharton and James both consistently employ the narrative perspective of a somewhat disconnected outsider, a character that acts as a loosely involved observer.  Characters like James’s Ralph Touchett and Frederick Winterbourne and Wharton’s Lawrence Selden all claim this role, remaining emotionally aloof while still observing the protagonists.  In Wharton’s “The Mission of Jane,” Mr. Lethbury undertakes this role, and thus the story is told from his point of view. Though the narration is in the third person, Lethbury’s thoughts, emotions and observations are communicated to the reader, making his point of view the one with which the reader is most closely aligned. This narrative technique furthers the eeriness of “The Mission of Jane,” because the reader is able to observe the peculiar Jane quite objectively, and allows the reader to see the gradual shift toward love in the Lethburys’ relationship.

The use of Lethbury’s point of view allows the story to be told objectively and reliably. Because Lethbury is emotionally detached from both his wife initially and his adopted daughter, he is able to observe them without emotional involvement, providing the reader with an unbiased account.  Lethbury did not have any desire for a child, while Mrs. Lethbury ached for one. Even after the child is adopted Lethbury had not accepted the fact that he was now the father of Jane. While Mrs. Lethbuty, “had gradually expanded her assumption of motherhood till it included his own share in the relation,” he remains surprised when, “he suddenly found himself as the father of Jane.” (421) If “The Mission of Jane” had been told from Mrs. Lethbury’s perspective, the story would be an entirely different one. Though Mrs. Lethbury is not Jane’s biological mother, there is still an unmistakable, almost physical connection between the two. Mrs. Lethbury is inextricably tied up within Jane, and would be entirely unable to judge her impartially. “She was no longer herself alone: she was herself and Jane.” (422) Lethbury’s physical and emotional detachment makes him the most objective and reliable narrator.

Because Lethbury is detached, the reader is able to view Jane without the sometimes-deceiving lens of parental love. This lack of rose-colored glasses shows Jane in an unnatural, almost robotic light. Even in her infancy Jane appears abnormal, “Jane contributed to them only a placid stare which might have served as a rebuke to the combatants.” (421) The use of the world rebuke paired with the agent of an infant is certainly abnormal and already warns the reader to be wary of Jane. This sentence is surely one of the “sign-posts” Wharton mentions in her piece, “Telling a Short Story” where she says, “One of the chief obligations, in a short story, is to give the reader an immediate sense of security. Every phrase should be a sign-post and never (unless intentionally) a misleading one: the reader must feel that he can trust to their guidance.” (37) Her oddity continues as a child. As Mr. Lethbury tries to educate Jane he is at first impressed by her intelligence. He soon realizes however that, “Her young mind remained a mere receptacle for facts: a kind of cold-storage from which anything which had been put there could be taken out at a moment’s notice, intact but congealed.” (424) The image of Jane’s mind as a sort of meat locker that congeals facts dehumanizes her further, making her seem lifeless yet functioning: an almost robotic character. She becomes more sinister as she flaunts her curdled scraps of information. “She was overhead to jeer at her nurse for not knowing when the Saxon Heptarchy had fallen, and she alternately dazzled and depressed Mrs. Lethbury by the wealth of her chronological allusions.” (424) Jane’s capacity for cruelty is observed and noted by Mr. Lethbury, though he is not a victim of her ridicule. It is perhaps this detachment that allows Lethbury to note the mocking tone of Jane’s boasting.

In Wharton’s section on ghost stories in “Telling A Short Story” she reveals her technique of telling a horror story:

When the reader’s confidence is gained the next rule of the game is to avoid distracting and splintering up his attention. Many a would-be tale of horror becomes very innocuous through the very multiplication and variety of its horrors…Once the preliminary horror posited, it is the harping on the same string—the same nerve—that does the trick. Quiet iteration is far more racking than diversified assaults; the expected is more frightful than the unforeseen. (40)

This illuminates why Jane is so eerie. She never develops or changes, but remains consistently impassive and unmoved. When she receives a marriage proposal from the worthy Mr. Budd, she tells her mother she needs time to think it over. Jane is incapable of an emotional response. After she is warned, “a young man of Mr. Budd’s impulsive temperament might—might be easily discouraged—” (429) she is undaunted and “she said that if she was worth winning she was worth waiting for.” (429) Jane is able to be this enduring, only because she would be indifferent if Mr. Budd abandoned her. The consistent repetition of Jane’s apathetic behavior is much creepier than her sprouting multiple heads or eating Mrs. Lethbury. Wharton’s theory proves accurate in relation to Jane. Her consistency is much eerier than an escalation of her behavior.

Interestingly, the use of Lethbury’s point of view only allows him and Mrs. Lethbury to speak throughout the story. Jane, who is in some ways the centerpiece of the story only has one line on the final page, “I can’t leave you!” (432) The rest of the story only includes dialogue between Lethbury and Mrs. Lethbury.  This reveals that Mrs. Lethbury is possibly the only voice that Mr. Lethbury hears, despite the perceived distance of their marriage in the beginning in the story.

The detached narrative style also allows the reader to see the gradual shift in the Lethbury’s marriage. At the beginning of the story they are two strangers who are incredibly accustomed to each other. He enjoys observing her, yet he really knows nothing of her desires. When she declares she wants a baby, he realizes how little he really knows her. “’You’ve been lonely, I suppose?’ he began. It was odd having suddenly to reckon with the stranger who gazed at him out of her trivial eyes.” (417) As the story progresses Lethbury’s attitude and tone seem to soften, not toward his adoptive daughter, but toward his wife. “For Mrs. Lethbury was undoubtedly happy for the first time in years; and the thought that he had tardily contributed to this end reconciled him to the irony of the means.” (421) As Jane begins to be cruel to his wife, Lethbury has to restrain himself from jumping to her defense. “He even began to feel a personal stake in the pursuit, not as it concerned Jane but as it affected his wife. He saw that the latter was the victim of Jane’s disappointment: that Jane was not above the crude satisfaction of ‘taking it out’ of her mother. Experience checked the impulse to come to his wife’s defense.” (426) He most resents Jane for the amount of suffering she inflicts on Mrs. Lethbury.  He even realizes with an indignant exclamation, “And yet it was his wife who had suffered most from Jane!” (431) Because Lethbury doesn’t seem to be aware of his own growing affection for his wife, the reader experiences Lethbury’s realization of his love for his wife at the end of the story. After Jane’s single death rattle of a line “I can’t leave you!” (432) the reader is filled with apprehension. Is she really gone? As Mr. Budd drags her away; the reader cannot help but sigh with relief that the Lethburys have finally ridded themselves of Jane. In the shocking deliverance from their adopted daughter, the couple finally notices each other again:

As he turned toward her, he noticed the tired look of heroism in her eyes, the deepened lines of her face…He went up to her, and an answering impulse made her lay a hand on his arm.

“Let us go off and have a jolly little dinner at a restaurant,” he proposed.

There had been a time when such a suggestion would have surprised her to the verge of disapproval; but now she agreed to it at once.

“Oh, that would be so nice,” she murmured with a great sign of relief and assuagement. (432)

The following line, “Jane had fulfilled her mission after all: she had drawn them together at last” (432) seems almost a “sign-post” in the middle of a straight road. It tells what has already been effectively shown in the story. Wharton perhaps underestimates the perceptiveness of her readers.

Ironically, it is Jane’s courtship that distracts the reader from the consistently growing bond between husband and wife. The traditional love story diverts the reader from the much more realistic one that is occurring in the meantime. This is perhaps one of Wharton’s intentionally misleading sign-posts. In “Telling a Short Story” Wharton says, “The chief technical difference between the short story and the novel may therefore be summed up by saying that the situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel.” (48) Though the characters are certainly not developed enough for a novel, the renewed love between the Lethburys by means of their bizarre adopted daughter is rendered beautifully. It is certainly the situation rather than the characters that drives “The Mission of Jane.”

The use of Mr. Lethbury’s point of view to narrate “The Mission of Jane” has several effects on the readers understanding of the story. The reader is able to see Jane objectively through the eyes of her emotionally detached adoptive father, making the reader aware of her oddity. In addition to the he objective rendering of Jane, the reader is also able to participate in Lethbury’s renewed love in his wife. His lack of awareness of his own developing feelings despite the subtle evidence to support that, combined with the skillful distractions and detours put in place by Wharton, put us in a position to be as surprised and natural as the Lethburys themselves.

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