While Edith Wharton is primarily known for her novels about turn-of-the-century New York high society, she also wrote dozens of short stories that are just as astute and lyrical. In these brief pieces of fiction, Wharton contemplates the tension between private life and and public society, gender roles, cultural changes, and the inherent hypocrisy in New York high society. Scholar Cynthia Griffin Wolff notes that Wharton's short stories “generally focus upon a single crucial insight” and praises the writer's skill for “dissecting the elements of emotional subtleties, moral ambiguities, and the implications of social constrictions.” Her stories invoke a certain time and place, and this specificity allows Wharton's writing to resonate on a grander, more universal scale.
Wharton started writing as a young woman and began publishing short stories in Scribner’s and Harper’s. Her first collection of short stories, The Greater Inclination, was published in 1899, a year after she suffered a nervous breakdown. Critics and scholars have compared her work to that of other American short story luminaries like Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville. Three of the most famous stories in Wharton's oeuvre are “Souls Belated,” “The Muse’s Tragedy,” and “The Pelican.”
Wharton often used her life experiences as inspiration for her stories. Her love affair with William Morton Fullerton supposedly formed the foundation for "The Other Two," which is about remarriage and divorce. “After Holbein" is based on Wharton's friendship with the esteemed literary giant Henry James. In 1913, Wharton divorced her husband Edward “Teddy” Wharton after many years of unhappiness and the added challenge of his mental illness. Wharton moved to France permanently (although the couple had lived there on and off for some time). While she was there, she wrote her famed short story “Autres Temps,” which is about a woman who is an outcast from society following her divorce. During World War I, she wrote the clever and incisive “Xingu,” a witty satire of high society ladies’ literary circles.
Wharton frequently experimented with different genres, and in 1906, critics embraced her collection of ghost stories. Right before her death, Wharton published another renowned collection of short stories entitled The World Over. This volume contained what is perhaps her most famous short story, “Roman Fever,” as well as “The Pomegranate Seed,” Wharton's version of the Demeter and Persephone myth. Wharton’s short stories have become an integral part of the English language literary canon, and there are many critical interpretations and cultural studies of her work.