In his youth, Anson Warley was a man divided. On one hand, he was quiet and erudite; on the other, he was a social, gregarious, and snobby member of New York society who was always invited to the fanciest dinner parties. As of now, however, the two personalities have been subsumed into one, with the latter becoming completely predominant. Warley goes to all of the parties and dinners he is invited to, although his joints are too stiff for him to travel abroad anymore. He prefers not to attend dull parties, rather, he only goes to the right parties with the right people and the right wine. He absolutely sneers at anything that does not live up to his particular high tastes. He would rather stay home than venture out to a boring event.
He begins to think reproachfully about Evelina Jasper, who used to be the queen of the New York City dinner scene. He has since heard that Mrs. Jaspar is dying from "softening of the brain" (207), which has made her quite dotty. Warley always refuses Mrs. Jaspar's dinner invitations, and laughs to himself that he would like to make it clear that he "declines the boredom" (208) of attending.
One evening, Fillmore (Warley's valet) asks his employer if he is staying at home, and Warley snaps at him for his absurd suggestion. He recalls feeling slightly discombobulated in the park earlier that morning, but it has passed quickly. He feels excellent now, especially due to the fact that he has been invited to dine with Elfrida Flight, the celebrated pianist.
Across town, Mrs. Jaspar's day nurse Miss Dunn, tells Miss Cress (the night nurse) that Mrs. Jaspar is not doing very well. Mrs. Jaspar mistakes Miss Cress for a maid she had long ago and summons her old, devoted maid, Lavinia. As usual, Mrs. Jaspar is dressed elegantly and ostentatiously, but Miss Cress inwardly shudders at the old woman's empty, clouded eyes.
Mrs. Jaspar is preparing for a "dinner party" and demands her jewels. Miss Cress tries to tell Mrs. Jaspar that she is already wearing a necklace but she knows this is not true. She gets more upset and the wizened Lavinia, who still sees her mistress as a young, vibrant society woman, promises to get the jewels as soon as Munson the butler returns.
Mrs. Jaspar contents herself by reciting the guest list for her dinner party, which includes Anson Warley. Miss Cress corrects her and says Warley is not on the list, but Mrs. Jaspar insists she saw Warley the day before at the Fred Amesworths' dance and he said he was coming. Miss Cress feels uncomfortable, for Mrs. Amesworth has been dead for some time now.
Moments later, Lavinia brings out the jewels, full of happy tears. Miss Cress marvels secretly at the old maid, thinking perhaps she is not as steady as she appears to be. On "dinner party" evenings, Mrs. Jaspar is allowed to go downstairs alone, as it would not be proper for a maid or nurse to accompany her. The footman, George, announces the names of the imaginary guests while Lavinia weeps happily and Miss Cress rolls her eyes.
Meanwhile, Anson Warley is getting ready to go out, snapping at his valet and claiming not to need a taxi. He steps into the cold night with a spring in his steps and hopes people will see him so they can marvel at his sprightliness. Suddenly, though, his memory lapses and he cannot remember where or with whom he is to dine! He knows it must be somewhere on Fifth Avenue and that he will remember if he sees the right corner, so he keeps walking. Warley begins to think again about Mrs. Jaspar and finds himself in front of her house. He realizes that this is where he is supposed to dine and rings the doorbell.
Miss Cress and Lavinia are surprised to hear the bell as there are never any actual guests. Lavinia is terrified that something bad will happen when Mrs. Jaspar sees Warley, but Miss Cress takes pity on the old maid, comforting her with the information that Mrs. Jaspar is expecting him. Lavinia wonders how Warley knew that he was invited, but accepts Mis Cress's comfort.
Miss Cress and Lavinia fret over the fact that the table is not actually set and the flowers are not real (shortcuts they take because of Mrs. Jaspar's dementia). They peer downstairs and see the elderly woman on the arm of the well-dressed man, moving into the dining room. Neither speaks, but they simply concentrate on reaching the table. They speak in short sentences and Warley only says things such as "Ha!" but they both appear very content. Dinner is served. Eventually, Mrs. Jaspar announces that she is tired and speaks to an invisible woman before getting up and telling Warley to meet her after the cigars. Miss Cress marvels that she seems to have enjoyed herself.
Warley gets ready to leave and thinks about the dinner he just had and revels in the loud but pleasant conversation. He thinks defiantly about how his valet thought he could not go out, and shakes his head with amusement. He steps out into the cold weather and thinks of what a great night it has been. He thinks fondly of the "wine and the wit" and "then he [takes] a step forward, to where a moment before the pavement had been – and where now there [is] nothing" (232).
"After Holbein" is more stark and melancholy than most of Edith Wharton's other short stories. It was published in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1928 and appeared in the collection Certain People in 1930. Dorothy Foster Gilman reviewed the story for the New York Herald Tribune, and wrote that it was "indescribably tragic and magnificently written." Some critics believe that Wharton based Mrs. Jaspar's character on Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, Wharton's father's cousin.
The theme of death permeates "After Holbein." Wharton alludes to the end of life in her descriptions of the characters themselves. She paints Warley as old, too tired to travel abroad, and experiencing the first stages of dementia (although he does not understand that yet). Mrs. Jaspar is gaunt, withered, skeletal, and dying from her brain disease. Her volatile and simplistic emotional reactions resemble a child's. Her house is like a mausoleum, where she has enshrined her glorious past even though the flowers are dead. Mrs. Jaspar and Mr. Warley are both very much alive, but their minds remain stuck in fantasies of the past as their bodies deteriorate.
Critic Margaret B. McDowell describes the eerie atmosphere that pervades the tale. Wharton references ghosts, coffins, and mummies. Illness, old age, and mental confusion create an uncanny tone for the two main characters, exemplified in the climactic dinner scene. Warley and Mrs. Jaspar come together for a truly disconcerting and disquieting meal. They imagine that they are having a real conversation with their friends, dining on sumptuous wine and food, while sitting quietly side by side at an empty dinner table. McDowell refers to this as "an elaborate spectral scene," existing somewhere between life and death, reality and fantasy.
As a young man, Anson Warley was committed to scholarship, intellectual pursuits, cultural activities, and solitude, but he was subsumed by an alternate persona that reveled in wastefulness and started to draw him into a panoply of indulgent and superficial social gatherings. Critics often refer to Warley's character as an Everyman because his life has played out like a morality tale that cautions against excess, waste, and meaningless social climbing. Similarly, Mrs. Jaspar has nothing left at the end of her life except for her ghosts and memories.
McDowell explains, "both Evelina and Warley are now the slaves of meaningless rituals from which any kind of vitality has evaporated and are deadened as the percipient beings." While Warley scoffs the elderly hostess' boring events at the beginning of the story, it is clear that the two of them have much more in common than he cares to admit in his more lucid moments.
At the end of the story, Mrs. Jaspar goes into the next room and Warley departs. Both characters have thus moved off the stage into an oblivion reminiscent of death. Warley steps off the pavement "where now there was nothing" (232). It is a simple but terrifying ending that reveals Wharton's underlying moral intent in this story. Brown concludes that 'After Holbein" is a "parable which signifies that the wages of wasted talent is death and that complacency may indeed be the greatest of social sins."