Mrs. Ballinger, a society woman, has formed the Lunch Club with several of her friends, all of whom are also "indomitable huntresses of erudition" (25). The club attains such prominence that the famous author, Mrs. Osric Dane, agrees to participate in their next meeting. They will gather at Mrs. Ballinger's house, even though Mrs. Plinth believes her home to be a much more appropriate locale. At the beginning of the story, the women look ahead to Osric Dane's visit; her book "The Wings of Death" was the subject of discussion at their previous club meeting.
Mrs. Roby is the only one who seems out of place in the Lunch Club. Although a respected professor highly recommended her to be a member, she does not seem too bright, nor does she participate in many of the club's more intellectual discussions. Mrs. Ballinger has restricted club membership to six people, and with such a small a number, a dysfunctional guest is a problem. Therefore, Mrs. Ballinger encourages the other members to view Mrs. Roby in the best possible light.
At the meeting before Osric Dane's arrival, Mrs. Roby comments that she is currently reading Trollope's work, but Mrs. Plinth curtly informs her that he is out of style. Mrs. Leveret also finds herself in an awkward position when she comments that she thinks that Mrs. Dane intended her book to "elevate." Mrs. Leveret is not very bright either, but the other ladies like to have her in the club "as a mirror for their mental complacency" (27). For her part, Mrs. Roby says she has not even read "The Wings of Death," scandalizing the rest of the women. Mrs. Glyde comments that it seems like Osric Dane was so overcome by the meaning of her own book that she did not really give it an ending. They all discuss the darkness of Dane's book and admire how artistic it is.
At one point, Mrs. Roby abruptly asks Mrs. Plinth what she thinks of "The Wings of Death," and the room descends into silence. Everyone knows not ask Mrs. Plinth her opinion on books. She believes that books are meant to be read and nothing else, and that the thoughts in her head are well-placed and should not be moved around. On the morning of Osric Dane's visit, Mrs. Leveret arrives at the meeting early. She is nervous, and clutches her precious book of "Appropriate Allusions." She rarely has the occasion to use one of her allusions, but feels that the book is valuable and that everyone must carry a copy. She notices that Mrs. Ballinger has rearranged the room subtly for Mrs. Dane's visit, putting out several new and weighty books on the table. Mrs. Ballinger's contribution to the club is the myriad of facts that flit into her head and float out as soon as she utters them.
Miss Van Vluyck arrives. She prefers to discuss statistics and philanthropy, as these are the two subjects that she is most familiar with. Mrs. Plinth arrives soon thereafter, and tells her fellow club members that they should all be prepared to discuss Osric Dane's book. She says that they must decide in advance what subjects they should discuss in Mrs. Dane's presence because she is afraid of not saying the proper thing.
Then, Osric Dane finally arrives. She is imperious, cold, and not easily accessible. Everyone finds her to be rude and difficult, but only Mrs. Roby is bold enough to quietly call her a brute behind her back. After the luncheon, the women retire to the drawing-room to speak amongst themselves. They are surprised when Mrs. Ballinger resorts to the platitude of asking Osric Dane how she likes Hillbridge. The author cursorily replies that it is small. Mrs. Plinth retorts that their group is filled with "representative" (34) people, and Osric Dane coolly asks what they represent. This condescending line of questioning goes on for some time. Every time one of the members of the Lunch Club makes a statement, Osric Dane subtly cuts her down.
Finally, Mrs. Glyde asks about "The Wings of Death." Osric Dane replies in her condescending tone once again. Miss Van Vluyck comments that the club has studied psychology, and Osric Dane asks for specific details about their course of study. Mrs. Ballinger begins to say the club has been absorbed in something, but trails off. When they all look lost, Mrs. Roby leans in, smiling, and tells Osric Dane that they have been absorbed in Xingu.
The other women support Mrs. Roby's claim, relieved to have the upper hand once again. Osric Dane, meanwhile, looks mildly annoyed, especially when Mrs. Roby asks her what she thinks of Xingu. Mrs. Dane muses out loud about the subject but reveals nothing. Mrs. Roby tries to prompt her with the claim that the club has found little interesting except for Xingu and "Wings of Death." Mrs. Roby insists on hearing Osric Dane's opinion.
The other women are quietly thrilled while watching Mrs. Dane grow more and more uncomfortable as she continues to put off answering Mrs. Roby's questions. The other women begin making their own comments. Mrs. Leveret comments that Xingu has been beneficial for her, Mrs. Plinth says she never skips it, and Mrs. Ballinger says she does not wade in it. They all seem like they are grasping for the meaning of Mrs. Roby's mysterious "Xingu," as well. Mrs. Roby, meanwhile, confidently says she has never tried it, especially after a professor friend of hers said it was not suitable for women.
The women shudder at this, but Mrs. Dane looks intrigued and draws her chair close to Mrs. Roby. Suddenly, the club members begin to feel peeved at the amount of attention Osric Dane is paying to Mrs. Roby. Mrs. Ballinger attempts to distract Mrs. Dane by bringing up her novel again, but before this discussion can begin, Mrs. Roby stands up and cheerfully bids them adieu because she has plans to go play bridge. The women are shocked at her "brazen announcement" (42), and are even more stunned when Osric Dane jumps up to accompany her. As the two walk out together, the women hear Mrs. Dane asking Mrs. Roby to talk more about Xingu.
The other women are indignant and feel cheated. They discuss how nasty Osric Dane is, and Mrs. Plinth thinks privately that the meeting might have gone off more smoothly if they had gathered at her house instead of at Mrs. Ballinger's. They all start talking around the subject of Xingu without admitting that they do not know what it is, either. None of the women wants to admit ignorance to the others. They speculate whether Xingu is a book, a language, or a philosophy.
After this conversation goes on for some time, the women finally decide to look "Xingu" up. Miss Van Vluyck looks through an encyclopedia. Finally, in a hushed tone, she tells the other club members that Xingu is a river in Brazil. They are all surprised, but soon realize that Mrs. Roby lived in Brazil. All her responses to Osric Dane's questions suddenly make sense.
They feel angry because Mrs. Roby has made them look foolish, but take comfort in the fact that Osric Dane was ignorant, too. After a moment, they wonder if Mrs. Roby has revealed the truth to Mrs. Dane and if both of them are laughing together. The women all start moaning over their lost time and the scandal of the day's meeting. Mrs. Plinth solemnly suggests that Mrs. Ballinger write to Mrs. Roby and request her resignation. The story ends when Mrs. Ballinger sits down at her desk, moves her copy of Mrs. Dane's book aside, and takes out a sheet of paper.
Many critics and scholars consider "Xingu" to be among Wharton's most amusing and wittiest short stories. It was published in 1911 in Scribner's and then again as part of the collection Xingu and Other Stories. The critic from the Spectator praised the story's "spirit of frivolity" and the "delicate irony" of the tale. Some critics have speculated that the satire takes veiled aim at Henry James, who criticized Wharton's work in his own.
The story begins with the literary lunch club meeting together. It is clear from the outset that Wharton's tone is satirical. Wharton calls the members of the Lunch Club "indomitable huntresses of erudition" and notes witheringly that none of them can read alone. Through Wharton's lens, the women prove to be proud, catty, and vindictive. Mrs. Roby is pretty and well-traveled, but some of the ladies feel that she does not possess the intellectual seriousness to be a valuable member of the club. Ironically, the other members appreciate Mrs. Leveret's lack of intelligence, which makes them feel better about themselves.
The club members are threatened by Mrs. Roby because she does not adhere to the social graces that they expect. They all abide by a certain set of unspoken rules that Mrs. Roby clearly breaks. She asks Mrs. Plinth what she thinks about Osric Dane's sensational book, The Wings of Death, which the other members know never to do. The book has been a topic of discussion amongst the club members. However, Mrs. Roby readily admits that her copy fell into the river on a trip, preventing her from reading it. Mrs. Plinth embodies Wharton's criticism of intellectuals. Mrs. Plinth believes that she belongs in this elite group because she is familiar with great literature but she is not capable of exercising original thought. Similarly, Wharton compares Mrs. Ballinger's mind to a hotel where facts come in and out, rarely staying long.
The arrival of the esteemed author, Osric Dane, further complicates the relationships among several of the women. Dane is imperious and provocative. The members of the Lunch Club try to engage her in conversation but the venerable woman continually rebuffs their attempts. She keeps countering their questions with her own queries and refuses to reveal any concrete opinions. Wharton creates an air of sympathy around literary club as they flounder in the face of the imposing author. She describes them as locked into their societal roles, afraid to challenge the hierarchy.
Ultimately, the frivolous Mrs. Roby saves the day because she refuses to be intimidated by social structure or the intimidating Osric Dane. She claims that the club has been distracted from any other line of thought because of their recent fascination with Xingu. Mrs. Roby's confidence convinces the club members and readers alike that she knows what Xingu is. In this way, Wharton involves the reader in Mrs. Roby's charade. The reader tries to discern the meaning of Xingu by reading between the lines while the club members also pretend to be familiar with the mysterious subject. Xingu is Wharton's way of satirizing the the empty intellectualism of high society.
Finally, Mrs. Roby excuses herself and Mrs. Dane unexpectedly follows her, leaving the other women to figure out the meaning of Xingu. Again, even though Osric Dane is gone, the women still try to avoid admitting to each other that they have no idea what it means; their pride is unshakeable. When they finally figure out that Xingu is a river in Brazil, they feel embarrassed that the woman they considered their intellectual inferior has managed to make them look like fools. Instead of examining their own follies, they decide to remove the source of their discomfort. The story ends with Mrs. Ballinger drafting a letter calling for Mrs. Roby's resignation.
By the end of the short story, it seems like Wharton is poking fun at these high society poseurs, but Cynthia Griffin Wolff points out in her introduction to the collection, Wharton's story has a darker intent. Wharton was clearly aware of how the pressure of society dictates the way people shape their personal characteristics. During the turn of the century, women were "often the most brutally wounded casualties of duplicity, brutality, and greed in the society as a whole."
The members of the Lunch Club are products of their society and do not feel empowered to dictate their own behavior. Instead, they are "a measure of the moral disease that has permeated the environment which spawned and nourished them." Even though Wharton does justifiably lampoon the overly prideful protagonists of "Xingu," she also understood that they could not easily explore other options. In this way, the character of Mrs. Roby proves to be an effective foil. She does not try to hide her lack of intellectual stature, but instead, uses her quick wit and sharp social instincts to survive the situation.