The Old Maid Essay Questions

Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Compare and contrast the characters of Charlotte and Delia.

    Charlotte and Delia begin the story as relatively young, marriageable-aged women in their early twenties. They belong to the upper class of New York society, where it's normal to be independently wealthy although men are permitted and even encouraged to have professions. As women, neither Delia nor Charlotte can seek or accept employment outside the home, so they depend on their families and husbands to provide for them. Both women were raised among respectable society, and both come from the Lovell family although the branch that produced Delia is wealthier than the one that produced Charlotte. Personality-wise, both women are stubborn and fond of concealing things by simply not discussing them. Both women give birth to children: Delia and her husband have a boy and a girl, and Charlotte has a daughter born secretly out of wedlock whom she loves desperately but cannot publicly acknowledge as hers. Appearance-wise, both women are attractive, with rosy cheeks.

    The characters differ dramatically in their back-stories. Delia begins the story in a position of privilege: not only has she inherited money from her mother's side, but she turned down a marriage proposal from the poor artist Clement Spender to marry Jim Ralston: a young, handsome member of one of the most conservative families in New York. They have a happy marriage, two children, and a great deal of mutual respect and trust. Jim thinks so highly of Delia that he gives her liberty to do what she thinks necessary with regard to Charlotte and Tina. He dies young due to an accident, leaving Delia a widow. Yet Delia enjoys solid financial and social security. Charlotte, by contrast, was the eldest daughter of a father who died of what would now be recognized as tuberculosis. She was still a member of society, but is regarded as possibly ill, having contracted pneumonia and spent a year in the country. It turns out that during this year in exile Charlotte gave birth to a daughter by Clement Spender, who left for Europe almost immediately. Having abandoned her daughter, Charlotte set up a day-school for foundlings so that she could see Tina and be close to her. She depends on Delia financially and socially. Personality-wise, Delia is manipulative and talkative while Charlotte is quiet but stubborn on matters related to Tina. Appearance-wise, Delia is blonde and attractive while Charlotte is considered less attractive because her hair is too red, her eyes are too brown, and her cheeks are too rosy to be considered quite natural.

  2. 2

    Contemporary social mores prevented Edith Wharton from explicitly discussing sex. Yet premarital sex, its consequences, and Charlotte's concern that Tina may be sexually active with her boyfriend, are key to the plot. How does the author convey the information? What literary techniques does she use?

    When discussing sex, Wharton does not use euphemisms but relies on the literary techniques of association in connotation. An example of association is in Chapter 1, where she writes about Delia's perceptions of the double bed, evasions and insinuations by others, and embarrassed pleasure. An example of connotation is the "matronly superiority" with which Delia speaks when she tells Charlotte that she cannot possibly understand. Other associations and connotations can be found in later chapters when Delia and Charlotte are discussing Tina's behavior.

  3. 3

    Edith Wharton's books are often called "novels of manners" because it's possible to deduce, solely from the text, the social rules and standards that governed the characters and their culture. What, in the version of 1850's upper-class New York, were the cultural assumptions about what constituted an appropriate marriage partner? Use examples from the text to support your argument.

    For women, the only appropriate marriage partner was a man capable of providing for her and for any children they might have together. This could be with inherited wealth, or with a profession. The fact Clement Spender had no wealth of his own meant that he required a profession in order to make him an eligible bachelor. But he chose to study art instead of law, so he did not earn much money. Delia accordingly rejected him as a suitor. The man she accepted, James ("Jim") Ralston, had enough inherited wealth to provide for any family in a very nice standard of living. Indeed, he could even be generous and allow his wife's cousin to occupy a house he owned but wasn't using. Later in the story, Lanning Halsey comes from a wealthy family but has no means of his own. He has not yet chosen a profession and relies instead on a generous allowance from his wealthy father, however his father has threatened to cut him off completely if he makes a bad marriage. This would not be a barrier to him marrying a young woman with wealth and family connections of her own, yet the woman he loves-- Tina-- is penniless and does not know who her parents are. Marrying her would ensure his father disowns him, therefore he is spending time with her and courting her but not marrying her: a moral failing Charlotte and Delia cannot excuse.

    For men, an appropriate marriage partner is a woman of good moral character and good family connections. A man making his first marriage, who wants children, also needs his wife to be healthy and strong enough. Financially, the only kind of men who need their wives to be wealthy are the young men who come from families with a good social position but not a lot of money, or whose access to money depends in part on their choice of mate (the way Halsey's does). A wealthy man such as Joe Ralston, who is a second cousin of Delia's husband, does not need a rich wife. He can therefore consider Charlotte, who is still in her late twenties, young enough to potentially bear children, reasonably attractive, and well connected socially because she comes from a "good" family. Had Charlotte's daughter Tina become public knowledge, however, she would no longer be an appropriate marriage partner for anyone. Likewise, when Delia reveals the information about Charlotte having coughed up blood, she leads Joe Ralston to believe that Charlotte has called off the engagement due to her own poor health. In reality, Charlotte is unwilling to give up Tina in accordance with Joe's desire for her to focus instead on her home life.

  4. 4

    Is Lanning Halsey a good partner for Tina? Why or why not?

    Alternative 1: Yes, because they are in love and their personalities suit each other. Lanning continues to see Tina even though he cannot marry her. The barriers to their union are purely artificial: had Lanning's father not unreasonably tied financial support to Lanning's choice of wife, they could have been happily married and the question of Tina's adoption would never have been raised.

    Alternative 2: No, because Lanning not only fails to meet the contemporary standards of what a husband should be, he compromises Tina's reputation by continuing to go out with her and even spend time alone with her without marrying her. His willingness to put Tina at risk of social trouble or possibly even pregnancy show a lack of regard for her well-being and a great deal of selfishness.

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