The Old Maid Literary Elements

The Old Maid Literary Elements



Setting and Context

New York City, 1840s and 1860s

Narrator and Point of View

The narrator is third-person, limited omniscient

Tone and Mood

The tone is wistful and occasionally tense. Much of the drama relates to a dangerous secret kept by two of the main characters.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Charlotte (the Old Maid) is the protagonist, along with her cousin Delia, however there is no single identifiable antagonist.

Major Conflict

The big problem, in this novel, is the fact that Charlotte gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Tina. She found a way to stay in Tina's life and to have a relationship with her, but never revealed the secret of Tina's birth. Keeping Tina safe, and helping ensure that she does not repeat Charlotte's mistake, is the primary conflict of the story.


The climax of the story comes when Charlotte catches Tina sneaking about with a young man who continues to court and date her without the intention of marrying her.


Delia's decision to adopt Tina is foreshadowed by her decision to bring Charlotte and Tina to live with her after the untimely death of Jim, Delia's husband.


"I call my baby my baby," says Charlotte, revealing that Tina is her actual child and not simply a foundling she decided to help nurture and educate.


Contemporary literary standards did not allow explicit discussion of sex, so any reference to virginity, sexual intercourse, or other similar activity is generally hinted at with allusions to the activity.


The rosy cheeks are the sign by which Delia recognizes that Tina is definitely Charlotte's daughter.


To ensure a stable living for herself and Tina, Charlotte must marry. However Charlotte's prospective husband forbids Charlotte to continue teaching the foundlings, unaware that one of them is her daughter. To correct this lack of awareness would require Charlotte to reveal that she is Tina's mother, which would render her ineligible for marriage to this particular man.


Tina's budding romance with Lanning Halsey, who is an unpunctual, directionless, handsome but less than wealthy man, parallels Charlotte's much earlier and ill-fated romance with Clement Spender.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Society, or at least the upper-class bits of it that comprise Delia's social circle, is composed of individual people. However they are regarded as reacting and forming opinions as a group, such as when Delia invites Charlotte and Tina to come live with her and subsequently adopts Tina.


Delia's husband James Ralston, or "Jim" as she calls him, personifies unconditional love and generosity. When Delia presents him with the facts of Charlotte's situation and proposes a solution, he agrees to support Charlotte and Tina financially and refuses to consider letting Delia support them out of her "pin money". Later in the book, Wharton reveals that Jim knew the whole story, having heard it from the doctor who delivered Tina.

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