Pomegranate Seed

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

Pomegranate Seed first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on 25 April 1931. It was subsequently included in Edith Wharton’s collection of short fiction, The World Over (1936), and then in her collection, Ghosts, published in 1937, the last year of the author’s life.


Pomegranate Seed

original Saturday Evening Post illustration


Pomegranate Seed – critical comments

This is simultaneously a mystery tale, a ‘ghost story’, and more importantly a penetrating study in the psychology of jealousy. The mystery element is possibly the least important and successful, because once the authorship of the grey letters has been explained, there is very little more to say about the issue, and no reason to re-read the tale.

As a ghost story it is more successful. Even though there is no explanation of how the letters come to have been written by somebody who has died a year previously, they act as a convincing metaphor for the influence a former love object might still exert on someone from beyond the grave. This part of the story also meshes successfully with Charlotte’s inflamed jealousy over the puzzle of the letters and the effect they have on her husband. She is in fact quite correct in he supposition that they were written by a woman who is a ‘previous engagement’ in his life – since they are written by the woman to whom he was married for twelve years.

The rapid fluctuations in Charlotte’s feelings as she tries to interpret the evidence at her disposal is a very convincing portrayal of the agonies and uncertainties of jealousy – how trivial details are seized upon and magnified to enormous proportions in the search for emotional resolution, and how a hairsbreadth can sometimes separate an imagined betrayal from an insight into one which is all too real.

The title of the story Pomegranate Seed is an oblique reference to the Greek myth in which Persephone, the goddess of fertility, is abducted and taken to Hades, where she breaks her vow of abstinence by eating some pomegranate seeds. It is not too difficult to see the fertile Elsie Corder (who bears her husband two children) as this figure who eventually lures her former husband to join her in the afterlife. She has written to him regularly; her last letters are only two days apart; and the only word Charlotte can decipher in the last is “Come” – though it has to be noted that he does not read this letter, having already departed to join his dead first wife.


Pomegranate Seed – study resources

Pomegranate Seed The New York Stories – New York Review Books – Amazon UK

Pomegranate Seed The New York Stories – New York Review Books – Amazon US

Pomegranate Seed Edith Wharton Collected Stories – Norton Critical – Amazon UK

Pomegranate Seed Edith Wharton Collected Stories – Norton Critical – Amazon US

Pomegranate Seed Tales of Men and Ghosts – eBook formats at Project Gutenberg

Red button A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton – Amazon UK

Edith Wharton The Cambridge Introduction to Edith Wharton – Amazon UK


Pomegranate Seed – story synopsis

Part I.   Charlotte Gorse has been married to New York lawyer Kenneth Ashby for a year, following the early death of his first wife Elsie after twelve years together. Charlotte’s marriage has been successful, but she is puzzled by the regular appearance of a handwritten letter addressed to her husband which appears to upset him and change his mood, but about which he reveals nothing. On arriving home there is familiar grey envelope with spidery handwriting waiting in the hall.

Part II.   She assume’s the letters might be from some woman in her husband’s past, is very tempted to open the latest, but instead spies on him when he arrives home. On seeing him kiss the letter, she challenges him and demands an explanation. He claims it is a business letter and refuses to divulge the name of its author.

Part III.   Charlotte tries to be sympathetic to her husband’s obvious distress, but all she can see is that he is trying to be evasive. She proposes a holiday, but he says he cannot go. She continues to harass him with questions, and finally he agrees to the notion of a holiday.

Part IV.   Next morning he leaves a message saying that she should prepare for the holiday the very next day. Charlotte at first feels triumphant because she has prevailed over the influence of the ‘other woman’. She tries to contact her husband throughout the day – without success, because nobody knows where he is. Finally, she goes to see her mother-in-law, where she thinks he might have called. He is not there, so the two women go back to Charlotte’s house, where they find another grey letter waiting. Charlotte decides to open it, but neither she nor Mrs Ashby can read the faint and spidery handwriting. They conclude that the letters have been coming from Kenneth Ashby’s dead wife, from beyond the grave, and that they ought to telephone the police.


Principal characters
Kenneth Ashby a New York lawyer
Mrs Ashby his mother
Elsie Corder Ashby’s first wife, who is dead
Charlotte Gorse Ashby’s second wife

Video documentary


Edith Wharton's house - The Mount

Edith Wharton’s 42-room house – The Mount


Further reading

Louis Auchincloss, Edith Wharton: A Woman of her Time, New York: Viking, 1971,

Elizabeth Ammons, Edith Wharton’s Argument with America, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1982, pp.222. ISBN: 0820305138

Janet Beer, Edith Wharton (Writers & Their Work), New York: Northcote House, 2001, pp.99, ISBN: 0746308981

Millicent Bell (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp.232, ISBN: 0521485134

Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit (eds), Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays, New York: Garland, 1992, pp.329, ISBN: 0824078489

Eleanor Dwight, Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994, ISBN: 0810927950

Gloria C. Erlich, The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton, California: University of California Press, 1992, pp.223, ISBN: 0520075838

Susan Goodman, Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends and Rivals, UPNE, 1990, pp.220, ISBN: 0874515246

Irving Howe, (ed), Edith Wharton: A collection of Critical Essays, London: University of North Carolina Press, 1986,

Jennie A. Kassanoff, Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp.240, ISBN: 0521830893

Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton, London: Vintage, new edition 2008, pp.864, ISBN: 0099763516

R.W.B. Lewis, Edith Wharton: A Biography, New York: Harper and Rowe, 1975, pp.592, ISBN: 0880640200

James W. Tuttleton (ed), Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp.586, ISBN: 0521383196

Candace Waid, Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld, London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991,

Sarah Bird Wright, Edith Wharton A to Z: The Essential Reference to Her Life and Work, Fact on File, 1998, pp.352, ISBN: 0816034818

Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, New York: Perseus Books, second edition 1994, pp.512, ISBN: 0201409186


Edith Wharton's writing

Edith Wharton’s writing


Other works by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton - The Custom of the CountryThe Custom of the Country (1913) is Edith Wharton’s satiric anatomy of American society in the first decade of the twentieth century. It follows the career of Undine Spragg, recently arrived in New York from the midwest and determined to conquer high society. Glamorous, selfish, mercenary and manipulative, her principal assets are her striking beauty, her tenacity, and her father’s money. With her sights set on an advantageous marriage, Undine pursues her schemes in a world of shifting values, where triumph is swiftly followed by disillusion. This is a study of modern ambition and materialism written a hundred years before its time.

Edith Wharton - The Custom of the Country Buy the book from Amazon UK
Edith Wharton - The Custom of the Country Buy the book from Amazon US

 

Edith Wharton - The House of MirthThe House of Mirth (1905) is the story of Lily Bart, who is beautiful, poor, and still unmarried at twenty-nine. In her search for a husband with money and position she betrays her own heart and sows the seeds of the tragedy that finally overwhelms her. The book is a disturbing analysis of the stifling limitations imposed upon women of Wharton’s generation. In telling the story of Lily Bart, who must marry to survive, Wharton recasts the age-old themes of family, marriage, and money in ways that transform the traditional novel of manners into an arresting modern document of cultural anthropology.

Edith Wharton - The House of Mirth Buy the book from Amazon UK
Edith Wharton - The House of Mirth Buy the book from Amazon US

 

The ReefThe Reef deals with three topics with which Edith Wharton herself was intimately acquainted at the period of its composition – unhappy marriage, divorce, and the discovery of sensual pleasures. The setting is a country chateau in France where diplomat George Darrow has arrived from America, hoping to marry the beautiful widow Anna Leith. But a young woman employed as governess to Anna’s daughter proves to be someone he met briefly in the past and has fallen in love with him. She also becomes engaged to Anna’s stepson. The result is a quadrangle of tensions and suspicions about who knows what about whom. And the outcome is not what you might imagine.

Edith Wharton - The Reef Buy the book from Amazon UK
Edith Wharton - The Reef Buy the book from Amazon US


Edith Wharton – web links

Edith Wharton Edith Wharton at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides to the major novels, tutorials on the shorter fiction, bibliographies, critiques of the shorter fiction, and web links.

The Short Stories of Edith Wharton The Short Stories of Edith Wharton
This is an old-fashioned but excellently detailed site listing the publication details of all Edith Wharton’s eighty-six short stories – with links to digital versions available free on line.

Edith Wharton Edith Wharton at Gutenberg
Free eTexts of the major novels and collections of stories in a variety of digital formats – also includes travel writing and interior design.

Edith WhartonEdith Wharton at Wikipedia
Full details of novels, stories, and travel writing, adaptations for television and the cinema, plus web links to related sites.

Edith WhartonThe Edith Wharton Society
Old but comprehensive collection of free eTexts of the major novels, stories, and travel writing, linking archives at University of Virginia and Washington State University.

Edith WhartonThe Mount: Edith Wharton’s Home
Aggressively commercial site devoted to exploiting The Mount – the house and estate designed by Edith Wharton. Plan your wedding reception here.

Edith WhartonEdith Wharton at Fantastic Fiction
A compilation which purports to be a complete bibliography, arranged as novels, collections, non-fiction, anthologies, short stories, letters, and commentaries – but is largely links to book-selling sites, which however contain some hidden gems.

Edith WhartonEdith Wharton’s manuscripts
Archive of Wharton holdings at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

© Roy Johnson 2014


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