The implicit link between the pelican of the title and Mrs.
Whereas Peel concluded in 2005 that she was “apart from modernism,” later studies, including those by Wagner-Martin, Haytock, and Beer and Horner identify distinctly modernist features in Wharton’s narrative style.
It is in recent critical appraisals of her short fiction in particular, a literary form closely associated with the “new” writing of the twentieth century, that scholars have found Wharton’s poetics “experimental” (Ware 17), “subversive” (Whitehead 54), and “modernist” (Campbell 5), noting her innovative manipulation of traditional forms.
An active reader of this type is courted in Wharton’s 1899 story, “The Pelican.” The narrative concerns a widowed Mrs.
Amyot who lectures on various “cultured” subjects, from Shakespeare to Greek art, to support her young son, Lancelot.
Thus, whilst I refer to Wharton’s critical writing in the following discussion of four of her stories, this article will follow Lawrence’s advice to foremost ‘trust the tale’ rather than the artist (31). Indeed, James’s narrators often present a further viewpoint in addition to that of a focalizer’s experience or vision, endowing his impressionistic accounts with an element of nineteenth-century omniscient narrative traditions.
Whilst not completely reliable themselves, James’s narrators often signal the potential unreliability of a focalizer’s perspective and nudge the reader towards considering the wider view of the events narrated.
(As a consequence Wharton’s narratives are limited by their narrators and are often fragmentary and ambiguous, presenting further questions for the active reader in a manner not dissimilar to Chekhov’s “interrogative” style so admired by Mansfield, who once wrote to Woolf in 1919, “What the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question” (qtd. Indeed, as early as 1899, this creative use of gaps and absence had already been noted by her critics, with “F. G.” writing in the Each tale is mainly told between the lines.
By a touch here and a touch there you are enabled to construct a prelude for yourself, and when you come to the last page you have no difficulty in carrying on the action to its remote possibilities, or to its inevitable subsequent proceedings. Wharton makes you wonder again at the truth of the old axiom that, after all, there is nothing so eloquent as silence.
Such interest in perception and its relation to meaning align her writing with what has since been regarded as the “essentially modernist concern” of the nature of perception and the psychology of the perceiver (Stevenson 27).
Furthermore her use of imperfect vision, the incomplete or absence signals a refusal to offer authorial judgement and her expectation that the reader will recognise inconsistencies and ironies and so, fill in the gaps of her often fragmentary narratives.