Munira Hussein

Drawing the Moral Parallel Between Dostoyevsky and Edith Wharton

Reading the books of old always feels like a camaraderie, spending time at operas, book clubs, plays, tea party’s all often positively exacerbated with intellectual literary discussions and the usual gossip about who’s been married one too many times. As such, turning the final page on one of them leaves you with an exhaustion only caused by long-distance travel. The collection of short stories Ethan Frome and Other Short Fiction by Edith Wharton is one hell of a ticket on that trip. While all five stories in the collection have their own humor, troubles, and happy endings, I was particularly drawn to The Touchstone.

The Touchstone is incredibly reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in subject. Dostoyevsky’s Rodion and Edith’s Glennard suffer the same moral dilemma brought about by the careful execution of careless actions. Rodion for murder and Glennard for a seemingly less evil crime of selling personal letters of Margaret Aubyn, a friend and an author, to him. Nevertheless, the act produces in his mind, great suffering and a fidgetiness that makes him unpleasant company especially after the letters become the topic of every social gathering.

While in Rodion’s case, it is certain that he is the only one aware of his crime, Glennard has an abettor, Flemel who helps him find a publisher for the letters. His guilty conscience, in addition to keeping his mood foul, also convinces him that Flamel has a romantic interest in his ‘blood-money’ acquired wife, Alexa. And for fear that Flamel will expose him to Alexa before he does, Glennard comes clean and Rodion does eventually, after walking for innumerable kilometers bearing the burden of his guilt. This is a case of good people who did a bad thing.

If this were a children’s story, they both would end with an always tell the truth note. These both seem to be an adult version of the truth shall set you free, but we get to enjoy the flair of the language and the torture of going through pages and pages of suspense even as we ourselves decide what we would have done if we had been the subject.

Selling personal letters for money might be a stretch, and so is murdering, but who knows, maybe under the right conditions, we are all susceptible to some evil, even if only to marry the person we love, or to fall from the miraging heights of our moral grounds and succumb to our inevitable ordinariness.

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