Since the publication of R. W. B. Lewis's definitive biography of Wharton in 1975, manycritics have seen correspondences between the novel and Wharton's life. Like
, she had suffered for many years in an unhappy marriage, to the mentally unstableTeddy Wharton, and in 1905-8 had escaped it in a brief but ecstatic love affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton. 'I have drunk the wine of life at last,' she wrote in her diary.'I have known the thing best worth knowing, I have been warmed through and throughnever to grow quite cold again until the end.'
In 1911 Wharton finally separated fromTeddy, and sold The Mount. Lewis argues that
'portrays her personalsituation, as she had come to realize it, carried to a far extreme, transplanted to a remoterural scene, and rendered utterly hopeless by circumstance'.
In the denouement,Wharton imagined the nightmare her life might have become if she had remained tied toher husband.In the summer of 1911,
was being serialized in
, with praise fromthe reviewers and from Henry James: 'a beautiful art & tone & truth,' he wrote toWharton in October 1911; '--a beautiful artful kept-downness, & yet effectivecumulation'. Although some reviewers were put off by the relentless bleakness of thestory, the London journal
was among those that immediately recognized itsliterary distinction. 'It is a beautiful, sad but intensely human story,' the reviewer observed, 'working out to its final conclusion with all the inevitability of a great Greek tragedy.'Greek tragedy was frequently cited as an analogy for
, but its literarysources and its technique were more diverse than its brevity might suggest. The NewEngland setting and the names of the chief characters brought Hawthorne to mind,especially his short story "'Ethan Brand'", with its isolated hero, and his novel
The Blithedale Romance
, with its doomed feminist heroine Zenobia. On the other hand,Wharton insisted that her work and intentions were very different from those of the NewEngland female local colourists like Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, whohad specialized in chronicles of village life. Her sense of high literary aspirationdemanded that she differentiate herself from American women's culture and Americanwomen writers. American women, she believed, were intellectually infantilized by acultural separation which celebrated quilting bees, gardens, and feminine rituals. In particular, she felt the need to define herself as an artist against the work of Jewett andFreeman, the most talented and productive of her competitors. In her 1922 introduction,she differentiated
from their ' New England of fiction', a landscape of 'vague botanical and dialectical' realism, which enumerated the local flora of 'sweet-fern,asters, and mountain-laurel', and attempted a 'conscientious reproduction of thevernacular', while sentimentalizing the harshness of village life. This landscape, sheargued in
A Backward Glance
, came from the 'rose-andlavender pages' of the 'favouriteauthoresses' of New England, her predecessors Jewett and Freeman, who, she charged,saw the world through 'rose-colored spectacles'.
Yet Wharton had much more in common with the local colourists than she wished toadmit. Freeman was a thorough writer who recorded the ironies of a declining,depopulated New England, inhabited by ageing women and tight-lipped men. As Jewett