The repudiation of sisterhood in Edith Wharton’s “Pomegranate Seed.”

The repudiation of sisterhood in Edith Wharton’s “Pomegranate Seed.”

Judy Hale Young

What the ghost really needs is not echoing passages and hidden doors behind tapestry, but only continuity and silence” (Ghost Stories 3). This passage in the author’s Preface to The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton refers ostensibly to the physical silence that she found increasingly unavailable in her lifetime, to the “silent hours when at last the wireless has ceased to jazz” (3). In some of the stories in the collection, however, we find evidence of her ongoing concern with a different kind of silence, the emotional silence of those condemned to the condition of non-communication with their fellow creatures. Wharton articulates this concern in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, and dates it from the “owning of [her] first dog,” which “woke in [her] that long ache of pity for animals, and for all inarticulate beings, which nothing has ever stilled” (4). I believe that this pity “for all inarticulate beings” extended to a concern for the absence of communication among women and that it surfaces in her ghost stories, wherein manifestations of the supernatural, the normally hidden and silent world, figure the suppression and silence of women that Wharton found in her society.

Several of her ghost stories illustrate this notion with terrifying effects, and one in particular deals specifically with the virtual silence between the woman writer and her female reader. “Pomegranate Seed” tells the sinister tale of the recently married Kenneth and Charlotte Ashby–she for the first time and he a widower–and the “shadowy third”(1) between them, his dead wife, Elsie, who continues to communicate with him by way of letters after her death. At the story’s end, Kenneth has disappeared–presumably gone to join Elsie–and Charlotte and her mother-in-law are left with only a final, barely legible letter as a clue to where he may have gone. The emphasis oil the letters and on the characters in their roles as sender and receivers clearly identifies this as a story about writing and reading, and the few recent critics who have taken up “Pomegranate Seed” wisely focus on its nature as such. Most, however, concentrate on examining the story’s clues to Wharton’s ambivalence toward her writing and toward female authorship in general. Such ambivalence indeed abounds, but my approach to the story, while acknowledging the ambivalence, reveals a parallel but more decisive strain, at least in the text if not in the author. I read “Pomegranate Seed” as Wharton’s indictment of the woman writer who perpetuates the state of noncommunication among women–who embraces the power of writing but can only do so at the cost of repudiating both her own gender identity and the responsibility of sisterhood, of keeping faith with other women through her writing. Wharton thus looks forward in this story to later feminist theorists, like Luce Irigaray, who have raised and continue to grapple with questions of women’s language in a world dominated by masculine subjectivity and discourse.

Recent critics who offer explications of “Pomegranate Seed” focus oil its ambivalence or the evidence of struggle with an inner dilemma. Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney read the story as a “parable about women’s ambivalence toward the power of reading and writing” (178). Candace Waid, in Letters from the Underworld, finds in “Pomegranate Seed” evidence of Wharton’s inner “conflict between the realm of an invisible God who is associated with truth and reading and the domain ruled by her mother that was devoted to social appearances” (199). Annette Zilversmit in her essay “Edith Wharton’s Last Ghosts” focuses on indications of Wharton’s attempts to come to terms with “her most potent fears, the phantoms, not of men or society, but of other women, seemingly more attractive or deserving than herself or her heroines” (298). Margaret McDowell, concentrating on the later ghost stories for a “fuller understanding of [Wharton’s] life and thought in the last years of her career” (292), finds increasing ambiguity toward the end of Wharton’s life and career. McDowell locates the source of ambivalence in “Pomegranate Seed” as well as in other stories in the technique Wharton uses to produce supernatural effects. The “balance between the familiar and the strange” that “remains constant to the very end of the story,” Wharton’s refusal “to insist on the absolute validity of a ghostly manifestation,” and the “intervals of reassurance between moments of fear” all contribute to what McDowell recognizes as an atmosphere not only of terror but of anxiety and uncertainty (302-04). In this atmosphere, she feels, Wharton was able to move beyond the single “recognizable breach of morality” found in her earlier tales in favor of portraying situations of unresolvable moral complexity, “unanswerable–philosophical and moral questions” such as McDowell finds in “Pomegranate Seed” (312).

Wharton’s current critics, then, define the overriding atmosphere in her ghost stories as ambiguity, ambivalence, and inscrutability. And certainly “Pomegranate Seed” includes such an atmosphere as well. However, one should stop short of accepting ambivalence as the story’s controlling depth.(2) I find a deeper channel exists for navigating the waters of “Pomegranate Seed,” a channel that allows a closer view of the artist herself. My course explores the tale as Wharton’s critique of her own profession and, as Waid suggests, it take[s] into account her preoccupation with writing and the very possibility of the woman writer” (4). Such a view is essential to full understanding, considering Wharton’s own assessment of the correct reader-writer relationship for the ghost story: “But when I first began to read, and then to write, ghost stories, I was conscious of a common medium between myself and my readers, of their meeting me halfway among the primeval shadows, and filling in gaps in the narrative with sensations and divinations akin to my own” (Ghost Stories 2). With these premises in mind, let us examine “Pomegranate Seed” with an eye for what it tells us not only about Wharton’s ambivalence, but about her convictions concerning the woman writer and her place in society, particularly in the society of women.

The focal point around which Candace Waid has organized her analysis of Wharton’s fiction provides a useful starting place from which to approach “Pomegranate Seed.” Waid’s reading is informed by Wharton’s use of the Persephone model as a figure of the woman writer, “the daughter who chooses to leave the world of the mother and dwell in the world of experience” (3). The title “Pomegranate Seed” links this story to the Persephone myth, but Wharton here rewrites the myth. She revises it to show how Persephone’s progress–the woman writer’s progress–beyond the social state of other women, non-writing women, may lead her to forsake those sisters as well as her own femaleness in the blind struggle to increase her power by conforming to male-sanctioned standards of authorship. As Josephine Donovan, writing in After the Fall, describes this phenomenon, “the daughters … were eager to expand their horizons, to engage in new systems of discourse, like Persephone, unaware that such involvement entailed patriarchal captivity” (44). Moreover, by thus blindly colluding in her own captivity, the Persephone figure assists in reinforcing what Luce Irigaray describes as women’s “exile”–from our mothers, from other women, from ourselves–in masculine discourse (Reader 44).

Who then is the Persephone figure in “Pomegranate Seed”? Singley and Sweeney point to Kenneth and Charlotte–“The story’s ambiguous allusion to the myth gives rise to a host of interpretations in which Kenneth and Charlotte each have their turn as Persephone” (191) But I see Elsie as the more likely Persephone figure as she is the one through whom Wharton makes her most emphatic statement about women’s writing. Elsie never appears in the action; when the story begins she is already dead, has already descended to the underworld. However, she, like Charlotte, also stands at a threshold, poised to re-enter the world of the living and through the medium of her letters to make her presence sharply felt. We learn in the second line that this occurs at no other time than the beginning of spring, following “the brilliancy of a March afternoon” (200), in the season of Persephone’s traditional return to earth. Elsie’s position in the story, then, clearly aligns her with Persephone.

Furthermore, Elsie’s association with writing, power, and knowledge identifies her as a figure of the woman writer. As the author of the letters, she wields tremendous power over Kenneth, over Charlotte through Kenneth, and over their relationship with one another. If, as Charlotte’s friends say, “Elsie Ashby dominated [Kenneth]” (202) in life, in death her power, her letters, assume mythic qualities: they inspire in him transports of “terror and distress” (210); he acts like “a man who [feels] himself slipping over a precipice” (218), living under an “evil spell” (219); and he appeals to Charlotte, even if only partially and indecisively, for no less than “salvation” (218). These changes in Kenneth in turn awake in Charlotte a hitherto unknown “nervous apprehension,” a “strain [that has] become chronic” (205). So strong is this feeling that it keeps her standing outside her own front door, once her “veiled sanctuary” (200), for the first six pages of the story, roughly a quarter of the whole, fearing that another letter and all that it implies may lie inside. For these letters have usurped Charlotte’s power over Kenneth. Charlotte remembers that “during the first months [of their marriage he had been] perfectly happy with her,” and that he “look[ed] twenty years younger” after their honeymoon (202-03). But with Elsie’s return in the form of the letters, he becomes increasingly careworn and, more significantly, increasingly distant from his new wife. After reading each letter, he wears “the look of a man who had been so far away from ordinary events that when he returns to familiar things they seem strange” (203); his face is “distant, guarded” (212); and he exhibits “indifference,” “remoteness [and] inaccessibility” (210, 212). This distance alternately narrows and widens until Elsie achieves the ultimate triumph of separating the newlyweds, presumably forever, at the end of the story.

Wharton thus firmly establishes Elsie’s position of power and the locus of her power in her letters, but her knowledge is rather more implied than overtly demonstrated. The nature of the letters leads us to cast Elsie as the omniscient watcher of all of Kenneth’s and Charlotte’s actions. The initial letter, for example, somehow arrives on the day the couple returns from their honeymoon. Also, Kenneth’s comments after reading each letter suggest that Elsie has intimate knowledge of the household activities and supervision of the children:

and if he spoke, it was usually to hint some criticism of [Charlotte’s]

household arrangements, suggest some change in the domestic

administration, to ask, a little nervously, if she didn’t think Joyce’s

nursery governess was rather young and flighty, or if she herself always

saw to it that Peter–whose throat was delicate–was properly wrapped up

when he went to school. (202)

Moreover, Elsie knows even the details of her mother-in-law’s daily life and has transmitted this knowledge to Kenneth, presumably along with a warning. His refusal to leave the children in his mother’s care suggests not his own volition but a prohibition that can only have come from Elsie: “‘[My mother] isn’t always very judicious. Grandmothers always spoil children. And sometimes she talks before them without thinking.’ He turned to his wife with an almost pitiful gesture of entreaty. ‘Don’t ask me to, dear”‘ (217). Elsie apparently knows just what to write to influence Kenneth’s emotions, words, and actions. Her knowledge gives her power, power she wields through the letters.

The advantage Elsie thus gains is essential, because she is in fact engaged in battle–or rather in two related battles. Obviously she and Charlotte struggle for possession of Kenneth; but perhaps more importantly Elsie struggles to win a greater prize: to achieve a voice, to make herself heard and her desires known. She does not simply want Kenneth; she wants her household tended properly, her children raised according to her principles, her mother-in-law urged to be more discreet. None of these requires Kenneth’s separation from Charlotte. But they do require Kenneth’s unquestioning loyalty to Elsie since, in these cases, Kenneth functions as Elsie’s agent; the letters are addressed to him so that Elsie can be heard through him. Therein lies the seed of female disloyalty that Wharton exposes and condemns in this story. Elsie, by addressing her letters only to Kenneth, denies and in fact destroys the bond between her and Charlotte.

And despite Elsie’s denial, a strong connection does exist between the two women. Significantly, Elsie’s name suggests “else” or “other,” one side or half of a larger entity. Does this refer to the familiar euphemism for the wife–“the better half’? Perhaps, but Elsie does not seem much like Kenneth’s kindred spirit–“During all the years of their marriage he was more like an unhappy lover than a comfortably contented husband” (203). I identify Elsie as Charlotte’s other half, Early in the story, for example, Charlotte’s memory of Elsie hints, although not at friendship, at their similarity of taste: “on the occasion of her only visit to the first Mrs. Ashby … she had looked about her with an innocent envy, feeling it to be exactly the drawing room she would have liked for herself’ (202). Of course the two have since achieved an even closer connection through their mutual relationship with Kenneth: they are both “Mrs. Ashby.” But they are also related as elements of the Persephone myth. While Charlotte is only a stepmother to the other woman’s children (another bond between them), her maiden name, Gorse, as Waid points out “is the name of the prickly plant sacred to the goddess Demeter, suggesting her association with the maternal figure in the myth” (195). This in turn associates Charlotte with Elsie’s act of writing. Just as Demeter longs for Persephone, Charlotte is consumed with her desire to know what is in the letters, to know Elsie, to “read” Elsie. Charlotte plays potential reader to Elsie the actual writer.

However, by writing only to Kenneth, Elsie denies her bond with Charlotte. Elsie lives up to her maiden name, Corder, as “the author of the ties that bind” (Waid 195); but they bind her only to Kenneth and keep Charlotte at a distance, keep her always in the position of potential, never actual, reader, Charlotte’s own desire to read the letters intermittently overwhelms her and causes her to act in wildly uncharacteristic ways; such is the nature of her desire–the “unfeminine” desire to empower herself by acquiring masculine knowledge. Thus, when she decides to watch Kenneth as he opens the latest letter, “it was the first time she had ever tried to surprise another person’s secret. . . . She simply felt as if she were fighting her way through a stifling fog that she must at all costs get out of” (206-08)–the fog of ignorance, silence, and powerlessness. Later, “she was ashamed of her persistence . . . yet resolved that no such scruples should arrest her” (218). Ultimately, in the final scene the strength of her desire overcomes her well-bred principles entirely when she opens and reads the letter with defiant abandon–“whatever ill comes, I mean to find out what’s in it” (226).

But Charlotte’s attempts to acquire masculine knowledge go essentially unrewarded. Try as she will, she cannot grasp the knowledge she seeks because she cannot read the letters. The nature of the letters as Elsie has created them ensures Charlotte’s inability to read them. Elsie addresses her letters in every sense to a man: she sends them to Kenneth and marks them with Kenneth’s name. Furthermore, the handwriting itself resists Charlotte’s attempts to read: “the address was always written as though there were not enough ink in the pen” (201); “strain her eyes as she would, she could discern only a few faint strokes, so faint and faltering as to be nearly undecipherable” (227). Kenneth, however, while he also shows some difficulty with “decipher[ing] the faint writing” (202), can read the letters because he has read other letters like them–he has prior knowledge that allows him to partake of the knowledge they offer. As Charlotte tells her mother-in-law, “I remember [Kenneth’s] saying to me once that if you were used to a handwriting the faintest stroke of it became legible. Now I see what he meant. He was used to it” (229). But Charlotte is not used to it, has had no opportunity to become used to it, to master the prior knowledge that Kenneth has. She thus signifies the woman who attempts to gain the knowledge and power implicit in the act of reading, but can do so only imperfectly. This imperfect ability springs both from her femaleness, which makes her a stranger to masculine discourse or, as in this case, masculinized discourse, and from her narrow and ineffective education, which Wharton elsewhere describes as the “ordinary teaching [of] French, German, music & drawing” (“Life and I,” 1089). Charlotte is the woman reader who struggles with this socially sanctioned virtual illiteracy.

Elsie plays the role of co-conspirator in this crime against women, producing writing that cannot be read, or understood, from the woman’s point of view. She thus figures the woman writer who denies not only her potential female audience but the specifically female imagination in herself. Elsie’s letters mirror her character–“a distant, self-centered woman, whom [Charlotte] had known very slightly” (200)–suggesting her personal stance of aloofness from the female community. And her denial of Charlotte we have already seen. But the letters themselves present perhaps the most damning evidence of Elsie’s repudiation of sisterhood. Some 50 years later, Luce Irigaray, considering questions of women’s entry into discourse, would posit the “condition that the feminine not renounce its `style'” (This Sex Which Is Not One 78). But Wharton issues that same caution in 1929 in the nature of Elsie Corder’s letters. First, we see that the stationery is “grayish,” suggesting neutrality. Then, when we examine the penmanship, we find a particular kind of neutrality, the gender- neutrality of Elsie’s indeterminate, even androgynous hand. (Charlotte, to her credit, recognizes its true gender, but the recognition alone is too superficial a knowledge to empower her–she still cannot read the letters.) Elsie has seized the power of language, but only at the price of relinquishing her femaleness in favor of the artificial hybrid identity manifested in her writing: “in spite of its masculine curves, the writing was so visibly feminine…. the writing on the gray envelope, for all its strength and assurance, was without doubt a woman’s” (201). Irigaray warns, “Above all, at the level of language we must not turn completely into men” (Reader 51). Certainly Elsie has not achieved such a complete metamorphosis; her language has strayed so far from its feminine nature as to be indecipherable by another woman, while remaining “visibly feminine.” Trying to imitate male writing and mask her female nature, Elsie has succeeded at neither.

She succeeds only in helping to maintain the social status quo. Her letters evidently upset Kenneth greatly, making him seem “years older … emptied of life and courage” (202). Still, he maintains some control: “He had had his way, after all; he had eluded all attacks on his secret, and now he was shut up in his room, reading that other woman’s ` letter” (213). If Kenneth struggles just as Charlotte does through the “tumult of the evening,” he struggles at least from a position of knowledge while Charlotte can only continue 46groping in the fog” of ignorance (219, 220): “Her husband knew from whom the letter came and what was in it; he was prepared beforehand for whatever he had to deal with, and master of the situation, however bad; whereas she was shut out in the dark with her conjectures” (205).

Charlotte remains in this fog of ignorance that has enveloped her throughout the story, the fog that keeps her in a state of fear, self-doubt, and weakness. She fears entering her own home–“she always wavered on the doorstep and had to force herself to enter,” shrinking from the thought of “the letter she might or might not find on the hall table” (200, 201); “she had taken to feeling cold and premonitory every evening, because she never opened the door without thinking the letter might be there” (205). She questions, as she has never before had reason to, Kenneth’s loyalty to her–“Men don’t kiss business letters, even from women who are very old friends, unless they have been their lovers, and still regret them” (210). And perhaps most telling, she questions her own judgment. After the initial confrontation with Kenneth, she feels “compunction; she seemed to herself to have been hard, unhuman, unimaginative” (213). Her thoughts reveal repeated bouts of vacillation over the correctness of her reactions, her thoughts, even her feelings. Thus, “It seemed preposterous . . . that a few moments ago she should have been accusing him of an intrigue with another woman!” (214) She argues with herself about the wisdom of consulting her mother-in-law–“There flashed through her mind the idea of going to his mother…. And it seemed to her now that Mrs. Ashby’s almost uncanny directness might pierce to the core of this new mystery. But here again she hesitated, for the idea almost suggested a betrayal” (214-15). And when she telephones Kenneth’s office and finds him absent, she launches into another internal debate:

Of course he had gone to see that woman–no doubt to get

her permission to leave. He was as completely in bondage as

that; and Charlotte had been fatuous enough to see the

palms of victory on her forehead…. But gradually her

color crept back. After all, she had a right to claim the

victory, since her husband was doing what she wanted, not

what the other woman exacted of him. (221)

In fact, Charlotte spends most of her time in the attitude in which Kenneth finds her just before dinner–” brooding over the problem” (215). This phrase summarizes what seems her natural state–diffident, suspicious, and virtually powerless to act in any effective manner. Deprivation of knowledge equals deprivation of power, and Elsie, Kenneth, and the letters ensure Charlotte’s continued state of ignorance and weakness.

The letters in this context act not as the medium for communication of knowledge that they should be, but as obstacles to communication. Furthermore, in serving to maintain the distance between Charlotte and Elsie they act as obstacles to communication specifically among women. The letters, particularly as Charlotte characterizes them as a single unit–“they had become merged in one another in her mind, become one letter, become `it'” (201)–are the pomegranate seed of the title. In classical mythology Persephone cannot return fully and permanently to her mother Demeter because she has eaten the seeds of a pomegranate offered her by Hades. The seeds, given by a man and accepted by the woman, cement the male-female relationship but destroy that of the women, the mother and daughter. Elsie’s letters reverse the gender roles somewhat; they are offered–written–by a woman and accepted–read–by a man. Still they are at least partially masculine in nature and serve like the seeds to drive a wedge between women, between Elsie and Charlotte, and to ensure their continued mutual but separate exile from the “genealogy of women” (Reader 44).

In the story’s final scene, Charlotte and Elsie take a tentative step toward each other. Charlotte overcomes her scruples and opens the last letter, which has arrived in her absence while she visited her mother-in-law. In trying to read this letter, Charlotte attempts to seize the power that it and all the other letters imply, the power of knowledge that she hopes will make her, like Kenneth, the “master of the situation, however bad.” The circumstances of the letter suggest that Elsie may in fact have meant it for Charlotte. True, it is addressed to Mr. Ashby, but it has been received after his disappearance. If Elsie is truly the sender and Kenneth’s abductress, she cannot have meant this letter for him. Perhaps the masculine address marks it as the property of whomever in the household will take the masculine step of reading it. Which Charlotte does. Gilbert and Gubar interpret this scene as “a kind of female victory” (163), but I see it only as a failed attempt. The letter proves virtually unreadable, yielding only two words, which may or may not be what they seem–“I can make out something like `mine’–oh, and `come.’ It might be `come'” (227). Charlotte now turns to the only solace left her, her bond with the elder Mrs. Ashby. As Singley and Sweeney, and Zilversmit note, “Charlotte’s act of reading brings her closer to Mrs. Ashby, her `proxy mother'” (Singley and Sweeney 193, “Last Ghosts” 300). Here at last women achieve a bond, but an ineffectual bond at best, characterized by their shared bond-age in the socially-enforced state of female ignorance and silence, a bondage reinforced by Elsie Corder Ashby’s collusion with masculine exclusivity. Jean Frantz Blackall sees the same kind of female bonding in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: “the female solidarity that operates within this society so long as people play by the rules” (167). And who makes the rules but men? Within the context of those rules, the two living Mrs. Ashbys, the two still bound by society, are reduced to acting not decisively or effectively, but for the sake of form alone, as their final dialogue shows:

the old woman went on: `But meanwhile we must act

`Exactly as if we thought it could do any good to do anything?’

Resolutely Mrs. Ashby cried: `Yes!’ (230)

And together they yield to the old habit of submission to and dependence on male authority, as Charlotte picks up the telephone to call the police.

So Elsie has found her voice, but manages to speak only to Kenneth. Charlotte attempts to read, but fails. From this instance of women’s writing no one profits. What can this have meant to Wharton, herself a successful woman writer? Judging from Wharton’s other work, one might expect her rather to have applauded than condemned writing like Elsie’s. Citing French Ways and Their Meanings, Shari Benstock points out that Wharton detested the “isolation [that] forced American women into a social context dominated by other women” (66). Nothing good could come of women’s being “each other’s only audience,” Wharton implies (102-03, qtd. in Benstock 66). But as Benstock also notes, “Wharton ultimately argued that women of her time stood in need of the stimulating male intellect because American society had, by separating women from the world, limited their intellectual and aesthetic capacities” (66). “Pomegranate Seed” shows us a woman, Elsie, who has indeed partaken of the stimulating male intellect, as the masculine quality of her letters proves, and has gone beyond the limitations imposed by society, signified by her position in the underworld, outside of society. But the story also implies that such a woman has a responsibility to the women she leaves behind, a responsibility not to treat them as men have, not to cooperate in perpetuating their isolation and limitation. While she perhaps must partake of the masculine, this woman must also retain a sense of who she is, of her femaleness, and she must honor her ability to communicate with other women and her obligation to promote communication among women in general. Elsie does none of this.

I believe, then, that “Pomegranate Seed,” written late in Wharton’s career after a lifetime of observation and experience with society and with male and female writers alike, is Wharton’s anti-manifesto of female writing. She presents us here with her notion of just what the woman who writes must not do. She must not strive to conform to masculine standards, as Elsie’s letters do. She must not ignore or deny the potential of a female readership, as Elsie does. And she must never deny or try to mask her female identity, as Elsie’s letters also do. Wharton offers warnings to the woman reader as well. Her part will not be easy, and she may experience failures like Charlotte’s. But she must at least make a beginning, must confront her exile and her ignorance and refuse to accept them. Her imperative is to insist on a broader education and greater liberty to write according to standards of her own and to speak in her own voice. She must say along with Charlotte, poised on the threshold, “I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it another day!” (205).

(1) This phrase is the title of an Ellen Glasgow story about “a house haunted by a ghostly daughter” (Carpenter and Kolmar 16). While the circumstances of “The Shadowy Third” differ from those in “Pomegranate Seed,” I feel that this phrase evokes exactly the dead woman’s position in relation to the living couple and, as I argue later, the function of her letters in relation to Elsie and Charlotte.

(2) “Controlling depth” is the term used on nautical charts to indicate the greatest reliable depth of channels in inland waterways such as bays and sounds. This seems a useful analogy to the critical tendency to accept ambivalence in “Pomegranate Seed” as its greatest reliable–that is, cogently arguable–depth of significance.


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–. “Edith Wharton’s Last Ghosts,” College Literature 14 (1987): 296-305,

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