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31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 16: “A Cup of Cold Water” by Edith Wharton

From The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

“The world into which Edith Wharton was born was a dignified one, carefully structured, with a formal façade and an elevated entrance,” writes Roxana Robinson in her introduction to the New York Review Books volume The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. Robinson goes on to sketch the version of New York City that Wharton was most familiar with:

Based on a solid foundation of Puritan values, it was framed by inherited wealth and insulated by the belief that everything of worth was contained within. The unsettling winds of ambition, need, and change rarely penetrated the thick walls of tradition, pride, and entitlement. The interiors were polished, gleaming, and perfectly composed. The windows were shrouded with drapery, the floors were laid with a heavy carpet of decorum. This was a place of silence, order, and restraint.

Wharton’s New York, in other words, was the polar opposite of Damon Runyon’s. It was a refined world of old money, “an insular, tribal society, with a rigid caste system and a strict code of behaviour.” It is a world that Wharton excelled in rendering through fiction, though it is also significant to note that the author did not restrict her literary imagination to the recondite upper crust she was most familiar with from her own upbringing.

An example of Wharton’s imaginative reach can be found in her early story “A Cup of Cold Water,” which centres not on a member of the well-heeled high society, but a hustling cashier in a banking house with aspirations to marry above his station.

The man in question is Woburn, the son of a formerly well-off property owner whose “sheer inability to go over his agent’s accounts” resulted in the loss of his fortune. In a particularly barbed observation, Wharton writes that Woburn’s father “characteristically” died when it became clear that he would not be able to restore his estate; the remaining family’s straitened circumstances focused Woburn’s eye for the finer things, including “the charming figure of Miss Talcott,” who becomes the object of his amorous attention.

While the odour of ambition may not have pervaded the realm of the city’s wealthiest, it certainly makes its mark on Woburn, who associates “poverty with bad food, ugly furniture, complaints, and recriminations.” He envies the world in which Miss Talcott moves and determines to become a part of it. There is only one problem: in order to win the approval of a rich young debutante, one must have money. “To marry Miss Talcott,” Wharton writes, “it was necessary to be a rich man: even to dine out in her set involved certain minor extravagances.” Or, as Wharton puts it elsewhere in a caustically humorous observation: “To spend one’s time in such society gave one the illusion of unlimited credit; and also, unhappily, created the need for it.”

In order to finance his courtship of Miss Talcott, Woburn tears through the meagre inheritance his father left him, then plays the stock market, with dismal results. To cover his losses, he begins embezzling from his employer, hoping to win big on the market before anyone notices there is money missing from the bank’s accounts. But as anyone caught in the cycle of borrowing money to cover existing debts can attest, this approach can get out of hand in the blink of an eye. Sure enough, one day Woburn “woke to the fact that he owed his employers fifty thousand dollars and that the partners were to make their semi-annual inspection in two days. He realized then that within forty-eight hours what he had called borrowing would become theft.”

In this respect, and despite the surface differences, Woburn is not that far removed from one of Runyon’s sad-sack gamblers. This notwithstanding the fact that Wharton’s stylistic approach – which marries a crisp use of precise language to an overtly realistic technique – could not be further removed from that of the later writer.

Wharton was a sharp observer of social mores, a kind of less sentimental Jane Austen. She notes that for Miss Talcott and her cadre of carefree young women, “the attentions of a clever man who had to work for his living had the zest of a forbidden pleasure; but to marry such a man would be as unpardonable as to have one’s carriage seen at the door of a cheap dress-maker.” The rules and restrictions of the wealthy elites among whom Miss Talcott associates leave no room for cross pollination with anyone deemed gauche or undeserving.

As for Miss Talcott herself, Wharton is merciless in sketching out her lack of moral depth: “[H]er trenchant classifications of life admitted no overlapping of good and evil, made no allowance for that incalculable interplay of motives that justifies the subtlest casuistry of compassion. Miss Talcott was too young to distinguish the intermediate tints of the moral spectrum; and her judgments were further simplified by a peculiar concreteness of mind.” This, it should go without saying, does not bode well for a suitor who must finance his romantic aspirations through embezzlement.

It also sets Miss Talcott apart from Ruby Glenn, a woman Woburn encounters by chance in the second half of the story, after he has decided his only recourse is to leave town in order to evade capture by authorities once his crime against his employer is discovered. Taking a $2.50 room in a hotel before catching the morning train out of New York, he stumbles across the distraught Ruby, who has succumbed to suicidal ideation over an affair with a married man that has estranged her from her own true love, Joe.

Wharton’s two-part structure is cannily effective in dramatizing the psychic and emotional distance between the insular world of New York’s high society and that of the earthier, more passionate denizens who are denied access to the upper levels of the city’s wealthiest. Unlike Miss Talcott, Ruby is fully able to navigate the “intermediate tints of the moral spectrum,” and it is Woburn, whose recent history has had him playing at the outer edges of moral respectability, who is finally able to talk her down off the ledge. In so doing, he makes a gesture that ensures her survival as much as it ensures his own reckoning with the consequences of his criminal actions.

“A Cup of Cold Water” is a carefully observed story about the perils of ambition and the illusions of social mobility in a society so rigidly structured around the accoutrements of wealth. And yet it also pinpoints the vacuity often associated with the rich, as against the innate compassion and empathy of those whose experience allows them a closer glimpse of how hard everyone else must strive simply to survive in the world. The story’s title tilts in the direction of Woburn’s character arc; his encounter with Ruby Glenn is the cup of cold water thrown in his face that finally wakes him from his romantic delusions and his fantasy of escape.

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