A Classic Story

Narrative Magazine’s story of the week at the moment is Edith Wharton’sThe Rembrandt” (free registration required. It’s a graceful story with a satisfyingly twisting plot. The initial situation is that a museum curator is being asked to place a value on a (worthless) painting owned by a desperate and proud old woman who needs to sell it:

Reason argued that it was more cruel to deceive Mrs. Fontage than to tell her the truth; but that merely proved the inferiority of reason to instinct in situations involving any concession to the emotions. Along with her faith in the Rembrandt I must destroy not only the whole fabric of Mrs. Fontage’s past, but even that life-long habit of acquiescence in untested formulas that makes the best part of the average feminine strength. I guessed the episode of the picture to be inextricably interwoven with the traditions and convictions which served to veil Mrs. Fontage’s destitution not only from others but from herself. Viewed in that light the Rembrandt had perhaps been worth its purchase-money; and I regretted that works of art do not commonly sell on the merit of the moral support they may have rendered.

It’s quite late as I write this, and I’m not sure how to characterize the particular classic sense I get of this story’s narrative. What I can say is, it’s distinct. It’s in the same category as something like “The Gift of the Magi” — tense and ultimately comforting. It reminds me of my first discoveries of short stories, in old textbooks some adult had shoved onto a bottom shelf of our bookcase. I remember reading these things, and realizing that I enjoyed them, in spite of their textbook shell, but there was always the feeling of age to them, both because of the dust on the books, and because of the diction in the stories and the unfamiliar settings. My usual taste is toward more contemporary work, but it’s lovely and rich to read stories of this era from time to time.

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