bunner sisters (spoiler alert!)

I said yesterday that Edith Wharton must have been depressed and I want to provide an example. If you think you will ever, at any time, pick up “Bunner Sisters,” a short story by our disheartened heroine, don’t read this because I’m giving all the goods away.

I think I’m safe to proceed, however.

In this story, two sisters (Ann Eliza and Evelina) own a little sewing shop and get by tolerably on it. Both are spinsters, but it’s not clear how old. A man in his 40s, Ramy, waltzes onto the scene and Ann Eliza begins to fall for him. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that Evelina is all crushy and in true older sister fashion, Ann Eliza suppresses her feelings and halfheartedly roots for Evelina’s marriage.

And then it starts: Ramy proposes to Ann Eliza first and she refuses so Evelina isn’t disappointed. He and Evelina are engaged; Ann Eliza dies a little inside. Then, Evelina and Ramy must move far away, separating the two sisters for the first time.

And then it takes another turn for the worse. Evelina soon stops writing to Ann Eliza, who investigates and finds Ramy has been fired from his job. She digs a little deeper and it turns out this Prince Charming is actually an opium addict unable to keep steady employment. So now her sister is completely lost to her, married to a “drug fiend” with no way to make money.

But that’s not a final enough tragedy for Wharton. Evelina comes back, stricken with poverty and pneumonia (her husband ran off with some unsavory woman months before). AND Evelina had a baby, but it died almost immediately after being born. Ann Eliza tries to nurse her sister back to health, but (surprise!) Evelina dies anyway.

Even after that, Ann Eliza’s future must have seemed to rosy to dear Edith, so she writes that Ann Eliza has to give up the shop because it’s pretty much defunct. In the last scene of the book, Ann Eliza attempts to apply at another shop and they won’t hire her, so it’s implied she’s destined to live in total poverty for the remainder of her (presumably) short life.


This is not atypical of Wharton’s short stories. They all ended this way, I promise. It’s like she thought How down and out can I get this character? and then she went ahead and killed the character’s dog, too.

Edie, darling.
Don’t you have a friend you could talk to? I may be reading a lot into these stories,
but you seem a touch melancholy. It would be OK to tell someone about it. I’m available.
Do write back, Joanna





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