In some ways, Wharton’s The Children
reads like a strange combination of Henry James’ What Maisie Knew and Nabokov’s Lolita. With those two stories in mind, one would think that Wharton’s story would be equally “sensational” in both mood and tone. It’s not. Through all of the changes that do occur over the course of the novel, the tone of the story is marked by an underlying sense of stasis, reinforced by Martin’s own inability to come to terms with his feelings for the young Judith Wheater. It is interesting how Wharton achieves this.
However, I think the weak point of Wharton’s novel is her portrayal of the characters, especially Judith. At first glance, Judith appears to be the adult figure in her family, trying to keep everything and everyone together. Yet when reflecting upon her thoughts and actions, she is still very much a child, and one that is very unlike the initial image of the all-knowing, worldly adult figure the reader is presented at the beginning. The images of Judith the reader is given throughout the novel are conflicting, perhaps one could argue, to reflect the conflict of Martin’s own crisis of feeling for Judith. Yet regardless, Judith somehow remains a flat character from beginning to end. Throughout the course of the novel, it is hard to understand her appeal. In some ways, she reminds me of Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair...i.e. one of those plain, nondescript types who somehow manage to “innocently” ensnare the affections of every man she meets, the men gravitating towards her like moths to a lamp. Both Martin and Mr. Dobree are enamored with her, but the reader is left wondering why? Because of this, I think whatever disturbing or disconcerting feelings the reader may have from reading Wharton’s novel, originate here.
When I began this novel, I was hoping to find a story that had emotional and psychological depth both in regards to characterization and style. While Wharton’s style of writing does seemingly evoke the emotional crisis of her main character, for the most part, her other characters read like superficial caricatures, especially when comparing this novel with other similar works.