Edith Wharton’s “Atrophy” is a first-rate short story about . . . well, the atrophy, the wasting away of human relationships. It parallels the physical condition of the ailing illicit lover of Nora Frenway, married to a man with his own “weak health” as well as a “bad temper” and “unsatisfied vanity.” So, yes, there has been adultery: Nora tries to visit the ailing lover, who is unmarried, but is coolly prevented by the man’s sister. If an illegitimate affair is not insufficient in one way, it will be insufficient in another.
As good as “Atrophy” is, I’m glad Wharton didn’t write about adultery in the late story, “All Souls’.” This, as the narrator remarks, “isn’t exactly a ghost story,” although it is assuredly a mysterious one wherein the practice of the dark arts might be taking place. After breaking her foot, the recuperating Sara Clayburn believes her house is, except for herself, empty of people and completely, eerily silent, but her maid Agnes denies this. That a strange woman on All Soul’s eve might have something to do with this phenomenon is perhaps what keeps Sara from seeking the “natural explanation of the mystery” she hopes is there. We may hope it is too, but what if the dark arts are involved?
After reading these stories, and two others I perused some years ago, I have to wonder if it was possible for Wharton to pen a bad short story. She was a born fiction writer.