Literary Analysis: The Moving Finger by Edith Wharton

Read The Moving Finger here.

Q. To what extent does Wharton’s writing make you sympathise with Ralph Grancy and Claydon in ‘The Moving Finger’? (25 marks)

Edith Wharton uses a range of powerful literary devices, including symbolism, metaphors, similes and vivid imagery, such as in the lines, ‘we had seen him sinking under the leaden embrace of her affection like a swimmer in a drowning clutch’, to evoke sympathy for Ralph Grancy and Claydon.

Ralph Grancy is perpetually portrayed as a victim of his ‘sentimental blunders’ as he is subjected to the tortures of his first wife, who is illustrated as a dominating figure in their marriage, his second wife, who had died an untimely and ‘sudden’ death, and perhaps, a third wife in the form of Mrs. Grancy’s portrait, who ironically, was the ‘moving finger’ of his miserably-fated life. Despite Ralph Grancy’s belief of his dead wife’s portrait being his ‘prisoner’, his own imprisonment is perceptibly connoted throughout the short story, such as in the line, ‘her nearness mocked me with the loss of the real woman’, evoking sympathy for his grief-stricken state.

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Grancy is encapsulated as a puppet, one with too many strings attached, as his sorrows are heightened by the unfaltering grip of one wife’s ‘insidious egotism’ and another’s, whose ‘graces’ seemed too good to be true, successfully evoking pity for his helplessness as he is deprived of earning his entitled happiness ‘from whatever coin he chose’.

The metaphor ‘some human happiness is a landlocked lake; but the Grancys’ was an open sea’, challenges fate’s malice as the lamentation over what once was strips Grancy into a lost, unrecognisable man. The themes of denial and obsession contort him into an impractical character as he refuses to let go of his second wife, despite the prevailing barrier of her death.

Mrs. Grancy’s portrait was foreshadowed as ‘a mere text in the unfolding of their double-destiny, a foot-note to the illuminated text of their lives’, highlighting its malevolent effect on Grancy’s social group too. Claydon, the portrait’s artist, was but another victim of the moving finger, which ironically, juxtaposes the patriarchal society prevalent during Wharton’s time as the portrait’s predominating influence over the men is vividly illustrated, such as in the simile, ‘her name seemed to hang in the air after he had uttered it, like a chord that continues to vibrate’.

Claydon’s infatuation with Mrs. Grancy’s is hinted in the metaphor, ‘love the indefatigable artist were perpetually seeking a happier pose for his model’, which sows the seeds of a growing obsession and conflict for Claydon as his vexation over either expressing loyalty towards his feelings or towards his friend, Ralph Grancy, gradually develops. The line, ‘at the first confrontation he saw that Claydon understood’ demonstrates Grancy’s approval of the portrait because according to him, the artist had perfectly captured his intimate perception of his wife, suggesting the possibilty of an affair between Claydon and Mrs. Grancy.

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Claydon accuses Grancy of being unable to give Mrs. Grancy’s true beauty the appreciation it deserved in the remark, ‘there was one side of her, though, that was mine alone, and that was her beauty; for no one else understood it’. Hence, evoking sympathy for Claydon as he was unable to do anything further than grant her the affection that was due from afar.

Claydon’s suffering is amplified upon Grancy’s request of ‘age-ing’ the picture, which is depicted in the line, ‘when he came home and sent for me to change the picture it was like asking me to commit murder’, and Claydon’s reluctant acceptance successfully evokes pity because of his loyal nature. The revelation, ‘it was the woman he had loved and not the picture’ creates astonishment as Claydon’s hidden feelings reflect upon his priority towards his friend, thus making him a mere victim of the malevolent unfolding of events.

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At last, the short story wraps up with Claydon’s justification of claiming the picture as his own, evoking sympathy for the character as he appears to be lost in his obsession for the portrait, creating a parallel between him and Ralph Grancy. The last line, ‘”but now she belongs to me”, he repeated…’ ends with a tone of impending anguish as the moving finger’s spite is passed on from one sufferer to another.

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