Document Type

Thesis - University Access Only

Award Date


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department / School



Edith Wharton, who traveled widely throughout Europe and whose classical education afforded her acquaintance with all the fine arts, often incorporated into her works allusions to famous objects d'art, both as decorations and as a means of developing character and theme. Wharton first established herself as an authority on art in her early work The Decoration of Houses ( 1897). While works like this indicate her interest in and knowledge of art forms, what has gone unexamined is how specific works of art, repeatedly referred to in her fiction, serve as thematic underpinnings. In several of her pieces, Wharton refers to the myth and legend ofltalian noblewoman Beatrice Cenci, and specifically mentions the painting entitled Beatrice Cenci (attributed to Guido Reni). This thesis focuses on the significance of the Cenci legend and its presentation in art as Wharton uses both throughout her canon to reflect her protagonists' entrapment by either social parameters or personal relationships. Beginning with a study of the legend itself, this thesis explores how Wharton might have come to know the Cenci story from her travels, her studies in the arts, and her extensive reading. Of particular interest is her understanding of Percy Bysshe Shelley's drama The Cenci ( 1819), and the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne's and Herman Melville's fascination with the Cenci story. Recognizing that during Wharton's career the famed Beatrice Cenci painting was often reproduced and was considered a staple in the homes of Old New York society, this study investigates how Wharton became acquainted with the famous work and later appropriated it in her fiction. Moreover, this thesis catalogues Wharton's specific references to the Cenci legend and painting, and through close reading discusses how the legend plays out, either overtly or implicitly, in the lives of Lily Bart (The House of Mirth, 1905), Kate Clephane (The Mother's Recompense, 1925), and Beatrice Palmato ("'Beatrice Palmato' Fragment", 1919). Furthermore, this study refers to Wharton's thematic use of the portrait in "False Dawn" (1924). Like the legendary Beatrice, the protagonists in Wharton's fiction find themselves challenged by patriarchal powers that attempt to force their compliance with prevailing social norms. Beatrice Cenci, whose father was alleged to have attempted to force her into an incestuous relationship, responded to patriarchal demands through violence-plotting with her brother and stepmother to kill her own father. While these demands flew in the face of acceptable social and religious norms in the Sixteenth Century, Beatrice's dilemma became for Wharton a vehicle for expressing her response to the expected behaviors of women of her own time, as they were forced to capitulate to the male hegemony. Throughout her work, then, Wharton uses the Cenci legend as a motif to underscore the resultant sense of entrapment that leads to her protagonists' tragic ends.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Wharton, Edith, 1862-1937 -- Criticism and interpretation Cenci, Beatrice, 1577-1599 -- Portraits Cenci, Beatrice, 1577-1599 -- In literature Art in literature



Number of Pages



South Dakota State University