The Pelican - Edith Wharton Short Stories
Edith Wharton with judgmental dogs
The Pelican was published in 1899 as part of the short fiction collection The Greater Inclination. It was Edith Wharton's first published collection and a commercial success.
The Greater Inclination: The Pelican Summary
The story is told by an unnamed male narrator.
Mrs. Amyot is a pretty widow who takes up lecturing to support herself and her six month old baby boy. Her mother is Irene Astarte Pratt, celebrated for her poem “The Fall of Man”. An aunt was dean of a girls’ college and another aunt translated Euripides.
She starts lecturing in drawing-rooms on Greek art. She is ill-informed on the subject. Her lectures are attended primarily by ladies more concerned with their clothes and seeing who else is there than with the information being presented. It is well known that Mrs. Amyot lectures “for the baby.”
Mrs. Amyot, we are told, has “two fatal flaws: a capacious but inaccurate memory, and an extraordinary fluency of speech.”
Months pass before the narrator sees Mrs. Amyot again. He walks her home after a lecture. She says she was frightened to hear that he was in the audience as he is so learned. She wants to consult with him on her lectures. She is also looking for more topics since she feels she has exhausted Greek art. When they reach her home she asks him to come in to see the baby but he makes an excuse and leaves.
It is several years before he sees Mrs. Amyot again, this time in Boston. She lectures on ‘The Homes and Haunts of the Poets’. It is known among her audience that it causes Mrs. Amyot suffering to speak in public and that “she only does it for the baby”. Her audience fills a lecture hall with others being turned away. She speaks confidently and eloquently but always chooses adjectives “that taste and discrimination would most surely have rejected.” Her lecture is based on someone else’s book. She is able “to transpose second-hand ideas into first-hand emotions.”
The narrator is invited by his hostess to Mrs. Amyot’s home but he declines to go. The next day he meets her in the street. She insists he come and see her boy Lancelot. He wears a black velvet dress and has long yellow curls and recites Browning to visitors. The narrator sees Mrs. Amyot’s love for her son. He believes now that she really is doing it all for him. He forgets his aversion to her fraudulent lectures and helps her by suggesting subjects before he leaves.
He sees her again some time later in New York. She is very successful. Her story is also known here: she “had had a horrid husband, and was doing it to support her boy.” She lectures on Ruskin. Her audience attends more out of obligation than for enlightenment. She is still an excellent speaker but has “less convincing warmth than of old.” He goes to see her at her flat. She’s been ridiculously successful and Lancelot attends the best school in the country and will go to Harvard. The narrator sees Mrs. Amyot periodically over the next three years. She is “a lecturing-machine.”
He goes abroad for a year or two and on his return Mrs. Amyot has disappeared.
He eventually sees her in Boston on a trolley-car. She is noticeably older looking and speaks to him shyly. She doesn’t ask for any advice this time. The narrator follows her off the trolley. She isn’t lecturing. She says she is tired and her doctor has ordered her to rest. They arrive at a shabby house and she bids him goodbye.
Several weeks later she asks him by letter to visit to offer her advice. She can’t sell enough tickets to fill a lecture hall anymore. Audiences want more sophisticated and obscure topics now. Doing a week or two’s worth of study at the library is no longer sufficient education to lecture on. If she can’t get more bookings, Lancelot will have to leave Harvard. Her swell of emotion overwhelms him and he pledges to write her letters of recommendation and help sketch out a lecture.
Mrs. Amyot has renewed success.
The narrator spends the next ten years in Europe. Two years after his return he goes to the South on a doctor-enforced holiday. He speaks to a bearded man with a self-important tone who gives him a dull accounting of his life. They’re interrupted by a lady trying to sell tickets to one of Mrs. Amyot’s lectures. She and her friends are giving their tickets away. They only buy the tickets because Mrs. Amyot is a widow and “does it for her son.” The man the narrator was speaking with confirms that the narrator knew Mrs. Amyot many years ago.
Mrs. Amyot lectures in the hotel drawing-room to a sprinkling of guests. She has aged which makes the narrator think of how old he is as well. He imagines how old Lancelot must be. He probably has a beard. It strikes him that the bearded man from earlier was Lancelot.
After the lecture, Lancelot takes the narrator to see his mother. He confronts her about the story circulating that she is supporting him. He demands an explanation for himself and the narrator. Mrs. Amyot refuses to give a straight answer. She doesn’t admit to telling anyone that she’s been supporting her son since he finished school. When she blames the narrator for the situation, Lancelot is frustrated and leaves.
Significance of the Title
In the Middle Ages the pelican was believed to stab its own breast to feed its young with its own blood in the absence of other food. The pelican’s self-sacrifice and devotion to its young are symbolized in Mrs. Amyot.
Just as the pelican was thought to inflict pain on itself to provide for its chicks, Mrs. Amyot we are told, “says it is actual suffering for her to speak in public”. She claimed to be afraid when she heard the narrator was in the audience and that she wanted to sink through the floor. She never admitted that she received any personal gratification from her lecturing career.
Mrs. Amyot’s devotion to her son was known by all her audiences. Everywhere the narrator went he was told by someone that Mrs. Amyot “only did it for the baby” or was “doing it to support her boy”. Many if not most of her audience members bought tickets out of sympathy or charity. When the narrator visited Mrs. Amyot at her Boston home he confirmed that her love for Lancelot was real.
Despite these things there is some irony in the title as well. It is unlikely that Mrs. Amyot’s lecturing was an act of pure self-sacrifice. She had “an extraordinary fluency of speech”, a quality that would alleviate some of the “suffering” of lecturing. While it’s possible to dislike doing something that one does well, Mrs. Amyot lectured with such deftness and control that she must have gotten satisfaction from her competence. At the very least it wouldn’t have been as difficult for her as she would have the narrator believe. After witnessing a proficient performance the narrator had “the growing conviction that the suffering entailed on her by public speaking was at most a retrospective pang”.
Undoubtedly Mrs. Amyot lectured to support her son and give him the best in life but she didn’t do it just out of devotion to him. The stateliness of her home and the regality of her clothing increased with her lecturing success. She also continued lecturing long after her son was grown and finished his schooling. She told him that she couldn’t stop lecturing because of the demand. Obviously she enjoyed the recognition even from her own family. She bought expensive and unnecessary gifts for her grandchildren and daughter-in-law.
Mrs. Amyot wasn’t an intellectual but became one out of necessity. She lectured on many subjects: Greek art, Homes of the Poets, Ruskin, Ibsen, the Cosmogony, and many others that go unnamed. Her only knowledge of any of her subjects came from a week or two’s worth of reading. Her lectures are reworked from other people’s books.
The narrator called Mrs. Amyot’s lectures fraudulent more than once. When he referred to Lancelot’s education he said it could “be bought only with counterfeit coin”. She was unable to provide her audience with a genuine education but her audience wasn’t interested in one either. They attended to see who else was there and look at their accessories. When her audience eventually abandoned her it was only for other fraudulent lecturers who could establish “a relation between two people who had probably never heard of each other, much less read each other’s works”. It was her gift of speaking with “a confidential manner” and her ability to “transpose second-hand ideas into first-hand emotions that so endeared her to her feminine listeners” that accounted for much of her success.
Some References From The Pelican
Classical Greek tragedian. Wrote at least 90 plays, some of which are extant
Charlotte Saunders Cushman, 19th century stage actress.
Lancelot (Mrs. Amyot's son)
Named from Tennyson's poem 'Lancelot and Elaine'.
George Henry Lewes, Literary critic, theatre critic, philosopher. Mrs. Amyot's lecture on Goethe was based on his book 'Life of Goethe'.
John Ruskin, English author, wrote on art, Venetian architecture, social criticism
Philosopher and biologist, coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest'.
Scientific theories that deal with the origin of the universe.
The Ends Justifying the Means
Mrs. Amyot didn’t care that the intellectual experience she offered was fraudulent. Her goals were to provide the best for her son and attain status for herself. She accomplished those things. The means that she used were irrelevant to her. The narrator, although having an aversion to what Mrs. Amyot did, was twice overcome by her distress for Lancelot’s education and agreed to help her.
When Lancelot realized that his mother had been using him to get sympathy, his mother justified it, first by saying she spent her earnings on her grandchildren, and then by saying she sent Lancelot’s wife a seal-skin jacket for Christmas. In her mind these things are all that matter.
Women's Earning Prospects
The Pelican is set in the late 19th or early 20th century. Mrs. Amyot’s options for supporting herself and son are limited. They are further limited by her intent to send Lancelot to the best schools. She could earn enough to support both of them with another job but it would probably be physically demanding and wouldn’t allow for any luxuries.
Lecturing allowed Mrs. Amyot to provide the extras for her son that a widow would otherwise not have been able to afford. The narrator remarked twice that if he or someone else married her she could stop lecturing.
The Pelican is an entertaining short story with a witticism on every page. It is a critical yet compassionate look at Mrs. Amyot. The prose is flowing and clear and always engaging.