Skip to content
Home » Finding Refuge: Edith Wharton’s ‘Sanctuary’ Summary

Finding Refuge: Edith Wharton’s ‘Sanctuary’ Summary

In Edith Wharton’s short story “Sanctuary,” the protagonist finds herself seeking refuge from the chaos of her life in a small church in the countryside of France. As she spends time in the sanctuary, she reflects on her past and contemplates her future, ultimately finding a sense of peace and clarity. This article will provide a summary of the story and explore its themes of escape, self-reflection, and finding solace in unexpected places.

The Life of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was a prolific American writer who lived from 1862 to 1937. She was born into a wealthy New York family and spent much of her childhood traveling throughout Europe. Wharton was a keen observer of society and human behavior, and her writing often explored the complexities of relationships and the social norms of her time. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and her novels and short stories continue to be widely read and admired today. Despite her success, Wharton struggled with personal challenges throughout her life, including a difficult marriage and bouts of depression. She found solace in her writing, which allowed her to explore her own experiences and emotions while also shedding light on the experiences of others. In “Sanctuary,” Wharton explores the theme of isolation and the search for refuge, drawing on her own experiences to create a powerful and moving story.

The Writing of ‘Sanctuary’

Edith Wharton’s “Sanctuary” is a haunting tale of a woman’s search for refuge in a world that seems to offer none. The story was written in 1903, during a time when women’s rights were still a contentious issue, and Wharton’s protagonist, Kate Orme, is a woman who is struggling to find her place in a society that is hostile to her desires and ambitions.

Wharton’s writing is characterized by its vivid descriptions and its ability to capture the emotional complexity of her characters. In “Sanctuary,” she creates a world that is both beautiful and oppressive, a world in which Kate is constantly struggling to find her footing.

The story is set in the idyllic countryside of upstate New York, where Kate has retreated in an attempt to escape the pressures of her life in the city. But even here, she finds no respite from the demands of society, as she is pursued by a man who wants to marry her for her money, and by a former lover who wants to rekindle their relationship.

As Kate navigates these conflicting desires, she begins to realize that the only true sanctuary she can find is within herself. She must learn to trust her own instincts and to follow her own path, even if it means going against the expectations of those around her.

Wharton’s writing is both powerful and poignant, and “Sanctuary” is a testament to her skill as a storyteller. It is a story that speaks to the struggles of women in a patriarchal society, and to the universal human desire for a place of safety and refuge.

Plot Summary

In Edith Wharton’s short story “Sanctuary,” the protagonist Kate Orme is a young woman who has recently become engaged to the wealthy and successful Denis Peyton. However, Kate is haunted by the memory of her former lover, the artist Jeff Durant, who died tragically. When Kate visits Jeff’s former studio, she meets his former model, Fanny Frisbee, who reveals that Jeff had a wife and child who were abandoned by him. This revelation causes Kate to question her own relationship with Denis and ultimately leads her to make a difficult decision about her future.

Setting and Atmosphere

The setting and atmosphere of Edith Wharton’s “Sanctuary” play a crucial role in the story’s development. The story takes place in a small town in New England, where the protagonist, Kate, seeks refuge from her troubled past. The town is described as quiet and peaceful, with a sense of isolation from the rest of the world. This setting creates a sense of safety and security for Kate, who is trying to escape her abusive husband. The atmosphere is also described as somber and melancholic, reflecting Kate’s emotional state. The town’s residents are reserved and distant, adding to the feeling of isolation. Overall, the setting and atmosphere of “Sanctuary” contribute to the story’s themes of escape, isolation, and emotional turmoil.

Themes and Motifs

One of the prominent themes in Edith Wharton’s “Sanctuary” is the idea of escape and refuge. The protagonist, Kate Orme, seeks refuge from her unhappy marriage and the societal expectations placed upon her as a wealthy woman. She finds solace in the natural beauty of the Adirondack Mountains and the simplicity of life in a small town.

Another recurring motif in the story is the contrast between the urban and rural settings. The city represents the suffocating expectations and societal norms that Kate is trying to escape, while the countryside offers a sense of freedom and a chance for self-discovery.

Wharton also explores the theme of gender roles and the limitations placed upon women in the early 20th century. Kate’s husband, Jack, expects her to fulfill the traditional role of a wife and mother, but she yearns for something more. Through her journey to find sanctuary, Kate challenges these gender norms and asserts her independence.

Overall, “Sanctuary” is a poignant exploration of the human desire for escape and the search for a place to belong. Wharton’s masterful use of themes and motifs adds depth and complexity to the story, making it a timeless classic.

Character Analysis: Kate Orme

Kate Orme is a complex character in Edith Wharton’s “Sanctuary.” She is a wealthy and independent woman who is torn between her desire for love and her fear of losing her independence. Kate is also haunted by her past, particularly her failed marriage to Denis Peyton. Despite her reservations, Kate finds herself drawn to the charming and enigmatic Clemens Sherrard. As the novel progresses, Kate’s inner turmoil becomes more pronounced, and she must ultimately decide whether to follow her heart or her head. Through Kate’s character, Wharton explores themes of love, independence, and the struggle to reconcile the past with the present.

Character Analysis: Denis Peyton

Denis Peyton is a complex character in Edith Wharton’s “Sanctuary.” He is a successful businessman who is married to the protagonist, Kate Orme. However, he is also a philanderer who has had multiple affairs throughout their marriage. Despite his infidelity, Peyton is portrayed as a charming and charismatic man who is well-liked by those around him. He is also a devoted father to their daughter, Cicely. Peyton’s character is a reflection of the societal norms of the time, where men were expected to have extramarital affairs and women were expected to turn a blind eye to it. However, as the story progresses, Peyton’s true nature is revealed, and he becomes a more complex and flawed character. His actions have consequences that affect not only himself but also those around him. Overall, Peyton’s character adds depth and complexity to the story, highlighting the societal expectations and the consequences of going against them.

Symbolism in ‘Sanctuary’

Edith Wharton’s ‘Sanctuary’ is a story that is rich in symbolism. The title itself is symbolic, as it suggests a place of safety and refuge. The story is set in a small town in New England, and the town itself is symbolic of the narrow-mindedness and conservatism of the people who live there.

The main character, Kate, is also symbolic. She is a young woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage and is searching for a way to escape. Her desire for freedom is symbolized by her love of nature and her longing to be outside in the open air.

The character of Denis is also symbolic. He is a young man who is seen as an outsider by the people of the town. He is a symbol of the freedom and independence that Kate desires.

The house that Kate and Denis find refuge in is also symbolic. It is a dilapidated old house that is in need of repair. It is a symbol of the brokenness and decay that Kate and Denis are trying to escape from.

Overall, the symbolism in ‘Sanctuary’ adds depth and meaning to the story. It helps to convey the themes of freedom, independence, and the search for refuge in a world that can be harsh and unforgiving.

Wharton’s Writing Style

Edith Wharton’s writing style is often praised for its elegance and precision. Her use of language is both descriptive and concise, allowing readers to fully immerse themselves in the world she creates. In “Sanctuary,” Wharton’s writing style is particularly effective in conveying the sense of isolation and confinement felt by the protagonist, Kate Orme. Through her careful attention to detail and use of metaphor, Wharton creates a vivid portrait of a woman struggling to find refuge in a world that seems determined to keep her trapped. Whether describing the oppressive heat of a summer day or the suffocating atmosphere of a crowded room, Wharton’s writing captures the emotional intensity of Kate’s experience with remarkable clarity. As a result, “Sanctuary” remains a powerful and moving work of literature that continues to resonate with readers today.

Critical Reception of ‘Sanctuary’

Edith Wharton’s “Sanctuary” has received mixed reviews from literary critics. Some have praised the novella for its exploration of the complexities of marriage and the human psyche, while others have criticized it for its lack of depth and character development.

One common criticism of “Sanctuary” is that the characters are too one-dimensional and lack complexity. Critics have pointed out that the protagonist, Kate, is portrayed as a victim of circumstance rather than a fully realized character with agency and depth. Similarly, her husband, David, is seen as a stereotypical abusive husband without any redeeming qualities.

However, others have praised Wharton’s ability to capture the nuances of marital relationships and the psychological toll of abuse. They argue that the novella’s brevity is intentional, as it allows Wharton to focus on the emotional impact of the characters’ experiences rather than their individual personalities.

Overall, “Sanctuary” remains a controversial work in Wharton’s oeuvre, with some critics hailing it as a masterpiece and others dismissing it as a minor work. Regardless of its critical reception, the novella remains a powerful exploration of the complexities of human relationships and the devastating effects of abuse.

Comparisons to Other Works by Wharton

In comparison to other works by Edith Wharton, “Sanctuary” stands out as a departure from her usual themes of high society and the constraints of social norms. Instead, this short story explores the inner turmoil of a woman who has been abandoned by her husband and left to fend for herself in a foreign land. The protagonist, Kate, is forced to confront her own fears and insecurities as she navigates the unfamiliar terrain of a small Italian village.

While Wharton’s other works often focus on the external pressures of society, “Sanctuary” delves into the internal struggles of its protagonist. Kate’s journey towards self-discovery and acceptance is a departure from the more superficial concerns of Wharton’s other characters. Additionally, the setting of the story is markedly different from Wharton’s usual haunts of New York City and Newport, Rhode Island.

Overall, “Sanctuary” showcases Wharton’s versatility as a writer and her ability to explore a range of themes and settings. While it may not be as well-known as some of her other works, it is a poignant and thought-provoking story that deserves recognition.

Gender Roles and Expectations in ‘Sanctuary’

In Edith Wharton’s “Sanctuary,” gender roles and expectations play a significant role in the lives of the characters. The novel is set in the early 20th century, a time when women were expected to be submissive and obedient to their husbands. This is evident in the character of Kate, who is married to Jack, a wealthy businessman. Kate is portrayed as a dutiful wife who is expected to take care of the household and cater to her husband’s needs. She is not allowed to have a career or pursue her own interests, and her sole purpose in life is to please her husband.

On the other hand, the male characters in the novel are portrayed as dominant and powerful. Jack is a successful businessman who is used to getting what he wants, and he expects his wife to obey him without question. Similarly, the character of Peter, who is Kate’s childhood friend, is portrayed as a strong and confident man who takes charge of situations and is not afraid to speak his mind.

However, as the novel progresses, the gender roles and expectations are challenged. Kate begins to question her role as a wife and starts to assert her independence. She becomes involved in charity work and starts to develop her own interests. Similarly, Peter’s character is revealed to be more complex than initially portrayed, and he struggles with his own expectations of masculinity.

Overall, “Sanctuary” highlights the rigid gender roles and expectations of the early 20th century, but also shows how these roles can be challenged and subverted.

Class and Social Status in ‘Sanctuary’

In Edith Wharton’s ‘Sanctuary’, class and social status play a significant role in the lives of the characters. The protagonist, Kate Orme, is a wealthy woman who is engaged to a man from a lower social class. This creates tension between Kate and her family, who disapprove of the match. Additionally, Kate’s fiancé, Denis Peyton, struggles to fit in with Kate’s social circle and feels inferior to her friends. The novel explores the complexities of social class and the challenges that arise when individuals attempt to cross class boundaries. Wharton’s portrayal of class dynamics in ‘Sanctuary’ highlights the rigid social hierarchy of the time and the difficulties faced by those who attempt to challenge it.

Religion and Spirituality in ‘Sanctuary’

In Edith Wharton’s ‘Sanctuary’, religion and spirituality play a significant role in the lives of the characters. The protagonist, Kate Orme, struggles with her faith and questions the existence of God after the death of her husband. She seeks solace in the church and turns to the priest for guidance. However, she finds herself conflicted between her desire for spiritual comfort and her growing attraction to the priest.

The novel also explores the theme of hypocrisy in religion, as seen through the character of Mrs. Altringham. She is a devout Christian who judges others for their sins, yet she herself is guilty of adultery. This highlights the idea that religion can be used as a mask to hide one’s true nature and flaws.

Overall, ‘Sanctuary’ portrays the complexities of religion and spirituality in human lives, and how it can both comfort and challenge individuals in their search for meaning and purpose.

Historical Context of ‘Sanctuary’

Edith Wharton’s short story “Sanctuary” was published in 1903, during a time of great social and political change in the United States. The country was still recovering from the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the turn of the century brought about new ideas and movements, such as the Progressive Era and the women’s suffrage movement.

In this context, Wharton’s story takes on a deeper significance. “Sanctuary” explores themes of class, gender, and power dynamics, all of which were hotly debated topics at the time. The story centers around a wealthy woman, Kate Orme, who is torn between her duty to her husband and her desire to help a young woman who has been mistreated by her own husband.

Wharton’s portrayal of Kate Orme as a sympathetic and complex character was groundbreaking for its time, as women in literature were often relegated to one-dimensional roles as either virtuous heroines or villainous temptresses. Additionally, the story’s exploration of the power dynamics between men and women, and between the wealthy and the working class, was a reflection of the changing social landscape of the early 20th century.

Overall, “Sanctuary” is a powerful commentary on the complexities of human relationships and the societal pressures that shape them. Its themes and messages continue to resonate with readers today, making it a timeless piece of literature.

Wharton’s Legacy and Impact on Literature

Edith Wharton’s legacy in literature is undeniable. Her works have been celebrated for their sharp social commentary, intricate character development, and vivid descriptions of the world she inhabited. Wharton’s writing often explored the complexities of human relationships and the constraints of societal norms, particularly those imposed on women. Her novels and short stories continue to be studied and admired by readers and scholars alike, and her influence can be seen in the works of many contemporary writers. Wharton’s impact on literature is a testament to her talent and her ability to capture the essence of the human experience.

Adaptations of ‘Sanctuary’ in Film and Television

Edith Wharton’s “Sanctuary” has been adapted into various film and television productions over the years. The first adaptation was a silent film in 1913, followed by a 1928 talkie version. In 1961, a made-for-television movie was released, and in 1987, a French adaptation titled “Le Temps de l’innocence” was produced. However, the most well-known adaptation is Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film “The Age of Innocence,” which starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. Despite the various adaptations, the themes of societal expectations, love, and sacrifice remain prevalent in each version.