Back To CourseShort Stories: Study Guide & Homework Help
23 chapters | 324 lessons
Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.
Do you know what a dilettante is? (It's pretty important to the story in this lesson.) Various definitions of the word describe a dilettante as someone who takes interest in something ''casually,'' ''merely for amusement'' or in a ''superficial'' way. It's certainly not a word you'd use to describe someone who takes either a situation, or a person, very seriously.
But who the dilettante is in our story might be a bit harder to figure. Is it Thursdale, a cool womanizer? Or Mrs. Vervain, a jilted single woman turning the table on her friend? Let's get into ''The Dilettante'' and see if we can find some answers.
Thursdale has found himself heading to Mrs. Vervain's house ''as usual.'' The young man has just put his love interest, Miss Gaynor, on a train headed back to Buffalo. He needs someone he can chat about Miss Gaynor with, and Mrs. Vervain fits the bill.
It's an unusual relationship the pair have. Though not lovers or even former lovers, Thursdale seems to use Mrs. Vervain, mentioning that he has ''trained'' her how to act: ''He had taught a good many women not to betray their feelings, but he had never before had such fine material to work in.'' Thursdale is a bachelor and in modern vernacular, maybe a player, and he keeps Mrs. Vervain at a distance. He even introduces the two women: '' . . . there was no over-eagerness, no suspicious warmth, above all (and this gave her art the grace of a natural quality) there were none of those damnable implications where by a woman, in welcoming her friend's betrothed, may keep him on pins and needles while she laps the lady in complacency.'' In short, it appears that Thursdale is using Mrs. Vervain.
Thursdale arrives at Mrs. Vervain's home, and she is there, like always. She has been reading and seems neither pleased, nor particularly happy to see Thursdale. '' 'You?' she exclaimed; and the book she held slipped from her hand.'' Thursdale thinks her behavior crude or unrefined.
Nevertheless, the two settle into an interesting conversation. Mrs. Vervain presses Thursdale about the reason for his visit. Thursdale admits he's there to talk about Miss Gaynor, and Mrs. Vervain surprises him by saying the woman had just been to see her that morning. Thursdale is taken aback by this news.
He tells Mrs. Vervain that he's ''absurdly in love,'' to which Mrs. Vervain replies, ''Oh, my poor Thursdale!''
Mrs. Vervain explains that Miss Gaynor had visited to figure out if there was anything going on between Thursdale and Mrs. Vervain: ''I supposed it might have struck you that there were times when we presented that appearance.''
Thursdale is confused and doesn't understand why Miss Gaynor would take offense to a friendship between the pair. Mrs. Vervain explains that Miss Gaynor is quite inexperienced in love and '' . . . came to find out if you were really free.''
Miss Gaynor, Mrs. Vervain continues, likes clear definitions. Mrs. Vervain continues by telling Thursdale she told Miss Gaynor that the pair had never been lovers. Miss Gaynor, for her part, appears to be unhappy that Thursdale and Mrs. Vervain were never in a relationship. She wants a man with experience, according to Mrs. Vervain.
Thursdale thinks that Mrs. Vervain has been out for revenge and is trying to hurt him. Mrs. Vervain urges Thursdale to lie about the nature of their relationship to save his current one. Thursdale is heartbroken at the thought of his relationship with Miss Gaynor ending, even as he has refused to display emotion with Mrs. Vervain (and she with him).
The conversation ends, and Thursdale sets out to leave Mrs. Vervain's house. He is about to set out for a letter Mrs. Vervain hints that Miss Gaynor may have left for him before leaving. This letter might be the end of the couple's relationship.
Yet, as he's leaving Mrs. Vervain tells Thursdale there is no letter. And she is left alone in the room by herself.
Phew! This story is a whirlwind of emotions, game-playing and backbiting that might be better suited for a soap opera stage than author Edith Wharton could've ever imagined.
It's apparent that Thursdale is a bit of a player. He has one woman, but regularly visits Mrs. Vervain and is almost toying with her. He shows no emotion toward her and has, apparently, ''trained her'' (his words) not to indulge in her own emotions toward him. Or was she tainted before their odd relationship began? It's not by chance that Mrs. Vervain is a Mrs., likely divorced or widowed, which might be responsible for her lack of warmth. (On the flip side, Miss Gaynor is a young, innocent thing.)
The bigger question in the story is: Did the second meeting between Miss Gaynor and Mrs. Vervain ever happen, or is Mrs. Vervain turning the tables on Thursdale? It's entirely possible that she has concocted the entire story as a way to punish him for his cold indifference toward her, a sort of ''two can play that game'' mentality.
Some might call Mrs. Vervain cruel for toying with Thursdale in such a manner, making him upset about his relationship and creating fear in him that Miss Gaynor is breaking it off. It could be that her cruelty is what has led to her own loneliness, or her loneliness has led to her cruelty. Either way, it's hard to feel sorry for Thursdale who admits, early in the story, that ''the woman of the moment became a mere implement of the game. He owed a great deal of delicate enjoyment to the cultivation of this art.'' Thursdale is playing a game, and it's possible he's met his match in Mrs. Vervain.
''The Dilettante'' is a twisty soap opera that'll leave you questioning who the ''bad guy'' really is. Thursdale has an odd friendship with Mrs. Vervain, but a relationship with Miss Gaynor. He goes to Mrs. Vervain to dissect his relationship, and she turns the tables on him, telling him she's met with Miss Gaynor beforehand and discussed the nature of her relationship with Thursdale. Thursdale, not normally one to show emotion, gets riled up by Mrs. Vervain's crude behavior. It's not immediately clear by the end of the story whether her meeting with Miss Gaynor actually took place, or Mrs. Vervain was making it up to teach Thursdale a lesson.
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