By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Moving Finger’ is a 1901 short story by the American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937). The story is about an artist who paints a portrait of a friend’s wife; when the wife dies, the husband asks the artist to alter the portrait so it reflects how his wife would look as an older woman, if she had lived.
In short, ‘The Moving Finger’ is a story about beauty, possession, and who ‘owns’ works of art, among other themes. Before we offer an analysis of the story’s meaning, it might be worth briefly recapping the plot.
‘The Moving Finger’: plot summary
When Ralph Grancy’s first wife, who was rather controlling over her husband, dies, he remarries and he has a portrait painted of his second wife. The artist who paints the portrait, Claydon, falls in love with his portrait of Mrs Grancy, and often visits the house to see it and admire his work.
When the second Mrs Grancy dies a few years later, Ralph Grancy takes up a diplomatic post abroad, and this occupies him for several years. When he returns to New York, the narrator plans to go and visit him. Before he does so, he bumps into Claydon, who appears unnerved by the haggard and withered appearance of their friend, who is only forty-five but seems to have changed a great deal in the intervening years since he was last in America.
Sure enough, when the narrator renews his acquaintance with Grancy, he discovers that he has indeed changed – but so has his portrait of his dead wife which hangs on the wall. Grancy tells the narrator that he asked Claydon to retouch the painting and make his wife’s appearance look older, so that it reflects how she would look if she had not died young. This way, he explains, he and his ‘wife’ can grow old together.
However, shortly after this, Grancy falls ill and dies. He leaves Claydon his wife’s portrait in his will, and when the narrator visits Claydon’s studio to attend the unveiling of a new picture, he spots the portrait of Mrs Grancy hanging on Claydon’s wall, the portrait having been given pride of place among his paintings. Claydon has removed the ageing touches he had added at Grancy’s request, and Mrs Grancy once again looks as she did in life, youthful and beautiful.
The narrator realises that Claydon had loved Mrs Grancy, and confronts Claydon over the portrait. Claydon realises that the narrator suspects him of killing Grancy by convincing him that he was meant to die and join his wife in death. Claydon explains that when Grancy came to him and asked him to alter his wife’s portrait, it was like asking him to commit murder.
He explains that he only went through with Grancy’s request because, when he looked up at the portrait, it seemed to tell him to do as Grancy requested. It was also the portrait, Claydon claims, which told him that Grancy was dying and asked him to pass on this information to Grancy so he would know. He agreed to relay the message so that Grancy and his wife could be together again. But now, Claydon tells the narrator, the portrait (and thus, Mrs Grancy) belongs to him.
‘The Moving Finger’: analysis
The core of Edith Wharton’s ‘The Moving Finger’ can, in many ways, be summed up by Claydon’s comment towards the end of the story: namely, that whereas the mythical sculptor Pygmalion had turned his statue into a real woman, Claydon had done the opposite, and turned his real woman into a picture.
In classical myth, Pygmalion created a sculpture of a woman so beautiful that he prayed to the gods to bring his sculpture to life so that he might make love to it. In Wharton’s story, an artist takes a real woman and objectifies her into a work of art which absorbs and displaces the woman who inspired it.
By painting Mrs Grancy, Claydon was able to claim or possess her, or at least the true essence of her: she ‘belonged’ to him and came under his control. As he confides to the narrator, ‘you don’t know how much of a woman belongs to you after you’ve painted her!’ He was able to understand and capture her beauty in a way that even her husband could not: Claydon saw her more clearly than Grancy himself did.
We often talk about portraits capturing the essence of the person they portray, and in a sense, Wharton’s story takes such an idea literally. Through painting her and immortalising her on the canvas, Claydon came to ‘capture’ and possess Mrs Grancy in ways her husband could not.
Indeed, Grancy makes a similar point to the narrator earlier in the story:
When Claydon painted her he caught just the look she used to lift to mine when I came in. I’ve wondered, sometimes, at his knowing how she looked when she and I were alone. How I rejoiced in that picture! I used to say to her: ‘You’re my prisoner now; I shall never lose you. If you grew tired of me and left me, you’d leave your real self there on the wall!’ It was always one of our jokes that she was going to grow tired of me.
Of course, such a statement turns out to be more confident than it deserves to be, for Grancy is wrong that he has made his wife his ‘prisoner’. Instead, she, or at least a part of her, has been imprisoned in that canvas, and is under Claydon’s artistic control.
Wharton’s story takes its title ‘The Moving Finger’ from a verse in Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
In this quatrain, the poet asserts the artist’s right: once the ‘moving finger’ of the poet has written something, nothing can erase what they have created. What’s true for poets is true, Claydon would say, of all artists: he may reluctantly agree to change the perfect portrait of Mrs Grancy, at the insistence of Mr Grancy, but as soon as he can, Claydon restores the picture to its perfect state, a beautiful embodiment of something beautiful.
So ‘The Moving Finger’ is a story about the intersection between life and art, but it is not a happy symbiotic relationship. Indeed, once the flesh-and-blood muse has been transformed into a work of art, she becomes surplus to requirements, and dies a few years later so her portrait can represent her utterly, without competition from its living prototype.
Wharton’s story is perhaps best viewed alongside nineteenth-century depictions of women in portraits, such as Christina Rossetti’s ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ (which ambiguously casts the artist as both liberator and parasite) and Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ (which similarly sees a woman displaced and replaced by her own portrait, which is admired by her controlling husband).