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Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth
Carol J. Singley, ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
£38.99, 337 pages, ISBN 0-19-515602-1 (hardback).
£14.99, 337 pages, ISBN 0-19-515603-X (paperback).

Denise Ginfray
Université Clermont II

This volume of critical essays devoted to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) includes an Introduction by the editor of this new Casebook, a short extract from Wharton’s autobiography A Backward Glance (1934), and the author’s Introduction to the 1936 Edition of The House of Mirth where she confesses that “It seems like going back to the Pharaohs to try to re-enter the New York world in which [my novel] originated” [31]. In these witty pages, Wharton ponders over the reception of her novel centred around Lily Bart’s slow disintegration “at a moment when her venial lapses loomed gigantically against a sulphurous background” [36]. She also reflects upon the creative process that enables the novelist to “go a little below the surface of life” [35] in order to probe the abysses of human behaviour, however shallow they may be.

The eleven discussions grouped in the volume, some of which have been published previously in critical studies and/or journals (notably in Shari Benstock’s Case Study, 1994), testify to the complexity of a novel too quickly labelled “novel of manners” or “romance.” As Singley notes in her comprehensive Introduction [3-25], the wide range of critical methodologies presented there aptly demonstrate how the elaboration of the novel was informed by the modernist sense of dislocation and fragmentation. The epistemological context with its debate on science and religion, with its social anxieties, its special emphasis on the woman’s issue and on the interplay between gender, race, class, national identity, along with its harsh satire of America’s emergent consumer culture is central to The House of Mirth. What is made clear in these different studies that complement each other very well is that the novel combines all these elements with Wharton’s awareness of and recourse to complex codes of representation borrowed from both fiction, drama and the visual arts.

The volume concludes with a selected bibliography.

These essays do not rely exclusively on the key issues of women and marriage. Some of them deal more particularly with social issues like race, class structuration, and national identity; others foreground Wharton’s representation of femininity and gender relationships, still others dwell on her textual strategies. All of them provide perceptive insight into Wharton’s art of fiction, and strive to point out its paradoxical nature emerging from the many embedded social and cultural spaces that form the architecture of her novels: the conspicuous dialectics between a proliferation of signs and the insubstantiality of meaning.

The notion of femininity and the quality of gender relationships constitute the very nexus of what Joan Lidoff calls Wharton’s “romance of identity.” In “Another Sleeping Beauty: Narcissism in The House of Mirth” [181-207], she draws a parallel between a psychic state—narcissism—and a literary form—Wharton’s hybrid narrative—which, she contends, is situated half way between realism and romance. Lidoff’s main argument is this: whereas the romance form leads to resolution, Lily’s narcissism bars access to self-knowledge and, in the meantime, blocks Wharton’s access to the structural pattern that might prove adequate to The House of Mirth. After a close examination of the images, metaphors, and lexical fields present in the novel, her analysis grounded on post-Freudian theories tackles the systematic bi-polarization of the novel, its fairy-tale allusions, Lily’s misrecognition of alterity as such, her overwhelming desire to live in accordance with the pleasure principle, her impossibility to reach self-sufficiency, and eventually, the logic that condemns her to death.

Elaine Showalter, too, focuses on Lily’s tragic fate, linking gender and literary genre in her essay “The Death of the Lady (Novelist): Wharton’s House of Mirth” [39-61]. For her, the heroine’s impossible self-fulfilment and subsequent death read like the symptoms of a patriarchal institution that defines roles for women—that of the Perfect Lady, in Lily’s case. Showalter goes a little further and asserts that Lily’s passivity and impossibility to word her inner self contrast sharply with Wharton’s will to stage female creativity and to revisit the plots of female representation. Showalter selects several landmarks in American literary tradition in order to emphasize Wharton’s bold revision of male texts (Henry James and Oscar Wilde, for example). She underlines her desire to elaborate new strategies and tropes apt to defy the conventional heritage and promote the image of a modern woman freed from the deadly seduction of “ornamental Lily.”

The following contributions examine the social “tapestry” of The House of Mirth:

Wai Chee Dimock’s critical essay adopts a Marxist perspective. In “Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth” [63-84], she compares the structures of oppression imposed by men on women in modern, liberal societies and those inherent to class conflicts throughout history. Quite convincingly, Dimock reads Lily’s story in terms of symbolic exchange (both linguistic and money exchange), and elaborates a critical vision of the novel with, in its centre, Lily’s fatal ignorance of and/or non-conformity to the conventional social plot.

Jennie A. Kassanoff’s argument in “Extinction, Taxidermy, Tableaux Vivants: Staging Race and Class in The House of Mirth” [299-330] is that race, in Wharton’s novel, “becomes an essentialist—if deeply problematic—answer to the cultural vulnerabilities of class and gender.” [300] The essay examines the perceptible mutations of turn-of-the-century American society, its questioning of Darwinian theories, its ideological taxonomies, its conflicting racial discourses together with its decadent structures. Kassanoff’s critical reading of The House of Mirth is all the more interesting as Wharton’s own conception of class affiliation and aesthetic preferences (her sense of a cultural elite and faith in the privileged Amateur—in the Barthesian sense of the word) are part of a long-running debate. The critic also recalls Paul Bourget’s influence on Wharton and recommends that her somewhat radical views vis-à-vis race distinction should be replaced within the socio-political context of the novel marked by anxiety about national identity, hybridization and change. Kassanoff concludes her essay with a close analysis of the tableaux vivants which she considers as highly emblematic of Wharton’s disapprobation of bourgeois taste in American society and nostalgia for Europe’s classical art.

In “The ‘Perfect Jew’ and The House of Mirth: A Study in Point of View” [163-79], Irene C. Goldman-Price resorts to the history of New York and to Wharton’s biography to pin down the anti-Semitic context of the novel dominated by social and financial insecurity. Of great interest is her contention that Wharton’s treatment should not be restricted to mere matters of representation and/or ideological issues. For her, filiation, transmission, money, and the figure of the Jew as exemplified by Simon Rosendale in The House of Mirth, are part and parcel of America’s cultural and literary conventions. Instead, Goldman-Price argues that the issue of race in Wharton’s fiction goes well beyond characterization and use of stereotypes and clichés. For her, what is really at stake is Wharton’s linguistic ability, i.e., her ambivalent art of tackling the very medium of narrative representation: language itself.

Six articles focus on the novel’s narrative perspectives, use of generic codes and place in American tradition. All of them question the interplay between literary fiction and socio-cultural fictions:

In “Crowded Spaces in The House of Mirth” [85-105], Amy Kaplan explores Wharton’s literary realism in the light of W.D. Howells’s fictional treatment of social and economic frameworks. Kaplan’s study shows how, in Wharton’s novel, meaning is destabilized whenever the public and the private spheres intersect and interact through work, marriage and spectatorship, creating spaces where class distinction is under close examination, and where Lily Bart’s access to the truth about her self condemns both the copy and the original to become interchangeable, ungraspable, totally submitted to social intercourse and to the power of vision.

In about the same vein, Lori Merish, in “Engendering Naturalism: Narrative Form and Commodity Spectacle in U.S. Naturalist Fiction” [229-70], draws a parallel with Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie where she finds a similar concern with the commodification of the woman’s body and her dependence upon the male gaze to construct her subjective identity. Merish’s emphasis is precisely on the gradual shift that the woman experiences in the consumer culture from the desiring subject to the object of desire. Very appropriately, she points out the contradiction between an excess in representation of the feminine and its radical invisibility (throughout the novel, Lily Bart is presented as a mere “semblance”), with the result that all forms of speculation and specularity are more than often confounded and become, quite naturally, part of the overall reification imposed by modernity in western cultures.

Linda Wagner-Martin’s main concern in “The House of Mirth: A Novel of Admonition” [107-29], is Wharton’s deliberate choice of strategies that undermine the figures of womanhood inherited from the nineteenth-century tradition. Her study centred on “the turn-of-the-century New Woman” is divided into four sections. She first examines Wharton’s relationship with the past (both American and European) and insists on the patriarchal context that made the emergence of a woman’s literary voice so difficult, before she replaces the novel within a literary history where fictions by women and about women were too often considered as subversive. This argument is further developed in the section devoted to the critical reception of The House of Mirth that throws light on the conflicting reactions generated by both the novel’s genre and Lily’s characterization. Wagner-Martin’s analysis of the novel’s structure focuses on “fiction as disguise,” i.e., on the many narrative and stylistic devices (irony, equivovation, understatement, unexpected imagery, reversed patterns of meaning) that signal both Wharton’s uneasiness with conventional modes of representation and her desire to explore “the modern trend.”

Shari Benstock’s essay, “’The Word Which Made All Clear’: The Silent Close of The House of Mirth” [131-62] discusses the ultimate meaning of the novel and insists on Wharton’s innovative techniques which she compares with Kate Chopin’s in The Awakening. Benstock evokes the polemics raised by the enigmatic ending of the novel (a suicide? an accident?) together with Lily’s and Selden’s dramatic failure to communicate especially in the last scene where both remain at a loss with words. Benstock’s attention to the novel’s genealogy and early modernism, connects Lily’s predicaments with Wharton’s rhetorical choices, with her ethical and aesthetic modes too, showing how they challenge the reader’s expectations and tastes and foreground Wharton’s preoccupations with the limited potentialities of language.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s essay, “Lily Bart and the Drama of Femininity” [209-28], revisits Wharton’s novel in the light of the theatrical conventions of Edwardian drama with their didactic patterns ready to duplicate the society-gendered power. Wolff’s examines the notions of femininity that informed all dramas of that time. She explains how Wharton experimented in writing plays and compares The House of Mirth with Arthur W. Pinero’s Iris: A Drama in Five Acts (1902). She also insists on the social aspect of New York theatre life between 1890 and 1905, considering that Wharton’s interest in visual arts and stage productions provided her with narrative patterns and plots necessary to dramatize her own conception of the woman’s multiple roles.

In “The Crumbling Structure of ‘Appearances’: Representation and Authenticity in The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country” [271-97] Christopher Gair observes how characterization in Wharton’s novels proceeds from her lucid vision of New York society where human subjectivity and sense of identity are constantly threatened by economic changes. Gair analyzes Wharton’s fictions of New York in terms of ethnic and historical consequences on selfhood, showing that romantic Lily in The House of Mirth—like Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country—fails to acknowledge the theatricality of her new social environment and, consequently, how she condemns herself to delusion and artificiality.

This collection of essays constitutes a valuable guidebook to scholars and students, throwing light on the complexities of Edith Wharton’s fictional techniques.

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