Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth- An Analysis of Two Critical Essays

Amy L Blair’s essay entitled ‘Misreading The House of Mirth’ is an investigation into the reading practises at the turn of the 20th Century. She discusses the beginnings of the ‘how to’ guides and literature becoming a life manual. Wai-Chee Dimock’s essay ‘Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House Of Mirth’ argues that Wharton places the characters in a marketplace and as such, the ‘deal’ is the ultimate goal and downfall of the protagonist Lily Bart. Both these texts are concerned with theme of class. Blair argues that the reader of The House of Mirth is a how to guide for the upwardly aspiring social climber whereas Dimock’s argues that the book revolves around the exchange system and Lily’s naïve attempt to play the market.

The main focus in Blair’s argument is that the theme of the book invites a practise she calls ‘reading up’, in which the novel is approached as a how-to manual for the reader to ascend to the dizzy heights of the characters. She states, ‘…class identity was decoupled from solely financial considerations so that a remaking of the self through cultural acquisition…became the imperative means of upward mobility’ (Blair, 2004, p150). Blair believes that as a result of the middle classes need to elevate their status, a ‘…new hybrid genre emerged and flourished…’ (Blair, 2004, p152) in the form of life guides and the promise of a better life for the reader. She also argues that the readership had little sympathy with Wharton’s critique of consumerism and high society and in fact were horrified with the fate that Wharton bestowed upon Lily. Blair contrasts her argument with Michel de Certeau’s theory of the ‘reader as poacher’ explaining that the reader can aspire to higher society if they become actively engaged with the text. Blair also believes that the negative reviews that Wharton’s The House of Mirth received were in part because of these practises of ‘reading up’.

Furthermore, Blair believes that Wharton uses the character of Gerty Farish as a guide in the tableau vivant scene and that it was written for a reader who was not of high society, ‘…she displayed the awed alertness of one unaccustomed to glamour and intent on taking everything in…’ (Blair, 2004, p158). Blair continues that this was also in contrast to Wharton’s criticism of the gossip pages, who, in reality, did the same job. Blair argues that ‘…the practice of reading up relies on a shift of identification as a means of wish fulfillment…’ and the ‘…identification of the self with a character who is a social better’ (Blair, 2004, p167). In this way, Blair is arguing that the text is a guide for the social climber and Wharton’s use of the character of Gerty Farish, who is of a lower status, enables the reader to do this.

The critical debate that Blair uses to evidence her findings is one that ran for a few months in the New York Times in 1905 between two letter writers, one who signed off as Newport and the other as Lenox. Both were embattled on either side of the argument regarding whether they were part of the inner circle in which Wharton wrote about or that it did not exist. Blair argues that the letter by Lenox ‘validated the superior discernment of the insider and the hopeless outsiderness of the outsider’ (Blair, 2004, p161).

Unlike Blair’s essay, no secondary criticism is used in Dimock’s piece. Dimock bases his argument on Wharton’s ideologies and criticism of the market place and his essay focusses entirely on the power within it and how Lily is the only character in The House of Mirth who plays it fairly. He states, ‘A self-acknowledged “human merchandise” she is busy marketing herself throughout most of the book…’ (Dimock, 1985, p124).  Dimock argues that the question of currency runs as an undercurrent throughout the book and that debt and cost are the main themes in relation to class status.

Furthermore, the idea of ‘exchange’ is something that for Lily is not in her power. Dimock states that the rate of exchange is fixed by those more powerful than her and argues that when Lily “owes” Trenor money, ‘…he now demands only according to his rate of exchange…’ (Dimock, 1985, p125). He also states that the higher classes are those who are the ‘non-payers’, believing that the characters of Bertha and Gus Trenor are neither required to play fair nor penalised for doing so. Dimock also argues that it is Lily who pays for playing fair and is ‘…penalised then, not for breaking the rules but for observing them’ (Dimock, 1985, p131).

However, Dimock also states that Lily makes two errors of judgement, ‘…in refusing to do business, Lily is perhaps also refusing to live…’ (Dimock, 1985, p132). Lily’s refusal to act upon Bertha’s letters and Rosedale’s offer of a loan condemn Lily to her fate. Dimock argues that this moral triumph however is bittersweet as ‘Lily is simply reverting to her customary role within the exchange system: her role as the one who “pays”’ (Dimock, 1985, p134). Dimock states that morality within the book is useless against an ‘…exchange system that dissolves the language system into its own harsh brassy parlance’ (Dimock, 1985, p135), confirming that Lily paid the ultimate price with her life. Dimock’s argument in the case of morality is that within the world of capitalism, morality doesn’t exist and because of this Lily would never have survived anyway.

Dimock closes his argument with a look at how Wharton deals with the working class in the character of Nettie Struther. He states, ‘To be all that Wharton wants her to be, Nettie must be abstracted from the all-contaminating exchange system’ (Dimock, 1985, p137), confirming that Wharton’s idea of the working classes is distinctly for redeeming purposes only and that she bases this character on an ideal that there is an ‘…organic life beyond the marketplace’ (Dimock, 1985, p137). Dimock is suggesting that Wharton wanted a glimmer of hope and the character of Nettie offered this.

Both texts are concerned with class but as very different concepts. Blair finalises her essay with a nod to the reader who, if they can ‘read up’, will bypass Wharton’s criticism of the higher classes and ‘…continue[s] to cultivate an upwardly mobile lifestyle’ (Blair, 2004, p170) whereas Dimock’s argument presents itself as a stark contrast to the world of capitalism in which he argues that it becomes a survival of the fittest.

Bibliography

Blair, A. L. (2004) ‘Misreading The House of Mirth’. In American Literature, [Online] vol 76 (1) p149-170. Available from: https://staffs.summon.serialssolutions.com/#!/search?bookMark=ePnHCXMw42JgAfZbU5lAx5QamesCxfALhGkBWppYWzIAS8lgfUSJ4OsbyawJgCvFlcAhouCB7C7m6qQn6bgm1lUksHNoOrmGuLsoYs6IxyfCBqTjw8yMDYxN7C0AN1MQJw6ACClK6I [Accessed 30/10/2017]

Dimock, W. (1985) ‘Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth’. In: Bloom, H (ed) (1986) Edith Wharton: Modern Critical Views. p123-137. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *