Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth
An Investigation into the American Conversation on
Work, Wealth and Work
Preliminary In-Class and Homework Assignments
Americans have long pondered the relationship between work, wealth, and work in this country. Although writers have often referred to America as a "classless" society, America is described with equal frequency as a place where it is possible for any individual to "get ahead." Over the course of the semester, we have read the comments of writers such as Winthrop, Crevecoeur, Franklin, Hawthorne, Tocqueville, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, and many others. (See our syllabus for texts by these and other writers who comment on this topic.)
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this "conversation" required a new sense of urgency because of the gap between the unprecedented scale of wealth enjoyed by a few Americans and the equally remarkable level of poverty that characterized the lives of those Jacob Riis referred to as "the other half."
This project represents an opportunity for you to explain the contribution made by Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth to the American conversation on work, wealth, and worth. Write an essay in which you draw upon other texts written by or about Americans in the nineteenth century or earlier to develop your interpretation of the novel. . You may choose to select as your focus one of the options described below, or you may construct your own topic.
Guidelines and Suggestions:
- No matter what topic you choose to pursue, be sure to locate your interpretation of Wharton's novel within the context created by other American texts. That means that you will need to support your reading of the novel with direct quotations from both the novel and other primary sources.
- You should draw upon those outside resources that seem most useful in helping you pursue an answer to the question you have framed. You are free to choose the number and type of resources you will cite. In other words, texts can be literary or non-literary; you can quote a large number of sources or focus on a particular author or text you find particularly significant.
- You may also define the time-period that will frame your study. For example, while one person might wish to analyze The House of Mirth within the context of turn-of-the-century texts, another might compare and/or contrast The House of Mirth with 18th century American works on a similar theme.
- Although you are not required to cite any particular number of secondary sources in your essay, you will probably find it useful to consult scholarship related to your topic. An annotated bibliography should be included with your paper.
- Remember that it is important to make choices that will enable you to construct a clearly focused interpretation. If your topic is too broad and your sources are too widely scattered, it will be difficult for you to develop a worthwhile point in your essay.
Suggested Topics and Resources
Related resources can be found on the following pages:
Etiquette and Dance Manuals in 19th Century America
Conduct Manuals in 19th Century America
Women and Work in 19th Century America
Rich and Poor in Turn-of-the-Century America
You can also use Search Engines at the Lyceum locate additional resources on the web.
Home Page for Lucia Knoles
Department of English, Assumption College
The Search for Improvement in Antebellum America
Project in Progress