A Project on Edith Wharton's House of Mirth:
Topics and Selected Resources
How would you interpret the depiction of the rich, the poor, the significance of social classes, and/or the meaning of work in The House of Mirth? What ideas set forth by other writers does the novel build upon or refute, and how would you explain the nature of the particular contribution made by The House of Mirth to the American conversation on work, wealth, and work?
Some Starting-Points :
A number of nineteenth century writers (including Helen Campbell -- see Women and Work) suggest that the problems of the working poor seem invisible to the affluent. When and why does this happen, what are the consequences, and does the revelation of this phenomenon of "invisibility" seem to make any argument? Do you believe that The House of Mirth shares these views? If so, write an essay in which you use specific scenes and passages from the novel to describe and analyze the "invisibility" of economic and social problems in the world of the affluent, and the way in which this problem is depicted I the novel reiterates, refutes, or extends the American conversation on "the invisible poor."
Although poverty may sometimes have seemed invisible, the wealth of the more fortunate was always on public display in turn-of-the-century America, a phenomenon that prompted a number of interpretations. Writing in 1881, Julia Ward Howe criticized the shallowness of a life built on gilded spectacle as a "society of representation. It bears about the same relation to genuine society that scene-painting bears to a carefully finished picture." In his landmark 1899 work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen explained the world of the affluent in this way:
Abstention from labour is not only a honorific or meritorious act, but it presently comes to be a requisite of decency. The insistence on property as the basis of reputability is very naïve and very imperious during the early stages of the accumulation of wealth. Abstention from labour is the convenient evidence of wealth and is therefore the conventional mark of social standing; and this insistence on meritoriousness of wealth leads to a more strenuous insistence on leisure. Nota notae est nota rei ipsiius. According to well established laws of human nature, prescription presently seizes upon this conventional evidence wealth and fixes it in men's habits of thought as something that is in itself substantially meritorious and ennobling; while productive labour by a like process becomes in a double sense intrinsically unworthy. Prescription ends by making labour not only disreputable in the eyes of the community, but morally impossible to the nobel, freeborn man, and incompatible with a worthy life.
Do you see Wharton depicting a "society of representation" or a "leisure class" in The House of Mirth? If so, offer an analysis of the way that society is described in the novel and discuss the way in which Wharton's treatment of this concept reinforces, refutes, or extends the interpretations of Howe, Veblen, or others. According to your interpretation, what comment does The House of Mirth make on the relationship between the real world and the world of "representation," and/or the relationship between manners and morals?
How would you explain the "humiliation" that Lily Bart experiences as a former member of the upper class when seeking work? Do the explanations provided by such organization as The Needle Woman's Friend and The Ladies' Depository earlier in the century explain any of Lily Bart's reactions to the need to work? How does The House of Mirth contribute to the American discussion of the significance of class differences particularly as they relate to women?
Many advice and etiquette manuals often attempted to reconcile the ideals of a "refined" society with the ideals of a republican society; on the other hand, many other texts either point out the conflict between the two or question the assumption that the improvement of manners leads to an improvement of morality. (For example, although Horatio Alger is best known for his stories of young men who rise through the socio-economic ranks, you might enjoy reading an excerpt from a verse he wrote in 1855 entitled "Nothing to Do.") According to your reading of the novel, how does The House of Mirth participate in the discussion of the relationship between refinement and republicanism, manners and morality, wealth and worth?
You may wish to begin your investigations by consulting some of the materials available at the Rich and Poor in the "Gilded Age" page. You may also find it useful to read some of the texts available on the page devoted to Women and Work, particularly Helen Campbell's Prisoners of Poverty.
Whenever the discussion has turned to issues related to women, the American conversation on wealth, worth, and work has been particularly complex. How does The House of Mirth treat the issue of work for women? How does it depict women's suitability and preparedness for work, the opportunities available to them, and the problems they experience in the workplace? Does it represent "refined" women as having any particular problems entering the world of work? In what ways does the novel reaffirm, refute, or develop ideas about women and work that were already part of the American conversation, and does The House of Mirth make any distinctive contribution to the conversation on this topic?
You may find it useful to think about the various models of working women provided in The House of Mirth. Those models include (but are not limited to): Mrs. Trenor, who manages her homes and functions as a hostess for the members of her class; Carrie Fisher, who "launches" new people into society; Gerty Farish, who engages in the "business" of benevolence at the Girls' Club; Grace Stepney, who serves as an informal companion and housekeeper for Mrs. Peniston; the young women who Mme. Regina's millinery workroom; and Nettie Crane, the "typewriter" who is described in the penultimate chapter of the novel as "the poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up her life." It could also be interesting to think about the kinds of "work" done by men in the novel. How do these models reflect, reject, or contribute to the models we encounter in other kinds of nineteenth century texts? Alternatively, you may want to do an extended study of one particular model of a woman's work.
What kinds of arguments do people advance on behalf of supporting, expanding, or raising the level of women's work, and would you argue that The House of Mirth develops any of these arguments? What kinds of concerns do people have about encouraging, supporting, expanding, or raising the level of women's work, and do you see any reflections of these fears in The House of Mirth? One good source of material for this subject can be found in the reports made by 19th century benevolent organizations for women in need of employment; you will find excerpts on the page on Women and Work.
Both Helen Campbell in Prisoners of Poverty and Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth tell stories about women and work. Are the portraits they offer of working women similar or different? Do the texts by Campbell and Wharton offer similar or different views of social problems and how they should be addressed? Did the fact that these two women were writing in different genres seem to have any significance or affect?
You may wish to begin your investigations by reviewing the resources available at the page on Women and Work in 19th Century America. Be sure to note any recurring themes, sources of agreement, or contested issues.
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