Edith Wharton - "The House of Mirth" as a Portrait of the City

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction: Edith Wharton and New York City

2. The American City in Novels

3. Social Customs of the Wealthy

4. Edith Wharton’s Qualification to write about New York Society

5. Architecture

6. Luxury

7. Rites and Rituals

8. New Money – New Rules

9. Conclusion

11. Sources

1. Introduction: Edith Wharton and New York City

In this paper we will describe the ambivalent relationship between American novelist Edith Wharton and the American city. Edith Wharton was born into a very well established family of the New Yorker upper class[1] and her ties to the city remained strong throughout her life. Her biographer Louis Auchincloss sums up Wharton’s deeply rooted relation to the topic at hand: “She had been brought up in the city and had married there. She had experienced its social life, in greater doses than she had wanted. She knew its men and women of property; she knew their history and origins, their prejudices and ideals, the source of their money and how they spent their summers. This knowledge, of course, was to fade with her continued residence abroad, but the ten years that preceded the war were actually the years when her American impressions were at their most vivid and when she was doing her strongest work.” (Auchincloss 33-34) The work he refers to are her novels “The House of Mirth”, “The Custom of the Country”, and “The Age of Innocence”. In all three of them, Wharton is concerned with the lives of a rather closed set of people, namely the so called “old families” of New York.

New York was at that time the de facto capital of the nation. It was the North American centre of commerce, finance, and the arts. Industrial revolution had not only brought about new inventions like the telephone, the electric light, or elevators, it further had changed the way production was organised. Steam driven “El Lines” (El = elevated) now made it possible for workers to commute from their homes on the outskirts of the city to their workplaces in down-town New York. Traditional stasis in small town home employment gave way to movement and flexibility. Rapid industrial growth in America’s Gilded Age could absorb the immense influx of immigrant workers and those who left their rural backgrounds to become genuine city-dwellers. New York’s population grew from 123,000 in 1820 to over 3 million by the end of the century. The city’s face was changing just as New York itself changed its inhabitants. (see Heideking 201)

Naturalist authors like Theodore Dreiser or Stephen Crane drew attention to the workings of this transformation. They were among the first who regarded the city as a conglomerate of diverse structures that directly influence people and their lives.

Both authors’ interests lay foremost in the description of working-class people. They wrote about the lure, the threat, the possibilities as well as the unrealistic dreams the city('s image) provided for those who were marvelling at it from the margins. Their texts gave insight into the fates of originally poor men and women who got themselves entangled in the complex urban web of modernity in their striving for survival and ultimately success (which here stands for material acquisitions). For those authors the upward and downward spirals this entailed were already imminent in the machinery of the city (and the structures of modern capitalism that lay behind the image of the city).

Edith Wharton came from a different background, both personally and literary, and she had a different perspective. In Wharton's works, the world of the working poor is an invisible one. Although employees, servants, and maids were constantly present in and around the houses of the so called leisure class, they do not gain an independent voice, their struggle is being left untold. Nonetheless, the author is aware of the trappings of a materialistic society. "The fact that Mrs. Wharton's characters are trapped in gilded drawing-rooms, whereas Dreiser's are often imprisoned in the slum, is of minor significance in an over-all appraisal." (Rubin, cited in Kornetta 192) Her characters are often women, who, at that time, had very little rights concerning property, inheritance and personal freedom regardless of their personal wealth. Women born into middle or higher classes were dependent on the goodwill of friends and family for their survival and sustenance in the group; marriage to a reliable and reliably wealthy man often was their only chance for material security. This situation was naturally precarious as were the limited rights and little money 'the other half' had. "(...) she [Wharton] recognised that, when women gained worldly understanding, they had no power to change whatever they found amiss. Only painful disillusionment and resigned acceptance result from enlightenment (...)." (McDowell, cited in Kornetta 87) Wharton is interested in how the people she understood best, the families who inhabited society's highest valued spots, managed their situation. What effect had the modern city life on the best established class? How were the customs and modalities of these people affected by the tremendous developments around them? And how did (gendered) individuals react to the entrance wish of the newly rich into their inner circles? In other words, the way in which in- and exclusion from a certain group worked, how these were executed and what the potentiality of a change in status meant for the mind of the involved characters is Edith Wharton's central concern.

"The molding and determining forces of environment and heredity, the protagonist trapped and crushed by society, an indifferent, apparently amoral universe, and a host of specific details – such are the strains of naturalism which one finds deeply pervading The House of Mirth." (Rubin, cited in Kornetta 186). In contrast to the contemporate naturalistic authors, her ideas have no revolutionary intent, "Dies mag auch darauf zurückzuführen sein, daß Wharton, wie kein anderer Schriftsteller, in dieser Welt zuhause war und einen Teil davon bildete; (...) Wharton zweifelt das Recht und die Existenzberechtigung der müßigen Klasse niemals an, sie wendet sich höchstens gegen eine bestimmte Gruppe von unverantwortlichen Vergnügungssuchenden und gegen archaische Muster, welche in ihrer Zeit und Schicht immer noch vorherrschten und den Einzelnen in ihrer Bewegungsfreiheit beschnitten.“ (Kornetta 26) Nevertheless her works opened up a new field of discourse. Her descriptions of the world of the super-rich were based on first hand experience and thus held their own fascination for her readers. They broadened the view and understanding we have of the American city at that time. It also allowed Americans to take a closer look behind the gold-embroidered curtains of their wealthy role models. Thorstein Veblen's influential sociological work “The Theory of the Leisure Class” was first published in 1899 and thus offered another detailed description – although from a non-literary perspective - of the group of people that was perceived by the public and themselves as an American (pseudo-)aristocracy.

2. The American City in Novels

The city in the American novel is used as background as well as a defining factor. Its atmosphere, the social and economic relations it forms and furthers, leave a direct impression on its inhabitants’ minds. Many novelists, like Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos at the turn of the last century or Tom Wolfe and Paul Auster at the end of it, made the city a determining aspect in their novels and thereby almost a central character by itself. (See Housman-Gelfant) The specific aspects of an American city, in contrast to older European or non-Western cities, is its fluidity. (Housman-Gelfant) The immense transformational processes of industrialisation and immigration put their mark on US metropolises in a relatively short time. In the 19th century millions of immigrants entered American terrain for the first time in New York City's harbour. Each new citizen changed the city as much as the city changed him or her. Yet it was not only immigrants that led to the exponential growth of urban areas at the fin de siècle. More and more Americans left their rural or small town homes to answer the city's constant calling. An air of urgency is always present in the great American cities. This is one of their distinctive qualities, grounded on the constant flux of people and on the lack of a (n emotional) history that, for instance, European cities have. In order to counteract this feeling of constant change, upper class families established their own system of tradition and roots. Ancestry was considered important, the longer one’s family name could be traced back the higher one’s status was. Yet, this only applied to families that could also rely on their (inherited) wealth. In case this condition subsided, a descent in the hierarchy was almost inevitable. The change in status was not only marked by invitations that eventually ceased to be made, it was also evident in the kind of places one was expected or not expected to frequent.

Edith Wharton’s novels, that are set primarily in and around New York, are city novels. They present many problems of the social system yet they do not call for any reforms. The author describes the perils and frustrations that her characters face but she does not have an answer or solution for them. In that, she is not comparable to other writers, whose political conscience compelled them to use the city metaphorically to describe what uncontrolled capitalism, its social coldness, and urban anonymity does to the human soul. Wharton’s interest lies in the description of social customs of one specific group of people, namely the super rich, and how these are reflected in the city.


[1] As there are no official “classes” in the United States, we use this term to describe the distinct qualities of the environment Wharton grew up in and the special relation this set of people had to their city.

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Edith Wharton - "The House of Mirth" as a Portrait of the City
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
HS: Zwischen 'White City' und 'Slum Fiction' - Die Großstadt in der amerikanischen Literatur am Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts
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Edith, Wharton, House, Mirth, Portrait, City, Zwischen, City”, Fiction“, Großstadt, Literatur, Ende, Jahrhunderts
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Nicole Schindler (Author)Julia Oesterreich (Author), 2005, Edith Wharton - "The House of Mirth" as a Portrait of the City, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/69474


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