Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Lady Castaways in the Gilded Age in Edith Wharton's the House of Mirth

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Lady Castaways in the Gilded Age in Edith Wharton's the House of Mirth

Article excerpt

In The House of Mirth, first published in 1905,1 Edith Wharton exploits the trope of the castaway to signal a shift from the antebellum era, when heroic individualism was vaunted, to the Gilded Age, when fashion defined and elevated women to a realm of status above the world of work and toil. The novel takes place during the prosperity of the 1880s and 1890s, when second-tier millionaires from railroads, banking, steel, clothing, meat-packing, banking, real estate, publishing, and law sought to climb the social ladder and create a society separate from the concerns and dictates of the working world. Wharton exploits the figural castaway as a bridge between the physical suffering of the castaway and the dazzling privilege of the wealthy. Hermione Lee writes that during this period: "Americans' fascination with the ostentation of the post-war big spenders was beginning to sour, and a campaign of criticism and attacks on 'the Trusts' for rapaciousness and exploitation began in the muck-raking journals."2

In 1894 a New York Times article entitled "The Unattached Females" expressed this criticism in its description of the "enormous hordes of unattached females living on interest and dividends" that block "the pavements in front of fashionable shops" when "it used to be an argument against frivolity and idleness that to them must be ascribed the hard lot of the Cinderellas and the Fantines - that mere fashion was essentially unproductive, except of castaways, victims high and low to the craze for enjoyment".3

This attack on young women shielded from the world of work and domestic duty by their trust funds characterizes women as no longer animated by feminine models of humility, poverty and work, as exemplified by fairy-tale characters like Cinderella or fictional ones like Fantine in Les Misérables, but rather by the frivolity of high fashion. The author exploits the image of the castaway as an icon of the self-made man who mastered the island through his hard-won knowledge and practical know-how to emphasize these young women's alienation from the founding labour and sacrifice that supports their privileges and wealth.4 The wealthy women of New York high society seem worlds apart from the figure of the lone shipwrecked being on a desert island, but the power of the castaway as a figure of sympathy and an ethos of self-reliance is used both to heighten this difference and to highlight the humanity of the individual's suffering and misfortune.

In Wharton's use of the lady castaways of the Gilded Age, women from high society do not meet with good fortune if they happen to fail in any way. Unlike their male counterparts, they do not fantasize about gaining from a felix culpa, a fortunate fall - the idea that "God allows evil to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom".5 Indeed, for men, such a fall may constitute a test of their innate skills and self-mastery. Instead, in The House of Mirth, Wharton uses the shipwreck and castaway figures as tropes to suggest the endpoint of aspects of two female characters, Gerty Farish and Lily Bart, and the emotional ruin and social abandonment they experience.

The world of The House of Mirth certainly presents no heroic characters. The terrain of this novel is concerned with the strategies and manoeuvres used to both protect and secure one's position in the social hierarchy, hence the real possibility of condemnation after simply a hint of a mistake. Lily is cast out of high society by rumours of sexual indiscretions, and is henceforth perceived as a fallen woman. As a result, the wreckage of Lily's reputation brings her isolation from the patriarchal realm of individual perseverance through trial and suffering.

For male castaways, the island serves as an armature for spiritual growth. As he faces a discrete set of obstacles, the male castaway develops his innate characteristics and builds new skills to rise in this microcosm. Lily, in contrast, cannot remake or reconstitute her self once she has been rejected by her peers. …

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