Consider Wharton’s treatment of the theme of conspicuous consumption in The House of Mirth.
Conspicuous consumption “is the spending of money for and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power”. Edith Wharton’s technique of representing conspicuous consumption is essential in conveying an overall pessimistic tone towards the hierarchy of New York’s elite social circle. Significantly, Wharton is able to depict her book as a social and historical account as she herself was raised in the environment that she depicts. Conspicuous consumption thus can be represented and portrayed accurately. As exemplified on Wikipedia, sociological explanations for conspicuous consumption are “a means either of attaining or of maintaining a given social status” . Wharton, with the use and portrayal of conspicuous consumption, successfully creates a realistic, negative account of this particular aspect, however perhaps furthermore creates a microcosm in which Lily and her experience represent America as a whole. It successfully exposes the limitations and corruption of the Gilded Age - a period denoted for “political corruption, financial speculation, and the opulent lives of wealthy industrialists and financiers” .
Conspicuous consumption is presented in several main aspects in The House Of Mirth. The theme of women and particularly their attitude to the institution of marriage is one way in which negative aspects of conspicuous consumption are portrayed. Marriage is presented as a business investment to secure the economic needs of women rather than ‘to love and to cherish’ as marriage vows would dictate. Beautiful Lily, the protagonist, has one main goal throughout the book in which she seeks an eligible husband who can financially secure her future. “The certainty that she could marry Percy Gryce when she pleased had lifted a heavy load from her mind . . .” . Wharton refers to her insecurity of her financial future, the prospect of marriage to Gryce is a deal “that fulfills her social and economic needs” . However, a conflict in this purely economic interest arises as Lily contemplates a marriage with financial security against marriage with a man who actually loves her. Married couples featured throughout the novel fit the patriarchal, economic based stereotype. Gus and Judy Trenor compared to Bertha and George Dorset are very similar in regards to the fact that their initial marriage was one not based on love, but economic insecurity. This is highlighted by the actions of Bertha who is persistently portrayed as a manipulative, corrupted character who is constantly unfaithful to her marriage by attracting the attention of other men. Her manipulative actions are highlighted when she uses Lily to distract George in order to have an affair with a young bachelor. Conspicuous consumption plays a key role in this failure of marriage as it creates a salvation panic in which women of bourgeois heritage are pressured to maintain their social status by only marrying men who conspicuously consume.
As the institution of marriage is distorted, genders roles are similarly altered. Patriarchy is extremely strong in the content of the book, yet is expected considering its patriarchal context. However, as a result of economic dependency, women are portrayed as guarding their husbands carefully. Regardless, in the case of Bertha Dorset, women are shown to not be faithful to marriage in which they so strongly protect. This highlights the theme of women’s economic dependency, however also the quest for love. This is exemplified by the fact that the affairs within the novel are often with younger, less wealthy men. Unlike the bourgeois husbands, these men do not focus all their attentions on economic aspects of life however prioritize affection that bourgeois women truly crave. This struggle between love and economic need is solely the product of conspicuous consumption as neither aspect can coexist in upper class...
Bibliography: * Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Dimock, Wai-Chee, PMLA, Vol. 100, No. 5 (Oct., 1985),
* The House Of Mirth, Wharton Edith Penguin Classics, Viking Penguin 1985
* Arizona Goes to the Fair: The Worlds Columbian Exposition of 1893, Hilpert Bruce, Arizona and the West, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Austumn 1983)
* Webster New World College Dictionary 4th Edition, Wiley and Sons
[ 6 ]. Dimock, Wai-Chee, Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, PMLA, Vol. 100, No. 5 (Oct., 1985), p.783
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[ 10 ]. Dimock, Wai-Chee, Debasing Exchange: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, PMLA, Vol. 100, No. 5 (Oct., 1985), p.784
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