This fall I read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton on the recommendation of a former professor. It is a tale of a young woman in New York’s high society in the early 1900s and follows her social rise and ultimate demise. My professor suggested that I keep my eyes open for anthropology throughout the story. I was amazed by how many elements of anthropology I found on nearly every page; at how many of the social events and nuances I recognized from anthropology lectures. I began to wonder whether Wharton was a student of anthropology or such an astute observer of people and society that she was able to capture these subtle elements.
Of huge importance in the novel was conforming to social norms. Lilly (the heroine/victim) of the novel was adopted and loved by her elite peers and warmly accepted into their exclusive group. She was touted as being the most beautiful among all of New York’s young women, and the desirable of many suitable bachelors, and the holder of great social intelligence. Her access to this group give Lilly the world, she is welcome to parties, pleasant summer stays in country homes, European vacations, and introduced to only the best in New York’s society. Unfortunately for Lilly, she does not behave quite as they would like a young woman like her to, and she begins to have a falling out, and is the victim of mistrust and suspicions. Eventually the problem becomes so great, particularly with a female rival, that she is completely ostracized from the group. It is not that as individuals they all dislike her, but she represents such instability to the group that the group must get rid of her to preserve itself.
Further, there was a near constant description of the characters, either through thoughts, words, or actions, considering their status among their peers and how to preserve or elevate their current social status. There is a near constant game of weighing one’s own attributes against a rival’s. For example Wharton writes “It was not that Miss Bart was afraid of losing her newly acquired hold over Mr. Gryce. Mrs. Dorset might startle or dazzle him, but she had neither the skill nor patience to effect his capture.” Lily was taking an objective look at the threat any given rival posed and was quick to discover any points of weakness she could use to her advantage. These and other examples of intrasexual competition abound throughout the novel, especially in the context of high society where status is everything.
What is of further interest is that architecture is the backdrop for all of these events. The wealthiest country estates, most dignified sitting rooms, the most elaborate and elegant ballrooms, and most exclusive restaurants are where the events take place. In the beginning the reader is introduced to the manor at Bellomont where
“The hall was arcaded, with a gallery supported on columns of pale yellow marble…and the light from the great central lantern overhead shed a brightness on the women’s hair and struck sparks from their jewels and they moved.”
The architecture and social occupants of the manor worked as one to advertise the wealth, social grace and status of the occupants. Later in the novel Lilly recalls her ambition to have
“an apartment which should surpass the complicated luxury of her friends’ surroundings by the whole extent of that artistic sensibility which made her feel herself their superior, in which every tint and line should combine to enhance her beauty and give distinction to her leisure.”
This reinforces the perhaps obvious but interesting notion that those with a higher social status should dwell in a place that reflects their status. It would be a strange sight to see a distinguished author, architect, politician or captain of industry living in tenement housing. Architecture and social standing are once again linked after Lilly has been ostracized from her group and left to fend for herself. She has taken residence in a boarding house and
“she dreaded to return to her narrow room, with its blotched wall-paper and shabby paint, and she hated every step of the walk thither through the degradation of a New York street in the last stages of decline from fashion to commerce.”
In this instance, architecture and urbanism create a parallel tale to Lilly’s own social decline. As she falls from the grace of high society and good fashion into a world where she must manage her own scant commerce, the architecture reflects her position.
Throughout the novel it became more apparent that architecture served as a backdrop for social activities, and became intertwined with anthropological events. Architecture was tied to social class and people and their behavior was linked to their dwellings.
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- Museum Of The City Of New York Releases List Of 400 Top New Yorkers In History (huffingtonpost.com)
- Footsteps | Fall In Europe: Edith Wharton Always Had Paris (travel.nytimes.com)
- A radical definition of Open Education (downes.ca)