112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Misplaced Sympathies in The House of Mirth: The Dangers of Identifying with a Non-Entity

Gabriela Valenzuela, California State University, Los Angeles

 Emerging at a time when early 20th century middle-class readers codified reading for social mobility, The House of Mirth’s ending upset readers who identified with Lily Bart. However, Edith Wharton arguably deliberately created a sympathetic character to illustrate the dangers of leading a life centered on the pursuit of wealth.


            In Amy L. Blair’s “Misreading The House of Mirth,” she examines the trend of emerging pamphlets and manuals listing the works of literature that would best assist middle-class members “read up” in the early 20th century (149). Many readers identified with Lily Bart, the novel’s protagonist, and her own journey for social advancement; as such, her death at the end of the novel created quite an upset. On the surface, Edith Wharton creates sympathy for her tragic heroine by juxtaposing Lily’s futile pursuit of wealth with her refusal to relinquish her seemingly Romantic aspirations. However, as Jacques Lacan writes in “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in the Psychoanalytic Experience," it is language that equips the subject with the ability to describe itself and Lily Bart understands her position in the world through the observation of others. Utilizing Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel,” this paper aims to examine the way in which Lily is a character without agency and the ways in which her identity changes depending on the language of the character describing her. As such, one can argue that Edith Wharton created Lily Bart as an allegory, and thereby, The House of Mirth is not the story of a tragic heroine in pursuit of wealth. Instead, it is the tale of a doomed non-entity in an aimless pursuit to please those who surround her.

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