Between Wall Street and Fifth Avenue: class and status in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.
As Simon Rosedale makes his laborious but steady ascent into high society in Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth, we get, for a moment, a brief but revealing emphasis on the existence of two overlapping but nevertheless distinct worlds. "Already his wealth, and the masterly use he had made of it," writes Wharton, "were giving [Rosedale] an enviable prominence in the world of affairs, and placing Wall Street under obligations which only Fifth Avenue could repay" (1994, 228). The first of these worlds, Wall Street, is the source of Rosedale's wealth. But Rosedale, as we know, wants more than wealth. His goal is to penetrate the second of these worlds, Fifth Avenue, and wealth is only one coin of admission into that realm. In fact, as Rosedale's struggles reveal, coins alone, no matter how many, will not fully satisfy that second realm's gatekeepers. Despite the passage's emphasis on the convertibility of Wall Street "obligations" and Fifth Avenue "repay[ments]," it is clear that two systems of coinage exist. (1) Rosedale does everything in his power to take up residence in high society--to convert his wealth into a social coinage acceptable to that group. This includes buying the hastily vacated Fifth Avenue mansion of one of the victims of a Wall Street crash that serves as economic background to the events in the novel. But physical residence--secured through monetary means--is also inadequate. Even as he buys the home and its impressive art collection, he realizes that getting into high society will have to be an inside job. He fixes, therefore, on marrying Lily Bart because the best way to enter high society, apparently, is to be either a part of it already or married to someone who is.
Lily's own relationship with high society further illustrates its relative autonomy from the money economy. Lily belongs to high society despite her relative lack of wealth. As with Rosedale's banishment from high society, we cannot understand Lily's position within high society solely in economic terms. On the contrary, the economics of her situation suggest that she should not be a member of high society at all, and her opportunistic strategies throughout the novel are calculated to maintain her position despite her economic limitations. In short, her position within high society, precarious as it is, can only be explained by something other than money. Many other characters--and not just women--exemplify this principle, including Lawrence Selden and Ned Silverton, who have access to high society despite a relative lack of economic clout.
This distinction between Wall Street and Lifth Avenue--between the crude world of money and the more occult world of high society--suggests that two partially separate realms exist in Wharton's world. While Wall Street is rooted in money, Lifth Avenue has more complicated terms of exchange. Previous criticism on The House of Mirth has consistently overlooked this distinction, with the result that most major critics regard the economic world in The House of Mirth as a determining force for the social. "As a controlling logic, a mode of human conduct and human association, the marketplace is everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous and invisible," writes Wai Chee Dimock (1994, 375). She describes the marketplace as an inescapable, "totalizing system" (376). Walter Benn Michaels agrees. "Lily's impulses embody her desire to escape the market, and the story told by The House of Mirth is the story of her inability to do so," he writes (1987, 226-27).
Entertaining the idea of two distinct and contesting social systems, however, allows us to understand how Rosedale is able to "plac[e] Wall Street under obligations which only Lifth Avenue could repay." If the marketplace were indeed a "totalizing system," there would be no conflict between Wall Street and Lifth Avenue. Indeed, Lifth Avenue, in the sense intended in this passage, would not exist. Moreover, Marxist methods (2) employed by major critics of the novel miss the complexities of Rosedale's motivations, his desire to acquire or achieve something other than wealth; if the marketplace is indeed a "totalizing system," then Rosedale should have everything he needs or wants. Similarly, a preoccupation with the market fails to explain the fluctuations in Lily's social position. While her social disgrace after the Monte Carlo affair has financial repercussions (she loses the inheritance from Mrs. Peniston), these repercussions are hardly the only effects of the incident. She also suffers profound and equally costly social humiliation. Finally, previous criticism on the book has neglected one of the central tensions of the novel: the conflicts among those with money but little status (e.g., Rosedale), those with status but little money (e.g., Lily and Selden), and those with both money and status (e.g., Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorset).
This essay suggests that a different theory of social stratification is potentially more helpful for understanding the complexities of Wharton's The House of Mirth than the Marxian methods previously employed. While critics of Wharton's novel have historically overlooked the theories of Max Weber, his distinction between class and status is useful for understanding the uneasy relationship between Wall Street and Fifth Avenue. (3) As with all social hierarchies, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability, class and status are linked. Nevertheless, exploring the partial autonomy of these things has several important payoffs: it affords a more nuanced understanding of Wharton's novel, and it helps correct some of the errors in previous scholarship on the book.
This essay responds principally to the Marxian criticism that has been superseded lately by cultural studies work. One of the most notable features of the recent Wharton scholarship has been its integration of the study of class and race. While this new work is undeniably valuable, it has largely accepted the premises of the preceding Marxist scholarship. It accepts that the market or economy governs characters' behavior. (4) It regards the socioeconomic hierarchy as a linear ladder rather than a system with competing hierarchies of class and status. (5) And, while it acknowledges the elasticity and social construction of race, it treats class as fixed and known, ignoring the recent scholarship on the social construction of class. (6) In moving from class to race the recent scholarship has forfeited the opportunity to complicate our understanding of class in its own right. I have chosen to focus principally on the Marxian criticism, therefore, because it explores class in a more systematic, thorough way and because most of the central insights regarding class in Wharton's The House of Mirth reside there.
My central contention is that Max Weber's theories about the distinction between status and class offer important and valuable insights among other Marxian and post-Marxist tools for a more robust theorization of the complex relations between the economic and the cultural. While this essay focuses on the neglect of Weber's theories in economic criticism on The House of Mirth, the scholarship on Wharton's novel is indicative of a widespread omission within literary studies. As opposed to the discipline of sociology, where Weber's theories have been addressed and integrated much more fully (integrated both with the discipline and with Marxist ideas), Weber's ideas remain marginal in literary studies. This essay uses Weber's theories to challenge the notion, pervasive within both Marxist-oriented and other criticism on The House of Mirth, that economic forces are deterministic for the cultural sphere, and the essay explores the implications of thinking through the relationship between the economic and the cultural with an eye toward the distinction between class and status.
Weber argues that societies are stratified in three ways and these different spheres of stratification influence the distribution of social power. These spheres are class, status, and party. The relationship between the first two will be the focus of this essay.
Weber's understanding of class is similar to Karl Marx's. Class is a combination of property, wealth, income, possessions, and economic opportunity. Class, in other words, represents the economic stratification of a society. (7) Status, on the other hand, is social honor and prestige. The two spheres overlap, but they are not identical. Wealth may be a qualification for status, but not always; a privileged class position does not necessarily confer privileged status and may in fact inhibit status acquisition. (8) As Carry Fisher in The House of Mirth explains, "It's all very well to say that everybody with money can get into society; but it would be truer to say that nearly everybody can" (Wharton 1994,183; emphasis in original).
In a stable social order, according to Weber, wealth generally accompanies high status because those with high status are able to secure certain economic privileges (or, over the course of generations, those with stable economic privilege eventually acquire privileged status). So class and status are often interlinked. In addition, status is expressed principally through lifestyle, fashion, and habits of consumption. Participation in the behaviors of one's status group typically requires a common economic footing with other members of the group, so membership in a status group often depends on an economic foundation. On the other hand, there are ways in which class and status conflict. Characteristically status groups vigorously oppose pretensions of status on purely economic grounds. If anyone who acquired wealth could attain privileged status, Weber suggests, "the status order would be threatened at its very root" (1946,192). In other words, the status order would be seen as equivalent to the class hierarchy, and this is antithetical to the way the two systems operate in practice. Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth is a victim of this conflict between class and status. Lily's social circle holds him at arm's length despite his wealth and precisely because his wealth gives him unsanctioned pretensions of high status.
There is of course another reason why Rosedale is held at arm's length: he is Jewish. There are two final elements of status that are noteworthy. One is that status distinctions, according to Weber, overlap ethnic or racial distinctions. Like status groups, ethnic and racial groups are frequently united by common habits and rituals. The most extreme expression of a status hierarchy is a caste system; according to Weber this is a rigid status hierarchy rooted in ethnic or racial distinctions. (One of the advantages of Weber's theoretical model is that it accommodates racial divisions and their relation to social and economic stratification in a way that Marx's theories do not. (9)) The universal repugnance toward Rosedale is a manifestation of status distinctions on the level of ethnicity, or perhaps ethnic distinctions on the level of status. The second feature of status is often related to ethnic and caste systems. Status typically determines or limits a person's marital choices and opportunities just as ethnic, racial, and caste positions do. This is clearly how status functions in The House of Mirth. Jack Stepney, who originally introduced Rosedale to the high society in which Lily travels, exclaims when he hears the rumor that Lily is contemplating a marriage with Rosedale, "Oh, confound it, you know, we don't marry Rosedale in our family" (Wharton 1994, 159; emphasis in original). Stepney is willing to countenance Rosedale's marginal presence among his social circle, but he draws the line at full and permanent membership signified by marriage.
Before returning to the subject of marriage in The House of Mirth, it is worth pausing to note that there are historical reasons for thinking that Wharton may have been interested in the relationship between class and status. Not only did these matters interest Weber, who was writing at the time, but also they preoccupied one of the premier American social critics of Wharton's day, a writer with whom Wharton may have been more familiar. Thorstein Veblen, in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, sought to understand social honor and prestige and its relationship to economic matters. He began by noting that economic writers tend to ignore this distinction; they overlook the fact, for example, that some occupations are regarded as worthy or honorable, while others are not, and this can have a dramatic impact on a person's life choices and behaviors. Indeed, for the leisure class, which occupies a "regime of status" (Veblen 2007, 35) and prioritizes leisure above all else, the idea of laboring in any occupation (especially forms of manual labor) is inherently dishonorable. The imperatives of status may be so powerful as to override monetary considerations. A person habituated to high status but without the money to maintain a life of leisure ("the decayed gentleman and the lady who has seen better days") might nevertheless refuse to work and thus live a "precarious life of want and discomfort" (32). (10) People also frequently overspend in order to prevent "disesteem and ostracism" (76); thus, "the standard of expenditure which commonly guides our efforts ... is an ideal of consumption that lies just beyond our reach" (71). Wealth, in other words, is not by itself a motivating factor for many people. Rather, it is the "race for reputability" that determines a great deal of social behavior (26), including the ways we dispose of wealth and the effort we put toward acquiring it (22, 76). Like Weber, Veblen questions the idea that the economy (money, or the market) is fundamental or of greatest significance--at least once people surmount subsistence living. Like Weber, he argues that status (or "honour") is distinct from class but the two systems overlap. Indeed, in several passages such as the following he suggests that class distinctions arise out of status distinctions: "The concept of dignity, worth, or honour, as applied either to persons or conduct, is of first-rate consequence in the development of classes and of class distinctions" (15-16). (11)
More recently, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who is clearly influenced by Weber's distinction between class and status, adds an important historical element to Weber's argument. While Weber asserts that class and status hierarchies overlap, Bourdieu suggests that the autonomy of the two social hierarchies varies according to historical and national context. In France, for example, the status arena of art and literature was most autonomous from the class hierarchy in the second half of the nineteenth century during the rise of modernism, according to Bourdieu (1993, 145-75). When the class and status hierarchies are relatively autonomous, the status hierarchy is able to assert its fundamental principles (such as economic disinterest, repudiation of the profit motive, etc.) most forcefully and resist the principles of the class hierarchy (e.g., the value placed on money, money as a sign of success) most fully. Although Bourdieu limits his arguments about the relative autonomy of class and status in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to France, it seems equally likely that the class and status hierarchies were growing increasingly autonomous in the United States at the same time. This may have occurred for a number of reasons, particularly rapid change and disorder in the economic realm. (12)
Returning to the subject of marriage in Wharton's novel, the central plot tension in The House of Mirth involves Lily's choices between men with money but no romantic appeal--figures such as Percy Gryce and Rosedale--and the man who appeals to Lily the most--Lawrence Selden--a man with high social prestige but insufficient wealth. As Wharton explains, Lily "admired him most of all ... for being able to convey as distinct a sense of superiority as the richest man she had ever met" (1994, 79). Selden's "superiority" rests on terms other than wealth but as powerful. We might think of Lily's dilemma not as a conflict between marriage for love or money but as a conflict between marriage for class or status.
Early in the book we learn that Lily would ideally prefer to marry a European aristocrat. Aristocratic title is the most conventional codification of status; it is a system that confers social prestige and power apart from economic foundations even if it is typically linked with economic privilege. Lily's desire for a European, titled husband is consistent with her general desire for status as much as (if not more than) wealth. In fact, she sees marriage to a European noble as an alternative to marriage strictly for money. "She was secretly ashamed of her mother's crude passion for money," Wharton writes. "Lily's preference would have been for an English nobleman with political ambitions and vast estates; or, for second choice, an Italian prince with a castle in the Apennines and an hereditary office in the Vatican" (1994, 53). Notably, Wharton does not say Lily would sacrifice money for status; rather, we are told "she would not indeed have cared to marry a man who was merely rich" (53; emphasis added). As a product of a particular family background and a particular American environment, Lily cannot simply dismiss the value of money, but her instincts gravitate more strongly toward status. Lily finds in Selden not someone who represents a stark alternative to a rich husband from high society, but rather the thing she inwardly craves most--status--even while her upbringing and culture demand greater attention to material wealth, or class. To express this more emphatically, the appeal of Selden is rooted in Lily's secret desire to elevate status above class, and their relationship ultimately fails because of the impossibility of this inversion given Lily's personal background and the formative power of her American environment.
What I mean by the last point about the American environment is that part of the problem the book is exploring--part of Lily's dilemma--resides in her desire for status in a world that does not accommodate traditional or recognized status symbols, that is, aristocratic titles. (13) In a world without inherited titles, status is more dependent on wealth. Selden's appeal, says Wharton, resides in a "cultivation" that "would have had its distinction in an older society," meaning a European aristocratic society (1994, 79). Selden, in other words, is a natural aristocrat. (14) While critics often take Selden to task for his detachment and reserve, the book treats these things as signs of his breeding, cultivation, tact, and refinement. They are all signs of his natural aristocracy and inherent status, and they are, ultimately, things the book admires as much as Lily does. 15) Lily is a natural aristocrat, too. This explains why European aristocrats in Monte Carlo and France are so charmed by Lily and prefer her company over that of the other Americans. Rosedale senses these qualities in Lily. Indeed, what appeals most to Rosedale is that quality in Lily that supersedes class: "Some women look buried under their jewelry. What I want is a woman who'll hold her head higher the more diamonds I put on it," he says (175). Rosedale desires a wife capable of transcending the realm of monetary exchange--a woman whose head rises higher the more he heaps wealth upon it--and he fears the possibility of killing that quality by his wealth--of his wife being "buried" by his jewelry. As the similar floral imagery of their names suggests, Rosedale and Lily have much in common, including a governing desire for elevated (and elevating) status in their marriage partners. In trying to describe that inherent quality that might displace "diamonds," Rosedale emphasizes Lily's natural aristocracy in his reaction to her tableau vivant-. "when I looked at you the other night at the Brys', in that plain white dress, looking as if you had a crown on, I said to myself: 'By gad, if she had one she'd wear it as if it grew on her'" (175; emphasis added).
Dimock argues that the only attempted critique of the marketplace the novel offers is "a quintessentially aristocratic ideal" (1994, 388). According to Dimock, however, this aristocratic ideal "does not exist, will not exist, and indeed has never existed, either in [Wharton's] experience or in Lily's. The ideal is declared impossible even as it is invoked" (388-89). This is true only if we view the novel as an exploration of the inescapability of the market and ignore axes of social power other than purely economic ones. That is, it is only true if we ignore the world of Fifth Avenue and its partial autonomy from Wall Street. The aristocratic sensibility that Dimock notes in the book might be better understood as a manifestation of status discourse. What appeals to Lily in Selden are manifestations of status without equivalent class privilege--essentially the aristocratic characteristics that Dimock recognizes coupled with an underlying racial dynamic that is perhaps peculiarly American. By that I mean the possibility of Selden's "distinction in an older society" is further emphasized by an ambiguous racial quality, "the air of belonging to a more specialized race" (Wharton 1994, 79). (16) Notably, race is not evoked here in any specific sense. Selden is no more "white" or Euro-American than other men in the book (the passage in fact describes his features as "dark"), and it is unclear after all what a "more specialized race" is or how it relates to the concrete racial hierarchies that circulated in Wharton's day. Race is used as a marker here for the possibility that status might be innate or transmitted through biological inheritance--as in fact status is for a character like Rosedale but only ambiguously for a character like Selden. Here we see Wharton's conservative social politics, what Dimock rightly calls an aristocratic sensibility, merging with a racial politics that the book expresses most fully in its treatment of Rosedale.
While the language of race in the passage above and elsewhere in the book might tempt us to read Lily's and Selden's distinction in racial terms, the effort proves as unsatisfying as interpretations focusing strictly on class. Jennie Kassanoff, for example, has recently attempted to shift the conversation over Wharton's novel from class to race, but the results are in many ways as limiting as the earlier Marxist analyses. Kassanoff opens her discussion of race in The House of Mirth with reference to a passage in which Lily and Gerty Farish discuss Lily's banishment from high society. Her problems, Lily says, began "in the way I was brought up, and the things I was taught to care for. Or no--I won't blame anybody for my faults: I'll say it was in my blood, that I got it from some wicked pleasure-loving ancestress, who reacted against the homely virtues of New Amsterdam, and wanted to be back at the court of the Charleses" (Wharton 1994, 216). Kassanoff argues that this passage is indicative of Lily's "ancestral memory" and reveals "not only her deep racial consciousness but also, more importantly, her embodiment of race itself" (2004, 37). Yet the passage is only tangentially about race. Lily is addressing the transmission of aristocratic attitudes. Lily attributes her own character flaws to an ancestress who prefers the aristocratic court of the King Charleses to a New World lacking an aristocracy, suggesting that Lily herself is nostalgic for Old World aristocratic culture. What Lily comes to embody in the passage is not race itself but aristocracy itself. Equally important, Kassanoff ignores the gentle satire of the passage. Lily and Wharton are mocking the reductive idea that Lily's flaws are easily attributable to a specific source (ancestral or otherwise) as well as Gerty's naive assumption that assigning blame accurately will alter Lily's predicament. If heredity operates in such a haphazard way--bypassing generations and overriding upbringing to shape unpredictably the destinies of unlucky descendants---then race is hardly a stable concept. In fact, the racial logic of The House of Mirth is not coherent enough to justify Kassanoff's racialist reading, and even Kassanoff seems to recognize this: the concept of race at the time Wharton is writing had an "expansive and curiously elastic range. This most disputed term could refer to anything from national origin, religious affiliation and aesthetic predilection, to geographic location, class membership and ancestral descent," Kassanoff explains. "Wharton drew freely on these protean possibilities" (4). Elsewhere Kassanoff notes that "Wharton strategically exploited the meaning [of race] that best suited the situation at hand" (42). Which is to say that race can explain everything and nothing in Wharton's novel; everything is potentially connected to race, but race, at least in the way Wharton uses it, is too fluid to determine anything. (17) It is far simpler and more plausible to view Lily's problems and Wharton's discourse on heredity in relation to the book's discourse on status. That is to say, Wharton suggests Lily is a natural aristocrat but defies us to identify the source of that identity. (18)
In addition to explaining Lily's preference for Selden over other suitors, the tensions between status and class in The House of Mirth also help to explain an element of the text that Dimock and other Marxian critics have understandably emphasized: the theme of spectatorship. Amy Kaplan, for example, argues that spectatorship is essential to the maintenance of class divisions in The House of Mirth. "To legitimate their privilege, the upper class cannot afford to seclude itself in a private sphere, but depends on displaying itself before the gaping mob," she writes (1988, 90). "The combination of conspicuousness and elusiveness empowers the elites as the center of desire by simultaneously attracting the notice of the audience beneath them and keeping that audience at bay" (91). Kaplan goes further in suggesting that upper-class identity depends on spectatorship. "Throughout the novel, the gaping mob both defines and threatens the upper class, which depends on the mob's admiration and its exclusion. Lily similarly depends on the mirror of the gaping mob to maintain her identity. When she loses this mirror, she loses a self" (102).
But why would the rich depend on the spectatorship of the poor? Certainly the rich are able to reap the material benefits of their wealth without spectatorship. You don't need an audience to enjoy an expensive meal or a trip to Monte Carlo. And certainly the social power enabled by wealth can be exercised without an audience. Indeed, the rich, particularly in democratic nations, have historically tried to conceal their exercise of social and political power. Nor do the rich depend on spectatorship "to legitimate their privilege"; the fact of their wealth is characteristically enough justification. And upper-class privilege can hardly be said to depend on the desire of the poor to belong to the upper class; wealth brings power and privilege regardless of the desires of the poor. Kaplan never adequately explains why the rich depend on publicity and spectatorship or why class divisions might be linked with spectatorship. (19)
A better explanation is that status rather than class depends on a careful "combination of conspicuousness and elusiveness." Class can be private; it is linked to wealth, income, and economic opportunity, none of which needs to be publicly displayed. (20) Status, on the other hand, is inherently public and exhibitionist, particularly in a world without inherited status terms such as titles of nobility. Prestige and honor depend fundamentally on social recognition, and status is performed through public behaviors, rituals, styles of life, and consumption.
Yet there is a peculiar tension in the relationship between status and publicity. As Weber explains, "status honor ... always rests upon distance and exclusiveness" (1946, 191). That is unquestionably true in The House of Mirth, where the elite occupy an exclusive realm and police their borders rigorously against intruders. Thus, the highest achievement is a careful balance of publicity and privacy, showmanship and exclusivity. Selden is a master at this. Lily thinks of Selden that "she had never mistaken his inconspicuousness for obscurity," and much of his appeal rests on his simultaneous aloofness and immersion in the high society he claims to disapprove of (Wharton 1994, 78-79). He is the only character who seems to recognize the imbalance "of a world where conspicuousness passed for distinction, and the society column had become the roll of fame" (207). (21) This sense of distance is precisely what Rosedale finds attractive in Lily as well. "It was her exquisite inaccessibleness, the sense of distance she could convey without a hint of disdain, that made it most difficult for him to give her up," writes Wharton (241). This ideal also finds expression in the architectural structure of the novel's most admired homes. As Ned Van Alstyne explains to Selden, the best house should "attract attention" but be "something that the crowd will pass and the few pause before" (160). Perhaps it should come as no surprise that houses are symbolic of the balance between privacy and publicity. Visible from the street and public thoroughfare, a home is nevertheless the sanctum of privacy throughout most of Europe and the United States. Historically houses are, moreover, symbolic of aristocratic lineage and therefore status; the word house can refer either to a physical structure or an aristocratic family line.
While publicity is necessary, unwelcome publicity is damaging. Lily is not as successful as Selden in walking this fine line between conspicuousness and elusiveness. Undoubtedly her gender makes this feat more challenging; women walk a razor's edge in this period, when femininity is associated with the private domestic sphere, when deliberately soliciting attention in public marks one as a prostitute, and when women must nevertheless put themselves on display (as in debutante balls) without appearing to want to attract attention in order to win husbands and acquire financial security. In a remark that seems in many ways antithetical to the main tone of the novel, Grace Stepney says, "It's a pity Lily makes herself so conspicuous" (Wharton 1994, 130). (22) Jack Stepney observes that her tableau vivant scene was too revealing: "Town Talk was full of her this morning," he complains (158). Lily's costume in the tableau literalizes her transgression according to Ned: unlike the ornate but concealing Victorian attire, Lily's dress allows the audience to see her body directly. "All these fal-bals they wear cover up their figures when they've got 'em. I never knew till tonight what an outline Lily has," says Ned Van Alstyne admiringly. Gus Trenor is more critical. "Damned bad taste, I call it," he says (142). Lily treads a fine line; while she exposes herself publicly in the tableaux vivants, it is to a restricted audience of the social elite, and so in a sense she is both violating and maintaining the necessary sense of exclusion. This explains in part why reactions to Lily's performance are so divided. Lily's difficulties in this balancing act pervade the novel. The scene in the beginning of the book, when Lily fails to keep her visit to Selden's apartment private, foreshadows much of the novel's tension in this regard.
Existing Marxist criticism consistently and narrowly links the novel's theme of spectatorship to economic forces. Dimock argues that spectatorship in the novel is governed by the market principles of capitalism. Selden is a spectator, she claims, because he is essentially a capitalist without capital to invest. He watches and admires Lily and would like to acquire her as an "asset" in his "portfolio" just "as every investor would [like to acquire] an eminently collectible item" (1994, 380). According to Dimock, Selden is restricted by his financial means and by his fear that Lily will prove to be a bad investment. "He remains, to the end, a closet speculator," she concludes (382). That is certainly a plausible argument; it is consistent with Dimock's assumption that the marketplace is a totalizing system from which none of the characters, including Selden, can escape. An equally plausible explanation, however, is that Selden guards his status carefully. Lily is a risky status connection, a person whose reputation waxes and wanes throughout the novel. Selden abandons her at the end of Book I when her status is at its lowest--when rumors are flying about her possible affair with Gus Trenor. Later he finds it repugnant when Lily stoops to associate with people of questionable status. "The revelation of [Lily's] suddenly-established intimacy [with the Gormers] effectually chilled his desire to see her," Wharton explains (1994, 255). The knowledge of Lily's relationship with Norma Hatch positively appalls him. "His apprehension passed into an incredulous stare, and this into [a] gesture of disgust" when he learns about the association (256). His disgust is so strong that he temporarily abandons his plan to help Lily even after promising Gerty that he would. When he does finally visit Lily, it is only to insist, rather presumptuously, that Lily leave Mrs. Hatch.
For her part, Lily's treatment of Selden is equally guided by status considerations. She buys Bertha Dorset's letters from Mrs. Haffen not because she intends to profit from them or use them to avenge herself against Bertha but because she wants to protect Selden's reputation. "Bertha Dorset's letters were nothing to her--they might go where the current of chance carried them! But Selden was inextricably involved in their fate.... The fact that the correspondence had been allowed to fall into strange hands would convict Selden of negligence in a matter where the world holds it least pardonable" (Wharton 1994, 113-14). Despite the occasional language of morality, which seems out of place in a novel so thoroughly governed by status and market considerations, Lily's motivations are fundamentally about status preservation. In the end, the novel applauds her values, killing her before she can do the thing that will forever mar her status ambitions and conclusively elevate class above status: that is, marry Rosedale.
Marxian criticism on the novel encourages us to view objects and people in this book as commodities with actual or potential monetary value. This assumption leads relentlessly to a kind of despair. Michaels, for example, argues that things removed from the marketplace merely increase in value in the marketplace. Thus, "each gesture of 'resistance' to the market serves to augment one's value in the market" (1987, 228); escape from or resistance to the market is ultimately futile. According to this reading, Lily's withdrawal of Bertha's letters from the system of exchange merely serves to increase their value to Bertha or other characters who might wish to purchase them. For Michaels, every action is governed by market considerations, whether characters realize it or not. While Michaels does not address the letters per se in this context, he does pursue this logic with regard to Lily herself. All of Lily's suitors, including Rosedale, Gryce, and Selden, are collectors who value Lily because of her rarity and "exquisite inaccessibleness" (Wharton 1994, 240). Gryce, as we know, collects Americana. There are many instances of Rosedale's proclivities toward collecting, including this one: "It was perhaps [Lily's] very manner of holding herself aloof that appealed to his collector's passion for the rare and unattainable" (121). Selden denies he's a collector because his means are too limited--"I'm not really a collector, you see; I simply like to have good editions of the books I am fond of" (32)--but Michaels demonstrates convincingly that Selden is indeed as much a collector as the other two. One piece of evidence is that Selden finds Lily appealing for the same reasons as Rosedale: her inaccessibility. In dying at the end of the novel--that is, in removing herself from circulation--"Lily finally makes herself so rare, so valuable, that even a collector so refined as Selden wants her," explains Michaels (1987, 228).
Michaels is certainly right that collection removes rare or valuable items from circulation. Thus commodities temporarily lose their exchange value by a deliberate seclusion from the marketplace. The motivation may be to capitalize on this sequestration at some later date; collecting may be a form of investment or speculation. But there are other possible motivations. Michaels' logic depends too heavily on the assumption that collectibles gain value in the market by their removal from it. This is only relevant if we think of the act of collecting as involving a desire ultimately to return the object to the market. Not all collectors wish to return their collectibles to circulation.
There are other terms of value than strictly monetary ones associated with collecting. One motivation for collecting is to establish oneself as a member of a community that collects particular things, thus solidifying membership in a status group. (23) This may partly account for Rosedale's motivation in collecting Lily; collection of her is his ticket into her social circle. Another motivation is allegiance to values other than economic ones. (24) Thus, an art collector may retain a valuable painting because it brings pleasure as art. If the art collector were not wealthy--let's say she inherited the painting or bought it fortuitously at a garage sale--her decision could represent a genuine form of resistance to, or disinterest in, the market. This may not exactly be Rosedale's motivation in collecting. He may, instead, wish to acquire collectibles in order to signify his partial transcendence of the market, that is, the fact that he is so wealthy he does not need to cash in valuable objects. Unlike the art collector, this would be a form of resistance to the market that depends on a privileged position within the market, and it is at best a compromised form of resistance.
Nevertheless, Rosedale and the art collector have something in common that Michaels ignores: neither intends to return collectibles to the marketplace. Lily is not an object any suitor wants to acquire in order to sell, just as the fact that the Fifth Avenue art collection that Rosedale buys signifies its original owner's failure in the world of status.
There was talk of his buying the newly-finished house of one of the victims of the crash, who, in the space of twelve short months, had made the same number of millions, built a house in Fifth Avenue, filled a picture-gallery with old masters, entertained all of New York in it, and been smuggled out of the country between a trained nurse and a doctor, while his creditors mounted guard over the old masters, and his guests explained to each other that they had dined with him only because they wanted to see the pictures. (Wharton 1994, 127)
The fact that the previous owner had to be "smuggled" out of the country and that his former guests deny any genuine friendship with him signifies his fatal loss of reputation and status. Similarly, to return a female commodity to the market means risking censure in Wharton's high society. This helps explain the disrepute surrounding divorce in the novel, as well as Carry Fisher's liminal status and her connection with "promiscuity." (25) As Mrs. Trenor explains, people "disapprove of Carry Fisher" because she has divorced twice. Although we do not learn the circumstances of the first divorce, the second occurred, according to Mrs. Trenor, because of Carry's mercenary inclinations: "It WAS foolish of her to get that second divorce--Carry always overdoes things--but she said the only way to get a penny out of Fisher was to divorce him and make him pay alimony" (58). A similar phenomenon is apparent in Wharton's 1913 The Custom of the Country, where Undine Spragg's serial divorces are depicted as a form of social climbing, a way of bringing Wall Street business culture (i.e., temporary alliances for monetary gain) to Fifth Avenue, eroding a culture rooted in durable family ties signifying lineage and breeding. In both The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country treating valuable objects or persons or marriage in purely market terms places market values in opposition to status values.
While Lily may be described at times as an investment or a commodity, at other times she transcends the market as a desirable object. In this sense, collections represent the ideal relation between class and status in the worldview of the privileged. They are a form of social distinction rooted in wealth (you need money to buy valuable collectibles) but outside the realm of exchange and labor (a collector does not have to produce or exchange the collectibles). As we see in Rosedale's gallery of "old masters," collections are also linked to and proof of aesthetic cultivation and refinement. Lily's beauty makes her a sign of Rosedale's (or any man's) cultivation just as surely as the art objects do. Rosedale's art collection additionally suggests how collected commodities become associated with the "aloofness," restriction, and exclusivity of high status life. Despite Wharton's claim that "all of New York" was entertained in the mansion, the picture gallery was clearly not open to public exhibition. A visitor had to be invited, and this invitation was simultaneously a certificate of membership in the privileged status group for guests and a membership application for the host. Collected commodities maintain the same tension between exclusion and conspicuousness that high status people strive for; that is, they are accessible only to insiders but retain the notoriety of the larger public. In other words, objects in a private collection are like people in a society column, known but inaccessible. Figuring Lily as a potentially collectible object is not exactly or necessarily the same as figuring her as an ordinary commodity with market value. (26) It may, despite Michaels' claim, represent a form of resistance to the market, whether compromised or not. In this case, representing Lily as a collectible object is a form of resistance uniquely characteristic of status culture.
It is a form of resistance that Wharton explores further in The Custom of the Country, where the opposition between Wall Street and Fifth Avenue is an equally recurrent trope (27) and where the clash between status culture (represented by the French aristocrat Raymond de Chelles) and class culture (represented by the American Midwestern social climber Undine Spragg) is also integral to the novel's plot. The de Chelles family tapestries are key symbols of that conflict. Gifts from Louis XV, the tapestries are cherished family heirlooms exhibited only to private guests. Raymond fiercely resists selling them despite Undine's demand that he do so to finance her lavish lifestyle. Raymond's refusal to sell his family's collection signifies his aristocratic resistance to the demands of the marketplace, and the tapestries themselves exemplify all the characteristics of high status collectibles: they are objects of aesthetic beauty and refinement, they represent inherited wealth unsullied by the owners' labor or purchase, and they are restricted in access.
A final characteristic of status culture that The House of Mirth explores also reflects that culture's commitment to restriction, privacy, and exclusion. High status characters in the novel have a highly refined speech code characterized by allusiveness, subtlety, genteel reserve, tact, and discretion. It is the drawing-room or courtier's art, a communicative mode equivalent to the architectural style that draws attention from everyone but understanding from a select few. The ability to follow and participate in this code of communication is a sign of breeding. Rosedale, not surprisingly, lacks the ability. Lily's "word-play was always too quick for him" (Wharton 1994, 240); he has a "natural imperviousness to hints" (243); "allusiveness was lost on him" (272), the book explains. The consummate businessman (a sure sign of his residence in the world of class rather than status), Rosedale prefers "plain speaking" (141). Carry Fisher, in contrast, exercises plain speaking only as a device in subtler word-play: "the practice of direct speech, far from precluding in her an occasional resort to circuitous methods, served rather, at crucial moments, the purpose of the juggler's chatter while he shifts the contents of his sleeves" (237). The power of the verbal code is revealed in a particularly dramatic way when Bertha uses a seemingly innocuous statement to destroy Lily's social reputation: "Miss Bart is not going back to the yacht," Bertha states rather simply (208). Only insiders with full awareness of the implications are able to understand Bertha's well-placed and undoubtedly well-rehearsed innuendo.
There are reasons to believe that speech codes were deeply important as tools or signs of social division in Wharton's world. Certainly the regionalists demonstrated that with their local color and dialect writing. Elsa Nettels offers further evidence that socioeconomic forces shape speech patterns in Wharton's fiction. "Most pervasive in Wharton's fiction is the power of language to separate people of different social classes," she explains (1997, 101). In a passage of Our America, Michaels explores the linkages among speech codes, literary styles, and social stratification. The general claim of his book is that the discourse of nativism deeply informed American modernism. One feature of that influence is a desire to exclude cultural outsiders--especially immigrants, but also racial minorities. In literary terms, that meant that native-born, white modernists adopted a writing style dependent on insider knowledge, innuendo, and indirect communion with readers. Ernest Hemingway, for example, used coded words like "nice," "good," and "true" to indicate whether characters have "breeding," according to Michaels. "'Breeding' is the term used by people who don't really have any; 'nice' is the term used by people who do," he explains (1995,26). "The social point of Hemingway's prose style was relentlessly to enforce ... distinctions" among characters and readers, Michaels continues; Hemingway avoided direct language because one of the qualities of someone with a correct pedigree is the ability to say things without being explicit (17). While Michaels is primarily focused on issues of race and ethnicity, one might also say Hemingway's style maintains the status customs of his culture, although perhaps this distinction is beside the point; in Weber's theories the racial need not be bracketed in the way conventional use of Marxist theories encourages, so an element of the status distinctions of Hemingway's (and Wharton's) culture is a division between native-born whites and ethnic outsiders like Rosedale. Thus, Hemingway's notoriously minimalist style is designed to mirror and reinforce the allusive communion among status elites.
While I am not proposing that Wharton's The House of Mirth is modernist, (28) it is clear that her novel works under the same speech code principles. Lily and Selden frequently communicate in the manner of Hemingway's and modernism's aesthetics. When Lily writes to Selden in Monte Carlo about the situation with the Dorsets, for example, her "message necessarily left large gaps for conjecture; but all that he had recently heard and seen made these but too easy to fill in" (Wharton 1994, 201). Their first romantic walk at Bellomont is the result of a silent communion between them. "She had made no reply to his suggestion that they should spend the afternoon together, but as her plan unfolded itself he felt fairly confident of being included in it. The house was empty when at length he heard her step on the stair and strolled out of the billiard-room to join her" (80). Much of what passes between them in their conversation in the woods is unspoken. It is not merely a romantic device when Wharton writes, "an indwelling voice in each called to the other across unsounded depths of feeling"; it is also an expression of their aristocratic speech code (85). To put it more precisely, their mutual quality of innate reserve, and the silent communication it enables, is part of the attraction between Lily and Selden, and it is an expression of their equivalent status or "breeding."
As Lily descends the social ladder she gradually loses her reserve. Part of the nature of working-class life in the book seems to be a lack of privacy, which has both material and linguistic effects. Lily hates "the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house" where "intimate domestic noises of the house and the cries and rumblings of the street" routinely invade her privacy (Wharton 1994, 296, 281). Initially she tries to retain her privacy and reserve. "Something of her mother's fierce shrinking from observation and sympathy was beginning to develop in her," writes Wharton (269). But as she descends into a world where privacy is no longer possible or valued, she makes faltering efforts to open up to other people. In her last encounter with Rosedale, for example, she vacillates between "the old habit of observing the conventions" and the urge to be more candid ("An uncontrollable impulse was urging her to put her case to this man, from whose curiosity she had always so fiercely defended herself") (272). Candor wins the day: surprisingly, she confides in Rosedale the truth about her transactions with Gus Trenor. She also fights her urge to be candid with Selden on her final visit to his apartment. She feels an uncharacteristic "passionate desire to be understood. In her strange state of extra-lucidity, which gave her the sense of being already at the heart of the situation, it seemed incredible that any one should think it necessary to linger in the conventional outskirts of word-play and evasion.... She had passed beyond the phase of well-bred reciprocity" (285). Still living in his world of strict decorum, Selden feels uncomfortable in the presence of Lily's frankness. "The tinge of constraint was beginning to be more distinctly perceptible under the friendly ease of his manner," Wharton writes (286). Here the results are different from Lily's meeting with Rosedale. In minor ways, Lily is more candid. She expresses her gratitude for Selden's love and advice in the past. But if complete candor would be an open expression of love, then clearly privacy triumphs--although, significantly, Selden intuits her unspoken message and decides the next day to declare his love for her. And of course Lily also conceals from Selden her departing act of burning the letters. This silent gesture is clearly meant to convey the same native "nobility" the novel has identified in much of Lily's previous behavior--as when, for example, she refuses to justify to Selden her decision to leave the Dorset yacht: "she meant neither to explain nor to defend herself ... [she] stood before him in a kind of clouded majesty, like some deposed princess moving tranquilly to exile" (210).
It is perhaps to Wharton's credit that she acknowledges the problems arising from a fiercely reserved mode of communication. Lily's speech code frequently forbids her from telling others what she knows or defending herself in the face of false accusations, even when such communication might save her or provide comfort. When Gerty advises Lily to tell her friends the truth about the Monte Carlo fiasco, Lily will only concede that "the truth about any girl is that once she's talked about she's done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks" (1994, 216). She remains tight-lipped. Later Lily refuses verbal solace from others, as when Miss Kilroy tries to comfort her from the sting of their employer's criticism. Similarly, Lily refuses to be candid with George Dorset when he practically begs her to confirm his suspicions about his wife's infidelity, and this adds considerably to his misery. Lily goes to her grave bearing many of her secrets alone.
One way of reading this emphasis on reserve and decorum is that Wharton is exposing the fatal emotional complications it brings for Lily. According to this reading, Wharton is an incisive critic of the aristocratic speech code. Another way of reading it is that it is simply a plot device that may not necessarily indicate Wharton's attitude toward the code. Much of the narrative's tension--the profound barriers in Lily's and Selden's romance--arises from the constraints of the high-status speech code. Their training prevents them from speaking openly to each other, and this inhibits their relationship. "The situation between them was one which could have been cleared up only by a sudden explosion of feeling," Wharton writes, "and their whole training and habit of mind were against the chances of such an explosion" (1994, 261). On the other hand, their mutual reserve and restraint contribute to the romance between them; it provides the basis of their attraction and compatibility. Their speech code may inhibit their relationship, but it also contributes to the suspense of the story and to readers' enjoyment of the complicated romance plot.
In weighing these competing interpretations, the form of the novel, and particularly the ending, seems crucial. The book's final gestures mirror and reinforce the high status speech code of its characters, and this suggests that Wharton is less a critic than a devotee of the code. It is not simply that Selden is able to intuit the unspoken secrets of Lily's life through its lingering material details and various allusive hints at the end of the novel--"out of the very insinuations he had feared to probe, he constructed an explanation for the mystery" of Lily's check to Trenor. It is also the case that Lily and Selden achieve the summit of aristocratic communication in the novel's final sentence: they are able to speak to each other across the grave. "In the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear," Wharton writes (1994, 305). The ending of the novel represents a profound and ironic status accomplishment. While in one sense we might view Lily's supposedly tragic demise as a plot of decline typical of naturalist texts, (29) in other respects we might regard the final scene as a supreme status elevation for both Lily and Selden. Lily's plot of decline on the economic level of class, in other words, is counterbalanced by her upward mobility on the plane of status.
Equally important, Wharton's refusal to reveal "the word which made all clear" situates readers as either inside or outside, able to penetrate the mystery and intuit the word or not. The ending of the book makes the existence of Lily's and Selden's communication public but excludes all but the knowing from access to it. In other words, the book's closing gesture maintains the same status barriers for readers as it does for its characters. Of course, this is not the only time Wharton does this in the novel. The thing that signifies Rosedale's "repugnance" is consistently "intuitive" in the book, for example (Wharton 1994, 37). Wharton mentions Rosedale's Jewishness only three times in a long novel, yet she relies on a reader's awareness of his ethnicity to explain the aversion he inspires in other characters. (My students, who are generally careful readers, often miss the fact that the antipathy characters feel toward him is an effect of anti-Semitism.) Rosedale's Jewishness is a thing known but not spoken, as if the book's narrator is enacting the tact and restraint that characters with high status in the book consistently demonstrate.
In many ways, there is a curious and persistent tension between the novel's form and the aristocratic speech code the book documents. Realism characteristically prizes frankness, openness, and a willingness to penetrate, reveal, and examine the bald realities of life, even if this means exposing the "dingy." In its quest for verisimilitude, realism notoriously prefers the "real" to the elegant and beautiful. Naturalism is even more fully associated with the dingy, the sordid, and the lower class. If these literary modes did not always achieve their aims, realism and naturalism nevertheless strived to represent a more fully democratic culture. In contrast, the aristocratic mode of communication in The House of Mirth prizes concealment, allusiveness, and reserve. It regards democratic openness with the same horror that high status characters view dinginess and the working class. Wharton relies on a realist or naturalist form throughout most of her novel. She broaches the sordid subjects of infidelity and rape, for example. She employs the plot of decline. She follows her heroine into the working-class world (even if the lower class is decidedly not Wharton's focus). And she includes a major Jewish character (even if she and the characters regard him with distaste). Wharton's ambivalence with some of these devices, however, mirrors the formal tensions between realism and the aristocratic speech code within the text. In the end, Wharton allows the aristocratic mode to triumph over realism. Innuendo, privacy, and insider knowledge take priority over frankness in the silent word that closes the novel.
Literary scholars have taken pains in recent decades to emphasize the interpenetration and mutual constitution of various social hierarchies including race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. Less attention has been paid to status hierarchies. Less attention has also been paid to the ways in which categories of social stratification may become decoupled under certain historical and cultural conditions. As Bourdieu suggests, there are good historical reasons for thinking that class and status were becoming relatively autonomous at the time Wharton was writing. The consequence of this decoupling was that status, and its own market for social capital, could function not only in connection but also in conflict with the market for economic capital. A more serious consideration of the role of status in the novel undermines widespread claims among literary critics about the domination of the (economic) market in the text, and this has implications for our understanding of the domination of the market outside the text both during Wharton's era and other periods.
Recognition of the distinction between class and status has several additional benefits. It helps us understand the role of speech codes in status culture, for example. This has important implications for literary style, both modernist and realist. The exclusivist use of language that is characteristic of modernism, for example, is revealed as a feature of aristocratic, status-driven speech codes and a form of status display. The fact that a realist like Wharton employed similar speech codes in her writing suggests not only that Wharton contributed to the transition to modernism, however unwittingly, but also that modernism was part of a broader cultural shift underpinned by a changing relationship between class and status--a cultural shift in which non-modernist authors and texts participated.
Without recognizing the distinction between class and status, elements of status culture are easily confused with features of class culture. While spectatorship impinges on class position, for example, in Wharton's novel it is fundamentally a status phenomenon. This has important implications for scholarship on commodity culture; we should not presume that spectatorship is an act of commodification or that objects of spectacle are always and everywhere commodities in a traditional (Marxist) sense. In The House of Mirth, spectatorship is a particularly complicated status behavior requiring a careful balance of publicity and privacy with significant gender components and consequences. The tension between privacy and publicity in Wharton's novel, in other words, is part of a larger tension between status and class. Like spectatorship, collecting plays an important role in status behavior. It may (but not always) represent status culture's resistance to class culture. In Wharton's high society, I have argued, proper collecting marks the ideal relationship between class and status.
The tension between status and class plays a significant and unremarked role in Wharton's The House of Mirth, and attending to that tension changes our understanding of the novel in important ways. It helps explain Lily's romantic preferences by suggesting that she vacillates between marriage for class and status, and her ideal partner is a man who elevates the latter above the former. It challenges existing interpretations arguing for the book's censuring of Selden by suggesting instead that the text depicts Selden in an admiring light. It helps explain the aristocratic discourse in the book as a nostalgic lament over the absence of codified status markers in the United States rather than a hopeless critique of marketplace domination. And it foregrounds a central component of the plot tension curiously neglected in previous criticism. Most characters in the novel are trying to realize or preserve a status culture that is autonomous from class culture. This is the central drama of Rosedale's story: a lofty status group is trying to exclude him from membership despite his wealth; that is, they are trying to retain a system of status that is distinct from class. All appearances suggest they will fail. The tension between class and status is also, in part, Lily's drama: she is trying to retain membership in a high status group despite her relative lack of wealth, yet she also believes deep down that status depends largely on wealth in her social circle and thus she must marry a wealthy man even if she would prefer to marry principally for status. She wavers endlessly on this precipice. The trajectory of the narrative--the fact that class appears destined to triumph over status in various ways--suggests that a significant component of the novel's attention is absorbed by the future of this conflict between class and status, and the extension and development of this drama in The Custom of the Country suggests that Wharton is interested in the future of the conflict both in the New World and the Old. Examining this drama expands our understanding of the novel as well as the cultural dynamics of Wharton's world and her fiction's discursive position within it.
(1) For Pierre Bourdieu, who developed Weber's theories on sociology (Weber has importance later in this essay), there are different kinds of capital, including economic, cultural, and social capital. Individuals use these different forms of capital to secure their positions in the social hierarchy--a hierarchy that Bourdieu prefers to view as more two-dimensional than the linear image of the ladder conveys, since the different forms of capital produce different, overlapping hierarchies. According to Bourdieu, these three forms of capital have "exchange rates [that] vary in accordance with the power relations between the holders of the different forms of capital" (1984, 125).
(2) Readers of this essay have pointed out that the Marxist methods employed by previous criticism on The House of Mirth are relatively reductive and do not achieve the complexity and diversity of Marxist theorization on the subject of the relationship between the economic and the cultural. I agree with this point, but I also think the problem is widespread in literary criticism, and criticism on The House of Mirth is an illustrative case. Weber's theories offer one overlooked solution to the problem among other solutions developed in the Marxist tradition.
(3) Some exceptions to this critical neglect are noteworthy. A handful of scholars have begun to explore the distinction between class and status, primarily through the tools offered by Bourdieu. Phillip Barrish, for example, is aware of Bourdieu and his concept of "symbolic capital," which "encompasses any aspect of an individual's status, authority, privilege, honor, or socially effective reputation that does not directly equate with his or her material wealth" (2001, 6). However, because Barrish appears unfamiliar with the historical roots of Bourdieu's concept--that is, its origins in Weberian sociology--he is inclined to accept Bourdieu's tendency, especially pronounced in Distinction, to view status as an effect of class. (One sign of Bourdieu's tendency to treat class as prior to status is his unwillingness to consider the possibility, as Veblen does, that class differences may originate in status distinctions. See my discussion of Thorstein Veblen and Bourdieu below.) As a result, Barrish interprets the status maneuvers within realist texts as evidence of class competition among the "culturally insecure, ever-jockeying for status and distinction, new middle and upper-middle classes of turn-of-the-century America" (2001, n). Mark McGurl has a similar tendency to reduce status to an effect of class. Unlike Barrish, McGurl demonstrably understands the sociological tradition in which Bourdieu participates and his familiarity with Weber's well-known essay, "Class, Status, Party." McGurl, however, attempts to articulate the way status discourses represent products of particular classes (his interest is the professional-managerial class) rather than as a system with its own rules distinct from the class system (see especially 2001, 15-17). Thus, McGurl interprets Wharton's The House of Mirth as a meditation on Wharton's own downward (class) mobility rather than a text concerned with the conflict between class and status hierarchies (90-91). In this essay I am interested in the tensions, conflicts, autonomy, and intersections between the class and status hierarchies. Thus, while Bourdieu's theories have been useful and influential to my thinking, this essay relies more heavily on Weber's theories in order to make a more elementary point--that literary scholars need to be more attentive to the distinction between class and status--and entertain Weber's contention that class and status exist as separate but overlapping social hierarchies.
(4) "The market in The House of Mirth is an inescapable, controlling environment, a subterranean network which organizes the text's relations," claims Lori Merish (2003, 237), echoing the conclusions of earlier critics like Dimock and Michaels. "As imagined in Wharton's novel," writes Nancy Bentley, "commercial and social relations are finally indistinguishable" (1995a, 162). (Although Bentley is speaking here of The Custom of the Country, her argument is equally applicable to The House of Mirth)
(5) Elizabeth Ammons describes Lily as simply "upper-class," eliding the complications of Lily's socioeconomic position (1995, 79). In a more interesting example, Bentley argues that there is a single "late-nineteenth-century elite class" and assumes that Wharton is describing its culture (1995b, 49). Elsewhere, however, she examines the distinction that Selden makes between "conspicuousness" and "distinction." Conspicuousness is mere celebrity and fame (typically attained through wealth, presumably); distinction is the possession of a refined aesthetic sensibility. "To be a man or woman of distinction no longer meant one possessed a secure claim to membership in the leading propertied class, as it would have meant to the antebellum gentry," suggests Bentley. "Neither birth nor wealth alone could secure it" (2009, 30). She suggests that this distinction reflects the tensions between America's "cultural leaders" and wealthy capitalists (31). Bentley, in other words, identifies a distinction between class and status without indicating awareness of it.
(6) Jennie Kassanoff argues that Wharton attempts to emphasize the stability of Lily's racial inheritance in order to counteract the instabilities in her economic inheritance, claiming: "Race becomes an essentialist--if deeply problematic--answer to the cultural vulnerabilities of class and gender" (2004, 38). But this doesn't ultimately work, she adds, because "Lily's crisis reveals the instability of race as an ontological category" (52). In Kassanoff's argument, class is unstable for historical reasons while race is unstable for ontological reasons. That is, class is unstable because wealthy capitalists have displaced the Knickerbocker elite. For Kassanoff, a person's or a group's class can change--Lily can be disinherited, and the old elite can lose their economic dominance--yet the concept of class remains stable, rooted in wealth. Kassanoff's argument fails to treat class and race as equally ontologically unstable. For studies addressing the social construction of class, see Martin Burke, Wai Chee Dimock and Michael Gilmore, Gavin Jones, and Daniel Walkowitz.
(7) For Weber, class is linked to the marketplace. '"Class situation' is ... ultimately 'market situation,"' he writes (1946, 182). "The factor that creates 'class' is unambiguously economic interest, and indeed, only those interests involved in the existence of the 'market,'" he adds (183). Weber's definition of class is not wholly consistent with Marx's definition, of course, since Marx emphasizes the relationship between the individual and ownership of the means of production. Weber's definition of class, however, is much more pertinent to Wharton's novel, which involves wealthy financiers rather than factory owners, and his definition of class is also more consistent with the model that Marxian critics of The House of Mirth seem to work with. I will be relying primarily on Weber's definition of class in this essay rather than Marx's.
(8) A gangster, for example, might have wealth but low status, and the source of the gangster's wealth might inhibit his ability to acquire status.
(9) It is worth noting that Bourdieu's theories also ignore race and ethnicity; this is an additional advantage of Weber's theories over Bourdieu's. While a more detailed discussion of the relationship between race and class in a Weberian approach would be worthwhile, space constraints prevent me from exploring this more fully in the essay.
(10) This happens to the central characters in Henry James' "The Real Thing," published in 1892. Clearly these matters interested many writers at the turn of the century.
(11) Veblen implicitly rejects the Marxist view that social stratification is rooted solely or primarily in economic factors such as property ownership. He suggests that social distinctions of honor or prestige (status) might influence or take priority over class. As a result, he defines class stratification in ways that differ from Marx. Instead of property as the basis of class, Veblen suggests that occupation (or the lack of occupation) is the fundamental distinction. Thus, he distinguishes between "a leisure and a working class" (2007, 20). As the example of the impoverished gentleman and lady suggests, members of the leisure class do not necessarily possess wealth or property. For Veblen, the term "class" is a complex one, intersected simultaneously by monetary and status matters. Thus, the term shifts throughout his book. While he speaks at times of the distinction between the leisure and working classes, at other times he writes of the upper, middle, and lower classes. Often he seems to have wealth in mind as the primary criterion distinguishing the classes.
(12) In Highbrow/Lowbrow, Lawrence Levine explains that a discernible hierarchy emerged throughout the cultural sphere in the United States in the late nineteenth century. Whereas in early America there were no palpable cultural hierarchies such as "highbrow" and "lowbrow" or "serious" and "popular," all this changed at the turn of the twentieth century, when Americans began making hierarchical distinctions around cultural products. Levine argues that this transformation occurred as the US economic and political realms experienced unusually rapid change and disorder. Heavy immigration, rapid economic transformation and economic mobility, and growing pluralism and democratization in the political arena left traditional elites scrambling for a reliable tool to restore a sense of social order and hierarchy. Culture became a means of preserving that order and hierarchy in a time when other means, including economic and political, were failing. In Weber's terms, we might say that the status realm began to serve the function of social ordering that the economic and political realms no longer allowed.
(13) Weber suggests the "so-called pure modern 'democracy'"--he uses America as an example--is a society "devoid of any expressly ordered status privileges for individuals" (1946, 187).
(14) This term most likely originated in Jean Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract, which divides aristocracies into three types: natural, elective, and hereditary. A natural aristocrat, in Rousseau's definition, is the head of a family, an elder who governs in "simple" societies. Thomas Jefferson re-defined a natural aristocrat as a person with inherent virtue and talent, as opposed to an "artificial" aristocrat lacking virtue and talent but with "distinction ... founded on wealth and birth" (1987, chap. 15, doc. 61). This is the sense in which I use the term: a natural aristocrat is an "aristocrat" who appears spontaneously rather than as a result of inherited title or social position and whose "nobility" is defined by character traits rather than wealth or title. Wharton's treatment of aristocratic character is less democratic than Jefferson's, however. The aristocratic "virtues" and "talents" of Selden and Lily give them qualities that are similar to the traits of European aristocrats, who acquire them through long aristocratic descent rather than mysteriously and haphazardly, which is the principal manner in which such traits appear in the democratic New World and characters like Selden and Lily. Wharton is using the concept of a natural aristocrat, in other words, in ways that are more similar to Jose Ortega y Gasset's 1937 understanding of a "social aristocracy," which is rulership of the "excellent" rather than merely rulership by the wealthy upper-class (1957, 20) (or rulership of elders as in Rousseau's natural aristocracy). For Ortega y Gasset, excellence is defined by character traits (intelligence, refinement, and so forth), although he embraces a less democratic view than Jefferson by suggesting that such traits are more common among the actual aristocracy than among "mass-man" or the middle class. John Carey explains that intellectuals re-invented the idea of a natural aristocracy at the turn of the twentieth century in response to the rise of a mass society that intellectuals saw as threatening. A natural aristocrat in turn-of-the-century discourse, he suggests, was an intellectual with some sort of "distinction" that elevated him or her above the masses (1992, 71). There was disagreement on what makes a natural aristocrat, according to Carey. Secret knowledge was one possibility, and occultism consequently became popular. Hereditary links to traditional aristocracy, guardianship of timeless values, or a refined aesthetic sensibility were other possibilities. The House of Mirth embraces all of these traits (as well as others, such as linguistic facility, as explained later in this essay) as potential bases for natural aristocracy.
(15) According to many critics, Wharton and the novel implicitly criticize Selden for his aloofness. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, for example, cites Wharton's comment in a letter that Selden is a "negative hero," concluding that "Selden is the final object of [Wharton's] sweeping social satire" (1977, in, 132). Many scholars criticize Selden on similar grounds, whether or not they conclude that Wharton censures him (see, for example, Dimock 1994).
(16) Significantly, this is the same thing that Selden thinks of Lily. When Lily is surrounded by other women at a train station, Selden wonders, "Was it possible that she belonged to the same race? The dinginess, the crudity of this average section of womanhood made him feel how highly specialized she was" (Wharton 1994, 27).
(17) Similar problems arise in other places in Kassanoff's argument. Defending her claim that racial typology informs Wharton's novel, Kassanoff cites Wharton's description of Rosedale as "a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type" (quoted in Kassanoff 2004, 313). Kassanoff explains (against her own acknowledgement of the fluidity of concepts of race) that "type indicated a distinct racial ontology of permanent ... genetic characteristics" (2004, 313), ignoring both the fact that the Jewish "type" in Wharton's day was distinctly not "blond" and the impermanence of "racial" characteristics embodied by Lily herself, who apparently takes after a wicked ancestress rather than her own parents.
(18) This is consistent with Carey's arguments (1992) about the mysterious nature of natural aristocratic identity at the turn of the century.
(19) An observer from the turn of the century corroborates my skepticism on historical grounds. Veblen argued that leisure-class Americans were not interested in advertising their wealth to the less privileged. "To the individual of high breeding it is only the more honorific esteem accorded by the cultivated sense of the members of his own high class that is of material consequence. Since the wealthy class has grown so large ... there arises a tendency to exclude the baser elements of the population from the scheme even as spectators whose applause or mortification should be sought" (2007, 123-24).
(20) Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption, as it is commonly understood today, might seem to contradict this point. In fact, his theory reinforces it. Like Weber, Veblen is interested in the distinction between status and class. Veblen believes that wealth by itself does not confer the social prestige that motivates many social behaviors, arguing, "Wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence" (2007, 29). Conspicuous consumption is a device by which the wealthy (or those who want to appear wealthy) turn their economic clout into social "esteem." In other words, conspicuous consumption is a status behavior rather than a class behavior. In fact, conspicuous consumption diminishes class standing (it represents waste of one's money) but enhances status (it improves one's reputation).
(21) It is not that conspicuousness is irrelevant; rather, the problem is that conspicuousness has too often become distinction in Lily's world rather than a carefully managed supplement to distinction. As the Wellington Brys, and surely Selden himself, recognize, it is important to figure "in the society columns in company with one or two noticeable names" (Wharton 1994, 120).
(22) This idea is opposed to the general consensus that the novel depicts an emerging society of commodity culture or commodity spectacle (see, for example, Lori Merish and Lois Tyson). If Lily is simply a commodity for sale on the market, exposure should be valuable. The book's emphasis on spectacle and spectatorship is rooted, at least in this instance, in status culture rather than commodity culture.
(23) Dick Hebdige offers similar arguments about commodity consumption in Subculture (1987). For members of a subculture, he argues, clothing and other commodities are often used to announce membership in groups (e.g., the teds, mods, punks, and other youth groups he studies), and, in many cases, to oppose hegemonic values. His argument is a valuable reminder of the Marxist tradition's investigation of behaviors governed by social stratifications that are more complex than traditional class groupings such as the proletariat. For Hebdige, it is not simply economic or market forces that determine consumption and display, and commodities are not simply reducible to their monetary value (or even socially sanctioned purposes) in the market. On the other hand, Hebdige ultimately interprets consumption behaviors in terms of class. Subcultural consumption and display arise from "class experience": "the experience of class found expression in [new forms of] culture" in the postwar period in Great Britain, he writes (1987, 74). According to Hebdige, the proliferation of working-class youth groups in postwar Britain reflected the historical fracturing of the working-class community rather than (as another interpretation might suggest) the increasing importance of status at a time when pundits were declaring the end of class divisions and Caribbean and other immigrants were increasingly revealing the importance of race (which, in Weber's formulation, might be considered a form of status) as a competing mechanism of social stratification.
(24) This could represent a form of romantic anti-capitalism, as described by Georg Lukacs, but not necessarily so. One need not step out of the market out of (real or feigned) opposition to capitalism or its market principles of investment and speculation.
(25) Wharton describes Carry Fisher's "social habits" as "promiscuous" (1994, 123, 226), an assertion that is borne out by her associations with the Wellington Brys, the Gormers, and Norma Hatch--two of whom (Mrs. Bry and Mrs. Hatch) are also social-climbing divorcees.
(26) Similarly, Kassanoff suggests that objects in museums gain value by being permanently removed from circulation. "Lily is not so much a circulating commodity as she is a rare museum piece, desirable precisely because she is out of circulation," Kassanoff writes (2004, 53). A museum, however, is a public collection, lacking the exclusivity central to status culture. Lily arguably is more like a painting in a private collection than a museum piece.
(27) Ralph Marvell observes, for example, that society and architecture are analogous: in the United States houses are "a muddle of misapplied ornament over a thin steel shell of utility. The steel shell was built up in Wall Street, the social trimmings were hastily added in Fifth Avenue; and the union between them was ... monstrous and factitious ... unlike the gradual homogeneous growth which flowers into what other countries know as society." Of course, the text implicitly exempts Ralph's family, who are genuine American aristocrats (similar to but with a longer heritage than Lily or Selden, who are natural aristocrats) with a home whose "inner consciousness" accords precisely with its "outward form" (Wharton 1995, 47). In other words, unlike American nouveau-riche who fail to integrate status and class culture, Ralph's family embodies an Old World reconciliation of class and status, of Wall Street and Fifth Avenue.
(28) For further discussion of Wharton's relationship with modernism, see Jennifer Haytock, Robin Peel, and Stephanie Lewis Thompson.
(29) For further discussion of the naturalist plot of decline, see June Howard (1985).
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MICHAEL TAVEL CLARKE is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He is the author of These Days of Large Things: The Culture of Size in America, 1865-1930 (2007) as well as essays on gender studies, US film, ethnic literature, disability studies, New Historicism, postmodernism, and other topics. He is currently an editor of the journal ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature.
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|Author:||Clarke, Michael Tavel|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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