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Lamarckism and the construction of transcendence in The House of Mirth.

Like fossil bones stellating a cliff, Edith Wharton's keen interest in evolution appears throughout her works. Critics often note her debt to Darwin (1) and have placed her in the context of literary naturalism. (2) Her narrative patterns, tropes, and even titles like "The Descent of Man" or "The Greater Inclination" (3) come from her readings among the evolutionists--not only Darwin but Spencer, Huxley, Haeckel, and George Romanes, among many others from the "wonder-world of nineteenth century science" (Wharton, Backward 94). Near the end of her life, Wharton wrote that it was "hopeless to convey to a younger generation the first overwhelming sense of cosmic vastnesses which such 'magic casements' let into our little geocentric universe" (Backward 94). Wharton had little trouble with the concept that humans were not special acts of creation but descended from animals, or that the mind evolved like the body through material processes. Instead of describing this philosophical shift as a diminution, she writes of wonder, magic, and cosmic vastnesses in the plural, magnifying the sense of expansion. This enlargement refers to more than the gaining of new knowledge. It shows Wharton's grasp of how naturalistic evolution could redefine an individual's prospects for transcendence.

The Lamarckian theory of evolution helps to explain Wharton's perspective more clearly than a study of Darwin's influence alone. The emphasis upon Darwin follows the grain of most literary studies that address the topic of evolution, (4) yet an alternative theory affected Wharton profoundly. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, concepts associated with Lamarck, such as habit, use, and the inheritance of acquired characters, were so pervasive that they even appeared in the writing of those who, like Edith Wharton, were "under the influence of the generally anti-Lamarckian orientation of European physical anthropology..." (Stocking 244).

Lamarckian theory provided Wharton with something crucial: a link between science and her most cherished belief, which she described as "continuity, that 'sense of the past' which enriches the present and binds us up with the world's great stabilising traditions of art and poetry and knowledge" (Wharton, French 97). It created this link by explaining how culture relates to the individual body. In Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), Stephen Jay Gould examines the concept that ontogeny (the individual's developmental history) recapitulates phylogeny (the evolutionary history of a species) and discerns a common logic in Lamarckist thought: that heredity functions as a form of memory. Organisms acquire traits through repeated usage, similar to learning through repetition. In this light, instincts are behaviors "impressed so indelibly into memory, that the germ cells themselves are affected and pass the trait to future generations. If behavior can be first learned and then inherited as instinct, then morphological features might be acquired and inherited in an analogous way" (Gould 96). Thus, both physical and behavioral traits represent a type of memory retained across generations.

The existence of such a memory implies a larger, collective organism: the species or race. What transcendence is available in a strictly naturalistic world? In Wharton's philosophy, the individual finds transcendence when it ceases to be a self-contained unit, like a little geocentric universe, and joins the race in its vast extension across time through descent. This "new vision" made the world seem "more wonderful, the problem more interesting, the moral obligation more stern and ennobling" to Wharton, (5) since both individual and society now had a much larger significance, an evolutionary significance; what one generation attained would be inherited by the next, altering the species. In Wharton's version of Lamarckism, physiological inheritance includes not only the transmission of physical characters but also the acquisitions of behavior in the context of culture, with cultural achievement as the highest spiritual expression. Just as memory forms the ligature for a coherent, individual self, heredity as memory provides the necessary biological, cultural, and historical continuity for the construction of a "real" self.

In The House of Mirth (1905), Lamarckian theory dramatically alters a common reading of Lily's final meditation, in which she perceives that she has never had "any real relation to life" (248). The character of Lily Bart raises provocative questions about the nature of the self and what constitutes an authentic self. Critics often discuss this subject, from Irving Howe's early observation that Lily is "pitifully lacking in any core of personal being" (125) to a recent agreement that "Lily Bart seems to have no 'center'" (Kress 135). They often juxtapose Lily and her society, considering "the social formation of the self" and "the issue of a 'real' self that might exist beyond social articulation and exhibition" (Kress 150). Thomas Loebel, for example, distinguishes between "identity," or the social constructions of self, and "being." According to Loebel, for Lily to "dis-cover" her self takes "being" beyond social legibility, beyond identity in relation to other, and results, discursively speaking, in death.

In Lily's epiphany, Wharton reveals Lily's separation from the transcendent life of her race, which would have provided a real relation to life. Wharton's characterization of Lily presents a Lamarckian configuration of self in relation to culture as well as a Lamarckian critique of that culture. Through Lily, Wharton criticizes the hereditary vectors of this society: its disjunction from its inherited past and its likely future of degeneration. In preparing to write The House of Mirth, Wharton considered how she might show the negative side of contemporary New York:
   In what aspect could a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers be
   said to have, on the "old woe of the world", any deeper bearing than
   the people composing such a society could guess? The answer was that
   a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through
   what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its
   power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my
   heroine, Lily Bart. (Backward 207)

'Debasement' here does not refer simply to moral dissolution, materialism, or social Darwinism, as has often been discussed. The "tragic implication" of a frivolous society is that it is an environment, one that provides an inferior culture for the individual body to absorb and one that reinforces degraded traits by calling them into use. Even though it is frivolous, this society has a deeper bearing on the world through its evolutionary effect, since a degrading milieu ultimately degrades not only the individual but its progeny and the future of the race. Wharton did not define race merely in terms of physical characteristics but primarily in terms of cultural sensibilities, which she believed to be physiologically encoded and transmitted. By detaching the individual from cultural memory, the debasing society separates the individual from the larger life of the race, its hope for transcendence. In this light, Lily's epiphany cannot be a spiritual triumph, for on the night of her death she perceives what she has never had and can never have: the spirit of culture in the Arnoldian sense, the sweetness and light of a high cultural heritage--what Wharton means by "ideals." Wharton designed Lily's destruction to show the price of separation from this ideal.

While Lily's death is predetermined by her status as a beautiful object lesson, this lesson requires a more critical consideration. Wharton blames New York society for Lily's fate, and Wharton scholarship often shares this view. Yet in actuality, it is not the frivolous society but Wharton's ideal that causes Lily's death. For Lily is not destroyed by exchange-culture in any of its variations: economic, social, intellectual, or sexual. The interest of her story lies in her ability to keep herself intact within that culture of exchange, through lies, schemes, betrayals, failure, and even poverty and the extreme of social exclusion, which cannot force Lily to blackmail Bertha Dorset or to remain in debt to Gus Trenor. Lily only succumbs to darkness after her vision of transcendence, embodied in Lawrence Selden and the Lamarckian inheritance of his blood.

This vision seals Lily's fate by robbing her of her sole means of resisting her society. When Lily sees the significance of Selden's inheritance, and realizes her difference from it, she believes that she is cut off from anything "real" in life and loses the belief in her own possibility for transcendence, a belief that had sustained her. Like a colonial subject internalizing a debasing view of itself, Lily does not so much attain new vistas of being through her epiphany as she becomes complicit with and dominated by a cultural perspective that asserts itself as a numinous reality and denies the validity of her soul. Such a negation results when the soul is defined in purely material terms, as it is in Wharton's Lamarckism, and when a cultural perspective that devalues such a soul is taken as an objective and totalizing truth, as it is in Lily's vision. The destructive nature of Lily's vision arises from the nature of Lamarckism itself as a mechanism that turns spiritual and cultural phenomena into biological objects, absorbed then transmitted by the body. Ultimately, Lily's death reveals the effect of one aspect of Lamarckian philosophy: the construction of religious transcendence as a modality of culture, and culture as a modality of blood.

Lamarckism: Beyond Giraffe Necks and Mole's Eyes

In his Philosophie Zoologique (1809), Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829) writes that organisms have an innate tendency toward increasing complexity and diversity, which he offers as the primary force in the transformation of species. He also formulates two laws: first, that an organism's responses to environment can result in physiological change. Whatever it uses habitually, like a giraffe's neck stretching for tree leaves, increases. Whatever it does not use, like the mole's eyes, atrophies. These habits of use and disuse eventually cause permanent change, both behavioral, in the form of instinct, and morphological. Second, organisms pass these changes on to their young: "All the acquisitions or losses wrought by nature on individuals, through the influence of the environment in which their race has long been placed, and hence through the influence of the predominant use or permanent disuse of any organ; all these are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals which arise, provided that the acquired modifications are common to both sexes..." (113). Lamarck has been caricatured as believing that organisms could "will" themselves to evolve, but his theory only noted the effect of environment on habit and habit on phylogenetic alteration. Although Lamarck invented the term "biology" and made important contributions to the study of invertebrates, his name became linked almost synonymously with the inheritance of acquired characters. Eventually, Darwin and Lamarck came to represent competing theories of how evolution works: natural selection versus transmission of acquired characters. Natural selection assumes that the environment drives evolution--for example, by eliminating the weak or maladaptive, while Lamarckian theory gives more weight to the organism's responses to its environment: habit and transmission. Although viewed as an antithesis to Lamarck, Darwin himself held some Lamarckian views--Darwin even described Lamarck's work as "a wretched book" (Hull xlvii). (6)

By the late nineteenth century, Lamarckism evolved beyond its original claims. It was taken to explain not only physical diversity and basic instinct but even traits like the religious disposition, the artistic faculty, monogamy, Catholicism, conscience, taste in foods, paying taxes, and democratic government. (7) As L. J. Jordanova explains: "Lamarck offered psychologists and social theorists ways of linking the physiological, mental, and cultural aspects of evolution, as he had done for Spencer. The notion of habit Lamarck employed could provide a biological account of the processes the nascent social sciences were seeking to explain, such as the progress of civilisation or the development of the human races" (109). Lamarckism could thus take a spiritual or cultural trait, or even a political ideology, and render it material, biological, and heritable. This form of Lamarckism pervaded the late nineteenth century. (8)

In the 1880s, when August Weismann chopped off generations of mice tails and showed that such mutilations were not heritable, he did not so much disprove Lamarck as galvanize a staunch group of neo-Lamarckians. Weismann asserted that chromosomes held the physical units of heredity and that the body could not affect them. This concept of "hard heredity" negated Lamarckism, since the chromosomes remained unchanged from generation to generation. Because Weismann advocated natural selection as the only evolutionary force, he became known as a neo-Darwinian, polarizing his opponents as neo-Lamarckians. While neo-Lamarckians developed their theories "without being conscious disciples of Lamarck," they consciously adopted the term "neo-Lamarckism" for their views in 1884 (Pfeifer 161). Some aimed only at finding an alternative to natural selection; others debated issues of determinism, materialism, racism, vitalism, or teleology.

Although opposed and attacked, Weismann's theories fit well with Gregor Mendel's work with hybridization, rediscovered in 1900. Mendel proved the particulate nature of inheritance by crossing pea plants in a monastery garden. The mathematical ratios of each generation of hybrids confirmed that traits such as color, height, or seed shape were discrete units passed from parent to offspring without alteration and without blending between parents. Although early Mendelians disagreed with the Darwinian theory of evolution (Hull 1), Mendel's data supported Weismann's theory of heredity. Neo-Lamarckians, for their part, could not produce empirical proof that an acquired trait could be passed on, nor could they explain a precise mechanism for inheritance. Ewald Hering, for example, believed that "vibrations from the environment would affect the body through the nervous system, which would then affect the sex cells. Although such neo-Lamarckians theorized vibrations and dynamic wave motions, electrical potentials, and chemical changes, they lacked the physical ground of the geneticists who could point to chromosomes in the germ-plasm and explain Mendelian laws of transmission (Gould 96-97; see also Bowler 84).

Despite Weismann and Mendel, neo-Lamarckism dominated American biology even into the twentieth century. In fields such as education, eugenics, and public hygiene, some argued that only the inheritance of acquired characters could justify attempts at social improvement (Russett 199). As one doctor reasoned, "Modifications, from external influences could never produce c[u]mulative results except for the law of heredity" (Couch 128). Biologist Paul Kammerer wrote that Lamarckian inheritance offered "a more beautiful and worthy method [to improve humanity] than that advanced by fanatic race enthusiasts, which is based upon the relentless struggle for existence, through race hatred and selection of races, which doubtless are thoroughly distasteful to many" (439, qtd. in Bowler 94-95). On the other hand, Ernst Haeckel's Lamarckism has been shown to have aided Nazi race theory, with American neo-Lamarckians apparently sharing his views (Bowler 100; see also Gasman and Hailer).

Wharton read Lamarck but only identified Darwin, Spencer, William Lecky, and Hippolyte Taine as the "formative influences" of her youth (Letters 136). Each of these men, however, adapted Lamarckian theory into widely-disseminated beliefs about heredity. Taine, for example, writes in The History of English Literature that different climates lead to "a different set of habits; and still again, a different set of aptitudes and instincts. Man, forced to accommodate himself to circumstances, contracts a temperament and a character corresponding to them; and his character, like his temperament, is so much more stable, as the external impression is made upon him by more numerous repetitions, and is transmitted to his progeny by a more ancient descent" (18). Taine then outlines a form of literary criticism that requires consideration of three elements: race, environment, and the particular moment in history. This tri-partite formulation had a profound effect upon Wharton's own criticism as well as her approach to literary naturalism.

Formed by Darwin, Spencer, and Taine, Wharton became aware of Mendel and Weismann through R.H. Lock's Recent Progress in the Study of Variation, Heredity, and Evolution (1906), which she read in 1908. Lock wrote his book to facilitate the "transition between the speculative philosophy of evolution and the exact science of genetics" (Lock 300), a transition Wharton faced with dismay:
   I must confess to being always a little ahurie when I meet with
   biophors & determinants--though they seem like old friends after
   the allelomorphs & heterozygotes in Lock's "simple" exposition of
   Mendelism.--My biological reading is always embarrassed by the fact
   that I can't help seeing all these funny creatures with faces &
   gestures--the biophors, for instance, small & anxious to please,
   the determinants loud & domineering, with eye-glasses; so that I am
   burdened with a hideous new fauna, to which that monstrous animal
   the heterozygote, has just added another & peculiarly complicated
   silhouette--(Letters 151)

Wharton's playful sketches convey her uneasiness with the heterozygote, which she imagines, tellingly, as a "hideous new fauna." What made it "monstrous" was its violation of continuity; Weismann's radical split between germ-plasm and soma--or hereditary blueprint and body--troubled Wharton's concept of the self. As Peter Bowler remarks, "The concept of a germ plasm totally isolated from the rest of the body seemed completely alien to the belief that the organism is an integrated, self-regulating system. Such a belief had long been accepted by most naturalists, and it remained the basic philosophy of Lamarckism" (97). Further, the heterozygote violated the principle of slowly accumulated change found in both Lamarck and Darwin's theories. Without "soft" heredity, evolutionary change can only take place through sudden mutation. A mutation does not connect with its forebears in a smooth line of progression. It represents a gap, a leap, a discontinuity. As Wharton satirized the view, "Why, you morons, Mendel was the Victorian fellow that found out about Nature's proceeding by jumps. He worked it out that she's a regular kangaroo" (Hudson 387).

Lock confirmed that the most recent experiments supported Weismann, but he conceded the possibility of use-inheritance, if it involved very small changes over time (75), which is precisely what Wharton believed in--the slow accumulation of racial character. Vernon Kellogg, whose Darwinism To-Day (1907) Wharton also read, agreed that modern research seemed to discredit Lamarckian theory. However, even though Kellogg wrote as an apologist for Darwinian evolution, he still argued that it was "justified" to "assume the transmutation of ontogenetic acquirements into phyletic acquirements, even though we are as yet ignorant of the physico-chemical or vital mechanism capable of effecting the carrying over" (382).

Thus, Wharton had some scientific justification for retaining the Lamarckian ideas she absorbed before 1908. These concepts permeate her writing long after 1908. As Lamarck held that organisms have an innate tendency toward increasing growth and complexity, Wharton writes in "The Great American Novel" (1927) that "The tendency of all growth, animal, human, social, is towards an ever-increasing complexity" (Uncollected 155). As Lamarck theorized that habitual use or disuse would enlarge or atrophy organs, Wharton often refers to use-inheritance. And she focuses on the complex traits encompassed by later nineteenth-century Lamarckism. In The Age of Innocence (1920), for example, she describes the effect of preserving female purity by keeping young ladies ignorant of the world: Archer considers the "generations of the women who had gone to [his fiancee's] making" and compares her to "the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?" (Novels 1081). And in "The Old Maid" (1924), Wharton writes of the Ralstons:
   Shopkeepers to the marrow, they put in their windows the wares
   there was most demand for, keeping their private opinions for the
   back-shop, where through lack of use, they gradually lost substance
   and colour.

      The fourth generation of Ralstons had noticing left in the way of
   convictions save an acute sense of honour in private and business
   matters.... (Old New York 79)

Even in 1934, Wharton could still write of the "formative value" of culture sustained over generations in New York. She describes how a "concerted living up to long-established standards" has slowly transformed a "group of bourgeois colonials" into a "social aristocracy" (Backward 5). This passage shows the Lamarckian notion of a race's long-standing actions, as opposed to the environment alone, effecting transformation.

Although The House of Mirth came out after Mendel, it remains rooted in Lamarckism. In explaining her subject, Wharton criticizes New York society as "that little atrophied organ"(Letters 97) and describes her characters, from Percy Gryce to Aunt Peniston, in terms of habit, inheritance, and instinct. Gus Trenor, for example, refrains from raping Lily when "Old habits, old restraints, the hand of inherited order, plucked back the bewildered mind which passion had jolted from its ruts" (117). And Rosedale can plot a slow social climb because "the instincts of his race fitted him to suffer rebuffs and put up with delays" (96).

Situated in the age of Mendel, Wharton nevertheless associated Mendelian genetics with discontinuity and fragmentation, the chromosomal analog to the modernism she criticized in James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. In her own writings, she consistently posits an historical, biological, and cultural continuity that became a type of religion for her, the answer to the ultimate meaning of human life. On the night of her death, Lily comes to see this ultimate significance, something Wharton describes as "the house not built with hands."

The House Not Built With Hands

With expensive taste and little money of her own, Lily's survival depends on charming those who support her, or securing a rich husband. To this end, she runs through a gamut of roles with protean skill: flirt, houseguest, speculator, lady in a portrait, American in Europe, Bohemian, heiress, introducer, and working woman. The failure of one role pushes her to another, but in the end, Lily comes to her final realization: that in always fashioning herself according to a succession of images, she has cheated herself of a true life, the "house not built with hands":
   And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when
   she had had any real relation to life. Her parents too had been
   rootless, blown hither and thither on every wind of fashion, without
   any personal existence to shelter them from its shifting gusts. She
   herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer to
   her than another: there was no centre of early pieties, of grave
   endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which
   it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others. In
   whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood--whether
   in the concrete image of the old house stored with visual memories,
   or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up
   of inherited passions and loyalties--it has the same power of
   broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it
   by mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human
   striving. (248)

Wharton once identified this passage as the central idea of the novel (Tuttleton 567). Lily sees that she has had only an "individual existence," which does not count as a "personal existence" or a "real relation to life," since it lacks those "links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving." Without this "slowly-accumulated past," she has missed the "continuity of life" (248).

The importance of a slowly-accumulated past recurs in Wharton's writings. In "The Daunt Diana," a connoisseur spends years of his life in pursuit of a statue of Diana and describes this history as a spiritual mansion, since "beautiful things, my dear Finney, like beautiful spirits, live in houses not made with hands..." (Collected 2:60) In The Glimpses of the Moon (1922), Nick Lansing comes to a realization reminiscent of Lily's: "He began to see that he had never, even in the closest relations of life, looked ahead of his immediate satisfaction." His greatest strength, the ability "to live in the present and take whatever chances it offered," has robbed him of character, the thing that requires time (242-44). Wharton's sense of "character" transcends discrete individuality. It requires connection with the arduously attained achievements of civilization. "Real living," as Wharton explains elsewhere, "is a deep and complex and slowly-developed thing, the outcome of an old and rich social experience" (French 102).

This vision is an alternative to the house of mirth, and Wharton spiritualizes it through religious language. The "house not built with hands" seems like yet another example of Wharton's stock house metaphor. Yet the phrase merits further attention because it matches both the source (the Bible) and the metaphorical register (house as spiritual phenomenon) of the novel's title, which comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." (9)

The "house not built with hands" alludes to 2 Corinthians 5:1: "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." Paul writes that when the body dies, the Christian has a better, eternal dwelling in heaven. In this passage, Paul refers to the body--concrete, empirical, material--as something flimsy and transient, a tent or "tabernacle." Conversely, the less tangible, spiritual reality has the solidity of "building" and "house." As the building surpasses the tent in both complexity and stability, so the spiritual life far surpasses the temporal life, especially since this eternal, resurrected being is not built by human hands but rather created by God. Those who belong to the house of God need not fear death or loss in this world, since their true home, a spiritual dwelling better than anything of human construction, is in heaven. The house not built with hands is the permanent locus of life, shelter, and belonging with an immortal, immutable God.

Wharton borrows this phrase not to describe Christian salvation but to show the transcendent value she ascribes to continuity. Continuity broadens and deepens the individual existence, providing far more rootedness and shelter than can a physical house. (10) In the passage from The House of Mirth above, "traditions" appears in apposition to "pieties," since they are the novel's pieties, its religion, its gesture at divine completion. The original manuscript for this passage also shows the numinous aura of inherited tradition in Wharton's mind. Words associated with religion appear repeatedly as she works out her ideas: "No centre of early memories" became "no centre of early pieties"; "made up of inherited loyalties" became "made up of inherited faiths and loyalties," a phrase she repositioned several times before altering it to "inherited passions and loyalties." (11) History and tradition take on a religious dimension, described nonetheless as living "in the blood."

By "in the blood," Wharton literally meant the blood, the physiological ground of hereditary memory and the nexus between individual and race. In The House of Mirth, the link between blood, character, and race appears in such passages as Lily's remark, "Or no--I won't blame anybody for my faults: I'll say it was in my blood..." (176), or Wharton's statement that Rosedale was "disciplined by the tradition of his blood to accept what was conceded, without undue haste to press for more" (141). Blood is the medium of Wharton's Lamarckism. On one level, experiences from a childhood environment enter the blood as memories, as formative habits that become an individual's essential being. In a letter to a friend, Wharton explains a trip to Europe: "& I am going chiefly for a rest & the kind of mental refreshment that I can get only la bas. Oh, the curse of having been brought up there, & having it ineradically [sic] in one's blood!" (Letters 104). On another level, culture functions as an environment over generations, leaving an impress in the blood, the essence of a people. As Wharton writes: "There are times when I hate what Christianity has left in our blood--or rather, one might say, taken out of it--by its cursed assumption of the split between body & soul" (Letters 159).

As seen in this last quotation, Wharton adhered to a material monism, (12) which ultimately had its roots in Lamarckist thought. Her readings reflect this perspective. In De L'Intelligence (1870), Taine describes the self as nothing more than a "verbal entity," a "mental fiction" used "only for convenience of discourse." While people think in terms of 'self' or 'will,' the reality is "an internal movement in the grey substance of the protuberance of the corpora quadrigemina...; whatever it may be, it consists of a more or less complex and extensive displacement of molecules, and it is nothing more" (I: 205, 203, 188). Similarly, Ernst Haeckel disparages "mystic dualism" but praises Darwin, who "maintained the complete unity of human nature, and showed convincingly that the psychological side of man was developed, in the same way as the body, from...the cerebral functions of the older vertebrates" (164). Blending Spinoza with Hering's theory that memory is a part of organic matter, Haeckel concludes that matter has a trinitarian substance: "Extension (matter as occupying space)," "Cogitation (energy, force)," and "Psychoma (sensitiveness, soul)." Since Haeckel argues that physical matter itself has sensitiveness, soul, and memory, he makes physiological heredity a form of "(unconscious) memory"--the projection of soul (psychoma) over time (153). Both Taine and Haeckel share with Lamarckism a materialistic perspective on mind and soul. Lamarckism objectified the soul, enabling a scientific account of its formation, nature, and transmission.

Thus, what is in the blood comprises the soul for Wharton. With her twofold sense of how environment affects the blood, Wharton describes two ways that "a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood--whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with visual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands." An analysis of Lily's blood shows the dual nature of Lily's degradation.

Lily's "first memories" (25) involve her childhood house, full of flux and motion: "a chaos of hurriedly-ransacked wardrobes," "a series of French and English maids," a "changing dynasty of nurses and footmen," "precipitate trips to Europe" (25, italics added). After the Barts lose their fortune, Lily grows up here and there, shunted from place to place. Always traveling around as a child, and always reinventing herself as an adult, she has adapted to mutability of character instead of developing an inner core that will last over time. She is only a "moment's ornament," the temporary configuration of pleasing elements, soon to be dissolved. Lacking a stable personal past, Lily also shows little evidence of a past inherited from her parents. She never learned her parents' family traditions, and the origin of her character traits is unclear. After describing how Lily's father loved poetry, for example, Wharton writes: "There was in Lily a vein of sentiment, perhaps transmitted from this source..." (30).

Lily's rootlessness is a symptom of a larger social ill: "All the men and women she knew were like atoms whirling away from each other in some wild centrifugal dance," writes Wharton, criticizing their "disintegrating influences" (248). Interestingly, with the word "all," Wharton criticizes not only the nouveaux riches, like the Brys and Gormers, but also the established families, like the Van Osburghs and Gryces. On the night of her death, Lily sees only two exceptions to this discontinuity: Nettie Struther and Lawrence Selden, whose blood embodies the house not built with hands.

Lily thinks first of Nettie:
   [H]er first glimpse of the continuity of life had come to her that
   evening in Nettle Struther's kitchen.

      The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up
   the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them,
   seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence. (248)

Though betrayed by an upper-class lover, Nettie has found the courage to live, to marry, and to have a daughter, building what so many others in the novel fail to: a place of refuge and community. Lily keeps trying to build a life for herself, but since it is by herself and for herself, it is doomed (72).

Although Nettle shows the "central truth" of existence, Lily's "exaltation of spirit" (249) has Selden at its center. From the beginning, Lily is fascinated by Selden's refinement, especially his ability to judge, his "reputation of weighing all things in the nice balance of fastidious perceptions" (127). Coincidentally, Lamarck believed the faculty of judgment to be "the most important" in the higher species (Zoological 398). But comparing Selden with Rosedale clarifies the nature of Selden's superiority. Rosedale gravitates toward Lily because his "mixture of artistic sensibility and business astuteness" (16) picks her out as a rarity. He has the right judgment, but unlike Selden, who notes Lily's beauty "with a purely impersonal enjoyment" (10), Rosedale is not a detached connoisseur; he mixes art and business, degrading art through his attitude of acquisition. Similarly, Rosedale acquires culture, which he incorporates only imperfectly. As Wharton notes, his idea "of showing himself to be at home in society was to display an inconvenient familiarity with the habits of those with whom he wished to be thought intimate" (16). Rosedale may learn certain things, and buy certain things, but he himself, the substance of who he is in his blood, remains an outsider, so his social culture seems vulgar, annoying, prosthetic.

Selden, however, does not acquire his faculties like art objects up for sale. He inherits them like family heirlooms. From his mother, Selden has "inherited his detachment from the sumptuary side of life: the stoic's carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean's pleasure in them" (121). Like Nettie providing for her child, Selden's mother has bequeathed him the ability to assess and enjoy material things without being bound by them. For this reason, Selden represents for Lily a freedom "from all the material accidents," what he calls the "republic of the spirit" (55). His perceptions and emotions accordingly take on a transcendent "quality" (249) or worth. In contrast to Lily's "blind ... mating-instinct" (248), Selden's love is not "a simple instinct of the blood" (249). Instinct denotes the shallowest form of transmitted memory, but Selden's love strikes "deeper," since it is "inextricably wound up with inherited habits of thought and feeling" (249). These "inherited habits" supersede the acquisitions of personal experience, education, or skill.

While each character in the novel has inherited something from the past, Wharton only validates Selden since he incarnates a perceptive sensibility instead of simply reiterating social forms. The Gryces and Van Osburghs have the money, birth, and manners of their class, but Selden has its spirit: that mysterious architecture or Bauplan, a cultural ethos as developed over time. Soaked in religion, art, politics, economics, and human relations, it is the sum of generations of pieties and traditions transformed into a particular sensibility: the sense of right and wrong, excellent or vulgar, as the culture, not the religion or any other subset of the culture's experience, would see it. Connected to the soul of his race, Selden can resist the glittering "thing" of the moment. He has "a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage..." (45). He can discriminate; he can judge; he can refuse. Those who have no inherited traditions take society at face value and assimilate its fashions indiscriminately. Even people born into the upper class might be spiritually unconnected to the achievements and ideals of the culture. As Diana Trilling points out, when Lily appears in the tableau vivant, Selden sees "a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part" (Mirth 106), but Van Alstyne sees only Lily's body: "Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up; but, gad, there isn't a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it!" (106). The elevation of Selden's vision, expressed in the language of idealism and continuity--Lily's beauty is a "part" of an eternal "harmony"--finds its antithesis in Van Alstyne's vulgar, fragmented exclamation.

Wharton, thus, does not simply criticize the materialism and social backbiting of New York society. In fact, Wharton, who had an enormous income of her own and spent it freely, does not have a problem with materialism per se, or with the intricacies of social life, which she cherished, or social and racial exclusivity, portrayed as an ideal in the novel. In The House of Mirth, Wharton exposes "the group of idle & dull people" (Letters 97) whose "sudden possession of money has come without inherited obligations, or any traditional sense of solidarity between the classes...." (Letters 99). The nouveaux riches have no moneyed history to begin with. Mrs. Hatch represents the worst specimen of that class. But more significantly, those with a proper history have started to live without the sensibility derived from that history. Gryce's personal dullness when it comes to taste prompts Wharton to describe him as one of the "lower organisms" (19), and even Aunt Peniston's "inherited obligations" place her with the idle and dull: "She belonged to the class of old New Yorkers who have always lived well, dressed expensively, and done little else..." (32).

More ominously, in countenancing people like Rosedale or the Gormers, those of Lily's class were debasing their milieu. Even to listen to someone like Rosedale can have a deleterious effect, despite the initial presence of ideals: "She had rejected Rosedale's offer without conscious effort; her whole being had risen against it; and she did not yet perceive that, by the mere act of listening to him, she had learned to live with ideas which would once have been intolerable to her" (204). As a collective environment, both types of people--new money and foolish old money--have a negative effect upon future generations, as seen in Lily, who learns to live with what is degraded. Although Lily has "superior gifts" (204), she comes to exemplify the tragedy of "wasted human possibilities" (Wharton, "Introduction" 266).

Here, Wharton expands the criticism of American wealth first leveled by Edgar Allan Poe, an author she admired and included in a cameo role in Old New York (1924). In "The Philosophy of Furniture" (1840), Poe criticizes Americans for using an "aristocracy of dollars" to compensate for their missing "aristocracy of blood" (414). Asserting that money makes a poor substitute for nobility, Poe advocates an aristocracy of taste instead of the aristocracy of dollars. If nobility is more than mere wealth, this elevated aesthetic perception can give to Americans the spirit if not the fact of aristocracy. Two generations after Poe, Wharton completes the transition from blood nobility to nobility of taste by positing a new aristocracy of blood. The true members of New York's aristocracy have had taste and money long enough for these things to become more than acquisition and more than habit. Selden represents an ideal because his sensibility adds to taste the biological dimension of time. Not only does he possess this faculty of judgment that represents his culture's finest, but he has inherited it, and it is in his very blood. Even his body shows "the air of belonging to a more specialized race, of carrying the impress of a concentrated past" (53). Linked so substantively, so physiologically, to his cultural past, Selden has, in the finest sense that Wharton understood the term, a soul.

What Wharton encodes in Lily's and in Selden's blood takes her Lamarckism beyond the racial assumptions evident in some of her contemporaries. For in Wharton's view, race alone does not guarantee a house not built with hands. I distinguish my reading from that of Kassanoff, who sees Lily as the embodiment of race, contrasting her immutable racial inheritance with her story of material disinheritance. Through Lamarckian inheritance and personal cultivation, an individual must also possess the right sensibility derived from the right type of culture within the race: what Bentley discusses as Arnoldian Culture (71). Van Alstyne is Anglo-European but lacks the aesthetic refinement that is the Anglo-European achievement, the "spirit" of what it means to be white. Selden, on the other hand, inherits that refined sensibility and also fulfils it in his individual existence. Although Lily has some aesthetic taste, she did not inherit it from her parents, and her lifestyle of mutability has further cut her off from her race's highest level of culture. In the end, she has a status oddly similar to Rosedale, someone of a different race. What good is Lily's aesthetic quality, if she evolved it or acquired it on her own? It has no spiritual connection to the evolutionary history of her race and thus no ultimate validity. Since Lily inherits and acquires mostly rootlessness, she could only reconnect to the larger life through reproduction, like Nettie, which she is not allowed to do. Wharton's form of Lamarckism de-emphasizes the acquisition of characters, as seen in Rosedale and Lily, to emphasize the inheritance of slowly accumulated character, seen in Selden. This emphasis devalues both Rosedale's and Lily's individual merits. While theoretically Lamarckism enables transformism or evolution, acquisition means little for the individual, according to Wharton, apart from inheritance. A Rosedale is still a Rosedale, no matter what he manages to acquire. No matter how splendid the peacock feather he dons, he will remain, in essence, a crow (see also Goldman-Price).

Wharton's Lamarckism accepts Darwinian naturalism but clearly denies the cultural relativism that became axiomatic in anthropology and sociology. To lack connection with the heritage of high Culture is to be cut off from a greater, transcendent reality, "transcendent" indicating both elevation and fineness as well as longevity, the proof of worth. Disconnected from a race's collective, evolutionary growth toward sweetness and light, an individual or society has only an evanescent, meaningless existence. Like an anomalous moment that does not count in an enduring character, the frivolous individual or society will have no dimension in time and thus no real existence.

In The House of Mirth, continuity emerges as an explicitly material, historical force that yet functions as a mode of transcendence. For Wharton, religion "had become inseparable from a concept of civilization: ... a 'reverence for the accumulated experience of the past'" (Lewis 221). And given Wharton's evolutionary monism, this past offers the only possible alternative to the material forces of existence. To transcend one's self and one's social moment, one must connect to other cultural and historical moments that form a larger metaculture. Just as memory gives the self coherence over time, heredity links the individual to the transhistorical and, in that sense, transcendent identity of the culture. Lily perceives that there is much more to life than what she has tried so hard to project and to attain. Excluded from the house of mirth, she sees the beauty and transcendence of the house not built with hands, a reality greater than her moment in time, a dwelling she has never entered or known.

The House of Mirth

Wharton's "house not built with hands" shares a curious feature of The Mount, Wharton's mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she wrote much of The House of Mirth. From the front courtyard, a visitor can look into a ground-floor window and see all the way through, out the window on the other side of the house. The building thus acts like a telescope to the other side: sunlight and glowing leaves, a shining vision of the outer world. As it turns out, the second window is really a mirror, hung on the wall opposite the ground-floor window. The vision of the other side is a trompe-l'oeil, a reflection of the landscape behind the visitor that can only be seen if the viewer stands in the courtyard, at a distance from the house.

Lily's vision is like the mirror. Forced outside the house of mirth, Lily believes she sees through it to something beyond, but what she really sees is an object within the house. If she wants that outside world, she is actually closer to it where she is. To approach the house not built with hands is to converge upon a destructive surface, like a bird flying into a closed window.

Although Lily's vision can only offer a figurative transcendence, The House of Mirth exerts a strong textual pressure to read it as a moment of transcendence. Lily's epiphany, for example, mimics the traditional moment in which a moral or spiritual insight emerges from the crucible of experience. It is easily read as moral elevation, or part of an illustration of "the spiritual value of failure" (Nevius 118). (13) The epiphany scene also functions as the revelatory moment common to the Bildungsroman, the spiritual autobiography, and related narratives of development. In these genres, the climax indicates the maturation of the protagonist, the point at which a crucial understanding completes the character's sensibilities. In terms of placement in the novel's structure, and in terms of general affect, Lily's epiphany coincides with that type of moment. She seems to have arrived at an ultimate insight, showing that she has become one who sees, one who understands the novel's highest reality. Her apprenticeship or childhood has ended.

In this light, it is interesting to consider a statement by William I. Thomas, an early twentieth-century sociologist: "The savage is not a modern child, but one whose consciousness is not influenced by the copies set in civilization. And the white child is not a savage, but one whose mind is not yet fully dominated by the white type of culture" (163). Maturation, in this sense, is an index of enculturation, not connection with an immutable transcendent reality. Lily seems to have attained an ultimate vision, but given the content and context of Lily's epiphany, her maturation really signals her capitulation to Wharton's concept of culture. In her progress or decline throughout the novel, Lily has been converging upon the perspective Wharton designed her to illustrate, that a set of rich, idle, frivolous New Yorkers was becoming dangerously disconnected from the heritage of high culture. When Lily sees this, she has internalized this perspective so thoroughly that she accepts a debasing view of herself as well as a fatalism that extinguishes her spiritual life and finds its correlative in her physical death. As critics (e.g. Moore 12 and Boydston 34) untangle Lily's selves, they seem to agree that Lily cannot survive as a stable moral self within the novel's world.

The novel's languages even reinforce this impossibility, which finds its cause not in the brutality of Lily's society but in Wharton's cultural ethos. The House of Mirth chronicles a materialistic world, fabricated in the "historical discourses ... the languages of business, science, and art" (Norris 433). The dearth of religious language reflects the spiritual "empoverishment" (248) of Lily's world. As Wai-Chee Dimock reflects, "Morality, in The House of Mirth, provides no transcendent language, no alternative way of being, but feeds directly into the mechanisms of the marketplace" (387). The central power of such materialism even transmutes Lily's spiritual life into financial terms: "deeper empoverishment," "inner destitution" (248), "poor little anguished self' (250). Although Wharton uses the Bible frequently in other novels, she tightly restricts such allusion in The House of Mirth, using it for rare moments of moral vision: the final epiphany and the scene in which Lily realizes that she has compromised herself in taking money from Trenor. "There was a great gulf fixed between today and yesterday" (117), Wharton writes, echoing the "great gulf fixed" between heaven and hell (Luke 16:26). The alternative to the novel's materialism thus exists within the novel in the form of these allusions to a religious text. It is rare, but it exists. But when Wharton appropriates the biblical house not built with hands, she construes it as a metaphor for a physiological inheritance, making a metaphor of a metaphor of spiritual life and thus canceling its reality. Her construction of transcendence thus negates the possibility of an authentic transcendence.

It also negates Lily's soul, asserting that she lacks that core of being made real only through persistence over time. For this reason, Lily sees that she cannot disengage her refined tastes from the love of money. Although she has impulsively resisted her materialism throughout the novel, the epiphany forces Lily to realize that such moral impulses amount to nothing: "There was the cheque in her desk, for instance--she meant to use it in paying her debt to Trenor; but she foresaw that when the morning came she would put off doing so, would slip into gradual tolerance of the debt.... She knew the strength of the opposing impulses-she could feel the countless hands of habit dragging her back into some fresh compromise with fate" (249). Lily suddenly writes out the check to Trenor, as if trying to pre-empt herself from keeping the money, but she sees that her life must always be like this: a reaction against her essential nature. She may try to stop herself, but she will always tend toward compromise. Since an impulse only lasts a moment, it cannot reflect true character, as Selden seems to believe: "It was much simpler for him to judge Miss Bart by her habitual conduct than by the rare deviations from it which had thrown her so disturbingly in his way..." (212). He feels that Lily's longstanding behavior reflects her true nature more than her sporadic attempts to be other than her social formation. The habit is the reality; the deviation merely a sport, and by the end of the novel, Lily takes that view of herself.

Further, it is Lily's own fault that she lacks "continuity of moral strength" (204, 230-31). Although Wharton criticizes Lily's society for its effect on Lily, she does not exonerate Lily for her own complicity in her decline. The difference between a Lamarckian environment and a Darwinian one is the role of the organism itself. In Lamarckian theory, the environment affects an organism mostly in the sense that the organism voluntarily develops certain habits within it. Lily's rootlessness has its roots in Lily herself: her desires, aims, and choices, given her milieu.

All of these assertions come from the Lamarckian dimension of The House of Mirth, but Lily's epiphany seems also to prove them wrong. Wharton asserts that Lily cannot transcend her milieu because she has not inherited the ability to do so. Yet the fact of epiphany itself testifies to a self that can transcend her culture (see Loebel 108). Further, Lily arrives at her insight independently of Selden, though previously Selden had been the catalyst for moral vision. Whenever she sees him, he has a "way of readjusting her vision" (45) so that all her material ambitions seem empty to her. When Selden arrives at Bellomont, for example, Lily scans "her little world through his retina" (45), and her view of the rich set changes. She then sabotages her own attempt to hook Percy Gryce. This pattern continues throughout the novel: Lily schemes, Selden alters her perspective, and Lily acts against her own plans. Near the end, Lily is on her way to blackmail Bertha Dorset, but when she sees Selden's apartment, she "seemed suddenly to see her action as he would see it," which "chilled her blood with shame" (237). In Selden's flat, she abandons her plot and burns the incriminating letters. Because of Selden, Lily resists what Wharton identifies as her greatest fault, her love of money (132). Yet Lily arrives at her final insight alone, while alone. She perceives something fundamentally different from what she has known or been taught.

Unfortunately, this intuitive leap, this discontinuity, tags Lily as a monster, perhaps even a "hopeful monster," which Wharton's Lamarckism condemns to destruction. (14) Her ability to have an epiphany shows her personal ability to transcend her context. She has a capacity for vision that is independent of social inheritance or influence. However, her belief in the content of her vision--that is, the definition of transcendence seen in the house not built with hands--destroys that possibility. Lily has eyes to see, but what she sees destroys her because it is a factitious transcendence and because she actually believes it when it denies her validity. Her epiphany reveals how much she is a "victim of the civilization which had produced her" (8).

Because Selden reflects a transcendent reality to which Lily cannot belong for non-transcendent reasons (blood and culture), she is trapped by her material accidents, when it is the nature of transcendence to provide freedom beyond them. Lily's faith in Selden incapacitates her spiritually, since she thinks she needs him to "ma[k]e her renewal possible" (249). Selden, however, cannot act redemptively within his culture because he cannot see apart from the cultural forces that form his being: "He saw that all the conditions of life had conspired to keep them apart; since his very detachment from the external influences which swayed her had increased his spiritual fastidiousness, and made it more difficult for him to live and love uncritically" (255). This spiritual fastidiousness is his cultural judgment--aesthetic detachment asserted as spiritual strength, which causes their separation since Selden must recoil from the economic and social forces that move Lily. Though Wharton claims that "the moment had been fated to pass from them..." (255), Selden's conformity with his heritage as "fate" leads to this loss. Given his continuity with his blood, it is biologically impossible for Selden to help Lily. Even if he tried, the porosity of Lamarckism as a mechanism for transformation does not allow Lily as an individual the possibility of rehabilitation.

Lily's entrapment in her material accidents stems from what Selden offers: the myth of transcending a culture through Culture. What Wharton poses against the house of mirth is a more refined version of the house of mirth--a world of historical culture (the house not built with hands) as opposed to society as it appears to exist at the moment (the house of mirth). But culture is still culture, and love of the world is still love of the world, whether it takes the form of vulgar financial greed or the sweetness and light of cultural refinement. Because this transcendence is not authentically transcendent, it causes damage when it is taken as such. The naturalistic assumptions of disciplines such as anthropology and sociology enabled them to study religion as a subset, even an epiphenomenon, of culture. While this perspective is logical in a closed system, it acts with brutal violence when asserted as a reality beyond the discipline's identity as a localized system of study. The problem is not so much the imperialism, elitism, or racism of this culture as its ingestion of religion as one of its systemic organs and its subsequent apotheosis of itself as an organic, transhistorical entity. (15) In Lily's case, since her blood disqualifies her from the higher reality she perceives, she experiences a violent deracination, both spiritual and physiological, that coincides with her epiphany.

Lily is most cut off from her culture when she becomes most mature within it and thus most subject to it, perceiving its ideal reality. The more completely she understands the house not built with hands, the more she receives it as truth of a higher order, and the more she must accept her own exclusion from it. Dominated epistemically, she is overtaken by "the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now--the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them" (248). At first, Lily sees her resemblance to an "uprooted growth"--an organism that has roots, though torn from its niche. But next Lily feels that she is "something rootless," no longer a "growth" but a "thing," an indeterminate object, and without roots at all. James Tuttleton writes that Lily illustrates "the ominous consequences of cultural deracination" (569), and this passage rhetorically and literally deracinates Lily's soul, severing her from her race and culture, evacuating her history of validity, and denying that she has any "personal existence" (248), a perspective that she comes to share. (16)

Wharton's Lamarckism results in a literal amputation, a violent disunity, precisely because it is predicated on a materialistic monism. Lily's spiritual consciousness of her culturally-debased body splits one part of her body from another (the body as "soul" from the body), an amputation that only becomes possible when the soul is made into a material, corporeal object that forms another part of the human physiognomy. Lily's painful awareness that her blood makes it physically impossible for her to enter the spiritual house not built with hands shows the consequence of defining religious transcendence in empirical, objective terms. Lily's internalization of her vision divides her fatally from her own body and history while it also cuts her off from the larger body of her race and its transhistorical memory in culture. In The House of Mirth, transcendence is the spiritualization of material phenomena such as history or culture that can be perceived but not acquired. While epiphany offers the possibility of some self undetermined by the social world and uncrafted by the self as an artifice, the momentary flash of the biblical allusion, "house not built with hands," becomes muted at once with the phrase, "but made up of inherited passions and loyalties," and similarly, Lily's epiphany becomes mutilated by her vision of continuity. Such transcendence can offer no salvation.

The House of Mourning

At Lily's deathbed, Selden connects the fragments of their past and realizes that Lily did not want to be obligated to Trenor, financially or sexually, "and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear" (256). The novel ends with a transcendent communication: Lily is dead, Selden alive, yet there passes between them a gently illuminating word. In the house of mourning, which Lily provides for Selden, a wisdom transcending the house of mirth has arisen. It is consistent with Wharton's philosophy that Selden, the inheritor of his culture's aesthetic, moral, and religious experience, can gain this transcendence without death. Unfortunately, Selden and what he represents can only reap their wisdom, their silent epiphany, from what they have helped to destroy. It is unclear how they apprehend the prophetic dimension of Lily Bart as an ontogenetic recapitulation of the civilization that produced her.


I wish to thank Linda H. Peterson for her comments on an earlier version of this essay.


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Tuttleton, James W. "Edith Wharton: the Archaeological Motive." The Yale Review 61 (1972): 562-74.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Boston: Houghton and Mifflin Co., 1973.

Weismann, August. The Evolution Theory. Trans. J. Arthur Thomson and Margaret R. Thomson. 2 vols. London: Edward Arnold, 1904; NY: AMS P[1983].

Wharton, Edith. Edith Wharton Collection. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale U.

--. A Backward Glance. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1934.

--. The Age of Innocence. 1920. Novels. New York: The Library of America, 1985.

--. The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton. Ed. R. W. B. Lewis. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968.

--. "Introduction to The House of Mirth [1936 edition]." The Uncollected Critical Writings. Ed. Frederick Wegener. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. 264-69.

--. French Ways and Their Meaning. 1919. Lenox, MA: Edith Wharton Restoration at the Mount; Lee, MA: Berkshire House Publishers, 1997.

--. The Glimpses of the Moon. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1922.

--. The House of Mirth. 1905. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

--. Hudson River Bracketed. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1929.

--. The Letters of Edith Wharton. Ed. R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. London: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

--. Old New York. 1924. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952.

--. The Uncollected Critical Writings. Ed. Frederick Wegener. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996.

--. The Valley of Decision. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's and Sons, 1902.


(1) Some look at Wharton in direct connection with Darwin (Tuttleton, Schriber, Singley, Bender, Preston). Others explore the anthropological and sociological dimensions of her work, discussing Darwinian evolution more generally (Lindberg, Bentley, Kassanoff). Bender and Preston both discuss Lamarckism but do not work out extensive readings of Wharton in light of Lamarckian theory. In her reading of The House of Mirth, Preston uses Lamarckism as a rough analogue to the individual will or effort, frustrated by a Darwinian environment, but I discuss Wharton's Lamarckism as it affects not only the individual but its race and its environment.

(2) For a sampling on Wharton and naturalism, see Nevius, Price, Michaels, Pizer.

(3) The Greater Inclination (1899) takes its title from Edmond Kelly's Evolution and Effort (1895). Kelly theorizes that humans have two inclinations: the primary inclination, descended from savage ancestors, and the secondary (or greater) inclination, which gives rise to wisdom and religion, and which takes an effort to prefer. He argues that humans, unlike animals, can take an active role in their evolutionary development.

(4) Most notably in Beer. See also Bender, Krasner, Levine, Pizer, Alcorn, Jones, and Henkin. For a Foucauldian reading of recapitulation theory, see Otis.

(5) Sally Norton, reminiscence of Edith Wharton (unpublished MS, Yale), qtd. in Preston 55.

(6) Darwin described Lamarck's work as "a wretched book" (Hull xlvii) and is often viewed as an antithesis to Lamarck. However, Darwin himself held some Lamarckian views. His theory of pangenesis, for example, states that each part of the adult body produces gemmules that make their way into the sexual organs for reproduction; in this way, traits acquired by adults can be passed on to their young. Darwin also revised later editions of The Origin of Species (1859) to accommodate Lamarckism, and in The Descent of Man (1871), he cites evidence of inherited mutilations (906). More interestingly, Darwin acknowledges Spencer's idea that moral emotions result from acquired, transmitted changes. He speculates that traits such as chastity and humanity to animals may "become first impressed on the mental organization through habit, instruction and example, continued during several generations..." (493).

(7) Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, discusses the religious disposition (Hereditary Genius 319, 334) and the artistic faculty (Natural Inheritance 158-162). For monogamy, see Spencer I:685, qtd. in Gossett 148. Carlos Closson attributes Catholicism and the "taxpaying capacity" to Lamarckian inheritance (Stocking 251). For conscience, see Darwin 486, 913-14; Galton, Inquiries 151-2. On taste in foods, see Darwin 493. Finally, the Teutonic origins theory suggested that American democracy sprang naturally from the Anglo-Saxon race.

(8) In politics in 1896, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge describes the "soul of a race" in Lamarckian terms: "The men of each race possess an indestructible stock of ideas, traditions, sentiments, modes of thought, an unconscious inheritance from their ancestors ... [,] the slow growth and assimilation of centuries of toil and conflict" (Congressional 2819-20). In The History of English Literature (1877), Hippolyte Taine writes of dispositions of "mind and soul, innate and appended by nature to the race, or acquired and produced by some circumstance acting upon the race" (1:16). And in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen attributes aesthetic taste to hereditary memory of an environment. The "dolicho-blond," for example, must have "been for a long time a pastoral people inhabiting a region with a humid climate. The close-cropped lawn is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent it is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land" (99).

(9) Wharton rejected two other titles: A Moment's Ornament and The Year of the Rose. Singley suggests that the original titles "emphasized gender and Darwinism," whereas the "final title, drawn from the Bible, makes the novel a spiritual as well as social critique" (219-20).

(10) Continuity was one of Wharton's most central beliefs, reiterated in most of her works, such as The Custom of the Country (1913), The Writing of Fiction (1925), and The Gods Arrive (1932), to name a few. The most extended treatment appears in French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), but Wharton first addresses the concept in her first novel, The Valley of Decision (1902), which considers not only a diachronic continuity but the continuity of a society in its collective growth: "From the tilling of the vineyards, or the dressing of a beggar's sores, to the loftiest and most complicated intellectual labor imposed on him, each brother knows that his daily task is part of a great scheme of action, working ever from imperfection to perfection, from human incompleteness to the divine completion" (2:295).

(11) Edith Wharton, Box 8, Folder 211, ms., Edith Wharton Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

(12) Wharton even chafed at the metaphysical jargon of those who still seemed to believe in a split between body and soul. See, for example, Letters 102 and Letters 56.

(13) See also McDowell 43, 47, 49; Price 243; Singley 77; Nevius 57; and Pizer "Naturalism" 246.

(14) Geneticist Richard Goldschmidt argued in 1940 that new species arose through discontinuous variation, in "a single genetic step" (390). Such macromutation--the equivalent of an otter hatching from a bird's egg--mostly resulted in "monsters," but sometimes a "hopeful monster" in the right niche could enjoy success. Goldschmidt's critics have noted "the low probability that a totally monstrous form will find a mate and produce fertile offspring" (Stanley 159). Lily's monstrosity lies in her leap toward continuity when her blood should preclude such a leap. Wharton even describes her as having "little tentacles" (248).

(15) In a related move, Fredric Jameson conceives of Marxism as that "'untranscendable horizon' that subsumes such apparently antagonistic or incommensurable critical operations, assigning them an undoubted sectoral validity within itself, and thus at once canceling and preserving them" (10). Jameson quotes Emile Durkheim: "'The very concept of totality is but the abstract form of the concept of society: that whole which includes all things, that supreme class under which all other classes must be subsumed'" (8).

(16) Although Wharton associated him with discontinuity, Weismann stresses the "continuity" (vii) of the germ-plasm, which he describes as "a long root creeping through the earth, from which at regular distances shoots grow up and become plants, the individuals of the successive generations" (416). The germ-plasm is "the endless root" (416) beneath generations of bodies. Strangely, Wharton's Lamarckism, because of its continuity of inheritance, functions almost like Weismann's hard heredity, the endless root, easily connected to the root meaning of "race," which is "root." In another vein, note the insights of Frantz Fanon (109-21)--he comments in analoguous fashion on Lily's "racial" crisis. See also Rohrbach 99-114.
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Author:Kim, Sharon
Publication:Studies in the Novel
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Date:Jun 22, 2006
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