House of Mirth

The Cost of Conformity

According to the Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser, society's class structure and gender roles depend primarily not on economics, but on the power of attitudes and ideas. In Edith Wharton's classic work, The House of Mirth, characters show varying cognizances of this social force. Wharton's novel clearly illustrates that the evolution of a person's identity within Victorian-era American culture depended on his or her awareness of ideological influences. In particular, Wharton uses three archetypal groups to show that the margin of distinction between these two states of awareness is occupied by one's sense of self. She also structures the novel to poise her protagonist, Lily Bart, on the brink of a minefield that represents this dichotomy. Initially unaware, Lily's interaction with other characters gradually removes her ignorance, allowing her to see herself as she is--and, more importantly, forcing her to evaluate the emotional sacrifices associated with adopting her socially-constructed identity.

Victorian America was based on a gendered hierachy where men reigned supreme. In this world, men were regarded as the intrinsically superior sex, while women were looked down upon as an inferior caste. In...

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