The Age of Innocence

Wealth and Poverty in American Literature College

In American literature and culture throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the signs of wealth and poverty are often indicated by an individual’s appearance. The belief that one’s exterior reflects their class is demonstrative of the narcissism of American society during the Progressive Era, as the population - more notably the middle class, grew obsessed with the idea of visibly displaying one’s wealth. The expansion of conspicuous consumption remains central to evaluating the signs of economic power, as without the development of this concept, appearance would not be considered so wholly symbolic of one’s pecuniary strength. As a result, a person’s image provides many signs of their financial status; such as their physical appearance, their display of possessions, the manner in which they speak, but also the type of activities they partake in which affect their mien. The significance of these signals is explored in many pieces of American literature, which capture the dramatic contrast between the extravagant exterior of the rich and the ragged appearance of the poor.

The physical appearance of an individual is shown to be representative of their financial status, as those who are smart and well-dressed are assumed...

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