Subjectivity in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth Essay example

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Subjectivity in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth presents an interesting study of the social construction of subjectivity. The Victorian society which Wharton's characters inhabit is defined by a rigid structure of morals and manners in which one's identity is determined by apparent conformity with or transgression of social norms. What is conspicuous about this brand of social identification is its decidedly linguistic nature. In this context, behaviors themselves are rendered as text, and the incessant social appraisal in which the characters of the novel participate is a process of deciphering this script of behavior. People's actions here are read, as it were, according to the
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We are told on this first page that this is not aberrant behavior, the private entertainment of some annoyingly curious person. As Wharton informs us, "it was characteristic of her, [Lily], that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seems the result of far reaching intentions" (5). Indeed, "in judging Miss Bart he, [Selden], had always made use of the Œargument from design'"(7). Every one of Lily's acts has a meaning which can be discerned through an investigation like Selden's. Selden reads her behaviors, evaluating the syntax of activity while seeking its semantic content. Certain words (acts) uttered (performed) in certain contexts tells us what the speaker (actor) intends to communicate.

Given this interpretation of behavioral texts, it is not, then, surprising that on entering Selden's flat, Selden and Lily share a brief conversation regarding another form of text, his book collection. We can see clearly that books make their first appearance not as sources of knowledge, but as social pretext. In the course of conversation, we learn that those who collect books generally‹Selden is an exception‹do so not to read them, but merely to be possessed of something high in value due to its rarity. At this early stage, then, it is suggested that written texts are subordinate to behavioral texts in the sense that they are used in the service of actions rendered intelligible through

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