Edith Wharton, “The House of Mirth”


Wharton’s novel tells the story of the decline of Lily Bart, a well-bred New York woman climbing the social ladder towards an advantageous marriage who exhausts her possibilities and falls. I’d like to compare this novel to James’ The Ambassadors in the sense that both are concerned with the distinction between sense and sensibility. (Wharton paid for his prefaces in the New York editions.) Whereas in James, the novel plots Strether’s advancement from common sense to sense/sensuality  (sight, taste, touch) to a sensibility of manners (perspective, taste, tact), it seems Wharton is engaged in a slightly different approach – a sort of American Vanity Fair. 

Lily Bart’s extreme tact (in the sense of manners and strategic acumen) bars her from touching (emotionally or physically) any of the people around her. The notion of tact also has to do with her intact and frigid virginal body. The proliferation of money metaphors in the novel demonstrates how not only Lily, but the novel itself makes sense and sensibility part of the same flat surface, confusing literal and metaphorical, material and spiritual. Many of the novel’s main events are effaced – presented to us later in the form of gossip in which they are retold, rather than presented as events when they occur. A major event is Lily’s misconstruction of the money from Trenor as figurative, rather than literal, and some of the novel’s metaphors go so far from the things they represent as to question the alchemical properties of language, as if it were itself an unreliable market. Rosedale “stood scanning her with interest” 17 and “people say Judy Trenor has quarreled with [Lily] on account of Gus” 167.

“It was true that, during the last three or four weeks, she had absented herself from Bellomont on the pretext of having other visits to pay; but she now began to feel that the reckoning she had thus contrived to evade had rolled up interest in the interval” 123.

Much of this confusion seems to stem from Lily’s mother, who tells her that her beautiful face (like that of a coin) will always get her money. As she declines, she does so “at face value,” so to speak – her struggles are not reflective, but reflected outwardly – she is herself a perfect surface. Trenor has “been somewhat heavily ‘touched’ by the fall in stocks” 171, when Lily is repulsed by Trenor, “the words were worse than the touch!” 195, and Lily “gave to the encounter the touch of naturalness which she could impart to the most strained situations” 306. Towards the end of the novel, “the mere touch of the packet thrilled her tired nerves” when she is addicted to sleeping drugs 389 and it is only in this state that she can be “frankly touched” by Rosedale’s kindness, just pages before her accidental overdose (after which Selden finally touches her) 391.


Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, “Sexual Linguistics”


“Is anatomy linguistic destiny? Is womb a metaphorical mouth, a pen a metaphorical penis?” the authors begin.

“From Freud to Lacan to Derrida on the one hand, and from Woolf to Irigaray to Cixous on the other, masculinist and feminist theorists alike have toyed with the idea of a culturally determined body language which translates the articulations of the body into that body of articulated terminology we call language” 515.

“If language is a process of cultural artifiice that both distances and defines nature, then it would seem that its workings might well embody the bodily differences through which each human being first confronts the fundamental sexuality of his or her own nature… as Julia Kristeva puts it, ‘Sexual difference – which is at once biological, physiological, and relative to production – is translated by and translates a difference in the relationship of subjects to the symbolic contract which is the social contract: a difference, then, in the relationship to power, language, and meaning” 515-16.

Gilbert and Gubar seek to interrogate this psychologically and historically – through the primacy of the mother in the ‘symbolic contract’ and through a tradition of female writing that belies the idea that the feminine does not appear in common language. “The female subject is not necessarily alienated from the words she writes and speaks” 516. A French feminist approach prioritizes the preexistence of a woman’s language that breaks from patriarchy, while an a priori Anglo-American approach has been focused on research into a praxis of linguistics itself. Irigaray and Kristeva picture the female body as open, blank, full of gaps and lacunae that ‘speak louder than words,” and Cixous calls writing an outpouring or disgorging of fluids. These thinkers seek to move beyond the binary of patriarchy – for Cixous, Molly Bloom carries “Ulysses off beyond any book and toward the new writing” 518. By opting for matter over mind, the female body escapes.

However, the “mysteriously multiple fluency” and “antithetical imagining of eloquent silence” is more like the male avant-garde’s fine de siecle concept of women 519. Thus, many feminists “refuse to be Mollified” 519. Is it better to speak illegibly outside history or to join the forces of the enemy? Empiricism is a way out for many American feminists, who examine linguistic structures for how ‘he/man’ usages filter out recognition of female existence; indeed, as if corroborating the French emphasis on blanks, gaps, silences… ‘for females, the only semantic space in English is negative'” 519. Beyond “pronoun envy” are also “lexical asymmetries” of wholeness for man and things like hysteria for women 520. Robin Lakoff proposes that women’s English is collaborative, but weaker than men’s.

Ultimately, the French and American sides of the argument appear quite different, at least in part because French is a more gender-marked and inflected language 520. The authors wonder if the “charisma” of French discourse is a haute-couture of linguistics (“a utopian vision of woman’s language”) beside the “garment district empiricism” of Americans (“a dystopian version of woman’s sentence”) 521. Rather than “a joyously emetic emission from a community based on the commonality of women,” the American approach has stressed that “if a woman learns and uses women’s language, she is necessarily considered less than a real full person,” but if she does not, “she is ostracized as unfeminine” (Lakoff’s double bind) 521.

One issue is the repetition of women as suppressed, as not yet fully present. But even Virginia Woolf, in tracing a weak line up to her own time, 70 years before Gilbert & Gubar are writing, found a tradition beginning in the late 18th century of women’s writing 522. Woolf’s “woman’s sentence” is neither French nor American in its approach – it is more historical than the first and more optimistic than the latter. Woolf used “what was essentially a fantasy about a utopian linguistic structure… to define (and perhaps disguise) her desire to revise not woman’s language but woman’s relation to language” 523. The woman’s sentence is not so much about the grammatical construction of language as it is about overturning the idea that a sentence is final, judgmental, or complete, “by which woman has been kept from feeling that she can be in full command of language” 523. Woolf’s fantasy is of the legal power to sentence being moved to the realm of femininity.

Molly Bloom’s, while held up as example, is still a leaky, chaotic discourse set against the two men’s. James (in The Bostonians) fears the chatter of women will take over male discourse, and Eliot (in “Hysteria”), has “caught” the disease from woman and runs on in a paragraph rather than a poem proper 526. Even in The Waste Land, the female characters are hysterical, and can “connect nothing with nothing,” except for the silent hyacinth girl, and Eliot’s goal seems to be to transcend female language, “justifying Joyce’s claim that The Waste Land ‘ended the idea of poetry for ladies'” 526.

The authors point to Emily Dickinson as the foremother of a fantasy of women’s language as sorcery, as well as Wharton, Barnes, Cather, Hurston, H.D. and Stein. Stein “speaks in tongues” in Tender Buttons, “recover[ing] the numinous names of an alternative history” 529. G & G also point to the inscrutable sky-writing of Mrs. Dalloway, where the homeless woman’s song is mystical and Clarissa and Septimus are given a similar language 531. “Woolf emphasizes the fact that both the alienation from language her books describe and the revision of lexicography her books detail are functions of the dispossession of women, as well as of women’s natural resources in the face of this dispossession” 531. This includes Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast’s creaking on in To the Lighthouse as they keep the house from further disintegration 531.

What is the difference between “mother tongue” and “father speech”? The latter is an external possession, like Latin or Greek, and is hierarchically above and more pure the intimate vernacular we gain at birth 533. Perhaps men translating between these two forms of speech also feel belated to their forefathers. Joyce is the prime example, the authors hold, of the transformation of mother tongue into dense, hard father speech. “Oxen of the Sun” plays through a “(male) linguistic ontogeny” that “recapitulates (male) linguistic phylogeny” (the individual’s development scans the biological history of that development) 534-5. “Most male writers are either reacting against or appropriating the verbal fertility of the mother,” since there are truly “no father tongues” 535.

The “swerve” Lacan must make to align language and the Oedipal complex demonstrates the extreme fixation on the necessary abjection of the mother. The child already has language at this point, language fed to him by his mother, but Lacan makes a logical detour to conceal this and subsume language as “fatherly,” as part of individuating from the mother 536. Is the obsession with a patriarchal language actually the result of the fear that it is matriarchal? Thus castration anxiety is more about the anxiety of the knowledge that woman is complete, that she is not castrated, as Susan Lurie argues 537. The symbolic (maternal) contract is “signed” before the social (paternal) contract is constructed 538.

“We must also ask whether the whole structure of ‘hierarchized’ oppositions that some of us have thought essentially patriarchal has been historically erected as a massive defense against the deep throat of the mother and the astonishing autonomy of that mother tongue which is common to both genders” 538.

It would be interesting to compare this to stories and food in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where a female language is also under construction.

“To carry such an empowering intuition one step further… can it be that feminist theorists must look beyond the traditional alphabetizings of history, with its masculinist syntax of subordination, to discover and recover the ways in which, as we have seen here, women have sometimes stealthily and sometimes ecstatically claimed the alphabet to capitalize (on) their own initials and their own initiatives?” 538.

Here, you might think of Mr. Ramsay’s stubborn progress through the alphabet, or even the narrator of Isherwood’s Prater Violet, cataloguing his male lovers. The authors suggest seeking language and readings and writings in the chaos of an “alphabet soup””

“The very possibility that women might achieve such a vision implies that the relationship between anatomy and linguistic destiny, between sexual diference and the symbolic contract, may promise not just female jouissance but feminist puissance. For at last, in spite of feminist doubt and masculinist dread, we can affirm that woman has not been sentenced to transcribe male penmanship; rather, she commands sentences which inscribe her own powerful character” 539.

Henry James, “The Ambassadors”


The Ambassadors (originally serialized) describes the trip of one Lambert Strether, first to England, then to Paris, to collect Chad Newsome, the wayward son of Strether’s fiancee. In the process, he learns to “take things as they come” in the European way, becomes close friends with Maria Gostrey (who basically proposes at the end of the novel), finds himself infatuated with Mme. (Marie) de Vionnet (Chad’s lover), acknowledges that Chad is not lost but has changed for the better, disagrees with his firmly American friend Waymarsh on the value of the European experience, and forgoes his engagement to Mrs. Newsome.

The novel, told in the third person free indirect discourse typical of James, is limited to Strether’s point of view and posits his growth as a progress of perspective – of seeing. At first, Strether arrives in Europe having pre-judged the situation with Chad, and he is defined by his obsession with time and his watch. As R.W. Stallman says, “He is addicted to watching the clock lest he miss the train, and that is why he has always missed it” 377. As the novel progresses, images of sight proliferate, so that in the final key scene of his refusal of Maria Gostrey, Maria says “I see. So that as she’s different for you -” and he interrupts with “She’s the same… But I do what I didn’t before – I see her” 373. Thus his reason for leaving Mrs. Newsome is one of newfound sight, but so is his reason for refusing Maria herself – he desires “to be right,” and Maria tells him, “It isn’t so much your being right – it’s your horrible sharp eye for what makes it so” 375. In this sense, it is Strether’s very ability to discern at the end of the novel that makes him so much more attractive than the equivocating, prejudging man of someone else’s “vision” who we meet asking himself his “first question” as the novel begins 5.

Eventually, the development of hearing, and especially seeing, extends to the level of touch (tact, metaphorically) and taste (metaphorically as well). Thus, as Strether develops his “closer senses,” in Sobchack’s terms, he strangely develops the correspondingly abstract or metaphorical senses that give him the very je ne sais quoi that he is unable to discern or explain in the Europeanized Americans at the start of The Ambassadors. In his love for Marie de Vionnet, Chad explains near the novel’s close that “She has never for a moment yet bored me – never been wanting, as the cleverest women sometimes are, in tact. She has never talked about her tact” 367. He sees an echo of this in Maria Gostrey, it seems, when he wonders if anything will be “so good as this place at this moment… so good as what you make of everything you touch” 374. (The division of touch and tact reminds me a lot of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, where the characters rarely touch, but are obsessed with ideas of tact – as manners, but also as maneuvers.)

Marie de Vionnet and Maria Gostrey, with their similar names, seem to double for each other, as to Mme. and Mlle. de Vionnet (it takes Strether most of the book to look past his own infatuation with the mother and realize firmly that it is she, not Jeanne, with whom Chad is having an affair). Sarah and Mami Pocock also double for each other in a way. Ultimately, however, Strether is left with a sense of the singular irreplaceability of the individual – he wants his “last word of all” to Chad to be: “You’ll be a brute, you know – you’ll be guilty of the last infamy – if you ever forsake her” 364. Strether finally realizes the extent to which Marie has ‘made’ Chad into what he is – a likable and genteel man with a bright future ahead of him, who fears Chad will leave her for the cushy business job at home in America. Though it is unclear what Chad ultimately does, the novel leans, bitterly, toward the latter conclusion. E.M. Forster disliked it for this “hourglass” structure, by which Chad and Strether essentially switch places, but little else occurs.