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 unique social grammar of this society. The novel's treatment of this conception of social reading is brought to the fore through its devaluing of written texts in favor of legible behaviors.
The novel signals this pattern from its opening. In the first scene we are introduced to Selden, engaged in what we discover is a typical activity for the novel's personae, the silent, personal, interrogation of another person. "If she had appeared to be catching a train," we are told, "he might have inferred that he had come on her in an act of transition between one and another of the country houses which disputed her presenceŠ"(5‹emphases mine). Here, Selden, at his first glimpse of Lily, has taken to conjecturing all manner of explanations for her simple presence in the train station. He, like all members of his social niche, does not shy away from judgement until he is more fully appraised of her situation. Even, the slightest "air of irresolution" gives him license to divert his attention from whatever he may have been doing to ascertaining the motive of her appearance at what, it would seem, was not an odd location.
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...