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The Decoration Of Houses Essay

2071 words - 8 pages

In Edith Wharton’s first major work, The Decoration of Houses, she states that “the impression produced by a landscape, a street or a house should always, to the novelist, be an event in the history of the soul” (qtd. in Falk 23). Later in her Pulitzer-winning novel The Age of Innocence, Wharton uses her knowledge and love of architecture to develop her characters, as she had previously deemed important. Thus, she takes style of houses, their design, and their European or American identification into consideration and depicts characteristics of the New York society and the major characters. Ranks in the social order are shown based on where in the New York district a character lives, personalities of aristocrats that are cold are shown through plain walls and furnishings, and some characters are separated from society because they follow different strains of architecture and interior design.
At the beginning of the novel, Beaufort’s house quickly stands out as a character who earned his place in society through the architecture of his home. It is the first described and “one of the few in New York that possess[es] a ballroom . . . this undoubted superiority [is] felt to compensate for whatever [is] regrettable in the Beaufort past” (13). This characterizes the upper class society of New York. Clearly, architecture must be important if a ballroom guarantees someone a high rank, and it can even cover up the fact that Beaufort was not born into the social order and has a mistress. Ada Van Gastel, a Wharton critic who wrote “The Location and Decoration of Houses in The Age of Innocence,” points out another way that Beaufort’s property represents him: “Having only recently entered society, he still resides on the periphery; his house is located at the end of Fifth Avenue” (322). The ballroom has allowed Beaufort to squirm into the ranks, but he is far from the central member of the elite. When Beaufort begins to have financial troubles, some fear “the loss of the best ballroom in New York” (162). Finally the Beaufort house shows the downfall of Beaufort when it becomes as “dark as the grave” (184). At this time, more rumors of Fanny Ring, his mistress spring up, and he starts to drift even closer to the edge of high society. The dwelling represents the good, the bad, and the means of Beaufort.
While Beaufort has the ballroom and thus earned great respect, the van der Luydens are the highest in the society. Despite their rank, their house is not exciting but a “large solemn house.” It has white walls and “pale” furniture (33). According to Gastel, a Wharton critic, “the house . . . is located in the fashionable section of Madison Avenue . . . reflecting the van der Luydens’ position at the centre of New York society” (320). The van der Luydens are clearly the top of the elite social class. Their influence permeates throughout the city. All the same, after the dinner at the van der Luydens’ that brings...

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