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Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

Sarah Way Sherman

Publication Year: 2013

Written a generation apart and rarely treated together by scholars, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) share a deep concern with materialism, moral development, and self-construction. The heroines in both grapple with conspicuous consumption, an aspect of modernity that challenges older beliefs about ethical behavior and core identity.

Placing both novels at the historical intersection of modern consumer culture and older religious discourses on materialism and identity, Sarah Way Sherman analyzes how Alcott and Wharton rework traditional Protestant discourses to interpret their heroines' struggle with modern consumerism. Her conclusion reveals how Little Women's optimism, still buoyed by otherworldly justice, providential interventions, and the notion of essential identity, ultimately gives way to the much darker vision of modern materialistic culture in The House of Mirth.

Published by: University of New Hampshire Press

Series: Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-9


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pp. 10-11

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pp. xi-xvi

...sustainability. Lisa MacFarlane, Tom Newkirk, Ruth Sample, Diane Freedman, David Watters, and Michael Ferber were an enthusiastic audience for my ideas; they never seemed to lose faith that someday a book would actually appear. My former students Sharon Kehl-Califano, Sally Hirsh-Dickinson, and Jason Williams enriched my graduate seminars and taught me much. And warm appreciation goes as well to the later chairs of my...

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pp. 1-16

...well-known trademark of one of New York’s most prestigious stores, it is more than likely that we are looking at a portrait, not just of a fashionable woman, but also of her fashionable purchase: a Christmas gift from Tiffany’s. By 1893 Tiffany’s blue box was nationally recognized. First introduced in 1837, the store’s packaging was trademarked and the color’s formula carefully-guarded. The box soon...

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1. Raising Virtuous Shoppers

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pp. 17-72

...capitalism whose seductive appeal continually threatens to alienate them from the more wholesome pleasures of home and family. However, as close attention to key passages in the novel will show, Mr. and Mrs. March fight these influences by helping their daughters recognize the true sources of personal identity and fulfillment: in other words, by teaching them how to shop for happiness...

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2. Lily Bart and the Pursuit of Happiness

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pp. 73-118

...disavowed identification with the earlier novel’s characters as well as her preoccupation with its thematic concerns. Like Alcott, Wharton seems to frame her heroine Lily Bart’s developmental story with a concern for Protestant authenticity, Anglo-American purity, and the moral development of national womanhood. In...

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3. Lily at the Crossroads

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pp. 119-168

...turns the conversation to his newly acquired inheritance. Here we get see how adroit she is at psychological manipulation: “Most timidities have such secret compensations, and Miss Bart was discerning enough to know that the inner vanity is generally in proportion to the outer self-deprecation. With a more confident person she would not have dared to dwell so long on one topic, or to show...

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4. Smart Jews and Failed Protestants

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pp. 169-216

...appeals to less admirable aspects of Lily’s character: her selfish narcissism and her materialistic desires. And if Selden typifies the old Protestant bohemian individualism, with its fastidious judgments and disdain for materialism, Rosedale represents a new materialistic “cleverness” that is defined here as specifically Jewish. Critics have often noted the apparent antisemitism of Wharton’s...

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5. Lily in the Valley of the Shadow

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pp. 217-270

...distress increases. And then there is another factor: Lily’s pride. As these tensions build in book 2, the narrator refers more and more to Lily’s pride as a motivation. In fact, her felt need to repay Gus Trenor, the need that drives the novel’s plot, is attributed to her pride. However, given that pride is hardly a virtue in traditional Christian...


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pp. 271-302


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pp. 303-316

E-ISBN-13: 9781611684124
E-ISBN-10: 1611684129
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611684223

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies
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OCLC Number: 859388827
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Sacramental Shopping

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Alcott, Louisa May, 1832-1888. Little women.
  • Wharton, Edith, 1862-1937. House of mirth.
  • Consumption (Economics) in literature.
  • Civilization, Modern, in literature.
  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • American fiction -- Women authors -- History and criticism.
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