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“Place and Agency in The House of Mirth

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 42, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 1-20 | 10.1353/jnt.2012.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The title of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth comes from Ecclesiastes (“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth”), a manifesto about the futility of human knowledge and understanding (7.4). Ecclesiastes features a cast of places (houses, fields, kingdoms, wombs) and a compendium of the mysterious toils and tribulations frequently happening in those places. Wharton’s allusion to Ecclesiastes in the title and content of her novel highlights the limits of our comprehension of experience, including the communicative action between characters and their immediate physical settings. Communicative action here refers to moments of reflexive transfer that occur between places and individuals existing in them. I focus my close reading on Lily, especially moments when Lily and Selden share the same place or interact in the rooms in which they live. Returning to discussions of agency in The House of Mirth, which are familiar ones,1 while also emphasizing both agency and place in classic literary narrative, shows the agency of these places and allows us to reconsider what literary narratives tell us about dynamics between individuals and the places they inhabit. Essentially, this paper argues for the necessity of reading the agency of places in any narrative concerned with individuals and the social.

Much of my interest in place and social relations stems from Doreen Massey’s ongoing investigation of the form and content of space, place, and gender. For Massey, the concept of place includes material environments and the actions of individuals in those spaces. Massey describes the agency of places in terms of articulations and insists that this agency has consequences. “Spatial form,” she argues, “has emergent powers which can have effects on subsequent events. Spatial form can alter the future course of the very histories which have produced it” (Space 268).2 A crucial part of Massey’s investigation lies in the distinction that she makes between progressive and reactionary modes of place. Reactionary modes conceptualize place “as bounded, as in various ways a site of an authenticity, as singular, fixed and unproblematic in its identity,” whereas progressive modes define place as “absolutely not static” and “full of internal conflicts” (5, 155). “[A] ‘place,’” according to Massey, “is formed out of the particular set of social relations which interact at a particular location. And the singularity of any individual place is formed in part out of the specificity of the interactions which occur at that location . . . and in part out of the fact that the meeting of those social relations at that location . . . will in turn produce new social effects” (168).3

Lily invests in a reactionary mode of place. The agencies of places are always aided and abetted by social relations and by individuals themselves, and the critical practices that Massey calls for must attend to those agencies. Massey’s ideally dialectical version of place is more politically and theoretically valid than vernacular versions, but the ontological validity of her version depends on a key element that she does not emphasize; namely, the agency of individuals. Places are often designed to reify social relations, delimiting the ability of individuals in those places to conceptualize and produce new social effects. In other words, the parts that form the singularity of any place are not equal, and the agency of individuals plays a crucial role in the dynamics of these places and the social effects they produce. If individuals are not conscious of the role that their own agency plays in these dynamics, the new social effects produced therein will look a lot like the older ones. What matters most in discussions of place as an actually existing construct is how individuals conceptualize and respond to places, a phenomenon that The House of Mirth dramatizes particularly well. The agency of places often subsumes Lily’s own agency as an individual because she does recognize her agency as a key element in the productive dynamic of those places. All places are constructed, and both the agency involved in constructing places and the social mechanisms that transform reflexivity into articulation are beyond the scope of this essay. What I am interested in here...

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