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ROSEDALE AND ANTI-SEMITISM IN THE HOUSE OF MIRTH Christian Riegel University of Alberta Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth deals with the complex clash of old New York society, with all its inherent traditions and conventions, with the fast emerging and very wealthy new capitalist society. The new society, which Wharton termed the "invaders," aspired to social acceptance by old New York. Although the old society resisted the incursion of this new society, "in a dollar world the biggest bank balance was bound to win."1 Together with large amounts of money, a man needed the right woman to complete his move into the leisure class of late nineteenth-century America: "unless the rich man also accumulate[d] a woman, all his money and property and power d[id] not extend beyond the narrow mercantile world into the social realm, into the society at large. Therefore for a rich man, ownership of a woman [was] not a luxury, but a necessity."2 Lily Bart, the central character in the novel, has many of the complementary qualities that would allow a man to move into the realm of the highest level of New York society. In Rosedale's words, it takes two things to move up in society properly: "money, and the right woman to spend it."3 Previous social position matters less than the amount of money a person has. As a result, a newcomer such as Rosedale is in a position literally to buy himself a wife with the right social standing, and so elevate himself to her status. Despite the familiarity of this game, its players were subject to disdain and contempt from members of the society they aspired to join. The contempt came not from the prostitution of women (as Ammons notes, "marriage as a patriarchal institution [was] designed to aggrandize men at the expense of women" and was a normal practice , the only option for women who wished to maintain their social standing4), but from the intrusion of mercantile values into a leisure society. Rosedale, as a complete newcomer and outsider, is the object of much scorn in The House ofMirth. Some of the contempt for him can simply be attributed to the general dislike for the brash up-andcomers ; it is also clear that a significant amount of dislike for Rosedale as a figure is based on his racial background. Through his business accomplishments, Rosedale manages to rise rapidly in the world of New York. Nonetheless, class transcendence meets with particular opposition, in the form of anti-Semitism, when the person moving upwards is Jewish. If anti-Semitism is an important contributing fac- 220Notes tor in old New York's dislike of Rosedale, however, that does not fix Wharton's authorial position on the question of anti-Semitism. Mary Ellis Gibson notes Wharton's ambivalent position on the conflict between different social levels, arguing that all "groups are subject to Wharton's critical scrutiny, though none has monopoly on evil or good."5 As a result, it becomes possible to put Wharton in the category of the "many Americans [who] were both pro- and antiJewish at the same time."6 An archaeological metaphor from Wharton's autobiography indicates her concern for her changing New York: "what I could not guess, was that this little low-studded rectangular New York . . . would fifty years later be as much a vanished city as Atlantis or the lowest layer of Schliemann's Troy, or that the social organization which that prosaic setting had slowly secreted would have been swept to oblivion with the rest."7 Here as in her fiction, Wharton "balances the sweep to oblivion against deadly uniformity, irrevocable change against the slow 'secretion' of social organization."8 In The House ofMirth, Wharton presents the conflict between the old and the new, within which Lily finds herself caught in similarly archaeological or ethnographic terms. Gibson uses the term "ethnologist" to describe the role of Wharton in her New York novels, noting "the complexity of Wharton's understanding of social symbolism" manifested in her presentation of social conflict.9 Appropriating the language of anthropologist Mary Douglas, Gibson compares Wharton's fast-rising capitalists to what Douglas calls...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 219-224
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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